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America And Russia, Americans And Russians
The Cold War was an anomaly: more often than not the world’s two greatest states have lived together in uneasy amity. And what now?
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
Americans and Russians, sent to conquer halfway around the world, met in the middle of Germany and in the middle of European history.
One of the reasons (if not the main reason) why the Cold War between America and Russia never became a real war is that their peoples have never felt a traditional hostility to each other. An element in this has been the great geographic distance between them; another that—unlike, say, animosities between Germans and Poles, Serbs and Croats, British and Irish—the masses of Americans and Russians had no historical reasons to resent each other. Indeed, there have been many episodes when Americans and Russians discovered that they, strangely or not so strangely, had many things in common. There are many phenomena that illustrate this. On the Russian side the extraordinary friendliness and attraction (uncontaminated by cultural snobbery, as sometimes is the case with Western Europeans) for the United States, their belief in the superior nature of American civilization and technology (very evident even under the rule of Lenin), their intellectuals’ avid interest in certain American writers (alas, not always the best ones, manifest in the huge Russian readership of Jack London and Ernest Hemingway), and—perhaps—the old linguistic condition whereby, unlike most Europeans, Russians and Ukrainians find it easier to speak English with an American accent than with an English one. On the American side we find the extraordinary assimilation of intellectuals, scholars, and artists born in Russia, the swiftness of their contributions to American arts, ranging from first-generation immigrants of the Nabokov or Balanchine kind to second-generation artists such as a George Gershwin; the impact of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (alas, often at the expense of other, better Russian writers) on the American intelligentsia; the generous American efforts aiding Russia at the time of incipient famine, as in 1921, the worst time of the Lenin years; and the frequent eagerness with which Americans have been willing to assist in the building of a modern Russia, as in the case of numerous American railroad planners and other industrialists throughout the nineteenth century. (I will mention but one example. Through forty years during the nineteenth century William Gilpin, the first territorial governor of Colorado, argued for The Cosmopolitan Railway Compacting and Fusing Together All the World’s Continents , the title of his 1890 book—a railroad that would connect western America with eastern Siberia through the Bering Strait, linking up with the then still nonexistent Trans-Siberian Railway, leading westward to Europe. Gilpin argued that consequently not only would Denver be “the center of the world” but, more important, this American-Russian railroad would be “the link in the great center of progress” through which the great peoples of the globe would be connected.)
That was American practical idealism in one of its typical forms. Political idealism, and its subsequent winter of discontent, have at times led to misinformation and to misleading images of the two peoples—as, for example, in Life magazine’s Picture of the Week in 1942, when a full-page photograph of Lenin was printed with the caption “This Was Perhaps the Greatest Man of the Century”; ten years later the editorial pages of Life were preaching a crusade against communism and Russia. During the twentieth century another element complicating American-Russian relations was the increasing influence of ethnic groups advocating this or that American policy toward Russia as well as attempting to influence the perception of Russia by Americans. As early as 1905 the czar’s relatively liberal foreign minister, Count Witte, felt compelled to travel to the United States in order to assuage the anti-Russian sentiments of the press and of other people, caused by their memories of the often crude mistreatment of Jews and others by the czar’s government. Conversely, after the overthrow of the czar and for decades thereafter, many Americans, especially intellectuals (and not just immigrants from Russia or their descendants), nurtured and propagated false and unwarranted illusions about the humane nature of the communist regime in Russia—ideological preferences that, among other things, resulted in the limited but not inconsiderable influence of communists and their sympathizers in American intellectual commerce and at times even in a few places in Washington. Eventually, because of their realization—often lamentably slow—of the brutal (and often anti-Semitic) record of Soviet governments, some of these former sympathizers became extreme anticommunists and anti-Russians, agitating against any improvement of American-Russian relations. The decision of American administrations to include “human rights” on their diplomatic agenda has not always been productive in that regard.