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They Don't Hate the USA in the Former USSR



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They Don’t Hate the USA in the Former USSR

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MOSCOW — Bestriding the globe with its aircraft carriers and unmanned drones, flooding foreign markets with its movie stars and lap-top computers, flouting the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, even the Kyoto Accords, America under George W. Bush has turned into a cowboy behemoth recklessly, imperiously imposing its will on the poor and helpless. Less a superpower than a Bible-banging juggernaut, a massive military-industrial-sportsutility- vehicle complex, the United States since Sept. 11 has alienated itself from the community of nations, destablized global markets, and squandered all the good will it picked up when TV viewers worldwide got a chance to watch thousands of Americans die that terrible Tuesday morning.

This, at least, is the party line, the conventional wisdom, in New York, in Washington, on the major news networks, at Foggy Bottom: the Bush administration’s senseless, fevered rush to invade Iraq, its knuckleheaded diplomacy, its imperialist tendencies coupled with its city-ona- hill self-righteousness, have generated enormous anti- American sentiment abroad. And from the Champs Elysée to downtown Seoul to the so-called Arab Street, there simply aren’t enough Stars and Stripes to burn.

Except here, in the capital of the formerly evil empire. True, the Russian state, or at least Putin and all the officials holed up in the Kremlin, may have temporarily allied with the French and Germans against the war effort, but as for the Russians — the Russian people, the shopkeepers, the vendors, the university students, the cops, the restaurateurs, the hoteliers, the waiters, the janitors, the strippers and escorts with their good skin and good teeth who target the American financiers and expats — as for the Russians, well, that’s a different story. The Russians can’t get enough of the United States. “California,” says Katya, an economics student, “is my dream.” “New York,” says her friend, Andrei, “this is the best.”

That is the way it goes in most of the bars, bistros, techno clubs and coffeehouses scattered around the city center. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It was supposed to be somewhere between vaguely belligerent and downright violent. All the drunks and xenophobes and “flatheads,” the recently post-adolescent punks owned and operated by the New Russian mafiosi who run this country from the back seats of black Mercedes sedans, all of them were supposed to hate me, to heckle me, to shake me down, to give me a hard time simply for having a passport that says “United States of America” on it. And the soldiers, too, just back from Grozny, and the old men, the apparatchiks-turned-floating ions floating down the old Arbat with its cafés and souvenir stands, would, I thought, lash out at Americans for being a superpower, a hyperpower — the winner, the conqueror, the irrefutable refutation of the scientifically programmed proletarian march across the industrialized world.

Moscow is a mean city — cold, bitter, hungry, riddled with dangerous faces, instability, flux, rapidity, constant indeterminacy. But it’s not anti-American, not like (we imagine) Amman or Karachi or, more recently, London or Paris. There’s no automatic hatred. Mostly curiosity, even wonderment or fascination, tinged with irritation — possibly resentment, but not anger — not some deep-seated animus that’s been festering like a national wound. “Why does your president hate Iraq?” asks Tanya Kamsha, who works at the local chapter of the Red Cross translating documents. “Americans, great. I mean, a little fat. They eat too much. But great. Really cool. But Bush — fuck Bush.” Other Russians tend not to think much about Bush.

Or he puzzles them. His language, his conviction, his commitment to this whole superstructure made up of free markets and corporate hegemons — they don’t understand this. They wonder.

But they don’t hate. More often than not they ask. They want to know: What is America? Who are Americans? Can you become an American, and how much does it cost — and can you really join America, or can you only be born in America?

This is not to suggest that the Russians, at least the Russians my photographer and I met on our month-long trip to Moscow and Kaliningrad, are hopelessly in awe of the United States. Russia is not Poland. There is no prevailing belief that the cold warriors at the Pentagon bravely, unflinchingly confronted the Soviet menace, forced it to its knees and liberated the freedom-loving peoples of central Europe from the grip of socialist totalitarianism. And there is nothing to curb their worst appetites. There is nothing to extract that which is good and lasting out of capitalism and to jettison the necessary residue of ostensibly free societies riddled with poverty, excess, and one-dimensional souls pursuing concrete goods at the expense of human relationships, art, literature — all that is worth living (and dying) for.

What does this mean? It means, I suspect, that many Russians sense that the United States — despite its very un-Russian “cheeriness,” its allegedly institutionalized racism, its supposed objectification of everything and everyone — is a fundamentally good place, a free place (or freer place) with a state that is circumscribed by ideals and constitutional limits, not by blood, land, or conquest. The sometimes-hidden, hard-to-articulate feeling or suspicion is that in America — in the idea and, sometimes, in the everyday reality of America — is something magnificent, transcending, and yet alien. This is a source of fascination and confusion, but not a source of contempt.

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Peter Savodnik is a reporter
for The Hill in Washington, D.C..






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