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Washington Profile interview
United States and Soviet Union: Power of Stereotypes
Fedor Burlatskiy, President of the Political Science Council of the Russian Academy of Sciences; renowned scholar and publicist; author of numerous books; former adviser to Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Question: What were the soviet stereotypes towards the United States?

Burlatskiy: First of all, the United States was regarded as our primary adversary. This was the amalgamation of two factors. On the one hand, the United States was the leading power to defend the old capitalist system, while the USSR promoted its progressive socialist ideas. On the other hand, it was about the struggle of two superpowers. When the USSR replenished its nuclear arsenals, it then could stand on equal terms with the United States. Therefore, all the stereotypes were in terms of power comparison between the US and the Soviet Union and the quest of universal dominance was at stake.

The latter stereotype exists to date. Currently Putin perceives Russia if not as a superpower, then as a country that possesses vast nuclear capabilities that allow her to intervene into universal affairs, especially in circumstances of unilateral US actions.

It is important to take into account the fact that Khrushchev and his generation grew up during the Stalinist era. They had fresh memories of the post-WWII period, when the three world leaders - Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, divided the world, granting the USSR with possessions of all the land between Odder to Yangtze. They perceived this land as a legitimate prize - won through enormous war sacrifices and the victory - that acknowledged the absolute Soviet power in those territories. Moreover, they presumed that no matter what circumstance, the United States would not intervene into Soviet possessions.

Another stereotype relates to the perception of the United States itself, regarding it as a power imposing its lifestyle, its democracy, freedom and market economy models everywhere. In 1960, for the first time the United States was called a world gendarme, which became a constantly renewable concept, once again revived during the US war in Iraq. This was the reason why, despite the facts that Iraq was no longer our friend, it owed us $8 billion in debt and Saddam executed not only all the democrats, but communists as well, President Putin was so keen in objecting and blocking US war initiatives.

Question: To what extent do these stereotypes reflect the reality?

Burlatskiy: The Korean War, the war in Vietnam and especially the Caribbean crisis illustrated that the soviet leaders had a weak understanding of US politics. Stalin did not acknowledge the possibility of Americans interfering into the Korean conflict and was convinced that the annexation of South Korea would be fast and painless.

Khrushchev had misconceptions towards the United States as well, as he underestimated US fears of a nuclear war. When he was stationing missiles in Cuba, he assumed that the US will have no other choice than to accept their presence. This, however, was a major mistake, which almost triggered the elimination of the whole mankind.

Gorbachev's policies bore numerous mistakes because of his erroneous US perceptions. When he dissolved the Warsaw Pact, he was convinced that Americans will act likewise with NATO. When he initiated his economic reforms, he believed that the United States would provide considerable assistance.

Question: Did these stereotypes relate only to foreign policy issues?

Burlatskiy: Of course not. There were special conceptions of the lifestyle, social structure and political institutions of the United States. Most dominant were the stereotypes of a widespread racism and the government led by wealth of the riches.

Russians tend to think that American people are less educated and less culturally developed, unlike the Russians themselves, who grew up among the greatest creations of literature and art - universally renowned and with an impressive history. Americans are simple technocrats, who work from dust to dawn and don't enjoy their lives. They don't like culture, don't go to theatres and read on very rare occasions.

Americans, in turn, regard Russians as a strange and inexplicable nation, whose semi-Asian history is dominated by kings, serfdom and white slaves. Moreover, they believe that Russians have destroyed the American concepts of democracy and free market, turning them into poverty and corruption. Both these tendencies are very dangerous, because the public consciousness in both societies is led into wrong direction.

Question: Were these stereotypes only negative?

Burlatskiy: During the soviet times and in modern Russia there was a tremendous admiration for the US and a desire to reach and outstrip American achievements. It was Stalin who first came up with the formula of mixing the soviet revolutionary idealism with American business administration and this was encouraged by the rapid technological and economic development that the United States lived through. After his visit to the US, Khrushchev announced at the meeting of the Soviet Politburo about the existence of communism in the United States, where people had what they needed - cars, houses, bank accounts. We were all shocked, but he insisted that we include the goal of surpassing the United States in a 20-year period in the program of the Communist Party.

Nevertheless, during the last 6-10 years the anti-American spirit is gaining more power and is escalated by the dominant perception among the Russians that it was owing to American pressures and intentional policies that the USSR collapsed. This patter was obvious in the Iraqi war criticisms of Russian scholars, who consistently revived the above mentioned stereotypes. Moreover, there were voices that claimed that Iraqi victory today will lead the US towards Iran tomorrow and towards the former soviet republics afterwards.

Question: How would you describe American stereotypes towards the Soviet Union and Russia?

Burlatskiy: When I first visited the US 20 years ago, perception was that the Soviet Union was the primary and the most unpredictable enemy of the United States. President Reagan was straightforward in his speech, when he called us devils who are capable of anything for their communist ideals.

Americans regarded Khrushchev as Stalin's assignee and when he stationed the Cubin missiles, Americans were getting ready for a nuclear war. This, however, wasn't Khrushchev's intention, who simply wanted to balance soviet strategic strength with US, which established missiles in Turkey capable of reaching Ukraine and Moscow.

In overall, communists were thought of unfavorably in the United States. To put it more precisely, the majority of the Americans did not trust the communist elite, but were more admiring towards the simple people. However, the stereotype of a "weird nation" was predominant. The second most popular stereotype was that all Russians were spies. The third and the most enduring stereotype is that of Russian expansionism. Even children were taught at school that Russia aspired to expand its borders to intimidate Europe and to stand up to the West. Today, although this stereotype has weakened, it is not completely eliminated.

Khrushchev was the first ice-breaker. Despite the Caribbean crisis, he evoked everyone's sympathy and his shoe-banging at the UN was regarded as a funny human gesture - impudent, impolite, but understandable. During Gorbachev the whole American consciousness was transformed. This, however, led to an enthusiastic but unreasonable stereotype that Russia would soon resemble to western states, basing its system on democracy, market economy, etc. Unfortunately, no matter how positive, this stereotype was unfounded. In fact, after the 1991 putsch, Yeltsin was regarded as the guardian of Russia's democratization and the primary guarantor against the restoration of communism.

Nevertheless, Yeltsin's 1993 privatization efforts and his favorable attitude towards the communist elite, drastically reversed the American perception, and Russia was now regarded as a country where dominated corruption and the oligarchs, who, in turn, hindered country's development. This is true only partially, because despite all the challenges, Russia develops in the right direction.

In the light of the aforementioned, we need special programs aimed at transforming mutual misperceptions. In several decades Russia will completely recover and the leadership of both countries will need to think about their future relations. In all circumstances, Russia and the US remain two most powerful nuclear countries in the world. And unfortunately these are the two powers that are capable of turning our country into another lifeless star in the universe, as once warned by President John Kennedy in 1960s.

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