By fixating on the United States, Putin is tapping into the late Stalinist doctrines that made up the ideological foundations of the Cold War: the United States rules the world and has always wanted to weaken, if not destroy, Russia. By conjuring a nefarious, all-powerful adversary, the Putin regime can create a new justification for a hugely costly war that has already lasted well over a year and seems unlikely to end anytime soon.
By Andrei Kolesnikov FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS
When two drones crashed into the roof of the Kremlin in early May, the Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov didn’t need to wait for an investigation to identify the culprit. The attack was masterminded by the United States, not Ukraine, he stated confidently. “Kyiv only does what it is told to do,” he explained. A few days later, after the Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin, a staunch Russian nationalist and outspoken supporter of the war, was nearly assassinated by a bomb placed in his car, Russia’s Foreign Ministry stated with equal confidence that the United States was behind that crime, too. This was despite the fact that the person identified as the prime suspect was clearly someone from the fringes of society who, like Prilepin, had apparently fought alongside Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
These assertions are not casual. As Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine turns into a long and difficult war, the old ideology of Russian messianism, which had already become the Kremlin’s preferred tool for manipulating public opinion, has been stirred into a sort of defining rationale for the regime. No longer is Russia simply bringing to heel a weak and feckless Ukraine that has fallen under the spell of “neo-Nazis.” According to the new framing, Russia’s real fight is against the mighty United States, which wants to destroy it, while Ukraine—just like the European Union and NATO—is merely an obedient U.S. satellite. For the Kremlin, a sinister U.S. plot offers a convenient explanation for why the war has dragged on for so long and why Putin has proved to be not such a great military strategist after all. It also helps explain to average Russians why the war was started in the first place.
Seen in this context, the “special operation” has evolved from an effort to recover lost imperial lands into a civilizational battle between the forces of good, embodied by Russia, and the forces of evil, sometimes called “satanic,” personified by the United States and its allies. Already, this simple idea has taken on extravagant proportions. In May, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council, predicted that Americans would soon be seeking to exploit Russia’s vast expanses for resettlement purposes because an imminent eruption of the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park will leave them with nowhere to live. (That a senior Russian official was endorsing such an absurd conspiracy theory prompted a social media riff borrowing from Tsar Alexander III’s famous dictum: “Russia has only three allies: the army, the navy, and the Yellowstone volcano.”)
But the Kremlin is dead serious. By fixating on the United States, Putin is tapping into the late Stalinist doctrines that made up the ideological foundations of the Cold War: the United States rules the world and has always wanted to weaken, if not destroy, us. Of course, many ordinary Russians—at least when they are not being told otherwise by the Russian state—have tended to be indifferent or even partial to the United States. But as Stalin knew and Putin has discovered, those attitudes can be shifted by effective propaganda.
By conjuring a nefarious, all-powerful adversary, the Putin regime can create a new justification for a hugely costly war that has already lasted well over a year and seems unlikely to end anytime soon. The presence of such a strong external enemy, of course, also justifies intensified repression of internal enemies—dissidents, civil rights activists, lawyers, journalists, professors, and various “foreign agents.” The late Stalinist regime operated under the same logic. In April 1951, George Kennan wrote in Foreign Affairs: “No ruling group likes to admit that it can govern its people only by regarding and treating them as criminals. For this reason there is always a tendency to justify internal oppression by pointing to the menacing iniquity of the outside world.”
The United States was not the original focus of Russian xenophobia. During World War I, Germany was considered the main enemy, and patriotic hysteria was fueled by anti-German sentiment. Then, in the early Soviet years, France and the United Kingdom were considered the main adversaries—whereas the United States was a distant, well-developed but soulless capitalist society from which to borrow technology and industrial specialists. Turning the United States into the main enemy was more of a postwar phenomenon: even then, Stalin was initially more preoccupied with, as he put it in 1946, “the replacement of Hitler’s domination by Churchill’s domination,” and in his growing Anglophobia, he overlooked the transformation of America into a leading power. But he quickly made up for it in both propaganda and repression when “Anglo-American spies” came on the scene.
Yet during World War II, things were absolutely different: Soviet soldiers and the Soviet population had a strong affinity for their Anglo-American allies. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the Red Army’s song and dance ensemble performed two of the Allies’ most popular melodies: the British marching song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, and the Anglo-American folk tune “There’s a Tavern in the Town,” known in its Russian version as “Kabachok.” Subsequently recorded for gramophone, these Russian versions were wildly popular in the Soviet Union along with other American hits, such as “Coming In on a Wing and a Prayer,” a World War II song about an Allied bombing raid that was sung in Russian as “Song of the Bombers.” Another popular song, known in Russian as “And in Trouble and in Battle,” which was performed even before the war by Alexander Varlamov’s jazz orchestra, turned out to be a Russian version of the 1934 American hit “Roll Along, Covered Wagon, Roll Along.”
It wasn’t just the music of the United Kingdom and the United States that were stratospherically popular by the end of the war. So were the Allies themselves. On the morning of May 9, after the 3 AM radio announcement of Germany’s surrender, enormous jubilant crowds poured onto the streets of Moscow. My father, who had just turned 17, was woken by a classmate at four in the morning, and they rushed toward Red Square, which was already full of people celebrating. Throughout the day, people also flocked to the nearby square where the U.S. embassy was located, as captured in photographs by Yakov Khalip and Anatoly Garanin.
In Stalin’s late years, anti-Americanism became the cornerstone of Soviet propaganda.
“We were naturally moved and pleased by this manifestation of public feeling, but were at a loss to know how to respond to it,” recalled Kennan, then chargé d’affaires at the embassy, who had not yet become famous for his “long telegram’’ on Soviet conduct. Rapturous Muscovites were hoisting up anyone in military uniform and were prepared to do the same to staff from the embassy of a friendly power. Kennan, who spoke Russian, risked climbing out onto the parapet over the embassy’s entrance to shout: “Congratulations on the day of victory! All honor to the Soviet allies!”
Although it was unnoticed by the Soviet people at the time, however, Kennan could already sense the emerging tensions of the Cold War. According to the historian John Gaddis, even in the wake of their triumph over Hitler, the members of the Big Three alliance were already at war with one another, at least ideologically and geopolitically. In the later years of the Stalin regime, anti-Americanism would serve an important strategic purpose, countering the West’s new threat to Soviet spheres of influence. Anti-Americanism became the cornerstone of foreign policy, propaganda, and counterpropaganda for the entire Cold War. Not surprisingly, a comparable confrontation with the West today has brought the old genie out of the bottle—there are no more effective means.
“THERE WILL BE BOMBS”
In 2022, the derogatory term Anglosaksy—“Anglo-Saxons”—suddenly came into frequent use in Kremlin discussions and even entered the vocabulary of ordinary Russians. But the term, which refers to scheming Americans who lead obedient European satellites, is by no means an invention of the Putin regime. It comes directly from the Soviet lexicon of power of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it was deployed to refer to the Soviet Union’s most important adversaries. In its current ideology and propaganda, Moscow has intuitively or consciously regurgitated classic Russian conspiracy theories, which have always been—in both Soviet and post-Soviet history—a simple, universal way to explain Russia’s problems or the expansionist actions of its rulers.
During the Cold War, for example, the KGB actively promoted the idea of a secret U.S. plot against the Soviet Union. Consider the widely circulated 1979 book CIA Target: The USSR, by Nikolai Yakovlev, a Russian historian recruited by the KGB. Among other things, Yakovlev expounded a theory then popular in the Russian security agencies and in Russian nationalist circles that there was an American “Dulles Plan”—after C.I.A. director Allen Dulles— to destroy the Soviet Union. As the Russian historian Viktor Shnirelman has shown, this idea was likely inspired by an intentional misreading of a 1948 U.S. National Security Council directive that may have become known to Soviet intelligence. (The directive was in fact exclusively defensive and contained not a single word about the “destruction of the Russian people.”) The myth about the existence of the “plan” even found its way into some Russian history books.
The KGB promoted the idea that there was a secret U.S. plot to destroy the Soviet Union.
Although the Soviet government moved much closer to the United States during the Mikhail Gorbachev era, the strain of extreme anti-Americanism continued to thrive in some corners of the Soviet and post-Soviet state. In the 1990s, for example, Filip Bobkov, a former senior KGB officer, claimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union had been engineered by the United States with the help of the “Yakovlev group”—this time the Yakovlev in question was Alexander, an architect of perestroika and Gorbachev’s right-hand man. These conspiracy theories had lived on, unaltered, on Russia’s nationalist fringe, including in the work of the Russian émigré philosopher Ivan Ilyin (1883-1954), whose concept of a global “world behind the scenes,” or illuminati, became fashionable in the Kremlin. (The influence of such philosophers on Putin, though, should not be exaggerated: he has quoted Ilyin on perhaps two occasions; and he has referred once to the classic Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, although he probably knows no more about him than Brezhnev did about Marx. In essence, he was simply showing the that the historical idea of a Russianness shaped in opposition to the West has endured.)
All of the Kremlin’s theses about the dangerous West and Russia’s opposition to it, which Putin repeats nonstop, were formulated long ago in the late Stalin era, sometimes even in verse. In 1951, Pravda published “On the Soviet Atom,” a poem by the children’s poet Sergei Mikhalkov, who also wrote the words to the Soviet and then Russian national anthems. Roughly translated, it went something like: “There will be bombs! / There are bombs! / You should take that into account! / But it’s not in our plans / To conquer other countries.” Those lines could be lifted straight from one of Putin’s speeches.
Then there is the practice of portraying Russia’s American enemies as stupid. In effect, the message is, “Our opponents may be cunning, but we can see right through them.” In the late Stalin years, the Communist leadership propagated the cliché of Americans’ roaming Moscow with cameras and bribing children with candy to look sad to show the despondency of life in the Soviet Union. “Look, Alik is crying / They’ll film him for America!” joked the children’s poet Agniya Barto in the 1950s. Similarly, Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and deputy chairman of the Security Council, now have a habit of naming and shaming Western enemies in their speeches as “morons” and “half-wits.” Accompanying this is Putin’s growing obsession with LGBTQ topics and obscene jokes about Westerners.
AMERICA FIRST, RUSSIA SECOND
As much as official Russia has often been anti-American, it has also long been obsessed with U.S. economic power and even U.S. goods and food. One of the main slogans from the 1960s Khrushchev era focused on matching and then overtaking the United States in terms of per capita meat, milk, and butter production. When Putin came to power, the idea of catch-up development was hardly less present. In some sense, “America first” is effectively one of Putin’s slogans: everything is viewed through the prism of the United States and the West. To be different means not looking like Western people and not living like them. More precisely, it means achieving similar successes while relying on one’s own strength, upholding sovereignty and “originality,” and practicing import substitution. In other words, both the Russian state and society continue to measure themselves against the yardstick of the United States and its European allies.
The pattern goes back to the earliest Soviet years. American “bourgeois specialists” appeared in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s industrialization drive in the 1920s and 1930s. The Soviet writer Valentin Kataev depicted them somewhat ironically, but the truth is that without U.S. technology, it’s unlikely that an industrial breakthrough would have been possible. When the United States presented the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959—an event that attracted more than two million members of the Soviet public, who tasted Pepsi and got their first look at American washing machines—Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon had their famous “kitchen debate” at the fair site, in which they discussed the relative merits of capitalism and socialism. At the time, the Soviet leadership clearly felt its backwardness in the consumer sphere. This was also why the Soviet Union had to lead the way in the space race: to break free of the catch-up matrix.
Amerika, a Russian-language magazine about American life published by the U.S. State Department, was a coveted item, although less so than jeans, chewing gum, and soft drinks. Characteristically, the magazine was banned in 1948, when Stalinist anti-Americanism was in full force, and was released again during Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinist thaw in the 1950s. At the beginning of 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev gladly accepted prototypes from the U.S. car industry as a gift from the Americans, adding to the atmosphere of détente. And when the Soyuz and Apollo missions jointly docked in space in July 1975, it was commemorated in Moscow with the appearance of “real Virginian tobacco” in cigarettes named after the historic event: not the choking fumes of the motherland, but the fragrant aroma of another world. By the twilight years of the Soviet Union, Soviet industry was so dependent on Western supplies and technologies that the sanctions imposed on Moscow for the invasion of Afghanistan put entire industries, such as chemical engineering, in jeopardy.
For Putin, everything is viewed through the prism of the United States and the West.
Even in the post-Soviet era, the Russian fixation with U.S. models and Putin’s talk of a U.S.-imposed unipolar world created a sense of unavoidable dependence on “them.” Respondents in Russian focus groups would sometimes say that Russia’s 1993 constitution was written in Washington and that Putin’s amendments to it were required to make the country truly sovereign. At the same time, however, people understand that the United States has been an economic powerhouse from which Russia could learn a lot in order to achieve the same standard of living. Once again, a combination of Russian superiority and Russian inferiority has been simultaneously expressed in Moscow’s contradictory attitude toward its American rival.
Still, until Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Russians’ complexes about the United States were not so noticeable. In the initial years of his rule, beginning in 2000, Putin was still adjusting to the West and wary of squandering the legacy of Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor. He did not see Russia as a trend-setter in the Western-led world order. The open hostility to the West expressed in Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, however, marked the start of deteriorating relations with the United States—delayed only slightly by an attempted “reset” during Medvedev’s four-year presidency. By 2014, Moscow’s new emphasis on Russian pride and reawakened great-power aspirations brought back all the old hang-ups about the United States, stirring up a quasi-patriotic hysteria. But the strongest manifestation has surfaced since the “special operation” began last year.
Since then, Russian attitudes toward the United States have worsened drastically. In February 2022, 31 percent of Russians had a positive attitude about the United States. A year later, according to the Levada Center, the independent Russian opinion research organization, just 14 percent of respondents had a positive view of the United States, and 73 percent had a negative attitude. The decline in positive attitudes toward Europe is not far behind: just 18 percent of Russians polled had a positive opinion of EU countries in February 2023, compared with 69 percent who did not. When combined with conspiracy theories and Putin’s own growing isolation, Russian fixations with America have become a potent recipe for militarism.
THE SOURCES OF RUSSIAN CONDUCT
Putin’s embrace of conspiratorial anti-Americanism is especially dangerous because of his regime’s growing disregard for the old red lines. During the Cold War, at least, both sides agreed that the consequences of inflicting damage on each other would be unacceptable. Putin’s problem—in fact, the whole world’s problem right now—is that the Russian government lacks the one instinctthat since the late 1960s has consistently led to détente with the West: the willingness to negotiate. Instead, Putin has suspended cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, discussed the possibility of a nuclear strike with infantile levity, expressed teenage grievances, and shown an unwillingness to maintain even a minimal level of dialogue. All of these actions unfavorably distinguish Putin’s anti-Americanism from that of his late Soviet predecessors.
“The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today,” Kennan wrote in 1950, “is the product of ideology and circumstances.” If one looks at the sources of Russian conduct today, the circumstances are a dictator obsessed with his mission. As for the ideology, Russia’s new foreign policy concept refers to the country’s “special position as an original state-civilization, a vast Eurasian and Euro-Pacific power”—a noteworthy new term. This concept further cites Russia’s role in consolidating “the Russian people and other peoples that make up the cultural and civilizational community of the Russian world”—a geographic space whose borders are not specified.
The eclectic essence of this ideology, which has re-emerged at various stages of Russia’s historical development, was described astutely in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Conversation Piece, 1945,” a short story in which a former White Army colonel who emigrated to the United States declares, “The great Russian people has waked up and my country is again a great country.” He continues: “We [have] had three great leaders. We had Ivan, whom his enemies called Terrible, then we had Peter the Great, and now we have Joseph Stalin. … Today, in every word that comes out of Russia, I feel the power, I feel the splendor of old Mother Russia. She is again a country of soldiers, religion, and true Slavs.”
In his Victory Day speech on May 9, Putin said that Russia’s enemies were notable for their ideology of superiority. It is interesting that he uses almost everything that can be said about him—“exorbitant ambition, arrogance and permissiveness” as he put it in his speech—and lays it at the door of his opponents. Herein lies the deeper purpose of Russian anti-Americanism: to attribute everything that you yourself are plotting, all those immoral plans you are hatching, to the United States.
But this resurrected ideology also reflects the disappearance of the bipolar Cold War order and the loss of Russian greatness and power that have come with it. Thus, when Putin and members of his team talk about a new multipolar world, they are simply trying to reassert Moscow’s lost superpower status and portray themselves as a guiding light for the former Soviet republics and the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. All of this is a consequence of the psychological trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which the elite who came to power in 2000 carried with them. Twenty-two years later, that trauma has resulted in a global catastrophe.