Let's say something good

If I were Russian, my country's statements and stances vis-a-vis America would give me much to criticise. That would include the difficulty Americans have in recognising their country by what they read and hear about it when visiting Russia. But since we can do nothing about shallowness and silliness expressed in Cyrillic, I'm more troubled by the same, and sometimes worse, in American pictures of Russia that are drawn in often stupid or jaundiced English. More than merely illiterate about everything Russian, beyond its rule by Stalin and men with fond memories of him, many of us are positively prejudiced. America good; Russia bad. America virtuous and benevolent; Russia backward and benighted.

Is that because Americans and Russians are fated to remain antagonists? Alexis de Tocqueville predicted in 1835 that Russia and America, neither leading powers then, would soon compete for world domination. But rich as an old rivalry can be as a source of misunderstandings and uncharitable wishes, the American national psyche is manifestly richer. I believe a fundamental assumption of superiority helped prompt vice president Joe Biden to portray Russia in late July as a humbled nation, with a "withering" economy among other crippling shortcomings.

Actually, Biden's undiplomatic words depress me much less than the enduring American lack of generosity. What makes it so difficult for us to say good things about Russia? Whatever the flaws of the Soviet Union, whatever pain it caused its own and other peoples, the Red Army saved Europe - therefore America to a lesser but real degree - from decades of misery under Nazi occupation. Without its splendid, sacrificial fighting in the Stalingrad and Kursk battles of 1942 and 1943 that essentially defeated the Wehrmacht, the 1944 invasion of Normandy could not have taken place. Why, then, do the anniversary celebrations of the Normandy landings scarcely mention the Russian feats, let alone honour their makers? Most Americans to whom I talk about World War II have no idea that four in five German soldiers who died did so on the Eastern Front. Our good, but characteristically ignorant, people assume that brave Yanks vanquished Hitler.

In my experience, that's the pattern of America's prevailing conception of itself, which shines even brighter in comparison to what it sees as crude, menacing Russia. Before my lengthy residence in Russia, it was largely my own preconception, typically distorted by America's obsessive fear of Communism in the1950s. Although our Cold War commentary about the USSR was generally less crudely propagandist than theirs about us, that may have made it more, not less, effective. In any case, I came to feel that our reporting about Russia was 100pc correct maybe 6pc of the time, because it focused powerfully on the abhorrent aspects of Soviet rule. Education by a prestigious American university didn't spare me from expecting Russian life under the country's supposedly ruthless totalitarianism to be markedly more miserable than it actually was. The "enslaved" people, to use a favourite American mantra of the time, weren't lathe-loving robots zealously producing weapons for burying wicked capitalists. They had many cultural, educational and medical opportunities about which I'd known much too little.

Alas, the inclination to see the worst in them didn't end with the Cold War, all the less when Moscow challenges what the vast majority of Americans take for granted to be our fair and reasonable policies. I think that questionable assumption flows from the general American convictions that all other countries really need for self-improvement is to be more like us, and that Washington - never mind that it probably spends more on arms than the next 18 countries combined and is quick to use them - always promotes justice and peace. Together with that goes the powerful American tendency (in keeping with our profoundly deeply religious vision of ourselves as God's chosen people) to see our adversaries as evil enemies and, more or less, demonic.

The Soviet counterpart to that was the Marxist dialectic that encouraged the killing of capitalism, ludicrously condemned as the source of most of the world's ills. The surviving counterpart is Russia's stubborn belief in its spiritual superiority. If, as I said, Americans can do nothing to change that, what can we do to change our simplistic notions? Our luckier, richer, supposedly worldlier, wiser and happier country relies chiefly on our supposedly enlightened (but actually dumb) gut to manage our relationship with Moscow.

That makes us much like Russians in yet another way, so maybe our only route forward is to slog together, hand in brawny hand, as we toss the old chestnuts roasted by fear and prejudice into history.

George Feifer's books about Russia include Moscow Farewell. He was a guide at the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959.

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