Staunton, June 9 – It has become almost commonplace to assert that Russians under Boris Yeltsin had a positive view of the world and that they began their search for enemies only under his successor, Vladimir Putin. That such feelings have intensified under Putin is beyond doubt, but it is important to remember that they took shape under Yeltsin.
According to the Levada Center as reported by Yekaterina Butorina of Profile today, in 1989, 13 percent of the Russian population identified enemies; in 1994, that figure had risen to 41 percent; and in 1999, the last year of Yeltsin’s presidency to 65 percent.
Of course, those counted as enemies have shifted over that period, from domestic to foreign and from East to West, but what may be most important is an apparently deep desire to identify enemies on whom any shortcomings can be blamed as a way of avoiding examining the responsibility of the Russians and their national leaders.
That pattern and logic are all the more important given that in 1989, according to a Levada Center poll, 47 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that there is no need to search for external enemies if the source of Russia’s misfortunes is to be found in Russians themselves.
Since the 1990s, the groups and countries Russians see as enemies has changed dramatically, with ever more of them having a negative attitude about the West and ever more of them having a positive attitude about China, a country now viewed by Russians as a friend at the same level as Belarus.
With regard to Russia’s immediate neighbors, Russian attitudes have been constantly in motion as well, with some countries becoming friends and then enemies and others moving in the opposite direction, the result of specific events and even more of the way those events are treated in the media and by Russian leaders.
Indeed, according to Aleksei Grazhdankin of the Levada Center, “the further from an individual things and phenomena are, the easier it is for him to agree with the assessments which are imposed on him. Therefore, ideas about foreign countries and their relationship to Russia are formed among Russians largely with the help of the media.”
Immediately after the collapse of the USSR, Russians viewed the mafia as an enemy, but they did not define it with any precision. By the end of the 1990s, however, they talked about it with greater specificity. The same pattern held for attitudes about foreign countries and their status as friends or enemies of Russia.
Initially, Russians had a generally positive view of the US and the West, but positive attitudes toward both “fell sharply in 1999” as a result of NATO’s actions in the former Yugoslavia and what a VTsIOM investigation described as “the one-sided treatment of the situation in the mass media.”
But at that time, this rise in negative attitudes toward the West did not lead Russians to turn away from a desire “to see our Russia ‘like the countries of the West, with a market economy, a democratic political system, and the protection of human rights,’” according to polls taken then.
By 2000, roughly half of Russians said that “there are countries in the world which represent a real threat” to their country, with the US in first place, Afghanistan in second, China in third, followed by Iraq and Iran. In 2007, the US was still in the lead, but Georgia was in second, and third was shared by the UK, the Baltic countries and Ukraine.
That pattern was more or less constant between May 2005 and May 2010, Butorina says.
Grazhdankin notes, “the image of the enemy was exploited episodically,” and consequently while the enemies list stayed more or less the same, the friends list changed with China rising as the West fell.
Still, as late as January 2011, “only 18 percent of Russians considered that ‘our country is surrounded by enemies on all sides,’” according to the Levada Center. Four years later, however, this view was shared by 84 percent of all Russians, with the US being the worst of them in Russian eyes.
In March of this year, Butorina continues, a Levada Center poll found that 63 percent of Russians agreed that their country was “really threatened” by numerous enemies foreign and domestic. But almost one in four – 23 percent – declared that “talk about enemies is carried out in order to frighten the population and make is a puppet in the hands of those in power.”