Fear and Loathing of Russia in the U.S.: Taking the Long View From Moscow


(This is an unpublished piece I wrote last fall after the final presidential debate but before the election. I have added two brief notes here to reflect the outcome.)


As a long time observer of U.S.-Russia relations, I can say that this presidential election has been particularly disturbing to me as I watch those relations deteriorate.


I remember getting my first absentee voting ballot while living here in Moscow in 2004. I actually printed out the transcripts of the presidential debates between Kerry and Bush in order to cast a more informed vote. Technology is more advanced now and I’m able follow the news on my iPhone daily as I commute.


I still make it a point to watch or read the debates for myself first, before being exposed to countless opinions telling me what I should think about what was said. After watching the final presidential debate, I felt that sharing my perspective might be of value to some. During that debate, Hillary Clinton said herself that getting Donald Trump to clarify his position on Russia was “the most important question of this evening.”


I got a glimpse of Russia before Putin came to power when I first came here 1999. Tensions between our two countries were running high due to the U.S. actions in Yugoslavia. I spent that first summer in Smolensk, a city on the beautiful Dnepr river near Russia’s western border. I was impressed by the quiet strength and will of the people, who were in the middle of overcoming the challenges caused by the most recent banking crisis. I remember talking to a nurse who told me that she and the other hospital workers had been working for months without pay so that people wouldn’t die. This was very different from the sheltered world I had grown up in in the U.S.


Since then, many things have happened to affect the way Russians and Americans view themselves, their country and their leaders. Olympics have come and gone. So have presidents, although Putin came back. There is conflict with Ukraine. There have been terrorist attacks, both here and in the U.S. I have accompanied groups of Russian students to Ground Zero in New York City. I remember the day a bomb exploded in the metro line I take here, killing 41 and injuring hundreds. Beyond that, I get emotional just hearing the words Beslan and Nord-Ost’.


It is worth noting that the first leader to call the U.S. president after 9/11 to offer condolences and support was Putin. When the U.S. entered Afghanistan, Russian support was invaluable. When the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Russia and France cautioned against the decision. At the time, France took the brunt of American criticism for cowardliness with the absurd “Freedom fries” movement. That Iraq was a mistake is now recognized by all parties, whether they now admit to feeling that way at the time or not.


I have seen Russians participating in their local elections many times. Yes, national security is a concern but as boring as this might sound, the average Russian is more interested in schools, roads, healthcare and jobs, much like Americans. Unlike Americans, most Russians seem to be pretty happy with the job their president is doing.


The absurd circus of Russians and Americans failing to make sense out of each other really struck me recently on a live talk show on one of Russia’s State controlled TV channels. They showed a clip of Hillary Clinton’s appearance on ‘Between Two Ferns’ with Zach Galifianakis. Although the translation was accurate, the humor was lost on the Russian studio audience, who shouted down the lone American trying to explain that it was comedy.


Unfortunately, in many parts of the world the U.S. has a reputation for abusing its role as the lone superpower by being uncompromising and unapologetic. It’s hard to imagine us overcoming that image by electing a billionaire who essentially embodies those traits. (Note: We elected him.)


If we as a people have so much trouble choosing our leaders, why should we expect the rest of the world to be happy with those whom our government has propped up through regime change? There’s a strong case to be made that the U.S. and Russia should be working more closely together to ensure peace and stability in the world.


During this election cycle, it occurred to me that all of my grandparents, and great-grandparents for that matter, were born into a United States that did not even allow women the right to vote. Both of my grandmothers were small girls in 1920 when congress passed the amendment ensuring them that right. I find this significant as there’s a good chance, for better or worse, that our next president will be a woman. (Note: We didn’t elect her.)


Russia will be a different country within a generation. So will the U.S. The foundation for future mutual trust and cooperation between our countries has been much eroded during this election by candidates playing the so-called ‘Russian card’ for short term political gain. Simply put, complimenting Putin loses votes. Whatever reasons my fellow Americans have for voting for the candidate of their choice, fear of Russia should not dictate how they vote.


This week I got my 2016 absentee ballot. I will vote. Regardless of who wins the election, I will continue to work from where I stand towards more mutual understanding between our two countries with hope for a brighter future. In a democracy, not everything depends on the president.


Billy Roper Added Mar 20, 2017 - 9:29am
Autumn wrote to me asking that I make longer, more in depth comments, so let me address people's fear that relations between the U.S. and Russia may worsen. It's true, there are some on the left who seem intent on war. Such a conflict could result in W.W. III.
In all likelihood if W.W. III starts in 2017, it also will end in 2017, or at lease will rather quickly devolve into smaller scale and localized conflicts as spin-offs of the precipitating global conflict. Many people consider the Chinese or the Russians as our potential adversaries in the next global war, forgetting that a dozen other countries also have the capability of literally knocking the United States back to the nineteenth century, creating societal collapse, economic depression, and political civil war through the use of just two or three high altitude bursts of nuclear weapons which would create an Electro-Magnetic Pulse and fry most of the electronic circuitry in the U.S.. Modern automobiles, airplanes, trains, trucks, computers, cell phones, and electric power grids would go down, and stay down. Imagine what would happen if the lights went off and stayed off, and food and fuel deliveries ceased nationwide?
India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea all have nuclear weapons, along with the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., and France. Those are the ones we know of. A third party state or a terrorist organization could use such an attack to trigger a conflict between one of the major powers, in fact. So, you don’t just have to worry about the guys in the Kremlin or Beijing, you have to worry about anybody who can fly a plane with a bomb on board high enough to get their 72 virgins. A corporate jet, which is large enough to carry an atomic bomb of any size, can reach a flying height of 50,000 feet. That’s about 9 1/2 miles. That same small corporate jet could easily reach 52,800 feet, or ten miles, before its engines lost compression in the thinner air and could no longer produce the necessary thrust to climb. A burst at a thirty mile altitude would cause EMP disruption in a 480 mile radius. That’s out of the reach of airplanes, and would require an inter-continental ballistic missile to pull off, restricting the actors to the U.S., Russia, China, and Israel. But a high altitude nuclear burst at ten miles up, carried by an aforementioned corporate jet, would cause an EMP effect of over 100 miles radius.
One would take out everything from Richmond to Baltimore, including the nation’s capitol. Another could knock back to the horse and buggy era both Philadelphia and New York City. You get the picture. How many of these might it take to trigger the collapse and balkanization of America through the absence of Federal power and authority? Some day, some body might let us find out…
target="_blank">5 Places World War III Could Start in 2017
Bill Kamps Added Mar 20, 2017 - 1:18pm
Nathan, thanks for the article.  My first visit to Russia was in the 1980s, when the Soviets still ran the place.  To say the differences are unbelievable is an understatement.  My first trip to the Gum most of the stores were empty, they may have had the odd pair of shoes or a coat, but effectively nothing was in the very plain stores.  Now of course there are all the designer stores like Calvin Klein and Versace.  My  first visit to Russia lasted three weeks, and I never saw a menu, we ate what we were given.  At that time the whole country was run on the black market, which was pretty amazing given the scope of things.
I think what most people in the  US dont understand is the Russian frame of mind, because their history is so different than ours.  They are constantly paranoid of everything, people, their government, and other countries.  So many  times their questions of me started out, "if it is not a secret", because everything there IS a secret. 
I was always treated better than the local Russians.  When my US passport was seen I was moved to the head of the line at the airport, when I went with a Russian into an office building, security examined his documents, while I was waved through.  They were always more suspicious of their own, than they were of me.  More than once walking on the street with a Russian, we were stopped by local police ( probably to shake down the Russian ), and when they saw my US passport they apologized and waved us on.
They also have a strong national emotion, as the term "Mother Russia" is something very real for them.  These things combined, paranoia and a strong desire to been seen as strong on the world stage should guide how we behave towards them better than it does.
Im sure it annoyed them greatly that the US said that Sochi was a security  risk during the Winter Olympics.  As a tourist I could not image a more safe place than Sochi during Putin's Olympics.  It was not necessary to piss him off by saying that city was dangerous.
Another example. I was astounded when the US meddled in the Ukraine elections, and then was upset when the Russians took the Crimea.  The Russians allowed the Ukraine to have the Crimea as long as it was in favorable hands, as soon as the West wanted the Ukraine in NATO, the Russians had to take it back.  Just like we would take Panama back, if it were ever threatened.  I think the West provoked the Russians to give them a black eye, I cant believe they didnt realize they Russians would take the Crimea which is their only warm water port.
Europe outspends Russia on defense about 4:1, and the US another 10:1, it is difficult to believe the Russians want a real war with the US or Europe.  However, they will react, as they did in the Ukraine, if we push their buttons.  Putin having gotten as rich as he has, has a lot to lose with a real war, though threats of war serve his domestic purposes, as they do the leaders in the US.
Nathan Eyre Added Mar 21, 2017 - 2:15pm
Thank you Bill Kamps and Billy Roper for your reactions to my piece.  I hope you enjoyed it and even if you didn't, I hope it at least made you think.  There were several things in your responses that either reminded me of something funny or got me thinking.  

First of all, in your response (Billy Roper), you wrote "Imagine what would happen if the lights went off and stayed off, or if food a fuel deliveries ceased nationwide?" I instantly had a flashback of my first New Years in Russia, back in 1999-2000 that just happened to coincide with the widespread panic connected with the Y2K bug.  I remember being in a room a room full of Americans in Moscow in late December that year where we were told straight up that we're better of in Russia.  Back home in the U.S., panicking crowds of people were stockpiling water and supplies, even building bomb shelters.  We were told to imagine the worst possible scenario of the Y2K bug wreaking havoc - no electricity, water, gas, transport interruptions, etc. And then we were told, half seriously, something to the effect of "Well, welcome to Russia. The apocalypse could happen and half the country wouldn't notice." Russians are survivors, man!

And Bill Kamps - your response was both refreshing and informed.  It's rare that I read such a balanced and realistic take on Russia from a fellow American (I guess I'm assuming you're an American.) Your experiences coming to the Soviet Union before I got here are in line with everything I've heard since living here.  Were you really able to go to Sochi as a tourist during the Olympics? I'm jealous. I haven't been there since 2002 and I've heard it's grown a lot.  I was thinking of volunteering as a translator, like I did at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but I couldn't get off work in Moscow. If you click the word Olympics in my article above, there's a link to a piece I wrote during the Olympics at Sochi that was published in The Moscow Times.
Linguistically, the phrase 'If it's not a secret... ' to begin asking someone about something in Russian has survived, but it's really lost the sinister vibe for the most part.  You're spot on when you talk about the U.S. meddling in the politics of Ukraine as a precursor for Russia taking back control of Crimea.  It's baffling to me that more Americans just don't get that.
The term 'Mother Russia' does indeed still carry deep meaning for most Russians.  They have a joke that they're the kind of people that will spend hours and hours complaining about how bad thing are here but will punch any foreigner in the face if they agree with them. I love this beautiful, crazy, misunderstood country!
Note: I've never done Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram or any other social network until I signed up for Medium less than a month ago (mainly to comment on The Ringer about the NBA and comic book movies).  I've found myself responding there to a wider variety of articles than I anticipated and my wife is already starting to complain about the time I now spend writing. This is just to say, I don't expect to be on WriterBeat very often. Thanks again for reading and responding to my piece!
Dino Manalis Added Mar 21, 2017 - 5:02pm
Russian meddling and hacking should be investigated, but we ought not go bonkers over the Russians either, they seek respect as a world power and better relations.  While we have to warn them against aggression, we need to engage Moscow on global challenges to resolve them more effectively and efficiently.
Lady Sekhmetnakt Added Mar 21, 2017 - 6:09pm
It's nice to see an intelligent article about Russia for a change instead of the usual evidence-free accusations of hacking and "election tampering" (especially hypocritical coming from Americans who have tampered in the elections of at least 30 foreign countries). The people and lifestyle there is indeed different, but with some basic commonalities. I've never been, but as I've said before I have a good friend who lives there (a retired US Marine Co. originally from Texas) who's been there since the democratic revolution so I've had, as they say, the inside scoop, on what actually has happened in places like Georgia and Ukraine, versus the American mainstream media propaganda. It's funny how so many Russians speak English but so few Americans speak Russian. Or even understand their feelings and culture as opposed to the ridiculous media representations presented for mass consumption in the states. 
Stone-Eater Added Mar 22, 2017 - 7:02am
Good comment as usual.
I think what most people in the  US dont understand is the Russian frame of mind, because their history is so different than ours.  They are constantly paranoid of everything, people, their government, and other countries.
Not only in the US, in Europe too. When people would travel more with open minds instead of playing consumer addict the world would look probably much differently.
Stone-Eater Added Mar 22, 2017 - 7:03am
BTW Nathan - thanks for that good article.
Bill Kamps Added Mar 22, 2017 - 9:45am
The USA has the good fortune to have huge oceans on either side of it, which even in this day of missiles, isolates us from a lot of annoyances.   Of course the oceans also isolate us from reality. Recently the US held Army exercises with the Polish, which the people in the US just assume is a yawner, just army games.  The Russians react very differently, imagine if the Russians held army  exercises in Mexico, or even Nicaragua, it would not be a yawner. 
I'm also amused when our press decries that some Russian jet buzzed one our destroyers in the Black Sea.  They never say WHY our destroyer is in the Black Sea, and although those are international waters, it is still at the least provocative.  Imagine if Russian surface ships were in the Gulf of Mexico ?  Of course its all a game, but the media as usual  misses what is really going on.
Yes Nathan, I am from the US, but have traveled a lot, and been to Russia many  times.  I was lucky to go there in the 1980s several times, not only to Moscow and St Pete, but to Siberia, Lake Baikal, and all the way to the far east where Russians look like the Chinese.
During the 1980s, when we wanted a bottle of vodka at our dinner table in the hotel, "some guy" had to take up a collection and then he disappeared into the night and came back with the bottle.  This is contrasted with visits after 2000 when we could go to high end restaurants like any place in Europe.  
My first visit there, my friends were worried over my personal safety, and I have to say, other than the kind of concerns one has in any large city, I never felt unwelcome or unsafe, either from the government or the people.  Quite the contrary, everyone was at least curious to meet someone from the US, since in 1985 meeting someone from the US was rare, and the security and government people have always been more than polite, they have enough problems without instigating problems with foreign visitors.
Sure the "if it is not a secret" expression is not really sinister these days, its more a polite way of asking, "if you dont mind", but an expression still very foreign to US ears.   In the 1980s we also heard a lot of "it is not possible", that still makes me laugh. 
Jeffry Gilbert Added Mar 22, 2017 - 10:08am
Back in the day I rode a load of surplus grain from St Rose Lousyana to Batumi Georgia former Soviet State. We were supposed to be there a week but ended up being there almost two months due to constant equipment breakdowns in the Port facilities. After two weeks all but two of us were living ashore with some Russian girl and commuting to the ship to stand watch. $2 for champagne. Don't recall much else. I liked the Russian people and did so again some years later when we took 40 combines to St Petersburg.
Bill Kamps Added Mar 22, 2017 - 10:34am
Jeffry, also had the champagne, but it was always warm. I dont remember the cost, but it wasnt much.  Funny the beer was warm also, and the claim was that it tasted better warm than cold.  We found a way to cool some down, with one of the floor minders in the hotel, and sure enough, it was better warm than cold.  Sometimes they know !
Lady Sekhmetnakt Added Mar 22, 2017 - 1:20pm
Bill I highly doubt that the American pressitute mainstream media outlets miss the points you mention by some shortsightedness. It's more by deliberate design.