Russians Name Their Enemies: Turkey, Ukraine and Especially the U.S.
72% of Russians Feel the United States is a Threat
"Pity the poor Russians, the heirs to Byzantium, in an Era dominated by the descendants of Rome." -- Richard Pipes
According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, 72% of Russians consider the U.S. is a threat, 48% think Ukraine is "hostile" and 29% think Turkey is an enemy, newspapers reported.
The United States topped the list of countries, being named as hostile by 72 percent of respondents, followed by Ukraine with 48 percent of respondents. It is the highest level ever recorded for the Ukraine, which was seen as an enemy by only 37 percent of those surveyed in 2015. Russia is occupying territory that one belonged to Ukraine, including Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
Turkey was seen as an enemy by 29 percent of Russians, a dramatic shift for the country, which was considered hostile by only 1 percent of Russian respondents in 2015.
Relations between Moscow and Kiev have been considered "bad" by Russians since 2014, Levada Center Deputy Director Alexei Grazhdankin said. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014.
"There are more and more Russians who see Ukraine as an enemy. As long as the conflict is not solved, it affects Russia's world image. That has an impact on the lives of ordinary Russians, such as the weakening of the ruble, the inability to travel abroad," Grazhdankin told Vedomosti.
Ties between Russia and Turkey have deteriorated considerably since the downing of a Russian SU-24 by Turkey on Nov. 24, 2015. The incident caused outrage in Russia and was followed by a package of economic sanctions imposed on Turkey by the Kremlin.
"If tensions [between Ankara and Moscow] are not resolved, Russians' attitude toward the country will deteriorate further," Grazhdankin said, Vedomosti reported.
Belarus, Kazakhstan and China were named as Russia's closest allies, with half of all respondents believing Belarus to have a friendly attitude toward Russia. Kazakhstan and China were named by 39 and 34 percent respectively, according to the poll.
Ten percent of the respondents also mentioned Syria among Russia's allies this year, compared to only 2 percent in 2015. The change is likely connected to Russia's role providing assistance to the country's army at the request of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The poll also showed a fall in the number of Russians in favor of becoming part of the European Union. Only 24 percent of respondents wanted Russia to join the organization, down from 53 percent in August 2009.
Grazhdankin said that the results of the poll depended heavily on the foreign policy of other countries: "If ties [with other countries] become less tense, the number of Russians viewing them negatively will decrease, just as we've seen this year with Britain, France and Germany."
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin noted that Russians' attitude to other countries are greatly affected by what is shown on television as many citizens have never traveled abroad, Vedomosti reported.
The survey was conducted May 20-23 throughout 48 Russian regions. Data was compiled from personal interviews. The statistical margin of error does not exceed 4.1 percent.
Why Do The Russians Feel So Isolated and Alone
People who are surprised by certain recurrences in Russian history apparently are not aware that popular culture changes very slowly, if at all.
U.S. history is a good example. The U.S. emancipated itself from Britain 250 years ago, forming a republic intended to be unique. Yet even today, our political and legal culture is thoroughly imbued with concepts and values inherited from Britain.
Russians are no different, carrying in their minds and hearts the fears and hopes inherited from their ancestors. The most ambitious and cruel attempt undertaken in human history to create a new "Soviet man" proved a dismal failure. When I read public opinion polls conducted in post-Soviet Russia, I am struck by how many of the opinions expressed resemble those of Tsarist Russia.
Take, for example, the political system. Russians mistrust democracy because they identify it with chaos and crime. When asked what they value more - security or freedom - they overwhelmingly opt for security, apparently unaware that the two are not incompatible.
They want their government to be strong to protect them from foreign and domestic enemies, most of which are imaginary. They also have believed for centuries that Russia has a right to be a superpower, feared rather than respected.
Another recurrent theme in Russian behavior is low respect for law and private property. Until 1864, Russia had no legal system worthy of the name. Foreign travelers to pre-1864 Russia often noted that Russians were subject to arbitrary judgments by the tsar and his officials. And even after the 1864 judiciary reforms were enacted, political crimes were judged not by courts but by administrative bodies. Contempt for law, therefore, survives to this day. According to public opinion polls, the majority of Russians regard the courts as corrupt.
Historically speaking, private property is the basis of freedom. In countries where it is respected, the government depends on its citizens for essential income and thus must respect their rights. Until the late 18th century in Tsarist Russia, private property, for all practical purposes, did not exist. All the land, the main source of wealth, belonged to the monarch, who leased it to his nobles in return for service. He not only ruled the country, he literally owned it.
Furthermore, owing to the institution of the rural community, the peasants, who made up four-fifths of the country's population, did not own the land they tilled but merely held it in temporary possession. As a result of this historical heritage, reinforced by seven decades of communism, Russians have a low opinion of property as a basic human right.
Another significant inheritance from the past is hostility to the outside world, especially Europe and the U.S. This attitude has religious origins. The Russian Orthodox Church, which for centuries dominated thinking and attitudes in the country, inculcated in its followers the belief that Western religions were heretical. This view became secularized in modern times and translates into a sense that the West is hostile. Asked in 1998 "Do you feel European?" a mere 12 percent of the respondents replied "yes, always," whereas 56 percent said "practically never." As a result, many Russians perceive themselves as isolated from the outside world.
I believe that once a majority of Russians start realizing that their country is not threatened from the outside, they will be able to devote themselves more assiduously to changing their attitudes and institutions, among which rule of law and human rights are the most important.
Richard Pipes, a historian and professor emeritus at Harvard University, is author of "Russia Under the Old Regime" and "Property and Freedom." This comment appeared in Vedomosti.