As a freelance writer, I’ve written hundreds of articles or poems that have never graced anyone else’s PC screen but my own. I revisited one I wrote in 2014 right after Malaysia Airlines #17 was shot out of the sky and crashed over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed. Sanctions ensued. And acrimony and finger-pointing. Then Time magazine printed an article that stopped my eyes on their page. After which I delved into Russian-American foreign relations. I tried to place this article with an editor; she thought it a quality piece but not right for their venue. A freelance writer often cannot find a place for all their words, especially in the early years. I’ve given up trying to place this one, sharing it here so it doesn’t disappear.
Hate of America is “spoon-fed to Russians along with mother’s milk.” This assessment came from editor-in-chief of Russia’s only independent news channel in 2014 after President Obama authorized sanctions against Russia for their illegal annexation of Crimea and provocations in Ukraine. When I read this in Time magazine, I had a déjà vu moment. On Sept. 11, 2001, I wondered, Why do they hate us so much?
There are few experts (alive and unbiased) able to explicate historical events that have led to present day Russian-American relations. This essay is not meant to be an exhaustive summary of those relations. However, as a student of life and an American, I endeavor to go beneath the surface of what I see. I normally avoid talking politics because it invariably leads to hot collars. But I’m sharing research on Russian-American relations here, with the goal of widening the aperture through which we view the world stage. The world is a kaleidoscope; it’s crucial that we not be color-blind.
Charles Bohlen wrote a 220,000-word tome, A Witness to World History. Bohlen had a close-up view of history from 1929 to 1969 as a specialist in Russian Foreign Affairs. He headed three embassies during that time –in Paris, Manila, and Moscow (the latter opened in 1934 after President Franklin Roosevelt extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union). Bohlen’s book is one of a few main sources for the following summary of key issues.
Communism/Federation/Managed Democracy versus Capitalism/Democracy
The Russian Revolution of 1905 was a rebellion by the working class against the ruling Czars and minority of rich elitists of that period. Sound familiar? Marie Antoinette’s fabled phrase, “Let them eat cake,” referred to the starving masses of the poor in France. Vladimir Lenin led the Russian Revolution, founded the Russian Communist Party, and was the architect of the Soviet state, one of 15 SSRs (Soviet Socialist Republics) which formed the USSR. The Soviet state being the largest, it wielded power out of Moscow.
Under Communism, the government controls property and major industries. Although Lenin was viewed as a champion of the common worker, his vision of a socialist utopia involved imprisonment of political enemies, large-scale famine, and liquidation of the peasantry. Under Lenin and his successor, Joseph Stalin, “The Purge” (arrests, execution, or forced exile of perceived enemies of the state), as well as starvation and forced relocation (think: Trail of Tears and the Cherokee) resulted in an estimated 30-60 million lost lives.
Capitalism and Democracy organizes society around individual rights and a free market; with citizen participation (directly or indirectly) in proposal and creation of laws. Capitalism, while promoting individual rights, also breeds greed; as you will note in the subsequent summary about the war machine of WW II and the greed of American car companies. Both Communism and Capitalism have their pros and cons. Americans believe in freedom and democracy. But there are hundreds of thousands of American citizens living in squalor, starving or malnourished, denied equal opportunities. And let’s not forget that the formation of America’s democracy was borne of genocide (First Nations peoples) and its economic system was built on slavery (Africans brought here against their will and forced to work for no pay).
Geography and Climate
Russia is the northernmost large and populous country in the world. Its second-largest city lies at latitude 60o ‑‑the latitude of the southern tip of Greenland. Russia’s topography consists of mountains, deserts, vast forests, and no barriers against the onslaught of Arctic air. Winters in Russia are long, dark and bitterly cold; resulting in a short growing season, which makes it impossible to grown enough food to feed its population. (Note: Ukraine, with its rich soil and agrarian lifestyle, declared its independence when the USSR broke apart in 1991.) The United States’ climate is conducive to long growing seasons; and is able to take advantage of great expanses of land suitable for farming.
Russia’s vast oil and gas resources are relied upon by Europe. This continues to be a factor in the stabilization (or end) of the E.U. as we know it – a union of 28 countries awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for keeping a mass of 503 million people in relative harmony. Anti-E.U. sentiments have been building for years, with richer nations unhappy about supporting poorer nations; and some view the arrangement as “a meddling by outsiders” in their national affairs. On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Energy stated (pre-Trump era) that the U.S. could be energy independent by about 2040. Clearly, continued investment in renewable forms of energy (wind, solar) are crucial to energy-independence.
The industrial revolution reached the U.S. in the 1800s, bringing with it changes, good and bad. Considering the focus of this article, let’s consider the dark side of America’s technology. Documents in the National Archives indicate that Ford and General Motors continued to do business with the Nazi regime rather than divest themselves of their German assets. Automakers have been implicated in playing a key role in Hitler’s invasion of Russia during WW II. Documents in German and American archives show that both auto companies converted their German plants to military production – including production of parts for the Wunderbomber, a key weapon in the German air force ‑‑ and relied on forced labor at their German plants.
On forced labor at German auto plants: Elsa Iwanowa brought a class action suit against Ford Motor Company in 1998. Iwanowa was 16 years old when she was abducted from her home in the southern Russian city of Rostov by German soldiers in 1942 with hundreds of other young women who were forced to work at a Ford plant in Germany. Although the auto makers deny culpability, documents show that their American parent companies continued to do business with the Nazi regime, defending their strategy because their German operations were highly profitable.
Americans can access just about any type of media anywhere in the world. Not so for Russians. Just ask the members of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot; band members were jailed after their 2012 anti-Putin performance. After almost 2 years in jail, they were released when they became internationally famous – and in advance of February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi (2014). Russia’s media outlets are tightly controlled by the government. Russian citizens hear and see what the government wants them to. They do not see pictures of corpses after a Malaysian airliner was shot from the sky, corpses lying in wheat fields or in the bedroom of a Ukrainian home after crashing through its roof (as shown in Time’s article, “In Russia, Crime without Punishment” http://time.com/3028057/in-russia-crime-without-punishment/ ).
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has a public had an approval rating of 86% in 2014; a clear indication that the Russian majority desired a strong leader, someone in sharp contrast to the Yeltsin years filled with what some called chaotic freedom, lawlessness and too much interference from the West – specifically the “American menace.” Though Putin’s approval rating has dropped about 20 percentage points, he is “trusted” more than other Russian politicians, according to a Reuters article in early 2019.
According to Russians, Americans make them look bad at every opportunity. From Tom Clancy’s 1984 Hunt for Red October to the 1986 film, Top Gun, Russians are depicted as the bad guys. And let’s throw in one of the Rocky movies for good measure; the one where the steroid-hyped boxer kills the American superstar boxer, Apollo. In need of a bad guy for a movie or television show? Just add a Russian.
Proud American: Menace or Hero?
I am proud to be an American. I also recognize that America has messed up in some grossly egregious ways.
How one views being an American depends upon where you stand. In countries where Americans are the first on the scene after tsunamis or earthquakes, we are heroes. In countries where American-made weapons are used against its loved ones, we are the bad guys.
Individualism reigns among Americans. But collectively, we are viewed as one.