Today, once again, the lead stories in many American news papers and television shows focus on the Russian authorities’ confiscation of a manuscript critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Any objective mind will see at once that while perhaps unfortunate, this is a little event, hardly worthy of first page news. Most disturbingly, it is only the latest incident in a string of such minor happenings that are given ridiculous amounts of attention by the American news companies. These stories paint Russia in the most undemocratic light possible. And of course it is mostly nonsense. No amount of distorted news coverage can hide the enormous progress towards real democracy that Russia has made in the last 15 years.
If I were Russian, I would look over at the situation in Iraq with gratitude that America has never tried to bring democracy to Russia!! Thanks almost entirely to her own efforts, modern Russia is a democracy. A fledgling democracy, yes, and not perfect, but harsh criticism seems simple minded or disingenuous to me. Especially when it comes from the likes of George Bush, the undisputed loser of the 2000 election, who achieved power only because of an intentionally undemocratic clause inserted into the American constitution over 200 years ago! But what are the reasons for the frosty relations between Washington and Moscow these days? Anyone with a clever mind and keen eye on world affairs would have to at least entertain the possibility that the real reason has something to do with oil.
We all know the history of the 1990's, when Russia's experiment with unbridled capitalism and globalization lead to chaos and the looting of Russia's wealth by international elitists. Putin wisely put a stop to this, and in doing so, burned the fingers of many powerful interests in the West. The administration of George Bush with the shadowy figure of Dick Cheney in the background began at once to instigate against Russia in international circles and in the American news media. They complained of a "rolling back of democracy in Putin's Russia". The recent frosty relations between Moscow and Washington date exactly from this time. As Putin's success and Russia's wealth and power have increased, this tension has also increased, especially as Mr. Putin insists on thinking independently and refuses to be anyone's poodle. This, in my opinion, lies behind the current unfortunate situation which has even precipitated fears of a new cold war.
It is sad, because Russia and America have many more reasons to be friends than adversaries. Although the two nations have had deep ideological differences in the past, it is very revealing of more permanent geopolitical realties that in every shooting war, the two nations were always allies. I have traveled extensively in Europe and found Russians to be more like Americans than all other European peoples, including our British friends. Only America and Russia have the recent experience of world leadership. Both are multi-national conglomerates that span continents. Both peoples are fiercely independent, self reliant, a little stubborn, maybe more than a little xenophobic, work and play hard, and admire an active way of life. However, there are some stark, amusing and even alarming differences, which probably add to the ideological confrontations. In the interest of space, I would summarize my view like this. Americans are natural born deal makers and compromise easily. Extreme opinions are rare and socially unacceptable here. Russians, in contrast, perhaps molded by their climate, tend to extremes. They see the world as very black and white, and compromise as weakness and a lack of ideological conviction. The administrations of both Bush and Putin will soon end, but the similarities, differences and geopolitical interests of both countries will remain. When one considers the development of Eastern Europe, the alarming resurgence of China (a country completely devoid of democratic institutions or traditions) and the immense human tragedies still unfolding in Africa and Latin America, Russians and Americans need to understand each other as never before.
It has been stated recently, and rather darkly, by a certain Ukraine policy analyst, that Putin's highest priority is to make Russia great again. I find this attitude hypocritical and ignorant. It is hypocritical because every country, Russia included, would like to be great. It is ignorant because it assumes that Russia has somehow fallen from her former greatness. This is a falsehood. Behind that lie is the naive inability to distinguish between Russia and the former Soviet Union. It preys on the fear and ignorance of others. However, it also reveals very basic and important misconceptions that do need to be understood. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Russia, like every other member of the Soviet Union, was held hostage by the international communists. In fact, the rich Russian culture was so nearly obliterated by the communists that probably the most pressing social question in Russia today is a basic assessment of what it really means to be Russian! Few in America even realize that neither Lenin, nor Stalin, nor Khrushchev, nor Brezhnev were even Russians!!
The ignorance of Americans about Russia would probably be shocking to most Russians. Most Americans would know that Moscow is the capital Russian city, and would vaguely (and incorrectly!) guess that it lay somewhere near the center of the country. I doubt whether one in five Americans could even name another city in Russia or point to Saint Petersburg on the map. The Image in most American's minds when they think of Russia is an immense land of intense cold, peopled by fierce men with handle bar moustaches, all equipped with huge fur hats and half full bottles of vodka. Alright, so maybe this is a little exaggeration! but really the ignorance is appalling! I believe this ignorance is what allows men like Bush and his international elitist cronies who control the media in America, to credibly paint Russia in such unfavorable light. Only a Russian can really comment on how bad the situation is from the opposite angle, how ignorant Russians are of Americans, but in my travels, I have all too often been the first American my Russian friends have ever met. They don't understand why America is afraid of Russia. From their point of view, Russia has always been the victim, always invaded, never the aggressor country. The mention of America conjures up images of obese and rather stupid cowboys who bully the rest of the world and try to impose their way of life on everyone. People are naturally suspicious of what they don't know or understand!!!
I believe the natural solution to this problem is interaction. Probably the initiative will have to come from Russia. Russia has much to gain by making the first move, and it will be easier in the long run. I would suggest that Putin, in his time remaining in office, do everything that he can to reach out directly to the American people with another side to the story. There are very sophisticated public relations firms that could be employed by Russia in this regard. It should be a high Russian priority to counter the obvious bias in the American news papers and television in a very professional and modern way, aimed especially at the sensitivities of the American people, who are not as stupid as they seem. Also, Russia should be more accommodating and aggressive in promoting tourism to her major cities. Drop the need for a VISA for Americans to visit Russia, and the $100 fee. Produce commercials on American television and in the newspapers advertising low cost trips and cruises to Russia.
Russia will profit financially from increased tourism, and even more importantly, anyone who actually visits Saint Petersburg must instantly fall in love with the City. Perhaps Russians do not fully appreciate how breathtakingly beautiful the City of Peter the Great appears to new visitors. And as Russia's wealth increases, the Russian government should encourage more Russians to visit America. Put pressure on the American government to extend to Russians, the same travel privileges enjoyed by citizens of the EU. Student exchange programs, at least at first, would be easier and especially effective. And finally, send us more movies such as the Night watcher series and more music like Vitas and t.A.T.u.! These cultural exchanges will go along way to providing the incentive, especially among young people, to do the work necessary to really understand each other. These things are in our common interest. I strongly believe the current situation is very temporary. Based on common geopolitical interests, Russia and America are natural allies and based on culture and temperament, they are natural friends. All that’s needed is for both peoples to spend a little extra effort to get to know each other better.
By Dominick L. Auci, Ph.D.