Ivan Kurilla: “Russia and the U.S. have defined themselves through opposing each other for almost a hundred years”
08 June 2021 |Olga Khvostunova
December 26, 2021, will mark 30 years since the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. As such, the Institute of Modern Russia is launching a series of interviews with experts to discuss the post-Soviet decades, identify the key issues of the Russian transition, and their impact on Russia’s political system and society today. In the second interview of the series, Professor of History and International Relations, Dr. Ivan Kurilla discussed the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, mutual demonization and the need for a new discourse to replace the outdated language of the Cold War.
Part I: A Toxic Period
Olga Khvostunova: The United States and Russia are now actively preparing for the June 16 summit of presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. As part of this process, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held their first meeting on May 20. As an expert in the history of U.S.-Russian relations, what is your take on the meeting and how does it reflect the current stage of the bilateral relationship?
Ivan Kurilla: In Russia, the first reaction to the [Blinken-Lavrov] meeting from both pro-Kremlin and independent commentators was generally positive. The impression was that the stalemate has finally been overcome: there was hope that diplomatic missions’ work would be normalized. The news of the U.S. refusal to impose further sanctions on Nord Stream 2 made the Kremlin and, possibly, some people in Europe happy. That is, there was a feeling that Russia has gone through the most acute stage of the crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. The U.S. Senate has come up with new initiatives to ban Nord Stream 2, but they are rather aligned with the logic of the U.S. internal political game.
OK: Do you see the desire for normalization on both sides?
IK: I think so. In recent years, U.S.-Russian relations have become hostages of domestic politics in both Russia and the United States. At some point, the United States surprised me when they started dismantling the diplomatic infrastructure to reward or punish Russia, even as this infrastructure primarily exists to provide opportunities for cultural exchanges, tourism, family visits, etc. And all this became very difficult as a result of mutual reductions of diplomatic staff and consulate shutdowns. Any contact with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. came to be viewed as toxic; the U.S. ambassador was asked to leave Russia. Nothing of the kind happened even during the Cuban missile crisis. The only U.S. ambassador to be expelled from Russia was George Kennan, but it happened in 1952 — the last year of Stalin’s paranoia. All this speaks to the abnormality of the situation. Therefore, there is now hope for normalization. But normalization does not mean that sanctions against Russia will be lifted or that Russia is deemed right in some of its claims. What it means is that there are the first signs that the toxic period in U.S.-Russian relations is passing away.
OK: Media often point out that the bilateral relationship is at its lowest point. Looking back over the past 30 years, what factors have brought Russia and the United States to this point, given the rather friendly rhetoric of the early 1990s? Among these factors, were there any imperatives or were the relationship dynamics determined by the unpredictable domestic trends in both countries?
IK: One could write a dozen monographs to answer this question. Whole blocks of issues can be identified: domestic politics, the struggle between different interest groups, and the construction of the enemy image in each country, the challenges of international relations, etc. All these influences resulted in the current trajectory of bilateral relations. You know, in history, unlike in classical political science, we never try to identify one independent variable that determines all processes. Historians believe that at different moments, at different stages of history, different variables become decisive — economic, cultural, etc. Based on my constructivist views, the most interesting development of the past 30 years of U.S.-Russia relationship is that factors unrelated to international politics have come to the fore and define its course.
OK: Such as?
IK: During the Cold War, right up to perestroika, the Soviet Union and the U.S. competed for spheres of influence, threatened each other with nuclear weapons, or, conversely, tried to prevent a war with each other. These were all factors of an international nature. But the Cold War ran out of steam even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, during Gorbachev’s tenure, who proclaimed its end — first with Reagan and then with Bush Sr. As a result, important components of bilateral relations have disappeared: the struggle for global leadership, competition for the minds and hearts of humanity, the fight against various threats. These issues also vanished from the political discourse, which affected domestic policies of both countries. One of the possible explanations for why the United States fell into the crisis with the Trump presidency is the absence of an external enemy. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union collapsed, the external threat is gone, and the U.S. began to look for enemies inside the country. The polarization in U.S. politics that has been growing since the 1990s simply spilled over into the streets under Trump. It turns out that public attitudes and views shared by the majority play an important role in democratic political systems.
OK: How exactly?
IK: The way people see another country influences policymakers. Policymakers look for the issues in society that already have public support and amplify them in their programs and speeches. Certain attitudes about Russia spread across America, and certain attitudes about America spread in Russia, and the result affected bilateral relations. Mass representations are mythological in nature, and mythology often offers a clear division into black and white, good and evil, “us” and “them.” Reality, of course, is much more complicated, but mythological consciousness brings about a black-and-white separation in real life: “we” are good and want peace, while “they” are bad and want war. Similar divisions existed in the Soviet Union and the United States, and the Cold War supported this polarization. With the demise of the Cold War, it was precisely this element, this “opposite other” that went missing in widespread views about world politics, and the search for a new antipode began in the domestic political discourse of both countries. This is such a macro view of what has transpired between the U.S. and Russia.
OK: Were there any specific political decisions that led to the deterioration of bilateral relations?
IK: Yes, of course, there were key decisions and turning points that shaped this process. In the early 1990s, both the U.S. and Russia pinned great hopes on further cooperation. But politicians, elites, and the masses on one side did not meet the expectations of the other side. The expansion of NATO and the bombing of Yugoslavia alienated the Russian elite from America. The war in Chechnya, to which the United States tried to turn a blind eye at first, and then the growing authoritarianism pushed the American elite away from Russia. This occurred even before the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s new aggressive policies, and other ensuing developments. By then, mutual resentment of the elites had already been propagated to the public.
Part II: The U.S. Triumphalism
OK: There is an opinion in Russia that the U.S. economists who advised Boris Yeltsin’s administration (Jeffrey Sachs, Andrei Shleifer, and others) are largely to blame for the failures of the Russian economic transition in the early 1990s. Is this an accurate assessment, in your opinion?
IK: I don’t think that the advice of a few U.S. economists — whether right or wrong — could have radically change the overall trajectory of the transition. In any case, the decisions were made by Russian politicians. No one had the “correct” recipe for reform at the time. Not everything that was done was optimal, but this does not mean that specific advisors should be blamed. The transition was implemented through trial and error, and without the U.S. experts, we might have come to a worse outcome. But economists should be asked about this.
OK: There is another opinion: after the collapse of the USSR, America could have provided Russia with economic aid similar to the Marshall Plan, which would have prevented Russia’s slipping into revanchist authoritarianism. For example, Angela Stent in her book The Limits of Partnership writes that in the early 1990s, the U.S. was shackled by domestic constraints, with George H. W. Bush focusing on reelection and the Washington establishment showing no desire to spend money on Russia. Do you think that, if Russia were provided with broader economic assistance, its democratic transition could be more successful?
IK: Overall, I would agree with that opinion. [Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, 1987–1991] Jack Matlock often speaks about this issue. But again, we don’t know for sure. Even massive economic aid from the U.S. may have not changed Russia’s path. What we do know is that insufficient aid — insufficient from the Russians’ point of view — became a serious factor contributing to the Russian elites’ cooling toward the U.S. by the mid-1990s. Several years ago, Eduard Ponarin [head of the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow] and his colleagues conducted a study that showed that this turn for the worse occurred around 1995. By this time, Russian elites had stopped viewing the United States as an ally or friend. Up to this point — 1992–1994, which was during the most acute period of reforms — a different outcome could have been possible. I am opposed to historical determinism. If history is teleological, if it allegedly moves according to the only possible trajectory and nothing can be done to change it, then this means that no effort is needed. And then variability is removed not only from the past, but also from our current politics. But if we believe that current attempts to change something in Russia are not entirely hopeless, then we must look into the past and try to understand what could have been done differently.
OK: What could have been done differently, in your opinion?
IK: There was a moment in the early 1990s when trust in the United States was still high in Russia. There was a strong belief that we had overcome the Cold War together. Russia had finally embarked on the path of democratic or market reforms. But the lack of U.S. aid at this very moment brought very serious disappointment. It was a missed historic opportunity for the United States. This aid may not have changed anything, but since no real effort was made, this became one of the most serious policy mistakes of the then-U.S. politicians regarding Russia. Triumphalism led to it — the idea that it was the United States that won the Cold War.
OK: Yes, you spoke about this U.S. triumphalism in one interview. Initially, there was a mutual understanding between the U.S. and Soviet leaders that they overcame the threat of war together. At what point did the U.S. change its position?
IK: It was not the threat of war that was defeated, but the very concept of the Cold War. There is a fairly well-known cartoon that Gorbachev presented to Bush Sr. It depicts a ring, where Gorbachev and Bush are shown as boxers, the referee raises their hands as winners, and in front of them lies the dying Cold War. It was 1990 — that is, the Soviet Union was still alive. The victory was mutual. And here I want to emphasize a crucial point: The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union are different historical events. They merged into a single event in our optics much later. Now, the interpretation goes as follows: the USSR collapsed, marking the end of the Cold War, therefore the Soviet Union was defeated in it. But the fact is the Cold War ended earlier, when Gorbachev and Reagan signed the first big agreements. The Soviet Union collapsed later — as a result of its own domestic factors and logistics, but not because the United States defeated it, although they did make efforts contributing to its demise. Triumphalism in the United States began in 1992, an election year. Immediately after the USSR’s dissolution [in December 1991], Bush Sr. addressed the American people, congratulating them on the victory of American values, freedom, and democracy, but in essence he was talking about American victory in the confrontation with the Soviet Union. In an election year, U.S. politicians tend to think only in terms of winning more votes. And Bush, perhaps, imagined that proclaiming himself the winner of the Soviet Union would be an important factor in his reelection.
OK: But Bill Clinton won that election.
IK: Yes, but it was during the Clinton period, despite his friendship with Yeltsin, that triumphalism flourished. During this time, the U.S. was reaping the greatest fruits of the collapse of the global socialist system. The U.S. economy received a huge boost from the emergence of new markets in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. At the same time, oil was cheap. This was one of the golden ages for the U.S. economy. Clinton collected all these factors and presented them as his own political achievements. In the United States, Russia was still perceived as a country that needed help, but it was seen as a poor country that needed help. This relationship was largely unequal, which was very strongly felt inside Russia. Also, it was precisely during this period that the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund dictated the terms of economic reforms for Russia. Perhaps these recommendations were justified, fully or partially — here, again, you need to ask an economist — but the situation itself was presented in such a way that there was a winner, the U.S., and a loser, Russia.
OK: How did triumphalism impact international politics?
IK: One example is the fact that in international relations, Russia’s point of view was completely ignored. The maximum that the West could hear was Yeltsin’s objections against NATO expansion. But they did it all the same: NATO began to expand, Yugoslavia was bombed. In a sense, the West’s refusal to listen to Russia naturally led a turn in Russia’s foreign policy and eventually to Putin, who concluded at some point: Well, since you don’t want to listen to us, we will move our troops, what will you do then? This, of course, is not the only explanation of Putin’s policies, but one of the factors.
OK: The U.S. elite did not foresee this development of events?
IK: There is a standard explanation for that. The U.S. elite is not some kind of deep state that thinks over everything for centuries to come. The elite exists within the framework of the U.S. domestic political cycle: elections to Congress every two years, presidential election every four years. In general, American politicians are barely concerned with foreign policy issues. Until a politician moves into the White House, he (or she) will often have no foreign policy. One can reproach the U.S. elite with the consequences of its triumphalism, but they will reasonably object: “What internal U.S. considerations could have forced us to act differently?” One can be dissatisfied with U.S. policies, accuse the U.S. of making mistakes, but when you understand how America works from within, it becomes obvious that, indeed, it was the only possible policy choice at the time, which doesn’t prevent me from viewing it as historically erroneous. If the United States were an authoritarian state, where the same person could sit in the White House for all 30 years, then he could probably be blamed for such mistakes. But the United States is a democratic republic where the elite is constantly rotating. This elite is not united; different groups within it think differently. Can you blame Biden for Trump’s decisions? Or Trump for Obama’s decisions? Here I’m referring to concerns over the mistakes that the U.S. elite has made. The main responsibility for what has happened with Russia lies with the Russian elite.
Part III: Anti-americanism of acquaintance
OK: Let’s talk about the Russian elite. Polls by the independent Levada Center show that in the early 1990s, half of Russians were ready to join the European community, many supported Russia’s accession to NATO. You said that by 1995, the Russian elite had become disappointed in the United States. Is the elite responsible for the worsening of public attitudes toward the U.S.?
IK: Let me point out several issues. First, not only the Russian elites, but also the public had become disillusioned with America — among other things, due to the lack of massive economic assistance that many had expected. Against this background, people increasingly viewed the United States as the political player who used Russia’s weakness to advance its selfish goals — military, political, economic. Second, there were objective shifts in attitudes associated with what I call “anti-Americanism of acquaintance.” Until the early 1990s, Soviet people lived behind the Iron Curtain. They had almost no real contact with America, no real understanding of the country. Mostly they fantasized about it. Incidentally, this is a very old tradition.
OK: How old is it?
IK: Since the 18th century, America had been a utopia for many social thinkers in Russia. It was a country where dreams would come true — political dreams, too. Russian reformers and revolutionaries would often say that there was a country where their ideas had already been realized — it was the United States. The anarchists liked the fact that the United States had almost no central government. Technocrats referred to the fact that the U.S. is run by engineers. In Soviet times, America was the country of freedom that we dreamed up. And after the collapse of the USSR, the “discovery” of the real America finally happened. And, after the first introduction, it turned out that this country differed from what we dreamed about. Yes, it was free, but not in the way we imagined it. Many components of freedom, as a Russian person imagines it, are absent in the United States. What kind of freedom is it when you need to be politically correct? What kind of freedom is it when you have to wear shorts to the beach and you are not allowed short swimming trunks or bikinis, if you are in a conservative state? These are semi-anecdotal examples, but they show how Russians began to discover America.
OK: That is, the problem was expectations vs. reality, which led to anti-Americanism?
IK: Yes. The fact that the U.S. came to Russia as a real economic and political player with its own interests, which could well contradict Russian interests, also played a role. By the way, the same “discovery” of America took place in Western Europe after World War II, when the U.S. arrived there with its military bases, McDonalds, tourists — to the annoyance of many. And these were the attitudes despite the U.S. help of the Marshall Plan. It was especially noticeable in France and Italy, where, previously, no anti-Americanism had existed at all. All subsequent French and Italian anti-American sentiments grew out of this “anti-Americanism of acquaintance.” Russia and Eastern Europe entered a similar situation in the 1990s. This initial anti-Americanism became the foundation for Russian state propaganda in the 2000s, which has become widespread on a massive scale following the events of the winter of 2011–2012.
OK: Because of the antigovernment protests.
IK: Yes, these were mass protests essentially against Putin’s return to power. After that, what has changed in Russia’s domestic policy? The crucial point is that Putin has ceased to present himself as the president of all Russians, as a unifying paternalist leader who can simultaneously support, say, both the Stalinists and Memorial, the nationalists and liberals. At least in the 2000s, his public image was constructed to include all. Since 2012, there has been a clear division: there is Putin’s electorate and those he dislikes.
OK: An internal enemy?
IK: Those whom he considers to be internal enemies. A significant part of the Kremlin’s domestic policy from that moment was aimed at splitting society. Why is it important? Because as soon as the regime declared opposition groups in Russia to be internal enemies, demonization of America developed on a massive level. Opponents of the regime were labeled as “foreign agents,” and for propaganda purposes, the U.S. was cast in the role of their [“puppet master”]. If you analyze the tone of the newsmakers or propagandists who appear on Russia’s state television, when they speak about the U.S., you will see how dramatically it changed in 2012. Since then, it has only been downhill.
OK: Do you mean that propaganda skillfully manipulates the existing public sentiments, including anti-Americanism?
IK: If you look at the Levada polls, you will see that, despite their disappointment in America, the majority of Russians have actually always tended to see it in friendly terms. Aside from the moments when U.S. sanctions were imposed or when propaganda made special efforts to vilify America, Russians generally do not see it as their enemy. This tendency is clearly visible when the Russian government makes attempts to improve relations with the United States. Public expectations in Russia skyrocket, as happened during the “reset” meeting between Medvedev and Obama. Even before Putin’s less fortunate meeting with Trump in Helsinki, Russians’ attitudes toward the United States had improved. That is, the propaganda narratives do not fully coincide with public expectations. The propaganda does exploit that part of Russian society that is completely disillusioned with America and tries to amplify its anti-Americanism. But if a new “reset” or a new “détente” is declared, Russian attitudes about America will bounce back again. Moreover, today, people in Russia are ready for a more sober understanding of the United States, for accepting that it is not an eternal enemy, but a normal country pursuing its own interests. This understanding will crystallize as soon as the propaganda machine is turned off. And it will be a healthier attitude on behalf of Russia than their previous fantasies of a utopian America or its demonization.
Part IV: Do Polar Opposite Attract?
OK: In your studies, you describe the U.S. as Russia’s “constitutive Other.” What do you mean by this concept?
IK: This is a social constructivist term, but slightly modified. There is a book about this by [Norwegian researcher] Ivar Neumann called Using the Other. At the heart of social constructivism is the problem of identity, namely, the search for an answer to the question “who are we?” There are two main strategies that can be used to answer this question. The first is to describe yourself from within. If we are talking about a country or a people, then the answer in this strategy will be related to history: we are heirs of some glorious ancestors or descendants of victims of some misfortunes. The second strategy is to compare yourself with someone else — the Other. For example, when I was in Canada, I once asked people there what it means to them to be Canadians, and the most popular answer was “we are not Americans.”
OK: Self-determination through contrast?
IK: Yes. When you describe yourself this way, the one you compare yourself with is the “constitutive Other.” This is an Other that, by contrasting ourselves with them, we define ourselves. In the 1990s, the popular answer to the question of “who are we?” in the former Soviet republics was “we are not Russians.” For former colonies, the constitutive Other is often the former metropolis: “we are not like them.” For large countries, former metropolises themselves, self-identification can go through countries with which they have historically been enemies or friends. In that sense, Russia and the U.S. have defined themselves through opposing each other for almost a hundred years.
OK: So the opposition began before the Cold War?
IK: Much earlier. If you look at the U.S. political texts of the last hundred years, you will see how often Russia, or the Soviet Union, is invoked to explain something about the United States. One need not even say how often this happens in Russia. There was a famous episode in history: In 1919, the U.S. expelled more than 200 anarchists and socialists — mostly naturalized Americans — put them on the ship called the Buford and sent them to Soviet Russia. The U.S. government’s message was this: America is not a place for the left; anarchists and socialists, you have your own country, Russia, that’s where you should live. This is a direct personification of the constitutive Other: “we are Americans, not socialists.” This legacy is still alive in our views and the ways we describe each other.
OK: One can understand why the United States became a constitutive Other for Russia, but why did Russia become one for the United States?
IK: Explaining America’s role is indeed easier. The United States has been an extremely important country for all Europeans for a very long time. As a democratic republic, it served as an example of an alternative way of governing until World War I. At that time there were almost no republics anywhere, and all European reformers and revolutionaries looked up to America. With Russia, the explanation is a little more complicated. Russia is also a country of European civilization in a broad sense. It can be described using the European political language — the same language that describes the American political system. With China, for example, such comparisons are futile — its political culture and political system are too different from what Europeans and Americans normally think about these notions; they are rather exotic. Within this European language, Russia represented America’s polar opposite. If America was a democratic republic, Russia was an autocratic monarchy and then a Bolshevik dictatorship. But comparing themselves to Russia, Americans always emphasized that they have a democracy and a republic — a better system. This antipodean role was assigned to Russia in U.S. politics at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries — my colleague, Victoria Zhuravleva, wrote a book about it. The Cold War added bright colors to this picture. But at its end, it seemed that the Americans stopped thinking about Russia. Why would they? There is no more Soviet threat. And then, suddenly, under Trump, all these cultural layers came to the surface; it turns out that the Americans had not forgotten about Russia. The Cold War generation is still actively working, and everything that was accumulated in the language and culture during this period was easily revived in public memory.
OK: In Russia, do you also see a return to the Cold War language with regard to the United States?
IK: Russia has never forgotten America. Today, however, Russia defines itself somewhat differently: in contrast to the spiritless America, it posits itself as a spiritual country.
OK: With traditional values.
IK: This formula was clearly found to replace socialism and communism, in order to oppose Russia to America again. Sometimes it even seems to me that these “traditional values” were invented as the antithesis of the United States. Someone clever in the Kremlin sat down and reasoned: the United States behaves like a standard-bearer of liberalism, promoting freedom, tolerance, political correctness, and other non-traditional values, which means we need traditional ones. But, frankly, what kind of traditional values in Russia are we talking about after almost 100 years of the Soviet state? Our people are not so religious, not to mention the fact that just in the 2000s at the Eurovision singing contest, Russia was represented by t.A.T.u., a duo that used quite a nontraditional image. Nearby Russia, there are much more traditional countries where family values, patriarchal foundations are really strong, while Russia is a very urbanized and rather unconventional country. If Russia were a democracy, a politician who proclaimed traditional values at the center of their political agenda would receive less than 10 percent of the vote. The ideology of traditional values did not grow out of a demand within Russian society, but out of the Kremlin’s aspirations in world politics. This became possible only under authoritarianism. In the United States, everything is different: their policy toward Russia is dictated by domestic issues, no matter how offensive this may seem to the Russians. Neither Obama, nor Trump, nor Biden thought of Russia as the main factor in their domestic politics.
OK: Why do you think it is so important to Russians that U.S. politicians think and speak about Russia?
IK: Not so much to Russians as to the Russian elites or even to Putin himself. I do not have a good answer to this question, but the Russian elites want symmetry in their relations with the U.S., they really want to be on par with it. Perhaps this is a Soviet tradition. Perhaps an attempt to maintain Russia’s image as a great power. Remember the Kosovo precedent, which became Russia’s main argument in essentially annexing South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and then Crimea? During Yeltsin’s presidency and even in the early years of Putin’s presidency, the disputes between Russia and the U.S. on the world stage looked as if Russia were arguing for the respect of international law. But Putin changed this, and starting with his 2007 Munich speech, but essentially since Russia’s war with Georgia, the Kremlin adopted a different approach. Yes, there is international law, and it is mandatory for everyone, but there are great powers that can violate this international law. Until now, the United States was the exception to the rule, and now Russia. Today, we are fighting not for the U.S. to respect international law, but for ourselves to be recognized as a great power and to be allowed to violate international law when it suits us. This is the leitmotif of Russian policy over the past 12 years.
Part V: Language and Politics
OK: U.S.-Russian relations are often described now by the term “new Cold War.” Do you think it suits the situation?
IK: I don’t think it is adequate, but there are simply no other terms. The Cold War concept is based on such issues as nuclear confrontation, the competition of different ideologies or even ideals of social development, of two global systems, the existence of a bipolar world. None of these parameters are present today. Neither is the threat of the Third World War. What we see is more of a discursive Cold War. New metaphors emerge — “new cold war,” “cold peace,” etc. — but they all derive from the concept of the Cold War. A recent discussion dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the concepts of “containment” and the “Iron Curtain” — strong metaphors that defined the essence of the Cold War — also addressed this issue. This is a rather curious phenomenon. The lack of adequate language is a definite challenge for scholars and analysts. Perhaps, over time, a new language will appear, or perhaps this period can be adequately described only when it is a thing of the past.
OK: Is there a danger of the current “discursive” Cold War turning into a real military conflict?
IK: There is always a danger. But I do not see any political forces, either in Russia or in the United States, striving for an open war, and I do not see any objective factors moving the situation in this direction. Russia cannot count on winning an open conflict with the United States. The United States, or the collective West, has no interest in fighting Russia, because the war entails obviously unacceptable damage. So we need to somehow coexist. After all, today’s Russia, for all that we dislike about it, remains freer than the Soviet Union even during the Brezhnev era. Although we have lost a lot in recent years, we still have some freedoms. Even according to the most conservative estimates, a fairly large part of the population does not like everything that happens in Russia.
OK: So you don’t expect Russia to return to a form of the Soviet Union?
IK: The assessments that Russia is returning to the Soviet Union are misleading. Today’s Russia is not the USSR and it cannot return to it even if it wanted to. Today’s international relations are not a Cold War, and we cannot return to that either.