A productive history

Over the course of 40 years studying Russia, I have noted the prevalence of stereotypes about the country and its people. In carelessly-researched books, five words are prominent: "medieval," "feudal," "backward," "barbaric" and "exotic." These assumptions arise from pure ignorance, with the result that Westerners are often as wrong about Russia and the Russians as Europeans were in the 16th century, when it was widely believed Russians worshipped a golden woman and the country was full of strange creatures like the "baronet," a vegetable lamb. Stereotypes, however farfetched, may sometimes contain a grain of truth - but far more often they blind us to reality.

In America we have short memories. We have forgotten that, from the first days of our republic until the beginning of the 20th century, we enjoyed excellent relations with Russia. Yet no two systems could have been more different than an ancient autocracy and a young republican democracy. Russia was not branded as congenitally "aggressive" or "expansionist." On the contrary, friendship between the land of the tsars and our young republic abounded; the United States considered Russia one of its firmest supporters in the international community.

John Quincy Adams was our first ambassador to Russia. Boston maintained close trading links with Russia and a fleet of American ships regularly sailed from a place still called "Russia Wharf." Friendly relationships peaked in the 1860s and 70s during the reign of Emperor Alexander II. Known as the "Tsar Liberator," he instituted many social, economic and political reforms in addition to his crowning achievement, the liberation of the serfs, in 1861 - an object of respect and even veneration in the U.S. In 1860, Alexander II wrote admiringly of the United States as "presenting a spectacle of a prosperity without example in the annals of history" and corresponded with President Abraham Lincoln. And in 1863, when Alexander sent Russian ships to New York and San Francisco to support the Union, Lincoln referred to these visits in his Thanksgiving Proclamation as "God's bounty of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate the heart." During these decades, Russian interest in the United States greatly increased. Russians read the works of our famous authors, soaked up American adventure novels and learned names of our states, cities and rivers. When in 1871 Alexander sent his third son, Grand Duke Alexis, on a goodwill visit to the United States, America exploded with enthusiasm. Not to mention our purchase of Alaska at a bargain price in 1867.

These years of good feeling and cooperation came to an abrupt end with the Bolshevik Revolution (with a brief hiatus during World War II) and an expansionist, hostile Marxist-Leninist ideology that called us the "enemy." The Soviet regime mounted a relentless propaganda assault, attempting to destroy the image of Imperial Russia and falsify history. It is ironic that stereotypes encouraged by the Soviet regime were to find a more permanent life abroad than in Russia itself. The U.S.S.R. often used the visa as a weapon, granting foreign academics permission to work only in archives and on subjects that were approved, creating a class of American "Kremlinologists" who went on to advise our political leaders. In fact, in the United States "Russian" and "Soviet" were used as synonyms, blinding our eyes to their important difference and gradual changes taking place before the regime collapsed.

The militant ideology that called us enemy is gone, yet we are still mouthing Cold War "truths" which distort the way we understand Russians. Russia is today undergoing wrenching change, coping with physical, psychological, ecological and economic problems. The outcome is still Transunknown, yet careers in Washington are often made by stressing "vigilance", "prudence," and "hawkishness" - not by going out on a limb to express the need for new policy.

Instead of relying on old saws, we need to work with a new and changing Russia to develop a mutually beneficial relationship, one that sees a gradual strengthening of forces friendly to the United States and the world. We need patience and some self-criticism. We need to re-examine our prejudices, better understand the complex forces and problems at work in modern Russia and bring a far more nuanced approach to Russian national aspirations and concerns - not dismissing all of them as extremist and retrograde. Perhaps most of all, we must get over our often provincial ignorance of some of the most basic facts of Russian history.

A Hindu proverb says: "When two bulls fight, the grass gets crushed." We are both exhausted from fighting and, while we were occupied with this expensive struggle, other adversaries grew stronger. President Reagan's favorite Russian proverb was TRUST BUT VERIFY. The first word is trust. Without that there is nothing to verify. Considering the problems coming at both countries from the rest of the world, we must no longer depend on outdated stereotypes to dictate our thinking.

Suzanne Massie is an author and historian.

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