After a brief fling with democracy and post-9/11 solidarity with the United States, Russia seems to be slipping back onto more familiar ground. The present leadership has reinstated government-controlled mass media and de facto one-party rule, announced a new super bomb, inserted more spies into the U.S., and played bad cop with the Ukrainians in their recent election. Democratic and capitalistic reforms genuinely frighten many conservative Russians, who worry about losing their distinctive thousand-year-old culture. Indeed, both Americans and Russians have treasured and emphasized our differences so often that we have difficulty believing that we have anything in common. While enormous dissimilarities between us continue to strain our relations and cannot be dismissed, we do share a surprising number of common features in history, foreign relations, attitudes toward each other, and contemporary challenges. Reviewing a few of them provides grounds for dialogue that is sorely needed by both sides.
Mutual Viking Heritage
One of the first significant parallels is our common Viking heritage. Most Russians know the legend of how Slavic and Finnish tribes in a.d. 862 tired of their constant fighting and asked Varangians (Vikings) from a tribe known as Rus to govern them. In its early years, Russia was closely connected with Europe through the Hanseatic league, was prosperous, and was astonishingly democratic, having powerful town councils that could hire or fire the local princes. Tragically, Russia’s integration with western Europe and its fledgling democracy were brutally crushed by the thirteenth-century Mongol/Tatar invasion and has never fully recovered.
All Americans, even those not directly descended from Scandinavians, share in the Viking legacy. Vikings from Denmark began invading England late in the eighth century, occupied a large territory called the Danelaw in the ninth century, and by a.d. 1016 the Danish King Canute ruled all England. Americans should know that Normans under William the Conquerer invaded England from northern France in a.d. 1066. But most do not realize that these invaders included the descendants of Scandinavian Norsemen, who had invaded and settled northern France a century earlier, about the time that the Rus were settling into the Slavic heartlands. Like Russia, England was brought closer to the rest of Europe by these energetic warrior Vikings.
From this mix of Scandinavian, French, and Anglo-Saxon cultures eventually evolved the English Parliament, its limited monarchy, and constitutional democracy, which heavily influenced American political life. The Normans also significantly affected Americans’ language: English vocabulary is roughly 50 percent derived from French, which the Norman ruling class spoke.
Victorious Frontiersmen: Cossacks and Cowboys
The frontier played a large role in both Russia and America: we had our “wild west,” and Russia had their “wild east” in Siberia. In both, Europeans sought furs, minerals, and vast tracts of unmapped land, using firearms to overwhelm diverse tribes of less technologically developed natives.
Much of Russia’s east was won in the second half of the sixteenth century by Cossacks under their leader Yermak Timoveevich during the reign of Ivan IV (“the Terrible”). Many of these free spirits protected their independence by forming semi-religious military brotherhoods and became known as kazakhi (Cossacks). Yermak’s Cossacks were enlisted to defeat scattered remnants of the Tatar Empire, after which they pressed deep into the Siberian forests, encountering many tribes that looked similar to the natives of Alaska and the American Southwest.
Cossacks developed an impressive reputation for martial competence and were eventually recruited by the Polish and Russian governments. No longer integrated as distinct units in the Russian army, they nevertheless retain much of their distinctive culture of music, dance, festive dress, religiosity, arms, political conservatism, and strident nationalism occasionally bordering on xenophobia.
In America, serious exploration of the western half of the continent began 150 years later, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery.” While they were dedicated to peace and science, their successors—American frontiersmen, cowboys, and settlers—often were not. Native Americans naturally resented the encroachments of settlers, ranchers, and railroaders. Conflicts were frequent, but even with guns to supplement their Stone Age weapons, Native Americans suffered defeat after tragic defeat just as their Siberian cousins did. The resulting decay of both Native American and Native Siberian cultures has developed similar problems of minorities needing considerable intervention to achieve even a semblance of social equity in both countries.
American cowboy culture began very differently, but evolved similarly toward its Cossack analog. In the nineteenth century, many Americans, including runaway Black slaves, sought a better life in the great plains of the West as ranchers, ranch hands, and farmers. Unlike the Cossacks, they formed few formal regional brotherhoods. But like the Cossacks, they often took up arms to protect or to raid hostile governments (Mexico) and natives; they formed temporary local volunteer groups (vigilantes and posses) to protect themselves. Their culture is no less distinctive than the Cossack culture, but it has proved even more popular and also has developed its own distinctive music, dances, festive dress, religiosity, culture of firearms, political conservatism, and strident nationalism occasionally bordering on xenophobia.
Slavery and Emancipation
Russia and America both have shameful histories of slavery. In both countries, having an excess of land and limited manpower to work it, elites turned to forced labor, which turned out to have enormous cost and inefficiency in the long run. Likewise, in both countries, slave holders doubted the humanity of their slaves. In both, slaves enriched the literature and music of their countries. Russian authors, such as Pushkin, learned both Russian language and folktales from their peasant nurses; Americans are equally indebted to African-American slaves and their descendants, who invented the banjo and popular musical styles such as jazz, ragtime, blues, and rap.
Certainly there were differences; rich Russians enslaved their fellow peasantry (serfs), while Americans imported African slaves, who differed from them culturally and racially. Another difference was that serf families were seldom separated and most remained on the land where they were born, so serfdom was perhaps less disruptive and pernicious than was U.S. slavery. However, nothing in America compares with the shockingly extensive use of convict labor in Soviet Russia in the 1930s and 1940s, when up to ten million Russians were enslaved.
Russia’s history of slavery began in the mid-sixteenth century under Ivan the Terrible and his erratic, oppressive policies, heavy taxation, and endless wars. Peasants fled to Cossack bands in the borderlands beyond the reach of his agents. Ivan and his successors reacted to the ensuing labor shortage by restricting and then eliminating the age-old right of peasants to move from one noble’s lands to another’s, making them the personal property of the nobles on whose land they lived and subject to landowners’ demands for labor and crop sharing. Efforts to do away with serfdom began among the Russian intelligentsia early in the nineteenth century and reached a critical mass in the late 1850s.
America’s descent into slavery also began in the sixteenth century, with Portuguese and Spanish landowners enslaving Native Americans and Africans to work in the West Indies and Latin America. African slaves were first brought into England’s southern colonies in 1619 to work large plantations of tobacco, cotton, and sugar. By the late eighteenth century, many authors of the American Constitution saw slavery as a dangerous evil that would have to be eliminated, but plantation owners had become dependent on slave labor. They angrily resisted efforts to end it and continued to do so into the nineteenth century, when abolitionists organized societies and a network of safe houses called “the underground railroad” to help slaves escape to freedom in the northern states, where slavery was illegal.
Abolition of slavery in both countries involved several parallels. In both Russia and America, authors wrote popular fiction showing serfs and slaves as sympathetic fellow humans. In Russia, Ivan Turgenev wrote A Huntsman’s Sketches, depicting a nobleman’s encounters with variously capable and sensitive serfs whose lives are blighted by serfdom. In America, Harriot Beecher Stowe performed a similar service by writing the maudlin but wildly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s work stirred such emotion that Abraham Lincoln is said to have commented when he met her, “So this is the little lady that started the big war,” in reference to America’s bloody Civil War.
The two emancipators also had interesting similarities. Tsar Alexander II, whose father Nicholas I was one of Russia’s most tyrannical rulers, became Russia’s most liberal tsar. A remarkably sensitive and far-sighted autocrat, Alexander instituted sweeping reforms of the judiciary, the military, regional government, censorship, and serfdom. Arguing that it was better “to eliminate serfdom from above rather than risk its elimination from below,” Alexander II ended serfdom in 1861, earning the title “Tsar-emancipator.”
His government paid landowners for half of their land and gave it to the serfs, who were charged to repay the government within forty-nine years. Under Alexander II, Russia was the only major European power to ally itself with Lincoln’s Union government during the Civil War, while England and France both quietly aided the Confederacy. After emancipation, freed serfs faced problems not unlike those faced by freed Blacks. Russian’s were divided in their reaction to the reforms, and in 1881 a disgruntled radical assassinated Alexander II with a bomb. He was succeeded by his alcoholic son, Alexander III, whose reactionary policies more closely resembled those of his narrow-minded grandfather.
President Abraham Lincoln was an able speaker but only a moderate opponent of slavery. War broke out within three months of his inauguration, and he endured fierce opposition not only from the Confederacy, but from members of his own government. Showing remarkable restraint and grace under pressure, Lincoln steered the Union during months of military defeats to a sufficient victory that allowed him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
He promised “malice toward none, with charity for all,” at the end of the Civil War and pledged reconciliation with the defeated south. Like Alexander II, however, he faced a deeply divided nation. Less than three months after his second inauguration in 1864, Lincoln was shot by disgruntled southerner John Wilkes Booth, thus suffering the same fate as Alexander II. Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson, whose efforts to continue his liberal policies were thwarted by a radical Congress vowing revenge on the South.
Religious Diversity and the Protestant Ethic
The U.S. is a religious and religiously diverse country that has benefited from the work ethic and independence fostered by Protestant Christianity. Russians are not generally a church-going people, but they do have an interesting history of religious diversity that positively affected their secular history—albeit to a far lesser extent than America’s.
In the mid-seventeenth century, a powerful Russian Orthodox patriarch named Nikon decided to bring his church’s ritual closer to its Greek roots by revising the liturgy and other practices. This precipitated a violent reaction from conservative Orthodox faithful, led by Archpriest Avvakum, whose followers came to be known as Old Believers or Old Ritualists. They were vigorously persecuted by Russian authorities, who equated rebellion against the state church with rebellion against the state; they burned Avvakum to death and executed or exiled thousands of his followers.
Russians are not generally a church-going people, but they do have an interesting history of religious diversity that positively affected their secular history . . .
Survivors fled into the northern Ural forests, Siberia, and the Cossack borderlands, playing a role in settling these remote areas reminiscent of that played by American religious groups such as the Puritans, Quakers, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the American wilderness. Old Believers in the wilderness soon found themselves short of priests, so most congregations learned to function without clergy. This had a curious result; these most conservative of Russian Orthodox faithful began to study their scriptures, to think for themselves on religion, and to create their own theology and religious leaders. Over time they split into many different sects with intriguing names: “Wanderers,” “Spirit Wrestlers” (Dukhobors), “Jumpers,” etc. These numerous, persecuted sectarians never achieved the political power and freedom to operate that many Protestant groups did in the rest of Europe and America. Some scholars claim that roughly half of Russia’s population could be called Old Believer or some other sectarian at the time of the Bolshevik coup in 1917.
Furthermore, these Russian free-thinkers developed character traits reminiscent of the Protestant ethic: independence of mind, a vigorous work ethic, healthy skepticism about government authorities and high society, and respect for books and study. Many of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries’ wealthiest Russian businessmen were from those groups, and several became important patrons of the arts.
Several groups emigrated to China, Brazil, and Alaska, and Tolstoy donated the entire proceeds from one of his last novels, Resurrection, to help the Dukhobors emigrate to Canada. A few Old Believers eventually found their way to Woodburn, Oregon, where some of their men displayed the Cossack penchant for speed, roaring around in pick-up trucks, while wearing colorful, handmade Russian shirts, and speaking seventeenth-century Russian.
Many of the first permanent European settlers in America were Protestants seeking greater religious freedom in the wilderness of America. Community movements like the Quakers, Amish, and Shakers settled large tracts of land east of the Mississippi, and later, thousands of Latter-day Saints trekked west of the Mississippi to settle the Great Basin.
This diversity among the earliest settlers provided the rationale for Americans to include guarantees of freedom of conscience in their Bill of Rights. Writers like Max Weber have noted that traits fostered by Protestantism such as diligence and individual responsibility have fostered capitalism, and some see these same traits as important to American national character. Although religious diversity played a much greater role in America than in Russia, Weber has said he would not be surprised at the over-representation of Old Believers among Russia’s prominent capitalists of the nineteenth century and a similarly large fraction of Old Believer descendants among the membership of Russia’s growing ranks of nontraditional religious groups, including the Church.
National Unity and Good Neighbor Policies
Russia is the largest country in the world, and only Canada and China compete for second place with the U.S. in sheer size. Russia stretches across eleven time zones and the U.S. across eight, if Alaska is included. This enormous expanse has insulated Russians and Americans from contact with other countries, often allowing them to forget the existence of other countries and their ways of looking at the world. As a result, both countries have uneven relations with their smaller neighbors, but globalization is rapidly reducing the life expectancy for this geographically induced amnesia.
Enormous expanses challenge both countries’ national unity. Even with airlines and the Internet, Vladivostok is far from Moscow psychologically, just as more separates California from New York than simply physical distance. With their relatively low population densities, both countries have attitudes toward land use that seem unbelievably wasteful to citizens of Japan or England, where land is scarce and population is large. The huge, under-populated open spaces in eastern Siberia attract enough Chinese and other Asians to worry the Russians, while Hispanics continue to stream across the sparsely populated southern border of the U.S., straining established communities’ ability to assimilate them.
Most Russian college students appear to be studying English, but monolingualism and ethnocentrism will be slow to disappear in either country. It is true that Russia long ago passed the U.S. in foreign-language study, having more teachers of English than America has students of Russian, and it is rapidly increasing and diversifying in linguistic expertise. The U.S., on the other hand, is worse than many Third-World countries in terms of the number of students enrolled in foreign language, and our national interest in foreign language and area programs continues inexplicably—and irrationally—to shrink.
Vast size also confers some advantages. Both countries have immense natural resources and environmental diversity. Together with their military power, size makes both Russia and the U.S. hard to ignore in political alliances; it is not news that both countries are core states in their regional alliances and will be for many years, although with challenges. America is of course dominant in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), although its former hegemony is now challenged by several members of the European Union (EU).
Russia, the core state of Orthodox culture and of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS, the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic states), is now locked in a little-noticed, but important, three-way struggle with Islamic fundamentalists and with Turkey for the hearts and minds of the resource-rich southeastern CIS tier, consisting of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The U.S. and Russia will both continue to have enormous influence in their respective alliances.
Messianism is to be expected in large core states. Russia lost interest in saving the world about when the current American administration rediscovered it. Both countries, however, have long histories of fervent messianism in their foreign policies.1
In a.d. 1480, Russian Tsar Ivan III (The Great) refused to pay the Tatar Khan his usual tribute, beat up his emissaries, and freed Russia from two centuries of Tatar yoke. Ivan and his advisors understandably felt that Russia was then the leader of the true Christian world, because the former capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire and headquarters of Orthodoxy—Constantinople—had already fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Accordingly, Ivan announced that the First Rome had fallen to barbarians, the Second Rome (Constantinople) to Turks, but the Third Rome—Moscow—still stood, and a Fourth there would never be. This messianic idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” leader of civilization and Christianity, was met less than enthusiastically by fifteenth-century Roman Catholic Europe, but it played well in Russia for a long time, because it was, and remains so today, the most powerful Orthodox country in the world.
Russians’ feelings of their messianic destiny were strengthened by the Napoleonic wars. When Napoleon’s “Grand Army” finally retreated from Russia, suffering disastrous losses—90 percent of his men were dead. Europeans, grateful and surprised by Russia’s victory, were charmed by the handsome, cultured Alexander I, who proposed a Holy Alliance of monarchs that would relate to each other and their people in a Christian manner. This did not turn out to be the wave of the future and retarded the growth of democracy in Europe, but it seemed like a good idea after France’s revolutionary chaos and dangerous aggression.
And the messianism of the “Third Rome” and the “Holy Alliance” had to be repackaged when the Bolsheviks seized power in the bloodless October 1917 coup. Their propagandists christened that event the Great October Revolution, announced that the tiny Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was the “vanguard of the proletariat,” the “mind, honor, and conscience of humanity,” and that the USSR (in which Russians always played the leading role) was destined to apply Marxism/Leninism and lead the world to a brighter communist future.
Stalin tarnished that millennial role with his purges and gulags and further besmirched it by signing a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. However, when Hitler’s armies attacked Russia, the Soviet Army eventually defeated them on the eastern front at the cost of over eight million military deaths and seventeen million civilian ones (compared with U.S. losses of under a half million military deaths and only a handful of civilian ones). That costly victory confirmed Russians’ view of themselves as the “Shield of Europe,” having defended Western Civilization from the Tartars, Napoleon, and Hitler.
American messianism began with its earliest European settlers and has ebbed and flowed through its history. Puritans in seventeenth-century New England saw themselves as refugees from a sinful world, preparing to build in their new American home a millennial kingdom as prophesied in the Bible. Framers of the U.S. Constitution believed they were engaged in a divinely favored quest—momentous for the whole world.
They inserted evidence of that into the Great Seal of the United States, printed on the back of each dollar bill. The reverse of the seal bears two pregnant Latin phrases: the first, is “Annuit Coeptis,” interpreted loosely as “Providence has favored our undertakings.” The other is “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” meaning, “A new order of the ages.” In 1850, Herman Melville wrote, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people, the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. . . . Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves, and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah had come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings.”2
In that same century, Americans repeated the slogan “Manifest Destiny” to justify the United States’ acquisition of western territory stretching to the Pacific Ocean. In the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke of America as a divinely “chosen nation” much as President Woodrow Wilson spoke of America’s destiny to save the world. America’s crucial role in WWII and subsequent role as a nuclear-armed leader of the West confirmed those impressions among a broad spectrum of Americans.
The failures of first fascism and then communism by the end of the twentieth century inspired many Americans, including Francis Fukuyama, to see constitutional democracy—pioneered by the U.S. constitution—as the only viable ideology left in the world.3 In that spirit, President George W. Bush’s administration has begun the twenty-first century convinced of “a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.”4
Even casual observers will note the demand for Russian and U.S. messianism tends to lag behind the supply, and successful messiahs use some tactics not involving heavy ordnance and “boots on the ground.” Unsurprisingly, Europeans view both Russia and the U.S. skeptically, seeing both as difficult outliers of European culture. Charles de Gaulle is said to have dubbed Russia le barbar primitif and the U.S. le barbar civilisé.
Part of the trouble is that both countries are not only huge and powerful but have actually had the temerity to implement radical, regime-threatening political philosophies long discussed theoretically and without bloodshed in European coffeehouses and journals. The 1776 American Revolution applied the major ideas of the Enlightenment, intrigued European intellectuals, and shook the anciens regimes of Europe to their foundations, sparking the French Revolution, which resulted in the Napoleonic wars that devastated Europe and retarded its progress toward democracy.
Eventually, Europe followed America’s lead in establishing democratic regimes, and U.S. assistance during and after WWI and WWII gained many European friends. Nevertheless, anyone who has traveled widely in Europe notes that few Europeans are as fervent as Americans are in their support of democratic nation-building, much less such old European ideas as fundamentalist Christianity and laissez-faire capitalism.
“Russia lost interest in saving the world about when the current American administration rediscovered it.”
Russia’s 1917 Communist coup intrigued and frightened Europe no less. Fearing that liberal democracy was too weak and slow to combat the communist menace, eleven European countries elected facist governments in the following decades, and almost all had influential fascist parties. After the Axis powers fell in 1945, most European countries not controlled by the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact joined NATO to protect themselves from Soviet aggression. The solidarity of NATO in the post-war years was due at least as much to European fear of Russia as it was to admiration for America. And since the USSR fell apart in 1991, NATO support for American policies is no longer a given. The EU still looks upon Russia with enormous skepticism, and despite temporary alliances with some members over such issues as opposing the American attack on Iraq, no one expects the EU to accept Russia as a full member anytime soon—it is simply not “European” enough.
Faust Redeemed: Sakharov and Oppenheimer
Russia’s and America’s roles as nuclear superpowers do not require recitation. Less well known, however, are the parallel biographies of the two remarkable physicists who successfully led their respective countries’ nuclear programs. Both were gifted theoretical physicists with deep concern for the fate of humanity. Both came to entertain serious doubts about the ability of their respective governments to responsibly handle the deadly weapons they had devised. Both became activist dissidents, distrusted by their governments but respected by some of their most thoughtful peers.5
J. Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and popular teacher at the California Institute of Technology and at the University of California—Berkeley. Despite some misgivings in the Federal Bureau of Investigation about Oppenheimer’s leftist political contacts, in 1942, the U.S. government asked him to recruit and to direct hundreds of physicists and technicians for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, developing the world’s first atomic bomb. Awed by the successful detonation of the first test nuclear device, Oppenheimer cited a line from the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”
After two atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became skeptical of U.S. officials’ ability to properly handle the destructive power he had given them, and as chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, 1946–52), he became one of the most vocal international proponents of civilian control of nuclear power. For technical and humanitarian reasons, he strongly opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1953, he was suspended from the AEC as an alleged security risk, which stirred widespread controversy but did not prevent his appointment to head the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University in 1954. He died in 1967, respected for his contributions as a theoretical physicist, a gifted administrator, and a moralist of the nuclear age.
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was born in 1921, seventeen years after Oppenheimer. From 1948 to 1956, as Oppenheimer was helping to restrain nuclear programs and opposing the development of a hydrogen bomb, Sakharov led the Soviet Union’s successful development of that same thermonuclear weapon. Soon thereafter, however, he began to voice doubts about the Soviet government’s policies. For over twenty years, he was the Soviet Union’s most prominent and courageous advocate of democratic reforms and human rights.
After opposing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he and his articulate wife, Elena Bonner, were exiled from Moscow and placed under house arrest in the city of Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) but continued to speak out, sometimes using hunger strikes to gain attention for civil rights. They were pardoned in 1986 by Mikhail Gorbachev’s government and allowed to return to Moscow. Sakharov was elected to parliament in 1989 and died that same year—mourned throughout Russia as its very conscience.
Despite years of Cold-War hostility, Russians and Americans value many aspects of each others’ culture, including music and literature. Interaction between the two countries is surprisingly robust. Music unites Americans and Russians as much as any other single factor. American classical music lovers appreciate Russian music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as much as Russians love American jazz and popular music.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is a favorite with many American children, and Peter Tchaikovsky’s the Nutcracker has become an essential part of Christmas in America. Indeed, Tchaikovsky may be the single most popular classical composer for Americans. Russians who lived through the Soviet era fondly remember the liberating and deliciously naughty reputation of American jazz provided by the Voice of America. Today, Russian elevators and restaurants play more American than Russian popular music. Even in this era of disappointment with Western culture, large Russian cities constantly display colorful advertisements for visiting American popular musicians.
Russians are avid readers and educated Russians claim to love James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, and Sinclair Lewis. American youth seem to be reading less in general, but few get through college without at least some exposure to Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was recommended by Oprah Winfrey in summer 2004 and found its way onto nearly every airport and grocery store bookshelf in America.
American critic George Steiner agreed with four of the nineteenth century’s keenest observers—Astolphe de Custine, Alexis de Tocqueville, Matthew Arnold, and Henry Adams—who all believed that Russian and American writers of the nineteenth century resembled each other more than the Europeans with whom they were constantly comparing themselves. Steiner found nineteenth-century Russian and American writers not only had much in common, but they were deeper and more intense than European writers of that era, he asserted:
The history of European fiction in the nineteenth century brings to mind the image of a nebula with wide-flung arms. At their extremities the American and the Russian novel radiate a whiter brilliance. . . . The masters of the American and the Russian manner appear to gather something of their fierce intensity from the outer darkness, from the decayed matter of folk-lore, melodrama, and religious life. . . . [The] confrontation with Europe gives Russian and American fiction something of its specific weight and dignity. Both civilizations were coming of age and were in search of their own image. . . . In both countries the novel helped give the mind a sense of place.6
Does appreciation of elements of each others’ culture translate today into generally positive mutual attitudes—despite all our differences and Cold-War tensions? Recent research at Brigham Young University (BYU) and at Udmurt State University in Izhevsk, Russia, suggested that the answer is yes. BYU Professor Scott Smith and student M. Scott Durrant surveyed over a thousand Americans in nearly every state in 2004. They collaborated with Russian colleagues doing similar research among residents of the central Russia province of Udmurtia. They discovered that Russians and Americans both hold generally positive views of each other, but both believe that their counterparts are less positive about them. They also found that younger Russians are somewhat more negative than their elders. Unsurprisingly, those of any age who have had the most contact are the most positive about the other.7
Despite years of Cold-War hostility, Russians and Americans value many aspects of each others’ culture, including music and literature.
All this gives reason for cautious optimism about the thousands of Americans and Russians now involved in academic, business, government, religious, and private civic contact with each other. Russia may be off the front pages of our newspapers, but interaction is booming, as evidenced by the following:
1) International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a U.S. academic nonprofit organization, and the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR) both list online well funded U.S. academic programs for American and Russian students and faculty at the secondary and college level to travel to each others’ countries to study, teach, and research.
2) The Library of Congress’ Open World Russian Leadership Program brings over 2,000 young Russian civic leaders to the U.S. annually for two-week home stays organized by various U.S. organizations. BYU’s International Center for Religion and Law participated in this program, hosting three different delegations interested in freedom of conscience issues.
3) Sister Cities International, a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network, lists online over 100 pairs of American and Russian cities and facilitates long-term, citizen-to-citizen exchange. Local representative, Jennifer Andelin, recently announced that Salt Lake City will become a “friendship city” with Izhevsk, Russia, the capitol city of a region prominent in petroleum and armament production.
4) BYU, drawing on former missionaries, has the largest undergraduate Russian program in North America, and many of its students find ways during and after their studies to return to Russia for academic, business, civic, and religious purposes.
5) Utah Valley State College (UVSC) is home to the Utah–Russia Institute (URI), headed by Rusty Butler, UVSC vice president and Honorary Consul General of the Russian Federation. URI organized last year’s Moscow–Utah Youth Games involving six hundred Russian and Utah athletes, brought dozens of important Russian visitors to Utah, and continues to facilitate academic and humanitarian exchanges with Russia.
The Spirit of Vsechelovechnost
Pressing, contemporary problems faced by both Russia and the U.S. offer numerous opportunities for cooperation. Both are preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and the conflict between security and civil rights. Both are struggling to integrate resident minorities and immigrants pouring across their southern borders. Both are fighting drug abuse, organized crime, AIDS, environmental pollution, and corporate fraud. Both seek better health care for the underprivileged, affordable energy, and improved education.
A classic strategy of conflict resolution theorists is to get opponents to work on a common problem. Without dismissing the enormous differences in our histories and governments, the current shared problems suggest many legitimate areas for cooperation on governmental, academic, civic, and personal levels.
One of the highest values of Russian intellectuals is vsechelovechnost, which is translated as “valuing all humanity.” That is another parallel that American church-goers, especially members of the Church, share with many Russians. In the spirit of vsechelovechnost, perhaps examining our similarities is a small step toward overcoming petty nationalisms, myopic views of realpolitik, and the current drift toward a familiar but self-defeating hostility.
1. Jewett, Robert and John Shelton Lawrence. “The Biblical Roots of American Messianism,” The Bible in Transmission, Autumn 2003.
2. Melville, Herman. White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War, The Writings of Herman Melville, the Northwestern-Newberry Edition, Vol. 5, Chicago, Northwestern University Press and Newberry Library, 1970, p. 151.
3. Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man, New York, Avon Books, 1992.
4. “President Thanks Military, Guests at ‘Celebration of Freedom’ Concert,” The Ellipse, Washington, D.C., 19 January 2005, http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/01/20050119-15.html#.
5. Davis, Nuel Pharr. Lawrence and Oppenheimer, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1968.
6. Steiner, George. George Steiner: A Reader, New York, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 101, 103.
7. Smith, Scott M. “A National Survey of Perceptions About Russia and Russians,” Professional Communities and Development of Integration Processes between Russia and the USA, April 2004
Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, New York, Vintage Books, Random House, 1966.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster Touchstone Books, 1996.
Johnson, Paul. Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties, revised edition, New York, Harper Collins Perennial Classics, 1991.
McNeill, William H. A World History, 3rd ed., New York, Oxford University Press, 1979.
Miliukov, Paul. Outlines of Russian Culture, Part I: Religion and the Church, translated by Valentine Ughet and Eleanor Davis, New York, Perpetua Books, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1942.
Nemirovskaya, Julia. Inside the Russian Soul: A Historical Survey of Russian Cultural Patterns, 2nd ed., San Francisco, McGraw-Hill Primis Custom Publishing, 2001.
Vernadsky, George. A History of Russia, 6th ed., New Haven, Yale University Press, 1961.