By Lisa Dickey
The first time I traveled across Russia, in the fall of 1995, most people I met seemed to love Americans. The Soviet Union had collapsed four years earlier, leading to an abrupt thaw in the Cold War. Boris Yeltsin was their president, Bill Clinton was ours, and peace was breaking out all over.
In the quaint Siberian city of Chita, an elderly pensioner named Yura sang America’s praises over a mug of beer. “Americans are wonderful people! They are strong in the face of problems.” In Moscow, a scrawny teenager smoking Marlboros told me, “I would definitely go live in America right now.” While a young McDonald’s employee said, “The only people who criticize the wave of American culture in Russia are either nationalists, or they’re crazy.”
At the time, the Russian economy was in a shambles. Inflation raged in triple digits, the ruble had collapsed, and old women silently begged in subway underpasses. After Yeltsin Russia felt like a country unmoored, and by comparison—at least in the American movies that now played freely in theaters—the U.S.A. must have seemed awesome. The only real anti-American sentiment I encountered came from a group of Communists in Chelyabinsk, one of whom shook his finger angrily in my face while shouting, “America will pay for bleeding our country dry!” He also, for good measure, went on a furious rant about the Jews.
After Yeltsin a Russian Renaissance
Ten years later, in 2005, I traveled across Russia again. This time, Vladimir Putin was their president, George W. Bush was ours, and the Russian economy was much stronger. A true middle class had emerged. Unlike in 1995, many Russians now had credit cards, could afford imported goods, and had traveled abroad. As I made the journey for the second time, I was amazed at the improvement: clean sidewalks, new bridges, spruced-up downtowns. The rising price of oil, and increased Russian production, had transformed the country.
With the improvement in Russians’ economic lives came a renewed sense of national pride. In Vladivostok, a man named Vasily teased me when I couldn’t finish the fifth shot of vodka he’d poured me. “Eh, you Americans are weak!” he jibed.
But for the most part, we didn’t really talk about America: we talked about Russia. Research scientists at Lake Baikal told me they had plenty of funding for expeditions—as opposed to the 1990s, when they had to sell postcards on the side to earn money. A young saleswoman from Khabarovsk was now an entrepreneur, having started a successful advertising company. Everywhere I went, people talked about how much easier it was to make money, and how glad they were that the post-Soviet period of calamity had passed.
At the same time, a worrisome trend had emerged. In 2005, the nonprofit watchdog Freedom House observed that Putin’s government “continued to control mass media and obstruct the reporting of independent journalists,” using, among other tactics, “arbitrary arrests and lawsuits” to do so. The government now controlled the three national television stations, though most newspapers were still independent.
Today Russians are Angry
In 2015, I took the Russia trip one more time. I went to the same eleven cities, interviewed of the same people, and found a vastly changed attitude toward America. Russians were angry—about American meddling in Ukraine, about U.S. sanctions against Russia, and about our lack of respect for Putin and the Russian people.
Over and over, I heard the same phrases: “Russians want to be left alone, but the Americans keep interfering.” And: “Your sanctions don’t hurt us. We don’t need you.” And: “Americans think we have bears wandering in the streets here.” This last one I heard in five different cities, as angry Russians accused us of dismissing them as backward. On my first two trips, Russians didn’t seem to care what we thought of them. Now, it was a major topic of conversation.
On Lake Baikal, a man named Igor railed against America’s inability to “mind its own business.” In Chelyabinsk, a woman whispered that a 2013 meteor that streaked across the sky might actually have been a U.S. weapon. In Novosibirsk, an apolitical friend took umbrage at the movie “The Martian,” in which the Americans turn to China, not Russia, for help in sending a rocket to Mars. “It’s propaganda,” he said, bitterly.
What happened over these 20 years after Yeltsin?
What happened over these 20 years after Yeltsin? Some of the Russians’ criticisms are certainly valid, but their mood swing from friendship to animosity has been surprisingly swift and absolute. With Russian TV and print news sources now almost completely controlled by the Kremlin, the anti-American drumbeat coming into Russian homes is constant—and it appears to be having the desired effect.
Lisa Dickey is an author and ghostwriter. She has helped write seventeen published nonfiction books, including eight New York Times bestsellers. Dickey began her career in St. Petersburg, Russia, writing articles for The Moscow Times and USA Today. She lives in Los Angeles.