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Ressentiment and growth of anti-Americanism in Russia: change in elite and mass attitudes during 1993 – 2009

A report by Boris Sokolov at the LCSR regular seminar

On April, 11, Boris Sokolov, junior research fellow at the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research, delivered a report on «Ressentiment and growth of anti-Americanism in Russia: change in elite and mass attitudes during 1993 – 2009» at the  regular LSCR Seminar .

Researchers take two approaches to explaining anti-Americanism in Russia: they present anti-Americanism as either issue-oriented or instrumental. According to the issue-oriented theory of anti-Americanism, negative attitudes towards the US emerge as a reaction to its foreign policy, especially to specific tensions in the Russian-American relations at a particular moment.  Instrumental theories emphasize the role of the ruling elite in maintaining the anti-American sentiment among the mass publics; those politicians who seek popular support and/or a lightning-rod to channel away the people's frustration with their own performance stimulate mass anti-Americanism via various communication channels to achieve their selfish goals.

In the case of Russia, there is apparently some evidence in support of both theories.  However, two important questions about the causes of Russian anti-Americanism are still open. First, the polls show that anti-American sentiment peaks at some critical periods of the US-Russian relations, such as the Kosovo crisis of 1999, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.  This may be interpreted as a case of issue-oriented anti-Americanism.  Nevertheless, there are no obvious peaks before 1999 even though there were similar events going on then, such as the Desert Storm operation in Iraq or the Western support of Bosnians and Croats in their wars with Serbs.

On the other hand, the data show that the major surge in the elite's level of anti-Americanism took place between 1993 and 1995, roughly half a decade before the mass spread of anti-American sentiment provoked by the Kosovo crisis. This may support the instrumental theory of anti-Americanism in Russia. However, it also raises a question about the source of this radical change in the elite's own attitude.

William, Eduard, Boris, Irina, and Yegor address these questions using an alternative theory of anti-Americanism. They adopt the notion of ressentiment as it was described by Liah Greenfeld in her well-known volume “Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity” to build a causal model which ties elite disappointment and frustration over an attempt to westernize Russia during the liberal reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent growth of anti-Americanism in the country.

The concept of ressentiment was introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche describing the slave's envy and hatred of his master. Liah Greenfeld uses this concept when she describes the origin of nationalism in various countries. The concept of ressentiment in her work refers to the modernizing elite's feeling of disappointment with a model country that they want to emulate. Hence, there is an attitude change from idealization and admiration to hostility and resentment. The source of this transformation is the elite's frustration over their own failure to modernize their country following a foreign model.  Authors argue that a similar phenomenon took place in Russia, and it became the initial driver of anti-Americanism in the country in the 1990s. To obtain empirical evidences for their theory researchers used the data from “New Russian Barometer”collected by Richard Rose. Running several logit regression models, they found that the level of disappointment in the outcomes of the democratic transit positively affects individual anti-Americanism.

Nevertheless, one may object that this operationalization does not fully reflect the phenomenon of ressentiment because those who had shown strong adherence to the Soviet system before perestroyka also were disappointed in the consequences of the reforms of the early 1990s. Therefore, researchers used another indirect indicator of being exposed to ressentiment. They hypothesized that people who believe in positive future outcomes of current governmental policy are less hostile to the United States when the government governs in “American” style (here this means that the government maintain democracy and free market), and there is an opposite effect when the government governs in “anti-American”  (e.g., if the government allow for various anti-democratic practices). In other words, this allows reflecting indirectly whether people support democratic (“American”) ideals or not.

Again, quantitative analysis partly confirmed this idea. Those who evaluate perspectives of future development of economic and political system positively actually demonstrate a lower level of anti-Americanism. However, expected change of the direction of the effect after Putin’s coming to power was no detected.

It was also found that the effect of disappointment decreases over time. Moreover, both disappointment and confidence are still significant after accounting for various control variables. There is also additional evidence in favour of ressentiment theory because of significant effect of higher education on anti-Americanism. Moreover, there is a positive interaction effect between education and disappointment.

Surely, empirical analysis presented in the study has some important limitations. It is worth noting in this respect that, first, all of them are produced by available datasets. In addition, authors do not insist that the ressentiment is the only cause of anti-Americanism in Russia. Instead they proposed an alternative three-stage model for the growth of anti-American sentiment in Russia which integrates ressentiment theory with both instrumental and issue-oriented theories.

According to the dynamic model advocated by Boris and his colleagues, on the first stage (1990-1995) ressentiment was the main source of anti-American sentiments among Russians. Elite members, especially highly educated ones, were more exposed to ressentiment than masses (as their hopes were more concrete and strong), so the growth of anti-Americanism occurred earlier among elites than among other population. Masses also were frustrated over the reforms but they nevertheless did not link the failure of the perestroyka with the United States (as elites did). However, mass disappointment allowed elites for using manipulation and propaganda to achieve their short- and mid-term political goals (second stage: 1995-2005). Elite ressentiment gradually affected public opinion via various communication channels. Finally, negative emotional reaction to some actions of the US government which perceived by Russian as “hostile” also affected the attitudinal change. As a result, while in 1990 most Russians were relatively pro-American, in the end of 2000th about 60% of Russian population (and even more among the elite) shared negative attitudes towards the USA.
by Boris Sokolov

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