Veronika Krasheninnikova and ‘The Cold War of Cultures’

American-Russian relations are plagued by ‘mutual misperceptions and misunderstanding’. So says Veronika Krasheninnikova in an important new book амерйка-россиа-холодая воина култур (America-Russia: Cold War of Cultures). Each country perceives the other through its own cultural and ideological lenses.

As Ms Krasheninnikova tells it, the US view of the world is governed by a ‘unique ideology’ of liberal democracy which it seeks to foist on the rest of the world. This ideology is derived from the unique circumstances of America’s founding and flourishing – its foundation by God-fearing Protestant immigrants, its relative immunity from the rough and tumble of world politics. American exceptionalism first manifested itself in isolationism – telling the rest of the world to keep off its patch. When America finally got sucked into world politics in the 20th century it sought security by trying to make the rest of the world into a global America. The image of America’s ‘City on a Hill’ became a ‘policy blueprint’.

Ms. Krashennikova’s account of America’s foreign policy is generous because it ascribes to it a genuine idealism: idealism is not just a cloak for American self-interest. But it also critical in that this very idealism makes it very difficult for America to interact normally with other powers with different value systems. So her message for Americans is: behave more pragmatically, don’t try to change the world, and we will all get on much better. This is good advice, especially for foreign policy.

She is particularly anxious to avoid a new cold war between America and Russia. Under Putin Russia has practiced ‘pragmatism and Realpolitik’. But America’s democracy-building enthusiasm, especially as it encroaches on former Soviet space, might drive Russia back to a counter- ideology. So ‘to contain or prevent the dangers arising from a new clash of ideologies, the United States and Russia should base their relations in agreements on shared interests, international frameworks and firmer security and economic ties’.

Ms. Krasheninnikova’s main point is that Americans have a distorted image of Russia. I’m sure this is right. Western editorial comment on the recent Duma elections has damned Putin, and ignored the uselessness of the liberal opposition. (Apparently Yavlinsky recently remarked that he hardly reads the newspapers – ‘I’ve got aides to do that’- and hasn’t watched television for years.) But what image do Russians have of their own country? What are the ‘Russian’ values which they seek to protect against American intrusion?

Here the book is less satisfactory, and for an obvious reason. Russia is a problem for Russians in a way America isn’t for Americans. All Russians love their country, but the thoughtful ones don’t know what to make of it. They feel themselves to be superior and inferior at the same time. They know their society has not really worked, and that many of the values they cherish are out of place in the contemporary world. The American Utopia is practical, the Russian Utopia a dream.

That is why the ‘clash of civilizations’ is not symmetric. To succeed in the modern world Russia and its ‘space’ have to become more like America, not less. It is not simply, or mainly, NATO expansion or the CIA that is prizing bits of the Soviet Union out of the Russian orbit. It is America’s ‘soft power’ –the attraction of a system which frees the individual to produce wealth and better himself, and thus bring heaven down to earth, even though heaven becomes banal in consequence.

In fact, of course, Russia is steadily becoming more like America. This is not an imposition from the top, or from outside, but through the organic growth of a business culture. A former American President, Calvin Coolidge, once said ‘America’s business is business’. When Russia’s business becomes business, the cold war of cultures will fade away naturally.

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