Russia’s Cynicism Is Infecting U.S. Politics
The two great powers have always been mirrors of each other—for good and bad.
Tens of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets across the country to protest the killing of George Floyd and the assaults on countless other black men and women by uniformed police officers. The draconian response to these protests—including seemingly indiscriminate beatings, gassings, and shootings—has shocked many Americans who believed such scenes were confined to news broadcasts from abroad, not their own country.
U.S. President Donald Trump at first seemed unsure how to respond to the cascading crisis, retreating to the White House bunker on Saturday night as protesters clashed with Secret Service officers outside its walls. But after a phone call with Vladimir Putin—ostensibly about Russia’s place in the G-7—the president was ready to double down on his promise to aggressively stamp out protests. Excoriating the nation’s governors as if he were a king and they his feudal barons, Trump essentially threatened military force against the entire country in a Rose Garden speech.
Putin knows a thing or two about riot control. The Russian president was a low-level KGB officer in Dresden in 1989 as the Soviet Union’s peripheral empire collapsed, where he supposedly stood down protesters attempting to storm the Soviet Consulate while “Moscow was silent.” Since coming to power 20 years ago, Putin has brutally quashed numerous protests against his rule, most famously in 2011, when he captured his approach to handling dissent in an interview: “The Soviet Union collapsed … the very existence of the Russian state was in question. For that reason, we had to tighten the screws, to be blunt.” Trump is trying just that.
Once, the United States sought to remake Russia in its own image. But with an irony worthy of Russian literature, it is now actually Americans who are becoming more like them. The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the United States and Russia were the twin drivers of modernity, two nations that, as he put it, started out from different points but tended toward the same end. He may yet be proved right.
Challenges long familiar to Russians—perennial questions of identity, creeping political ennui, a declining life expectancy driven by substance abuse and suicide—have caught up with an America that rode a wave of success through the latter half of the 20th century. Today, many Americans, like many Russians, have grown weary of thinking about present challenges and instead prefer to revel in an idealized past. A growing number of Americans, like the vast majority of Russians already, are uninterested in politics, believing it has little to do with them and that there is little they could do about it even if it did.
Russia has long been what political scientists call a low-trust society, and the United States is swiftly becoming one. These societies are marked by the widespread lack of social confidence and reliance on familistic, tribal connections as the basis for all cooperation, which of course comes at the expense of a broader ability to trust strangers. They are also characterized by the almost occult role of corruption in politics, where though “individuals participate in and directly perceive modern secondary organizations … [they] reject them as illegitimate or corrupt.”
As one historian put it: “[A]ny advantage that may be given to another is necessarily at the expense of one’s own family. Therefore, one cannot afford the luxury of charity, which is giving others more than their due, or even of justice, which is giving them their due. … Toward those who are not of the family the reasonable attitude is suspicion.”
Imagine Putin’s gloating. “You see,” he might instruct the coterie of sycophants gathered around him, “they’re no better than us. In fact, they’re just like us.” As he once remarked, “Perhaps what one should do least is blame the mirror.”
Russia and the United States are so fixated on one another because each sees in the other a warped reflection of itself. They see, in other words, what might have been or could yet come to pass. There are some uncanny similarities, after all.
To begin with, both began on opposite fringes of Europe, considered barely civilized by more established nations. Both grew, over time, into continental empires. Russia spread eastward where it conquered and ultimately closed the Eurasian Steppe—throwing a wrench into the engine that had driven Eurasia’s geopolitics for millennia. America expanded too, subjugating or exterminating entire populations to settle its Wild West—and thereby becoming the world’s first truly hemispheric power.
Both were born in revolution, always more ideas than countries. Russia might not think of itself as a multicultural country like the United States, but Moscow has always been an ersatz state, one that assimilated the aspects of its rivals it most feared. From hijacking Kyiv’s history to adopting the mannerisms of French absolutism, hardly any of the things Russia is most famous for—Orthodoxy, communism, hell, even vodka—originated in Russia.
America’s resurgent nationalism and Russia’s notorious post-Soviet inferiority complex are both examples of what the historian Isaiah Berlin called states of wounded consciousness. Such wounds are inflicted when reality doesn’t conform to our sense of what’s right and leave nations ripe for exploitation by confident demagogues peddling easy solutions who always know whom to blame.
When Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union in December 1991, a sociocultural glacier that had determined the contours of global order for the better part of a century suddenly melted away, unleashing a torrent of change. That flood quickly inundated Russia’s political landscape, washing away the old and leaving a morass of debris in its wake. Triumphalist Western analysts saw the sudden collapse of the so-called “evil empire” as a vindication, but there was no “dancing on the wall” for Russians nor any of the liberation felt in Eastern Europe.
Putin famously pronounced it the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”—which is saying a lot—and the vast majority of Russians apparently agree with him. For them, the 1990s were a decade marked by chaos and humiliation. Public services deteriorated, crime rates soared, and one by one formerly pliant satellites broke away as a chastened Moscow helplessly watched.
Humbled and confused, post-Soviet Russia may have been primed to turn to the West. But the United States was not feeling particularly magnanimous toward its fallen foe and did not respond with the sort of Marshall Plan that Soviet leaders were practically begging for. It instead unleashed the very forces that had ostensibly given it victory in the first place—the free market.
Management consultants and financial advisors practically invaded Russia in the 1990s, each one an evangelist of the gospel of unfettered growth. The decrepit Soviet bureaucracy was dismantled through shock therapy and fire-sale privatization, completing the final demolition of the rickety apparatus of an invasive state that had governed almost every aspect of its citizens’ lives for decades. The result was persistent unemployment, hyperinflation, and unpaid salaries.
Russia quickly mutated into a neo-feudalistic kleptocracy driven by the sort of crony capitalism that would have made Ferdinand Marcos blush. Its people had become déclassé, a notion manifest in the phrase oskudeniye tsentra—the impoverishment of the core—something many Americans are feeling these days.
In Russia, one has the “sense of being surrounded by lies,” a condition Americans are coming to appreciate—with Russian encouragement. Russians grew accustomed over decades of Communist rule to exhibit self-preserving circumspection about the concept of truth since the Soviet apparatchiks might change it on a whim. Getting caught on the wrong side of the party line was dangerous.
There’s even a name for the type of citizen this produced: Homo Sovieticus. Soviet Man is a “servile double-thinker with no morality,” according to the Levada Center. And though today he “has somewhat changed … he still feels insecure and vulnerable. And he’s just as aggressive towards his neighbor because there are no institutions that have laid down rules that people follow.”
This cynical mindset was fed conspiracy theories that convinced the Russian people that the world was against them and that change is impossible. Like the insatiable appetite for nostalgia, “[c]onspiracy theory replaces ideology with a mix of self-pity, paranoia, self-importance, and entertainment.” In a world controlled by dark forces puppeteering every event, people seek strongmen who claim to be able to protect them.
It was into this wounded consciousness that Putin—Mr. Nobody—emerged.
A leader capable of making Russia great again didn’t exist, so one had to be invented. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s political technologist for more than a decade under Putin, exhumed the graves of Russian history and conjured the revenants of racism, nostalgia, and leader worship to build a made-to-order leader who appealed to the broadest span of Russia’s demoralized people. Putin’s created persona borrows from numerous masculine images—from race car driver and cowboy to martial artist and outlaw biker.
Americans often say their political opponents today exist inside the bubble of their own echo chambers, making them susceptible to misinformation and disinformation. Russia’s media ecosystem was atomized by the state for that very purpose and today holds sway over a constellation of state-owned or state-controlled outlets designed to protect Moscow’s regime at home and undermine its opponents abroad.
Does any of this seem familiar?
Americans’ confidence in their institutions has been declining for 30 years. But so has their confidence in general: in science, in the media, even in each other. And while Americans have always been a little crazy, they are now increasingly confused, angry, and afraid—ripe for exploitation by a demagogue from central casting.
As Putin works to crystalize Russia’s autumnal autocracy, the United States is flirting with its own. Where once Moscow sought to emulate the West, it is now Americans who are building a pastiche version of Putinism, complete with rampant cronyism and Soviet-style “alternative facts.” In hindsight, it should not have come as such a surprise that Russia’s current crop of cultural appropriators turned the West’s most recently successful weapons—the free market and advertising—against it.
Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.