Russian-American relations, commentators warned, would be damaged by NATO’s war in Yugoslavia, but the Clinton administration dismissed the idea. Russian anti-Americanism seemed a passing phase that would dissipate when media attention turned to the next international crisis. Events like Boris Yeltsin’s August 25 meeting with Jiang Zemin, in which Russia’s president accused NATO of “trying to build a world order that would be convenient only to them,” cast serious doubt on such optimism.
More lies at stake here than an ailing leader’s wish to play China and the United States against one another. The chairman of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Vladimir Lukin, has distinguished general anti-Western sentiment from specific anger at the United States. Calling Russian opinion “keen rather than deep,” Lukin suggested a change in U.S. policy might remove “this acute civilizational sentiment of alienation toward America and NATO countries.” Attitudes among Russian intellectuals suggest a far greater distrust of the West. Not long before Lukin’s remarks, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn likened NATO, in its war against Serbia, to Adolf Hitler. “For the third month before the eyes of the world a European country is being destroyed,” he said in a widely cited interview; NATO “wants to establish its order in the world, and it needs Yugoslavia simpK as a pretext—let’s punish Yugoslavia and the whole planet will tremble.”
Western critics might join British historian Orlando Figs in dismissing the elderly Solzhenitsyn as “out of date,” but many Russians share his sentiments. Moreover, Solzhenitsyn’s statement builds on a long-standing critique. His famous Harvard speech in 1978 assailed the secular left’s influence on American society, citing pornography, crime, a demoralizing popular culture, and passivity the face of Soviet aggression. Significantly, Solzhenitsyn also criticized the West’s history of colonizing other peoples. The “decline in courage” he noticed among ruling and intellectual elites failed to mitigate their willingness to use force, and much of Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of America during the 1970’s and 80’s appears in Russian complaints today.
The political thaw under Khrushchev that allowed Solzhenitsyn to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Desinovich also saw the gradual emergence of Rirssian nationalist sentiment. Communists tied Russian patriotism to Soviet identity, and Slavophile intellectuals received active encouragement under Brezhnev. But while nationalists lauded the Soviet victory over Germany and achievement of superpower status, they decried the regime’s assault on peasant folkways and the Orthodox Church. Socialism, they believed, sacrificed Russia’s culture to a materialistic view of progress, and the nationalist revival provided as forceful and dangerous a critique of communism as did the liberal dissent epitomized by Andrei Sakharov.
Disillusionment among Russians sympathetic to Solzhenitsyn and other Slavophiles drives their criticism of America, which now finds an audience far beyond their own ranks. Economic reforms made under the supervision of American experts impoverished many Russians and led others to believe Western interests robbed their country to secure it as a compliant source of raw materials. In a caricature of privatization that gave capitalism the air of a casino, apparatchiks bought at grossly devalued prices the state enterprises they once ran. The ruble’s collapse and recent banking scandals only deepened disillusionment with the post-Soviet order. Aspects of American culture that Solzhenitsyn has attacked most bitterly took center stage with the end of Soviet censorship of Western films, television, and popular music. Once eager to emulate America, Russians developed a wary distrust of its culture and leadership.
That view provides the undercurrent to Russian outrage over Kosovo. Russians, rightly or wrongly, concluded that NATO defeated Serbia to humiliate their country and demonstrate American power. The reasons for that belief deserve more serious consideration than the American media or foreign policy establishment seems willing to give. While open conflict is unlikely, Russia’s turn toward China and Iran threatens much more than globalism or the New World Order. By aiding regimes equally dangerous to both sides, leaders in Moscow and Washington may find they have damned themselves for the privilege of cursing each other.