Europe-Russia Blog Series: Anti-Western Sentiment in Russia – Between Propaganda and Autosuggestion

Pro-Russia protest, photo via James Rea (Flickr: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/)

The Europe-Russia Blog Series, “EU, Russia, and Ukraine: Managing and Moving Beyond the Stalemate”, disseminates research, analysis and commentary on issues relevant to contemporary EU-Russia and Ukraine relations. Launched in April 2016, the series publishes contributions by members of the Dahrendorf Russia and Ukraine Working Group, as well as guest contributions from academics and practitioners. Denis Volkov frames the initial discussion here regarding the anti-Western sentiment in Russia. Subsequent texts will consider Ukraine’s public opinion and domestic reforms, the European Neighourhood Policy and the Eurasian Economic Union.

Anti-Western Sentiment in Russia
Between Propaganda and Autosuggestion

by Denis Volkov

Russia’s independent polling organization, the Levada-Center, has been measuring popular attitudes towards the West for over 20 years. Never before have these attitudes been so negative for so long. Though the peak of anti-Western sentiment has passed, the negative mood still predominates.

The Levada Center found that the percentage of respondents expressing a negative attitude towards the US decreased from 81% in January 2015 to 71% in January 2016, while the percentage of respondents expressing negative feelings towards the EU declined from 71% to 58%. A generally negative attitude towards both the US and the EU has remained fairly stable since the beginning of 2014. There are at least three different dimensions of anti-Western sentiment in Russia which contribute to the negative image of the West in Russia: a general attitude, which can be either positive or negative; the perception of the West as the enemy; and a tendency to understand world events through the prism of Western intervention. Though evaluations on all three dimensions are negative, each dimension has its own dynamics.

Out of the three dimensions of Russian public opinion towards the West, the overall attitude is the most volatile, responding to changes in the language used in the media. Thus, attitudes towards the US changed from positive into negative within weeks in 1999, 2003, 2008 and 2014. Similar changes in the attitudes towards the EU can be observed. These reversals came amidst confrontations between Russia and the Western countries on the questions of the NATO bombardment of Kosovo, the US-led intervention in Iraq, the Russian-Georgian war, and the conflict in Ukraine beginning in 2014. Yet, as soon as these conflicts were over, overall attitudes returned to positive, pre-conflict levels.

Perception of the inimical West

Another dimension of anti-Western sentiment is the perception of the Western countries as enemies. This dimension changed gradually over the 1990s, with respondents increasingly viewing the West as inimical. In early 1990s, the majority of the population and the people in power hoped for deeper cooperation with the Western countries. This hope was reflected in public opinion polls and in the Western orientation of the foreign policies of Kozyrev and Yeltsin. For a brief period of time, Russians believed that cooperation with the West rather than with the former Soviet republics was more attractive.  In the early 1990s, 51% of Russians perceived the US as a friendly country and 16% believed it was an ally, while only 1-2% thought that Moscow’s former rival was hostile to Russia.

But since then, we have observed a gradual increase of resentment towards the West. By 1992-1993, it became clear that Russia could not match the West in the standards of living. The limits of Russia’s integration into Western supranational structures became obvious, as well. However, the first test of Russian-Western relations came in 1993 with the U.S. bombing of Iraq. As it turned out, Washington’s campaign in Iraq posed a major challenge to the pro-American sentiment in Russia. Public opinion became split: one third of Russians approved of US actions, but half were opposed, including 26% who “strongly condemned” the strikes. The Russian elites resented the US bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, only recently a country aligned with Moscow. While state control of the media was loose at that time, part of this sentiment may have been transmitted to the population through TV coverage. Other events, such as the reluctance of the U.S. to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, objections to Russia’s acceptance in the WTO, and US criticism of the first Chechen war also frustrated many Russians, yet only 7% of Russians saw the US as an enemy at that time. Thus, in the mid-1990s, the image of the US as a friendly country deteriorated, but it was not yet perceived as an adversary.

The years 1998 and 1999 were particularly damaging to relations between Russia and the West. Here came another bombing of Iraq, the start of the Second Chechen War and the West’s subsequent criticism of Russia, and the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. In 1999 Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO, the first enlargement since the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite the initial assurances of the US that to the enlargement would not happen. With the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia without a UN mandate, Russia and the West came into open confrontation. By the time Vladimir Putin was elected president in the spring of 2000, the perception of the US in Russia was already close to what it is now.

The prism of rivalry

The third dimension of the anti-Western sentiment is the popular tendency to interpret world events and Russia’s involvement in them through the prism of rivalry with the West. This is how the majority of Russians saw the conflicts in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015—in line with the official interpretation of these events. This may not be surprising, given the general lack of interest and the dominance of Russian state-controlled TV in shaping public understanding of ongoing events. The current position of the state propaganda reflects the growing authoritarianism of the Russian political system, with people of military-security backgrounds in charge. These are the people who fought (and lost) the Cold War, who thus have a certain worldview and understanding of “national interests” and threats, and who resented the loss of the former spheres of influence. They now have the ability to marginalize and suppress other views in the government and in society. The re-establishment of state control of the media, and at times the production of active propaganda, which often adopts cold-war clichés, makes it easy to manipulate public opinion.

However, the alignment of the public with the official position cannot be explained simply by the lack of alternative sources of information and the effect of propaganda alone. The official interpretation of the events is significantly less popular with those who regularly use independent sources of information, but even among well-informed people, the larger share prefer not to question the “official version.” The anti-Western propaganda is successful because it exploits existing traumas, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, that brought about the loss of some territories with symbolic meaning, such as Crimea. Several focus groups on popular attitudes organised by Levada-Center towards the events of 2014 recorded people saying “we finally bared our teeth” and “we made America notice us”. People may understand that Russia broke international law when it annexed Crimea, but they are ready to justify it to “protect Russians” and “restore historical justice”.

Source of newly rediscovered self-importance

The current negative attitudes towards the West have several sources. First, there is an ongoing conflict, a period of open confrontation involving mutual sanctions and recrimination —all the negative aspects of the relationship that are covered in the news on the daily basis. Secondly, there is a historical dimension of Western failure to engage Russia in broader European structures, when both Russian elites and public opinion were rather favourable toward it. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the obvious (but strongly denied) loss of Russia’s recognition as a great power in the world, which caused an inferiority complex. The alternative sources of information undermine this desirable picture, stripping people of the feelings of self-importance and self-righteousness that many experienced after the annexation of Crimea and the operation in Syria. Some people may be manipulated by propaganda, but the majority prefer to believe in it, as a source of newly rediscovered self-importance.


Denis Volkov is an analyst and head of the development department at the Levada-Center, an independent polling organization based in Moscow.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

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