Prejudice against Russians and Russia can be beaten, but it requires action.
A recent study conducted by the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC) has found that nearly half of Russian Americans have experienced Russophobia while living in the United States. That somber statistic, while not surprising, is the side effect of a modern-day McCarthyism that has infected almost every aspect of American political discourse. The Russophobia seen today is both reminiscent of the Cold War that never quite ended in the minds of some and an entirely new creature forged by the fires of personal utility.
In domestic politics, the utility has been to win an argument without ever making an argument. Partisans from both sides have for years replaced facts and reason with various pejoratives designed to demonize their opponents as beholden to or doing the bidding of Russia. They do so not because of any sincere belief that “Moscow Mitch” is in Putin’s thrall or that Tulsi Gabbard is actually a “Russian asset,” but because ad hominem attacks that imply an opponent is black-hearted for some dubious association to Russia is more effective than partaking in an honest debate.
In the media, the incentives are slightly different. Any semblance of objective journalism regarding Russia has all but withered away because of the simple fact that sensationalism sells. Tall tales of Russian bounties, hacked power grids, and secret sonic attacks are promulgated with the bottom line in mind, which is why journalists have devoted an inordinate amount of time to stories that tar and feather the Kremlin as the root of all evil. American cable news outlets, for example, have experienced an increase in profit of more than 19% since 2016, which is a testament to this business model and its ability to captivate audiences.
The good news is that Russophobia is not a permanent affliction. Much like other forms of xenophobia whether race-based or otherwise, prejudice against Russians and Russia can be beaten, but it requires three things: action, investment, and inspiration. Here’s how:
Join the Conversation
One of the primary reasons for Russophobia’s stranglehold on American life is the fact that Russian perspectives are almost entirely absent from the mainstream political conversations that are taking place on cable news, the pages of the New York Times, and college campuses.
This, of course, raises the question as to why Russian perspectives are missing in action. The answer though is quite obvious. That is, for a long time Russia has been one of the only countries without a lobby in the United States to promote its interests. What that means is that time and time again, Russia is on trial without representation and presumed guilty until proven innocent. If one wants to beat back Russophobia then it starts with joining the conversation, and the best way to do that is to invest in grassroots lobbyism that can invade the spaces where Russian voices are currently excluded.
Grassroots lobbyism, as opposed to the more run-of-the-mill form of lobbyism that simply pays smooth talkers on K Street to break bread with politicians, is far more holistic and equipped to swing the pendulum. It involves community organizing, taking an active role in media and event-based outreach, and engaging in politics from the bottom up. In fact, a grassroots lobby with the right amount of resources would be able to elevate pro-Russian voices to the mainstream shows, podcasts, and bylines that inform the public--and in doing so, would have the opportunity to pushback on false narratives and make the intellectual arguments for Moscow that Americans almost certainly never hear.
By merely having a presence, such an organization could bring balance to the United States’ national discourse, and more importantly, change the way millions of Americans view Russia and the Russian Americans who live among them. But first, it requires action.
A Soft Power Rebrand
Another major finding from the 2020 Russian American Experience Study was the fact that nearly 64% of Russian Americans feel that Russia/Russians are portrayed “unfairly” in American media. That said, it’s not hard to understand why they would feel this way. For all of the lip service that is paid in the form of impassioned calls for diversity and breaking the barriers set by racial stereotypes, Hollywood seems to have no problem with the used and abused stereotype of the Russian bad guy. The consequence of Russians being perennially portrayed as corrupt bastions of evil is that this becomes the only frame by which they are seen, especially by Americans who would otherwise have no other sort of interaction with the average Russian.
The truth is that Russians are some of the best people on Earth. They are deep, sincere, friendly, incredibly intelligent, and tremendously talented. However, that is a truth that most Americans will never know unless there is a concerted effort into rebranding Russia’s reputation on the television screens that form the worldview for millions of people.
One of the most significant aspects of American soft power over the years has been the strong arm of Hollywood to win friends and spread influence across the globe. Now obviously, Russia cannot win a “films race” against the United States and its military budget that often works as a backdoor benefactor. However, there is nothing stopping the Kremlin from investing in one or two blockbusters a year that can garner attention, and in doing so, leave a positive impression in the hearts and minds of Americans. All it requires is an investment and a commitment to stories of Russian excellence and ingenuity, anecdotes that are not at all hard to find but often overlooked.
Although there are more than three million Russian Americans living in the United States, there are virtually zero who currently maintain a major public office. This is not for a lack of talent or education. Ru-PAC’s study also found that almost half of Russian Americans surveyed reported having an advanced qualification such as a Master’s degree or Ph.D. The issue is that for whatever reason Russian Americans are simply not running to become elected representatives. This, however, is the next step in the battle against Russophobia.
And so likewise, another function of the pro-Russia lobby in the United States has to be identifying talent within the Russian American community, inspiring them to run for office, and providing platforms for those individuals to rise and become brand ambassadors for Russia and better Russia-U.S. relations. That will require an apparatus of organizers and sponsors, but the construction of that network is already underway.
Russian Americans who decide to take up the torch will undoubtedly face bigotry and accusations of being Manchurian candidates while on the campaign trail, but that will be a temporary crucible. By taking a more active role in civic life, it will create excellent opportunities to earn public trust and build the relationships that will eventually turn the tide against Russophobia. As civil rights leaders of the past have found, inclusion is always a better antidote to prejudice than self-exclusion or self-isolation.
Together, those three approaches can help make sure that Russophobia is no longer a fact of life.