SEVERAL RUSSIANS I MET during my visit last month advised me to notice cheese. Sure enough, in Russia cheese is plentiful, tasty, and available in many varieties. Why is that interesting? “Russian cheese was always terrible,” a waitress in Novosibirsk explained. “All good cheese was imported. Now, because of sanctions, we can’t import cheese any more. So we started making our own, and after a few years, look what great cheese we have! Sanctions made us more self-reliant.”
Two weeks is laughably little time to take the measure of any country, let alone the largest one on earth. Even more daunting — and intriguing — is Russia’s century-old role as the threatening “other” in the American imagination. My trip took me across five time zones and included visits to cities whose names I had never heard (Ulan Ude?). Wherever I went, I was struck by how different Russia is from our image of it. The Russia I found is vibrant, self-confident, largely free, and hardly concerned about hostility from Washington.
During the seven decades of Communist rule in Russia, Americans were fed twin images: the Russian people were poor, backward, and oppressed, while their leaders plotted relentlessly to destroy the United States and human freedom on earth. Today we are told much the same. We imagine a declining and unhappy land, “a gas station masquerading as a country,” as the late Senator John McCain put it. Yet we also place Russia at or near the top of our list of most fearsome enemies, and demonize President Vladimir Putin. Whenever we feel our indignation rising — which is lamentably often — we impose a new sanction on Russia, or stage a provocative military maneuver near one of its borders. In Washington, any politician or pundit who dares to urge better relations with Russia is quickly branded a Kremlin apologist or Putin stooge.
Americans are conditioned to see Russia as a failing society governed by a hyper-aggressive regime that wreaks havoc around the world. Russians, I found, see the United States the same way. Their image of their role in the world strikingly mirrors our own. They see their country as defending its reasonable interests, while being fully misunderstood by an ignorant regime across the Atlantic.
My highly unscientific opinion sampling suggests that Russians like their president more than we like ours. Paulinka, a 29-year-old woman I met while waiting for a traffic light to change in Moscow, told me Russians are grateful to Putin because he brought Russia back to life after a period of disastrous social collapse. “Every year since he has been in, life is better than the year before,” she told me. Yet like other Russians I met, she said Putin has been in office long enough — he has dominated Russia for 20 years — and should make way for someone else.
While I was in Moscow, opposition groups staged several protests after election officials refused to register some of their candidates for city council. The protests drew tens of thousands of people, were non-violent, and resulted in several arrests. Clearly the government — like all governments — has set limits on the opposition it will tolerate. People are free to speak their minds, and the media report world news much as do their counterparts in the United States. Russia has been an authoritarian state for a thousand years, though, and is not a law-governed democracy today. Its people are heirs to the collective trauma of having their entire way of life shattered by social and political revolution twice in less than a century. That breeds a powerful wish for stability. “In a big country like this,” a woman in Irkutsk told me, “you need a strong leader.”
The Russian cities I visited are not pockmarked by wretched neighborhoods like those in many American cities. Poverty exists — the rate is comparable to that of the United States — but is concentrated in villages and the countryside. Provincial cities have been rebuilt, some with dazzling success. In Kazan, where a complex of sports arenas is attracting a stream of world-class athletic events and new apartment buildings line the Volga riverbank, one man marveled: “This city has changed totally in the last 10 years.”
Some Americans who visit Russia cannot help wondering why the United States insists on seeing it as an enemy rather than a potential partner. Part of the reason has to do with Russia’s actions in Europe and the Middle East, which the United States considers hostile. The deeper reason may have to do with the way our ingrained need for an enemy has come to mesh with our century-old habit of hating and fearing Russia.
Today barely a dozen American correspondents are based in Moscow. As a result, much of what we read about Russia is written in the United States and reinforces the paradigm of hostility in which Washington is so deeply invested. The real Russia is a stable quasi-democracy that defends its interests in the world no more aggressively than we do. In 2019 it is a happier, more socially cohesive, and more optimistic place than the United States. The quality of Russian life has risen along with the quality of its cheese. Russians have decided to go their own way and not worry too much about us. We should return the favor.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, and author of “Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control.” Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.