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7 February 2017

President Trump or: How Russians Learned to Stop Worrying and Came to Love the American Bomb

How Russians came to love the new US President and what the fluctuations in public opinion are indicative of

Russians have been following American President Donald Trump’s every move over recent months. Barely has a political process taking place in a foreign country ever attracted so much attention. His inauguration ceremony turned out to be the most memorable event of the month: 42% of Russians stated as much and almost half (46%) expect bilateral relations between the two countries to improve.

The president of the global hegemon, whose gravitas is recognized even by the leader of the rival superpower, suddenly announced that he wants the US to become an “inward-looking country” concerned with domestic affairs, casting aside global ambitions. At least, this is what he exclaimed during the first weeks of his presidency. Trump’s initial steps raise major concerns about the future of the world order among politicians and international security experts. The world is not as multipolar as leaders of many countries would like and America’s resignation from its position as “international sheriff” would significantly alter the balance of power. On the whole, ordinary Russians welcome the latest change of power in the US. A significant proportion of the population believes that American policy towards Russia is one of the key factors affecting life in the country.

The impact of the West and the fear of helplessness

It turns out that the US has a huge impact on the Russian national identity as the West’s image as an external enemy is an ever-present consolidating factor. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg: the crux of the matter is that Russia lacks socially significant assets created by its people. Citizens feel that they have very little say in the shaping of their own destiny, their town’s or their country’s which considerably inhibits their ability to understand global events. Research shows that only symbolic capital instills pride in the average Russian such as the country’s vast land mass or its abundant natural resources (Boris Dubin, a Russian sociologist, studied this phenomenon in detail in his paper: “The West, the border, a special path: symbolism of “the other” in Russia’s political mythology”). These attributes are referred to as the main assets of the country; the only Russian attributes to invoke envy in others. However, by no means do the aforementioned natural resources belong to the citizens of Russia; they were not earned by the people but were passed down through history. Often it is said that they belong to the abstract “people” which means that individuals have no right to exploit them. One cannot use these resources even if one wanted to since they are in fact at the disposal of others. Let me quote one of the participants of the focus group interview conducted by the Levada Center in May 2016 which clearly illustrates this widely-held belief:

“According to the Constitution, subsoil riches belong to the people but, in fact, a certain group of people…. At the moment, they are in the hands of a separate bunch of people who grossly profit from them”.

In this respect, the history of the USSR – a country characterized by a strong, industrialized economy – is an idealized example of a should-be-great superpower that we would be foolish not to aspire to. Today’s state has only one asset – people who can change things in the country. This change may well take place in the distant future, but today’s Russia occupies an axiological vacuum: neither a “Russian (Ruskie, whatever) dream” nor accumulated material wealth of the people exist.

The abstract “West” is juxtaposed with Russia in the mass consciousness and is therefore, the point of departure for self-identification. Attitudes towards the West are, more often than not, adopted in the absence of personal experience and hence, life abroad is often observed with a touch of peculiar confidence: “the law” works there the way it should and the state treats citizens with respect. The West seems holistic and therefore, in the eyes of Russians, its impact on life in Russia continues to be immense. The feeling of economic and cultural secondariness to the West creates demand for news about life abroad and Russian media outlets promote this topic as a key theme in the information field. The Russian media draws public attention towards foreign policy which consolidates Russian society in turn since Russia can boast of its status as a great superpower only in this sphere.

Younger and agiler Russian citizens who have had the experience of venturing abroad on holiday have far more positive opinions about Western lifestyle or the manifestations of which that first catch the eye: clean streets, welfare, observance of the law etc. Freedoms, business ethics and other institutions which are, in fact, the fundamentals underlying the external attributes of the pleasant life “there” remain unnoticed. At a time when no archetypal, virtuous life model is visible within the country, individuals turn to Western experience as a reference point, from the perspective of a passerby. Data from a nationwide opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center in March 2016 indicate that Russians tend to appreciate external manifestations of life in the West: high wages (53%), developed economies (31%) and the social safety net (23%). It is assumed that these attributes can be encompassed by the agenda of “Russia’s special path”. On the other hand, Russians clearly dismiss values related to the rights of minorities (3%) or trust-based relations between citizens (3%) as incompatible with the Russian mentality.

Moreover, the latter axiological fundamentals of Western lifestyle prompt hostile attitudes. Trump’s message is aimed precisely at discrediting values of liberal democracy, which could be one of the reasons for his popularity in Russia.

Similarities between Putin and Trump

There is no certainty regarding pro-Russian sentiments of the new president of the rival superpower present in the mass consciousness. Opinion polls, as well as qualitative research conducted in mid-January, suggest that caution and wariness dominate the attitude of Russians. The general mood is exemplified by the words of one participant of a focus-group panel:

“They promise pie in the sky in the beginning. We shall wait and see. Obama also promised mountains and marvels. We have to wait 2 or 3 years at least and only then we can expect any results”.

However, despite being the leader of the most hostile country in the eyes of the average Russian, Trump starts his term with a relatively high approval rating. Russians expect that Trump will adopt a “fresh outlook” similar to the Russian worldview and will remain independent of the American establishment which is believed to be the main source of Russophobia and militarism as propagated by TV networks. Unlike the elites, Trump is an advocate of conservative views. Respondents believe that “the majority of our people share Trump’s values”. The idea that Donald Trump is a self-made man and therefore independent from bankers and “Rockefellers” has become a springboard for the unfolding of a new chapter in Russian mythology.

Russians sympathize with the feeling of helplessness shared by those who voted for Trump. His most ardent supporters are ordinary, hard-working Americans who have had enough of oligarchs. The idea of personal independence plays an enormous role here as, given the lack of any sense of personal freedom, vulnerability in the face of difficulties becomes an obstacle to constructing a personal civic identity. Fear of having to surrender the remnants of one’s personal freedom along with the ability to maintain a modest standard of living are two of the main reasons why Russians are fearful of the shift of power in their country. It is widely believed that an abstract “government” and its related financial circles are most interested in weakening the position of ordinary citizens since those who are enslaved can be governed with ease. The image of Donald Trump, who managed to overcome resistance from the elites (and is, therefore, capable of standing up for the ordinary American), constitutes a projection of Russians’ own problems onto the political space of another country from whence they long to be presented with the solutions they so crave.

Another reason nationwide for the widespread rejoicing across Russia following Trump’s election is his outlook on US-Russo relations. Trump is attributed rational behavior by Russians: he is a businessman and therefore, you can come to an agreement with him. On the other hand, respondents do realize that the Russian leadership, made up of former security officers, has its origins in altogether different stock. Still, as a politician, Trump seems to be a suitable choice for our country. And this is not to say that second-guessing the new head of the oval office is expected to be child’s play. After all, the Obama administration was predictable and practical on the whole, as the history books will show. And yet, his administration is presented as the main source of all Russia’s ills by Russia’s state-owned media outlets in stark contrast to Trump who is lauded as the savior. It seems that the main reason underlying such elevated hopes is that Russia will be successful in finding a common language with the new US president. He is not expected to eulogize about the greatness of American ideology, perceived as hostile by the majority of Russians. He is motivated, first and foremost, by self-interest which means his actions are more easily explainable.

Russians are in no doubt that Putin and Trump will find a common language since they are both capable of ruling independently of hostile elites and the laws they impose. If we were to present a simplified picture of relations between the countries as seen through Russian eyes, it would be a no-holds-barred bout. Only leaders such as Trump and Putin can succeed in this lawless world in which the only binding prerequisites to cooperation are established in the form of private arrangements. Of course, the risk that the head of the country may have his own, selfish interests at heart is very real. Still, respect for the rule of law and commitment to high ideals seem far less important than a statesman’s ability to show “concern” for his people. Russians concede that people are better off not knowing the whole truth, otherwise “it will keep you awake all night”. Trump’s supporters are certain that policies pursued by successive state administrations were ill-advised. For many Russians, this is an all-too-familiar feeling: uncertainty about the future amidst an atmosphere thick with unspecified fear of distress or sudden deterioration in living standards. It seems that nothing could be more important than evading the looming disaster. Citizens are willing to turn a blind eye to political intrigues, non-transparency of sources of income as well as abundant concentrations of power in one pair of hands as long as hope exists that dire consequences can be prevented. Populism ends when fear of change is eclipsed by an eagerness to embrace it.

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