Written by Stepan Serdiukov, PhD student in History
What roles do U.S. and Russia play in each other’s public imaginations? This is what Ivan Kurilla, Professor of History and International Relations at European University in Saint Petersburg, focused on in his March 5 talk at Woodburn Hall 101. Dr. Kurilla started his career as an Americanist by studying Daniel Webster, eventually publishing a monograph about the Massachusetts senator’s vision of American foreign policy. His second book investigated U.S.-Russian relations from the 1830s to 1850s. Ivan Kurilla’s research interests extend to historical politics of Russia at the federal and the local level, as well as history pedagogy.
Frenemies emerged out of Kurilla’s most recent research on the ways in which Russia and the United States have constructed their own national self-identifications by using each other’s image. Kurilla argued that in the process of such construction, U.S. and Russia have long used a “constitutive Other;” that is, they have defined their identities not by emphasizing what they, as nations, stood for, but in opposition to an image of the rival power. Initially, for both countries such an “Other” was the generalized Europe. In American public politics, it acted as a stand-in for everything the United States left behind (mainly, autocracy and anti-republicanism), while Russia’s rulers and intellectuals of all classes looked at the totality of their Western neighbors as worthy example of technological and political development. Slowly, by the late 19th century, Russia—as the easternmost European country—emerged in American eyes as the epitome of European despotism and decadence. Kurilla noted that this portrayal, grounded almost exclusively in political rhetoric, depended on the relative transparency of Russia’s autocratic institutions to American observers. On the contrary, China throughout the 19th century was mostly described in cultural terms—a veritable country of philosophers.
At the same time, Russia’s idea of the United States evolved in a different direction. Initially, Russians applied the term “American” exclusively to Native Americans. Dr. Kurilla supported this by recounting the story of Count Fyodor Tolstoy, a nineteenth-century adventurist nobleman who returned from a circumnavigation covered in Tlingit tattoos, thus earning the lifelong nickname “The American.” The ideals of the Enlightenment—in particular, the “noble savage”—gave rise to a long Russian tradition of an explicitly positive portrayal of American Indians on one side, and to an equally enduring perception of the United States as a place of liberty, on the other. For instance, Aleksandr Radishchev, a late 18th century social critic and resolute opponent of serfdom, had an extremely positive view of the American Revolution.This strain of Russian thought in which the United States was an aspirational political example continued with the Decembrists, who took the U.S. and the Massachusetts constitutions as models when writing their drafts of Russian basic law before the 1825 uprising. Despite the mostly positive orientations toward the United States, Professor Kurilla emphasized that none of Russia’s thinkers, including some later thinkers such as Mikhail Bakunin, had a first-hand experience of the United States; in fact, they learned most of what they knew from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (available to educated Russians in its original French). Almost all of these thinkers projected onto the United States their own political aspirations, from constitutional democracy to anarchy.
Kurilla discussed another important facet of Russia’s imagining of America: that of a paragon of industrial development. This one came from the tsarist regime itself. In the 1830s and 1840s, Emperor Nicholas I and his advisers, determined to close the development gap between Russia and its rival powers in Europe, sent abroad a mission of engineers to shop for new technology. In Britain they were naturally rebuffed, but they were welcomed in the United States, which soon sent its own mission of technical specialists to help build Russia’s first public railroad in 1851. Kurilla argued that this episode served as a major turning point in American public self-reassessment as a nation of inventors: it earned a mention even in some American school textbooks at the time. Meanwhile, the Russian view of the U.S. as a tech powerhouse, an example to emulate, endured and evolved, eventually giving birth during the early Soviet period to a curious but contextually appropriate slogan “Socialism is Soviet power plus the Fordification of the entire country.”
Several episodes in U.S. history in the 19th century served in Kurilla’s talk as further illustration of his principle point about the usage of Russia’s image in the U.S. as a means of achieving internal political goals. One such episode occurred during the War of 1812 when Boston merchants, suffering under the British blockade, organized a series of dinners honoring the recent victories of Russia against Napoleon’s armies. This gesture was less about actually praising Russia’s military successes than about protesting President Madison’s conduct of the war. In a manner of speaking, the strategy succeeded: the pro-war factions publicly scorned the Boston merchants for glorifying a British ally, sparking a renewed discussion of the war’s merits. Another example of the U.S. using Russia to achieve internal political goals dated from the American Civil War. The only European power to openly support the Union, Russia sent part of its fleet to New York in 1863. Kurilla pointed out that for Alexander II’s government, this was not just a show of goodwill towards the Northern cause, but also an excuse to keep warships on the high seas so that, in case of war, they may rapidly engage with the British fleet, then highly feared by a Russia still reeling from defeat in Crimea. The Russian fleet incident became a point of reference in future cycles of US-Russia relations, appearing in American public discourse again and again: did Russia really mean well then or was it just a strategic calculation?
After 1877, the collapse of the Reconstruction in the South prompted another moment of American collective soul-searching in which Russia’s image turned up useful. American explorer George Kennan, having witnessed firsthand the brutality of tsarist forced labor system in Siberia in the 1880s, started a public awareness campaign to expose it, introducing to his compatriots the notion that Siberia was “the prison of Russia,” thus lending credence to the representation of Russia as an arch-autocratic state. Professor Kurilla argued that this campaign, in part, helped restore many Americans’ belief in the righteousness of their polity. Mobilizing to condemn the worst excesses of the Russian penal system reassured the liberal public in the face of the unraveling efforts to bring equal rights to the former Confederate states.
In the final stretch of the lecture, Kurilla discussed the twin conspiracy theories popular in the United States and Russia during the Cold War and beyond. Specifically, Kurilla discussed the Russian pamphlet called “The Dulles Plan” and its American counterpart, “Communist Rules for Revolution.” Both described supposed secret plans of the rival power to corrupt the nation’s youth and take power in the ensuing chaos. Both theories derive their authority from blatant hoaxes, but according to Prof. Kurilla, their essential sameness is emblematic of how persistent the need for a constitutive Other has proved over time in both American and Russian political discourse. He concluded with a brief analysis of the current media portrayal of the alleged ties between Donald Trump and Russia. Kurilla argued that this episode represented (regardless of whether the allegations are true) the latest crisis of American national identity, the one reliable symptom of which is, once again, the use of Russia as a screen on which the public anxieties about internal political change are projected. Conversely, another example of contemporary mirroring in U.S.-Russian relations occurred in 2011-2012, when Vladimir Putin and the state media alleged that the U.S. was behind the popular protests against electoral fraud.