New Old Frenemies: How Russia and the U.S. Have Been Influencing Each Other

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Amidst the deepening confrontation between Russia and the U.S., Rethinking Russia sat down with the professor of the European University in St. Petersburg, Ivan Kurilla, to discuss his new book “Frenemies” and the way of how Russia and the U.S. have been influencing each other throughout history.       

Rethinking Russia: “Frenemies” — what do you want to convey with the title?

Ivan Kurilla: This title is an attempt to point out to the fact that Russia and the U.S. have been both very intertwined and sort of interdependent throughout history. I mean Russia and America were both friends and ideological opponents.  This slightly contradicts the perception that we have little in common.

RR: Your book reminds a sort of a historical chronicle portraying prominent cultural and political figures and celebrities who contributed to the development of U.S.-Russia relations.  

I.K.: Yes, the most part of the book presents personal histories, although there are some stories, where historical figures are secondary. Throughout my scholarly experience (studying documents and monographs) I came across many amazing personal stories. Usually, they are included only in the footnotes of an academic research paper. It is difficult to include them in an academic book.  But because I collected so many stories and they were so exciting, I cannot help using them. Eight years ago I presented these stories in my personal blog at the Live Journal platform and in Facebook.

I updated the blog once per week and published both the results of my research and the stories found by my colleagues with references to their works. Finally, I collected about 200 different stories and came to an idea of writing a book.  Of course, this book is not the same what you can see in my blog: first, I had to select these stories and, second, edit them. Besides, it was very difficult to come up with a book concept and bring the stories together into one narrative.

RR: Your book is for a wide audience: it helps Russians and Americans better understand each other, but it is only in Russian so far. Do you plan to translate it into English?

I.K.: There are two aspects — technical and substantial. Technically, there is the publisher, who might be interested in it and who might find partners. In this case, the English version of the book will get the green light. Substantially, for the English-language audience, I would like to rewrite the book to update with new stories and delete irrelevant ones.

The main content would remain the same, but when we are talking about U.S.-Russia relations with Russians and when we discuss this topic with Americans, some stories should be presented in a different way. But a better tactic is to change the collection of these stories. One should tell Russians and Americans those aspects about each other, which they don’t understand.

RR: In the introduction to the book, you said that its content is “not only the result of my academic research, but also the retelling of stories found by colleagues, Russian and American ones”. Who influenced you most?   

I.K.: It is my close colleagues — Professor Viktoria I. Zhuravleva of the Russian State University for The Humanities and Professor David Foglesong of Rutgers University in New Jersey [their works are dedicated to the concept of “Significant Other”, according to which Russians and Americans have been perennially comparing themselves with each other to better understand their own countries — Editor’s note].

But the idea of this book comes from the work of Russian cultural historian Alexander Etkind “The Interpretation of Travels: Russia and America in Travelogues and Intertexts”: I liked the very opportunity to tell about U.S.-Russia relations through the lens of personal stories and people contacts. My book brings together the stories found by British Historian Tony Swift (the narratives about the 1930s Soviet exhibition in New York), my American colleagues Kenneth Shewmaker and John Lewis Gaddis (the stories about Ambassador George Kennan), Norman Saul, Nikolai Bolkhovitinov, Alexander Nikolyukin and Vladimir Petchatnov.

Of course, this book would not get the green light without the academic heritage in the field of U.S.-Russia relations, created by my predecessors in Russia, the U.S. and other countries.  A popular book can be released only if there are enough academic works to rely on.

“A dialogue between the present and the past”

RR: Those authors who write about the past frequently look at the present and inadvertently draw parallels between history and current times. Did you try to do it in your book?

I.K.: Yes and no. Historians don’t like when somebody tries to project the events of the past onto the present. After all, they are very sensitive to historical method: they do understand that even the same phenomena, which took place 200 years ago, resulted from absolutely different circumstances and motivations, and the contexts were different. A historian would always point out to the differences between the present and the past.

On the other hand, any historical book is a dialogue between the present and the past. We are interested in the historical past because we want to resolve the current problems. That’s why my book responds to modern challenges through the lens of the events of the past.

RR: You argue in your book that some Russian authors criticized the American slavery (“And you are lynching Negroes”), but at the same time Russia itself was under serfdom. Does it looks like “whataboutism” — the attempts of propagandists to discredit other countries and chant vocally about their problems to distract attention from the problems in their own country?

I.K.: In the 19th century it was vice versa: Russian authors pointed out to the problem in a country to attract attention toward the same domestic problems in their country, not to distract. Criticism of the American slavery by Russian liberals was a tool of putting a spotlight on the serfdom in Russia, because it was prohibited to criticize it overtly.

Regarding the term “whataboutism”, I have a mixed view on it. On the one hand, propagandists indeed used the tactic “And you are lynching Negroes” frequently to legitimize the problems in their own country. On the other hand, denying the existence of the problem by calling it whataboutism is not quite correct as well: segregation and violence against blacks was a serious problem in the American South for a long period of time. At the same time, problems in Russia won’t disappear if we fairly point to American challenges.

Oddly enough, but the problems in Russia and the U.S. are the same despite the differences in their political systems.

RR: How have the mutual images of Russia and the U.S. changed since the 19th century?      

I.K.: The images of Russia in the U.S. and the images of America in Russia have been emerging and evolving, but then we return to the same point where we started by walking in circles.

What Americans wrote about Russia, say, in 1813 can be seen in today’s texts. New generations don’t change old images over others, but add something new. As a result, these images become more complicated and multi-layer. The old perceptions created 150 years ago will remain part of a new image, and they might become relevant again if necessary.

RR: Russia’s diplomacy is good in creating troubles for a foreign diplomat, but it never insults him or her, according to American Ambassador Neil Brown you quoted in your book. Today’s diplomacy works differently and can insult foreign diplomats easily, as indicated by the Russia-West confrontation and the Skripal case, specifically. Do you agree?

I.K.: What we are witnessing today looks like a refuse to observe the rules of the 19th century diplomacy. In the 1800s, the Russian diplomacy was the diplomacy of a European power, which didn’t use an insult against other countries and foreign statesmen. Today’s diplomacy looks like the one of the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks used different diatribes against the Western countries in their propaganda.

RR: Is it common only for the Russian diplomacy or for the West as well? After all, one could say that Russia has to respond to the unfriendly policy of the West.

I.K.: When we are in the state of conflict escalation, it is not a matter of finding the guilty. It is a matter of finding an opportunity to stop [the escalation]. Diplomatic escalation might turn into total disruption of relations, and at worst it may lead to a military clash. I don’t think we are interested in it. Somebody should be the first to stop, but politicians are afraid of losing their face. This is the classic scenario of the international conflict escalation.

The War of Images, soft power and conspiracy theories

RR: In your book you also mention the October 1951 issue of Collier’s Weekly magazine, which presented a worst-case scenario of the nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Today journalists and experts frequently talk about the possibility of the World War III, with the usage of nuclear weapons. You could remember the BBC2 faux documentary “The World War III: Inside The War Room”, which describes the Russian attack on one of the Baltic states and provoke a nuclear weapon. Does it look like an attempt to create buzz and fuel fears amidst the recent attack of the U.S.-led coalition on Syria’s Damascus and Homs and Russia’s threats to shoot down American missiles over Syria?   

I.K.: Even when this issue of Collier’s Weekly was released, some readers saw it as exaggeration, not as a real prospect. I took this story from David Foglesong’s latest book American Mission and The ‘Evil Empire’.

I don’t want to talk about the possibility of a new global war, but today we have the post-war generation of politicians, who were born after the World War II. They are afraid of war to a lesser extent, because they knew about it from myths and stories, not from their experience.

That’s why this generation has a different attitude toward war: We frequently hear about the possibility of using nuclear weapons from some politicians: although they are not political leaders, but they enjoy power and make decisions.

Meanwhile, the Brezhnev generation consists of front-line soldiers. In the 1970s those who fought at war and experienced it personally were at the helm. That’s why the fear of a new war was one of the main drivers of maintaining the international stability. Probably, because people got through the World War II, the humanity could resolve the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and prevent other international conflicts from spinning out of control and leading to grave implications.

Today, in the case of another Cuban Missile Crisis, I would not rely on the reason of today’s political leaders. And my misgivings should not add up to Russia and the U.S. Hopefully, crazy politicians are fewer in the upper echelons of power than reasonable ones.

Yet even though one might portray oneself as crazy, it could be done for political goals. It doesn’t mean that one is ready to press the nuclear button. Nevertheless, life today is full of alarm.

RR: Historical characters presented in your book are either positive or negative. Some contributed to improving U.S.-Russia ties, some led to the worsening of their relations. Take as an example the story about an acorn from the oak, which grew over the grave of President George Washington: Americans brought it as a gift to the Russian Emperor and sowed it in the town of Petergof. This was a shining example. Do we have such examples today? Are there any political or cultural figures, which could bring together Russia and the U.S. in such difficult times?      

I.K.: Everyone contributes to creating stereotypes and everybody does it in his or her own ways: these stereotypes may be both negative and positive. Positive stereotypes about Russia usually deal with culture.  Petr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is still popular in the U.S., especially during the Christmas. Americans are still reading the Russian literature. American Russophiles are those who initially translated or studied Russia’s literature.

Improving relations between two countries partly resulted from cultural exchanges, which changed mutual perceptions of Russia and the U.S. about each other after the dark period of the Cold War.

Thus, culture, science and education are what bring us together. I hope for them, not for politicians. Scholars understand each other better than diplomats, while the language of culture is easier to understand than the language of diplomats or militaries.

The closure of the Russian and American consulates is a blow to cultural exchanges, first and foremost. The U.S. closed the Russian embassy in Seattle. In response, Russia closed the American consulate in St. Petersburg — in the city, where a lot of attention was paid to cultural exchanges.

RR: Well, soft power and public diplomacy can help, yet they suffer most from political differences. The British Council was closed because of the Skripal case in 2018, the American Center in Moscow was kicked out from the Foreign Literature Library in 2015, the Future Leaders Exchange program (FLEX) was closed in 2014, cutting off Russian high school students from the opportunities to visit the U.S.

I.K.: It seems to me that somebody read the theory of soft power and came to an idea that cultural exchanges may pose a threat, and it is necessary to fight with it. It was not common in the 1950s, when Igor Moiseyev’s Soviet Folk Dance Ensemble was performing in the U.S. and Canada.

However, some journalist could give bizarre reviews: They were forced to dance so well, because they would have been sent into exile if their performance would not have been good enough. Or this one: These artists obviously work for KGB, they trained to perform well and succeed.

Of course, nobody in political circles took it seriously: They didn’t see Moiseyev’s Dance Ensemble as a threat to security.

Today some politicians see an opportunity to recruit and conduct espionage behind exchanges. Yet it is not about culture at all. There is no reason to fight with the culture of a foreign country; there is no need to fight with exchange programs.

If Russians know better the American culture, it doesn’t mean that they will become unpatriotic. Likewise, if we popularize the Russian culture among Americans, it doesn’t mean that an American will turn into a Russian spy.  It seems to me, that some understand the idea of soft power wrongly.

RR: Do you mean that political elites are under the influence of conspiracy theories?

I.K.: I don’t think that all representatives of our elites believe in conspiracy theories. But unfortunately, they are popular to pursue propaganda goals. They easily explain all problems. Who knows, but probably somebody might have already started believing them if Russia’s television talks everyday about a plot against your country. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are increasing both in Russia and the U.S.

In Russia, it is related to the fact that a lot of representatives of law enforcement agencies are among the ruling elite. Looking for a plot everywhere is a matter of their professional background. In America, the growth of conspiracy theories results from Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential race and the Kremlin’s alleged interference into the 2016 U.S. election. Of course, the scale of Russia’s influence is highly exaggerated in an attempt to discredit Trump and prove that he is not made in the U.S., but “imported” from Russia. Moreover, some seriously believe that Trump is a Russian spy. Another wave of the buzz around this topic is gone, but it still remains on the agenda.

Thus, with conspiracy theories, it is easier to resolve the national identity problem within the country. In fact, today conspiracy theories are getting through their golden era both in Russia and the U.S. Everything that is related to post-truth is also about conspiracy.

Influencing and changing each other

RR: The third part of your book deal with the mutual influence of Russia and the U.S. What impact have they been having on each other since the 19th century?

I.K.: First and foremost, American is a country with a great number of emigrants from the Russian Empire and then from the Soviet Union. This fact should not be underestimated. In the U.S., you can meet people, who know that their great-grandparents lived in Russia.

To a larger extent, Russia’s influence on America could be found in culture. People, who were born in the Russian Empire, founded three out of four Hollywood studios. Irving Berling, a famous American composer, who created all American popular music of the 20th century, was also born in the Russian Empire.

We should not forget about the influence of composer Petr Tchaikovsky, writers Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov: Americans are still studying them and this also has an impact on their perception of Russia.

In addition, Russia influenced the United States through images. For the U.S., Russia has been what historians call “America’s Constituting Other” since the 19th century. Americans use Russia as a negative example in their discussions very frequently: Russia is what America has not been. In fact, Americans have been building their political system as an opposite to what they saw in the Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union: it is “an opposite influence”.

Likewise, we can see the same trends in Russia. I mean the attempts to build the national identity by contrasting itself to the U.S. The Soviet Union and then Russia saw America as the “Constituting Other”, from which Moscow keeps alienating itself, but it wants to copy the U.S. in some ways at the same time.

RR: How does the U.S. influence Russia specifically?     

I.K.: If Russia had a cultural impact on America largely, America had an industrial influence on Russia first and foremost. There are two key aspects: the intellectual influence and the impact on Russia’s infrastructure. After all, the Russian industrialization is based on American technologies, including on the U.S. railroad system, which is so unique and different from the European one.

The American Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was brought to Russia by George Washington Whistler, an American engineer in St. Petersburg and the main railroad consultant for building the St. Petersburg-Moscow Railway.  He brought the drafts of his previous projects, and his railroad became a standard in Russia.

The great project of the Soviet Union’s first five-year plan — the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Company, the Nizhny Novgorod Car Plant, the Stalingrad Tractor Plant — are based on the American technologies and brought by the American engineers who were invited to the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

As a result of his trip, Soviet Secretary Nikita Khrushchev brought not only corn in the Soviet Union, but also the first Soviet supermarkets. All attempts of the Russian authorities to modernize the country and make a leap forward economically and technologically rested upon American technologies (Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev or President Dmitry Medvedev after his trip to the Silicon Valley tried to do it).

The second aspect of the U.S. influence on Russia is related to the fact that America had been a utopia for Russian reformists and revolutionaries. They and their other generations — from Alexander Radishchev and Decembrists to Soviet dissidents and even today’s opposition leaders — have been viewing the U.S. as an alternative throughout history.

According to their perception, America was the country, which implemented their ideals (which was not necessarily the case). Anarchists believed that America was an anarchic country and it didn’t have the centralized government. Those who fought for technocracy said that America is a technocratic country. Russian reformers and revolutionaries ascribed to America those characteristics, which, they believed, Russia should have.

America as a model country is still having an impact on today’s Russia, after 200 years: For example, we have the president. In the 19th century, monarchs ruled countries, while presidents were only in the U.S. In addition, we have a two-chamber parliament and a legislative assembly, which initially appeared in America. We can ignore it, but this is the political and social influence, the U.S. is still having on Russia.

Interviewed by Pavel Koshkin, a research fellow of the Institute of the U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

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