Vladimir Shlapentokh, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University, writing in the New York Times:
Xenophobia exists in all societies, past and present. It goes back to the socio-biological nature of human beings and the distinction of “ours” and “others” in the human psyche.
Aggressive xenophobia, however, with its open declaration of hatred, discrimination against and physical persecution of “others,” is a purely social phenomenon. It is almost always, in my opinion, a product of policies shaped by a ruling elite in order to acquire and preserve political and economic power.
The case of anti-Americanism in contemporary Russia is a perfect illustration.
It is generally believed in Russia today, as well as in the rest of the world, that anti-Americanism stems from deep-seated feelings held by the average citizen.
This view of anti-Americanism as originating from below, as embedded in the psychology of the masses, is consistent with the opinions of many Russian political scientists, sociologists, journalists and politicians, who spread the notion that most Russians dislike and object to democracy. Some see this as a consequence of a thousand years of Russian authoritarianism; others attribute it to the heritage of Soviet communism.
In my opinion, both schools of thought strongly exaggerate the impact of authoritarian tradition on the Russian people. While traditions may contribute to the character of a society, I believe the crucial role in shaping Russian public opinion belongs to the current regime.
Available data does not support a “visceral hatred of America” of the sort portrayed by many journalists and politicians in Russia. Anti-Americanism in Russia comes from above. It is the elite, through its ability to control and manipulate the media, education and literature, which has the power to either foster or stifle xenophobia.
There is no question that Russians have xenophobic tendencies, fed over the centuries by the czars and the Russian Orthodox Church. In the first decade after the Russian Revolution, the new elite chose ethnic tolerance as their strategy, and generally succeeded in implementing it. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Stalin called upon the Russians to combine “Russian revolutionary élan with an American business-like approach to everything.”
But in the early 1930s, Stalin replaced ethnic tolerance — which the Bolsheviks called termed “internationalism” — with an ideology of Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism.
This new turn in the Kremlin’s ethnic policy was again supported by the masses. As a student at Kiev University in the late 1940s, I watched with great sadness as the plague of anti-Semitism spread throughout society. My friends, both Russian and Jewish, who strongly believed in Lenin’s “internationalism” as an unshakable revolutionary dogma, were similarly amazed and horrified.
After World War II, the United States became a major target of Soviet propaganda, and that lasted until the end of the Soviet system. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Russian sociologist Boris Grushin found that the average Soviet citizen had a very negative image of America.
With Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, the Kremlin’s ethnic policy shifted once more to ethnic tolerance. The change was remarkable — the image of America in Russian public opinion changed radically and quickly for the better.
When I returned to Russia as a visiting American scholar in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I saw — this time with joy — how anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism was fading away.
Now, under Vladimir Putin, xenophobia has been restored as a leading element of the official ideology. This is evident by the conformist anti-American bias expressed by all members of the government, as well as most deputies in Parliament and most of the journalists, political analysts, writers and cultural figures loyal to the regime.
The animosity toward the United States is fomented by Russia’s leaders primarily for domestic consumption — to sustain and cultivate the image of Russia as a besieged fortress and of Putin as the savior of the country.
Russia’s cultivation of hatred for its neighbors Ukraine and Georgia, as well as for Poland and the Baltic republics, is a part of the same strategy, in which ideology clearly takes precedence over the actual geopolitics.
The roots of anti-Americanism in Russia do not go very deep. Most ordinary Russians are rather receptive to Americans, their lifestyle and their political and economic system. These positive feelings would be quickly revealed if the Kremlin changed its policy toward the United States.