ERROR
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
ERROR
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed

City Journal

search
Close Nav

Looking West from Red Square

from the magazine

Looking West from Red Square

A journey to Moscow to discover what Russians really think of America Summer 2018
Politics and law
The Social Order

In Russia, even the monuments can summon a shudder from an American visitor. Consider a fresh addition to the Moscow landscape—a 30-foot-high statue, cast in bronze, of Lt. Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, the world’s most widely used assault weapon, a favorite of terrorists and insurrectionists. There he stands astride the Garden Ring Road, hands cradling his famous rifle, eyes gazing in the direction of the U.S. embassy down the boulevard. At the unveiling, a Russian Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water on the figure. “He created this weapon to defend his motherland,” the priest explained. On my visit last year, on a raw morning, the sleet coming down, I found fresh flowers at his feet.

Russia the Terrible: to live in America nowadays, to read newspapers and magazines and watch cable news, to toggle through social media, is to be bombarded with unrelievedly negative images of Russia—pictures of a malicious society that has spawned a murderous spymaster-autocrat in the Kremlin, a corrupt class of money-laundering business barons, and evil-genius computer hackers, bent on meddling in our politics and messing with our minds. Time caught the spirit of the moment with a cover illustration of the White House morphing into a monstrous composite of the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, candy-colored onion domes sprouting from the roof.

Why not reverse the lens? What do they—the Russians—think of us, the Americans? Off I went to Moscow, amid what is being called, in both nations, a new Cold War. I was no innocent abroad—I lived and worked in Moscow as a journalist, from 1999 to 2003, and have visited Russia many times since—but still, my plan was to soak up the atmosphere, the talk on the street, the chattering of intellectual types, and to distill from the experience what lessons I might. Attire for my determinedly unofficial trek was not business suit and tie but a down jacket, dungarees, and sturdy black leather sneakers. Most of all, I was curious. Poke and prod a Russian these days, on Americans and America, and what might be the response—a grimace, a growl, possibly a grin?

It’s tempting to view the chronic American–Russian antagonism as a self-serving creation of the political classes, of rarefied elites isolated from the people. Occasions like the recent Helsinki “summit” (the term intended to suggest bracing air) between Presidents Trump and Putin can seem largely like exercises for expert analysts and press pundits to adjudge the toughness of the “home team” leader versus the other, in the manner of scoring a prizefight. Moscow can be experienced in this fashion, with the antipathy turned upside-down and devilishly transmuted into theater. In a northwestern Moscow neighborhood, Boozer Shop & Bar is a locals’ sort of place, at remove from the tourist destinations of the city center, clustered around the Kremlin. It offers a good selection of draft beers; but for food, not much more than an assortment of flavored potato chips. I strolled in on a Monday night to see if I might tap some opinions about my native country and its citizens, well-thought-out or not. Behind the bar, Andrei, suffering from a hangover, at first was in no mood. “There are no more bears—don’t worry about us,” he told me. To his back was a display of tchotchkes, among them a flag pin of Syria featuring Bashar al-Assad in sunglasses. Moscow’s military intervention on behalf of Assad helped turn the tide in his favor in Syria’s brutal civil war.

Dmitri, seated at a bar stool and clad in black leather pants, an iron cross dangling from a chain around his neck, a glass of beer, almost surely not his first, in hand, offered an opening statement: “America will be part of a new Soviet Union, and you will be very happy in it.” This retort produced laughs all around, and Andrei, warming to the moment, produced from under the bar counter a baseball bat—a real one, made of aluminum—to demonstrate, he said, the treatment meted out to unwelcome guests. But the gleam in his eye was unmistakable, and I demanded the bat, to exhibit a proper batting stance, elbow cocked, and took a few practice swings. Surely there is no finer sport in the world than America’s national pastime, I asserted. Not to be outdone, Andrei donned a Roman gladiator–style helmet signifying his allegiance to the Spartak football club in Moscow. In an earlier life, he was a soccer hooligan, he said, mixing it up with the fans of rival clubs.

Such was the spirit of the evening, which ended with the American—me—escorted out of the bar as a mock prisoner, hands held high in the air, palms facing forward. Dmitri slipped me a piece of paper with his phone number scrawled on it—“Moscow friend,” he wrote—and the owner of the bar, concerned that I might be bereft of funds, offered to give me 300 rubles (about $5) for a taxi back to my hotel, to avoid the metro at late hours.

The evening suggested a first lesson: while Russians these days are told by their own media that America, once again, is the enemy, they are not reflexively accepting of it. Perhaps they’re being saved by cynicism about their own government. “The media and politicians want us to hate America, but we know that America does not really want to destroy us,” a first-year student at Moscow State University, the Harvard or Yale of Russia, told me on my visit to his classroom, down the street from the Kremlin.

As in that Time cover, many Russians also see propaganda in the American media’s presentation of their country. It is generally conceded that the Kremlin probably did interfere in some fashion with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But the idea that Putin’s Kremlin, that Russia, can somehow dictate events in mighty America is widely seen as preposterous. “When someone says that Russian hackers made Trump president, it is like hearing that Martians rule the world,” the same student told me.

One reason for such skepticism is that Russians tend to see their own culture as under the sway of the American way of life. It may be too soon to predict the winner of a second Cold War, but there can be no doubt of the winner in the ideological competition that defined the first go-round. The final joke is on Karl Marx. His monument still stands at Revolutionary Square in central Moscow. From a corner of his eye, he might be able to see Tiffany’s and the five-star Marriott just down the street.

“While Russians are told by their media that America is the enemy, they are not reflexively accepting of it.”

Russia isn’t simply a window display of boutique capitalism for the tiny few who can afford a diamond-encrusted bauble. The democratic instinct may be lacking in a society that rallies around a strongman to keep chaos at bay, but the market instinct is not. America, from this standpoint, represents wealth-generating capitalism at its most robust, and while Russians, in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, bridled at the Washington policymaker and the Ivy League economist preaching the gospel of Adam Smith, they are far from disliking the manner in which America has organized its economy. The U.S. city that they admire and want to visit above all others is New York—a shopper’s paradise, the seat of finance, a shrine to moneymaking. For the Muscovite, in particular, sprawling New York, a cultural and a fashion mecca, another city that never sleeps (though with a less efficient metro system), is akin to Moscow.

Indeed, architectural features of contemporary Moscow seem to have been constructed in imitation of the Manhattan or Chicago style, as in the real-estate developers’ paradise known as Moscow City, a dense cluster of steel-and-glass skyscrapers by the river. On the 85th floor of one of these towers is a restaurant, 354, that conjures the bygone Windows on the World from 1 World Trade Center, with spectacular views of the city below. “Europe’s new highest restaurant,” as a promoter billed the place, opened its doors in 2016. On a Sunday evening, I bundled myself in a shaggy llama coat selected from a closet kept by the proprietor and joined my dining-mates in the ice bar—a small room, the temperature set at minus 15 degrees Celsius, fashioned from blocks of ice. The idea is for patrons to nibble caviar and knock down shots of vodka. The room was a promotion for a vodka brand, Onegin, named for the Pushkin novel in verse, Russia’s beloved poem. I seated myself on a throne of ice, of magnificent scale, fit for a czar, sprays of colorful flowers exquisitely set into the side and back panels. Russia’s national habits persist but are accommodated, easily enough, by capitalism.

Russians resent the trade sanctions, including restrictions on food imports, that Washington and Brussels have imposed as punishment for Moscow’s aggressive behavior—its annexation of Crimea and backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. No longer are Western delicacies—fromage from France, for instance—so easy to obtain (though there are ways to get them, naturally; for example, an enterprising Russian company is breeding Alpine goats imported from France to produce the white mold cheese for which this animal’s milk is renowned). Still, American brands can inspire adulation. One afternoon, I stumbled across a line of perhaps 1,000 Muscovites, mostly young women, snaking out of the aisles of L’Etoile, a perfume and cosmetics chain, into the foyer of a gleaming American-style shopping mall near the Kievskaya railway station. They were there to meet Sarah Jessica Parker, in Moscow to market her new brand of fragrance, Stash SJP. Parker is a fashion icon in Russia, treasured for her Carrie Bradshaw character in Sex and the City.

Parker is popular here—as are American rappers, as I found on an after-hours visit to Garazh (Garage), a small nightclub in Moscow, homey rather than glitzy, frequented by bohemian sorts in hipster-ish garbs. It was loud with the electronic thump of grime, a London-originated music with hip-hop among the influences, making conversation difficult but not impossible in the booths off the dance floor. Lena, 22, a painter, clad in black jersey and hood, her lips, nose, and the area around her eyes smeared in black makeup in a catlike pattern, told of her devotion to Eminem, 50 Cent, ASAP Rocky, and Travis Scott. Others at the club also volunteered Eminem as a favorite. His story, of the “white boy” accepted into the black hip-hop culture of Detroit, his drug addiction a prominent theme of his music, is distinctively American, and understood by his Russian fans as such, but the attraction transcends cultural boundaries. At my mention of a recent Eminem contribution, a freestyle rap video ripping into President Trump as a racist and hypocrite and concluding with the artist raising a middle finger to “any fan of mine/who’s a supporter of his,” Garazh’s patrons responded with knowing chuckles. Plenty of Russians don’t like Trump, either.

Try as I did to elicit raw expressions of animosity toward America and Americans in random encounters with Muscovites, I failed. “I don’t want to have any enemy—Americans are friendly,” Alexander, 23, a lawyer fresh from an obligatory stint in the Russian army, cheerfully told me. We were speaking after the first period of a hockey game, home team Spartak, at the sparkling new VTB Ice Palace in Moscow, where a good seat could be had for $20. Perhaps such conversations illustrated nothing more than a journalistic version of the Heisenberg principle—the object of observation is bound to be influenced by the observer, the question-taker by the question-asker. Russians are not gratuitously rude to foreign visitors, even from America, and in my travels in Russia over the years, from frozen Chukotka by the Bering Strait to balmy Sochi on the Black Sea, I can recall only one instance of being accosted as an American. It was at a café at the airport near Sochi in the summer of 2016; my haranguer was a middle-aged man, probably drunk, inflamed by the prospect, seemingly a sure thing at that point, of Putin-critic Hillary Clinton becoming president. She lost; Putin, two years later, coasted to victory for another six years as president, extending his undeclared reign as czar for life, presumably.

That’s the rub—politics or, more precisely, geopolitics. An affinity for Sarah Jessica Parker and her fragrance, for Eminem and his razor-blade raps, for the razzle-dazzle of New York—none of this is sufficient to relax tensions born of politics. In this sense, the return to Cold War–like conditions offers a compelling refutation of what has been dubbed the Golden Arches doctrine, after the neoliberal hypothesis of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, tendered in the mid-1990s, that the global spread of consumer capitalism, symbolized by a planet of Big Mac eaters, would restrict a country’s “capacity for troublemaking” and promote “gradual democratization and widening peace” around the world. Yet there are more than 600 McDonald’s outlets in Russia, and Russians subsist on Google and Facebook, too. They buy their Apple iPhones—and purchase a hard-shell protective casing with an image of Putin on the back. The neoliberals got this one wrong.

I wish I could say, given my fondness for the Russians whom I meet at hockey games, university classrooms, and neighborhood bars, that the antagonism evident in Russia for the U.S. as a political actor is simply the work of the Kremlin and its propagandists. But that’s not the case. The Kremlin is amplifying currents already active in the broader culture, heartfelt sentiments that can be found even among people not fond of Putin, as was apparent in the conversations that I had with intellectual types over innumerable cups of coffee in the café of Hotel Budapest (my Moscow quarters) and other settings. Moscow on the whole has a liberal disposition, an attachment to core aspects of the Western pluralist tradition like freedom of expression. In the 1980s, Moscow embraced with fervor glasnost and perestroika, the loosening of political and economic controls that helped undermine the Soviet system and cause its demise. Tens of thousands of Muscovites have participated in street demonstrations protesting Putin’s iron rule. But not even the liberal Muscovite any longer sees America as the lodestar and the enforcer of a liberal global order.

Disillusionment has set in among a cadre apt to be fluent in English and readers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The New Yorker. Older Muscovites are apt to bring up not anything from the recent past but an episode from the time of the late Clinton administration and the last year of Boris Yeltsin’s rule. It was when NATO, in March 1999, launched a months-long bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia to try to bring down the Serbian nationalist regime of Slobodan Milošević and thereby end the wars ravaging the Balkans. NATO acted at the behest of Bill Clinton and without explicit authorization from the United Nations Security Council, on which Russia has a permanent seat. Orthodox Serbia is Orthodox Russia’s traditional ally. Even today, some 20 years later, Russians speak with indignation over the images seen back then on their television screens—of NATO bombs striking apartment houses and even a passenger train.

This, then, in the Russian mind, was the global face of the American superpower, the victor over Moscow in the Cold War: a bully, determined to use its overwhelming military might to shove everyone else around in cementing a new global order after its own liking. Then came George W. Bush’s war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, yet another military action begun against the Kremlin’s objections and without the assent of the Security Council. And for Russians, this attitude was sealed by Washington’s infuriating interference in Ukraine—for centuries a possession of imperial Russia—as in the toppling, in 2014, of a pro-Moscow regime. We have our origin story of the second Cold War, they have theirs.

Consult a Russian—saving for that vacation to New York, and maybe Las Vegas and Los Angeles, too, with a stop at the Grand Canyon—and you’re apt to scrape against the hard rock of a patriot. This was the great mistake in the neoliberal belief in global capitalism as an elixir for peace between the nations—an underappreciation of the staying power of nationalism, a resonant force in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and now again in the first decades of the twenty-first. Putin’s Russia is a stronger global presence than Yeltsin’s Russia, and the Russians who now hear unremitting criticism from America of Putin are apt to wonder why such criticism was lacking of Yeltsin. “The disillusionment with America is easy to explain,” historian Andrey Isserov told me over lunch at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “When we were weak, we were good,” in the eyes of America. “When we start to be strong, we are bad.”

At the Moscow unveiling of a statue of arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Russian Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water on the figure. (VALERY SHARIFULIN/TASS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

Disillusionment engenders wariness. If Washington feels free to tamper with Ukraine, why not mess with Russia itself? The Kremlin peddles this line of propaganda but can do so effectively because the message taps into genuine anxieties. A nation, a people, cannot escape its DNA. The history of Russia is the history of warding off invasions—the Mongols and Swedes, Napoleon and Hitler. As Russians today are apt to remind an American, Washington, at the end of the first Cold War, promised that NATO would not extend its domain by even “one inch to the east”—and yet NATO did expand, to encompass the Soviet Republics in the Baltics, directly on the border with Russia. How can Washington be trusted to keep its promises?

In America, a burgeoning literature declares that the America Century, the period of American global dominance, is over. (I wrote my own tome on this topic, titled After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.) My Russian interlocutors tend to believe that America, for all its internal divisions, is still a colossus and is likely to remain one. Mention of an emerging Chinese Century prompts a roll of the eyes. “I am watching American movies, I am not watching Chinese movies,” says Georgy Filatov, a fourth-generation graduate of Moscow State and an expert on Spain, whose grandfather, an intelligence officer, smuggled a clandestine copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago out of the USSR. “Maybe America is not as powerful as before, but it is still the Number One power. We are looking at the world from an American point of view.”

As for the global strength of Russia, Russians may feel more powerful under Putin than under Yeltsin, but still, they see their country as well behind the U.S. in “hard power”—the most important measure of geopolitical prowess, their blood-soaked history has taught them. Russia may be at parity in nuclear weapons, but America is spending nearly nine times as much as Russia on national defense—a budget of $611 billion in 2016 for the U.S. against a mere $69 billion for Russia. America can afford to lavish funds on the Pentagon, the Russian painfully grasps, because the U.S. economy, with an annual gross domestic product of $18.6 trillion, is more than 14 times larger than the Russian economy, with a GDP of $1.3 trillion. As impressive as Moscow is, with its economic dynamism, Russia, across its 11 time zones, has nothing else to match it, whereas America can boast not only of New York but also of Houston and Dallas, of Atlanta and Miami, of Seattle and San Francisco, and of many other hubs of prosperity.

“Russians may feel more powerful under Putin but still, they see their country as well behind the U.S. in ‘hard power.’”

The true nature of Russian–American antagonism is as a clash of complexes—an “inferiority complex” on the part of Russians and a “superiority complex” on the part of Americans, Egor Sartakov, a specialist in the works of Nikolai Gogol, told me at the Budapest. There is something to that; the thought occurs that the Russians will be the last people on earth, behind even the Americans, to acknowledge the end of the American Century. Perhaps their national imagination cannot admit of a diminished America?

Russia’s wariness, then, this seemingly eternal facet of national self, is stubbornly fixated on America. Kalashnikov in bronze stands guard over the Garden Ring, and farther to the periphery of Moscow is a monument to the Semyenovsky Regiment, formed by Peter the Great in 1683 and stationed in this spot, once a village. A lone guard in knee-high boots and three-cornered hat, his musket held upright in his right hand, bears watch over what is now a bustling part of the metropolis. “We trustfully served the Russian czars,” the plaque reads, “fighting with honor and giving fright to the enemy at the mere sight of our flag,” to paraphrase the rest. Fifteen minutes’ walk brought me to the global headquarters of RT (Russia Today), the “Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet,” according to the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community in Washington. As I neared its offices, on the site of a former tea factory, a cluster of satellite dishes on the roof gave away the main building, eight floors high. A fleet of vans with the RT motto, “Question More,” emblazoned in signature green on the white side panels, occupied the parking lot.

Created by the Putin government in 2005, RT calls itself a global news organization. My visit was a violation of my resolve to experience Russia from outside the peeping eyes of the state. Washington’s intelligence report had focused global attention on RT and especially RT America, an English-language channel operated within the U.S., and I was curious as to how my request to visit its Moscow premises might be received. Years earlier, in an article for The New Republic, I had urged an understanding of Putin “not as a conventional government leader but as CEO of a shadowy and increasingly global financial empire that might be called ‘Kremlin, Inc.’ ” and calling on Washington to “publish Putin’s bank account.” Might that be held against me?

As it turned out, there were no obstacles. In a brief e-mail exchange, an assistant in the media-relations department agreed to my request for a tour of the broadcast studio on a day and hour of my choosing, and on presentation of my blue U.S. passport, I was admitted. A young American woman, an RT employee whose principal job these days, it seemed, was to greet visiting journalists like me, walked me over to the studio. There I stood in the place visited only days earlier by CBS News journalist Lesley Stahl and her production crew for a report on RT by 60 Minutes. The face hands of a trio of clocks were set to New York, Moscow, and London time. Flat-screen television panels were affixed to the walls, cameras dangled from the rafters, workers tapped away at their desktop computer keyboards. It looked and sounded like any broadcast studio, anywhere, and there in the anchor’s seat was BBC veteran Colin Bray, preparing to deliver his top-of-the-hour news roundup.

No one at RT mentioned my New Republic piece or lectured me about anything; dutiful laughter greeted my lame joke about how we were standing on a spot in the target coordinates of America’s arsenal of ICBMs. The message was plain enough: RT has nothing to hide. This picture of ordinariness was enhanced by the grounds outside, a sleepy neighborhood of apartment blocks, schools, and small shops, patrolled by young mothers pushing baby strollers down the walkways. Around the corner from RT’s offices, I came across the English (as in U.K.) School of Science & IT, posterboard images of a bearded Tolstoy and a frazzled-haired Einstein, a bespectacled Chekhov, a top-hatted Churchill, and a pinstripe-suited John F. Kennedy, displayed on the fence by the front gate—an imagined and now-forlorn medley of Anglo–Russo harmony.

Still, there is something insidious about RT, as its content is a distillation of the least attractive features of American government and society—and offers a warped presentation of America’s conduct in the world. Russia, in this tilted narrative, is blameless, “the old scapegoat” for the United States, as I heard a commentator say while listening to RT programming in my hotel room. I found myself wondering about the many Russians involved in RT production. Should such people be thought of as the for-hire members of a theater company, dutifully producing a script, as one Muscovite suggested to me, or is there sincere conviction at work? It’s hard to say.

But to help deliver its message, RT makes use of a familiar type whose sincerity is beyond question—the disaffected American, typically left-wing, outspoken about our social and economic inequities. Chris Hedges, a Presbyterian minister, formerly a star foreign correspondent for the New York Times, nowadays is the host of On Contact, a weekly interview show on RT America aimed at airing “dissident voices” absent from American mainstream media. In Hedges’s formulation, America’s “ruling elite” today uses Putin’s Russia as a “foil” to deflect criticism of “corporate capitalism, the security and surveillance state and imperialism.”

How little things change. In Soviet times, Moscow also sought to make use of disaffected Americans—of figures like W. E. B. Du Bois, the civil rights activist, pan-Africanist, author, and socialist. In his autobiography, published in 1968, he wrote glowingly of a visit to Khrushchev’s Moscow in the fall of 1959 as a VIP participating in the annual commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolution. On waking in his hotel, Red Square and the Kremlin walls in view from the window, Du Bois marveled at the cleanliness of the streets on which the day before “a half-million people marched, walked, and danced” but took scrupulous care not to soil with dirt or scraps of paper: “These people feel a vested interest in this nation such as few Americans feel for the United States.”

This outlook would have made Du Bois attractive to RT America, as Hedges is today. The platform awarded by Moscow to such figures, past and present, is indeed suggestive of a desire, at least at the official level, to rile U.S. domestic politics and inflame our debates, and can only reinforce mutual distrust. Of course, a Russian can counter, as one did, that Washington does more or less the same with an outlet like Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, funded by Congress, broadcasting in languages including Russian, and offering a picture of a Russia that “intimidates” its citizens and aims to “dominate” its neighbors and “fight” the world, as a commentator declared in 2017.

The loop seems closed—the Russian and the American, in pantomime or in dead seriousness, destined to oppose each other. It’s worth remembering, though, that on occasion the circle is broken—and never more so than when Washington and Moscow, the U.S. Army and the Red Army, joined forces to defeat Hitler in World War II. The U.S. diplomat George Kennan was in Moscow on the morning of May 10, 1945, when news of V-E Day, the unconditional surrender of Nazi forces to the Allies, reached the city. Young Russians joyfully marched through the streets, he recalled in his memoirs, and arriving at the U.S. embassy, the Stars and Stripes on display, they “stopped their march, and settled down to demonstrate before the embassy building feelings that were obviously ones of almost delirious friendship.”

But such moments are interludes; they stand out for being exceptional, almost incomprehensible, given the general character of relations between America and Russia. Perhaps the key to the mystery, on the Russian side, is a preoccupation with the idea of fate, an omnipresent thread in Russian life and literature. The belief that an unhappy relationship with America is in the cards, a matter of fate, can help make it so.

The last word goes to Artum, 32, a Spartak hockey fan, the red-and-white club scarf tied in a loop around his neck, his girlfriend Alexandra by his side as they stand at a table near the concession counters in VTB arena, the third period of an exciting game about to commence. I wait for him to finish his snack and then ask whether he thinks that an atmosphere of tension, a Cold War, always will be the organizing principle in the relations between his country and mine. Eto bilo, eto yest, e eto budet, he replies wearily in poetic cadence, but not in an unfriendly manner. “It was, it is, and it will be.”

Top Photo: Moscow’s modern skyline seems to have been constructed in emulation of Manhattan or Chicago. (ALEXANDER TOLSTYKH / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

Up Next
eye on the news

Unpacking Trump and Putin

Thoughts post-Helsinki Paul Starobin July 17, 2018 Politics and law

Contact

Send a question or comment using the form below. This message may be routed through support staff.

Saved!
Close