The Transformation of Post-Soviet Russia’s Image in the United States: Domestic and International Challenges

Dark Pictures are Easy to Paint: Journalists and American Images of post-Soviet Russia in Historical Perspective

Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies Convention
San Antonio, Texas, November 2014

Prelude: Arthur Hays Sulzberger and Soviet Russia, 

In the summer of 1929, the daughter and son-in-law of the publisher of The New York Times traveled to Russia, where they spent ten memorable days. In a long and fascinating letter about the journey, Arthur Hays Sulzberger began with warnings: he cautioned that to be dogmatic about Russia would “lead one into dangerous pitfalls” and declared that “Russia must be compared with Russia and with no other land.”  Wise words! Yet Sulzberger could not heed his own warnings. Piqued that there was only one restaurant at Tsarskoe Selo, he proclaimed the superiority of a system with private initiative: Russia, he declared, “can only move as fast as her government whereas we spur our government to action.”

Disappointed by the colorless fair at Nizhni Novgorod, Sulzberger grumbled that a “country fair in the U.S. is more interesting and better done.”  Repelled by the dirt, disorder, ignorance, inefficiency, and lack of freedom he saw, Sulzberger ended by pronouncing: “Let them show you their best and multiply it by two … and still they can’t show you enough or hide from you sufficient to make you want to see the color red in anything but the company of white and blue.” Sulzberger thus vented emotions and ideas that would figure prominently in The Times’s representations of Russia in the following decades, including insistence on the superiority of free enterprise capitalism, scorn for Russian ways of living, and contrasts of Russia to America that affirmed the virtues of the United States.

Arthur Hays Sulzberger made some wise comments about Russia that are still up-to-date.
Arthur Hays Sulzberger made some wise comments about Russia that are still up-to-date.

As publisher of The New York Times from 1935 to 1961 Sulzberger continued to hold strong beliefs about communism and the Soviet Union.  Even in the middle of the Second World War, when he recognized the U.S. need of Russia as a military ally and had “no desire to stimulate suspicion of Russian motives and ideologies,” he felt an intense aversion to accepting “the Russian way of life” and a deep need to “hold true” to an American way of life, as he confided in a private letter in 1944.

During the postwar years, Sulzberger markedly influenced The Times’ treatment of the Soviet Union.  For example, Sulzberger’s sharp antipathy to the Soviet system led him to employ Harry Schwartz, a Syracuse University professor with close ties to U.S. intelligence agencies, as The Times’ expert on the Soviet Union.  On one occasion in 1951, agitated about Russian “expansionist ideas,” Sulzberger expressed a desire for Schwartz to “look backward and do a little propaganda on how the collective farms were built up, just how many persons were massacred in the process, etc. etc.” (As Sulzberger informed an editor later in the 1950s, he did not regard “propaganda” as “necessarily untrue”; instead, it could be a valid “method of emphasis calling attention to that which it is desired to have known.”)

In addition to feeling an emotional animus against the Soviet system that led him to want to “excoriate Russia,” Sulzberger felt a strong sense of mission to breach the Iron Curtain and promote democracy in Russia. Following the Geneva summit meeting in 1955, for example, Sulzberger urged editor Charlie Merz to publish an editorial that would argue arms reductions were “impossible until the Iron Curtain is removed, which means until democracy has taken the place of totalitarianism in Russia.”  Sulzberger also expressed his sense of mission in personal encounters.  Thus, after proselytizing a group of Soviet visitors to The Times in 1956, Sulzberger exclaimed: “If those Russians don’t go home with their heads full of democratic notions, it won’t be because I didn’t try!”

Sulzberger’s private, unpublished papers thus allow us to see some things that are worth having in mind when we turn to American journalists’ published treatments of post-Soviet Russia:
(1) that the man who did more than anyone else to make The New York Times the premier newspaper in the United States was not neutral or objective about the Soviet Union;
(2) that he helped to foster a tendency at The Times to disparage Russia for being different from the United States; and
(3) that he contributed to a long tradition at The Times of forecasting the demise of Russian governments and promoting the establishment of democracy in Russia.

These points deserve to be emphasized at the outset because for more than a century The New York Times has generally earned a distinguished reputation for accuracy and reliability.  Publisher Adolph Ochs, who took over The Times in 1896, adopted the credo, “To Give the News Impartially, Without Fear or Favor.”  His successor, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, won the respect of his reporters and editors by demanding what one called “a high standard of honesty and objectivity.”  Under Sulzberger’s heirs since 1961 The Times has maintained its overall reputation for unimpeachable integrity.

The New York Times, June 15, 1919
The New York Times, June 15, 1919

Yet in its coverage of and commentary on Russia The Times often has fallen far short of its ideals.  During the Russian Civil War, especially, The Times repeatedly published as news what its publisher and editors wanted to see: the flight of Lenin and Trotsky; the imprisonment of Lenin; the impending collapse of Bolshevism; the overthrow of the Soviet regime. The Times’ coverage thus seems to have reflected or at least accorded with the intense anticommunism of Adolph Ochs. In recent decades The Times’ editors’ and publishers’ views of Russia may have been somewhat less vehement but, as I hope to show, the paper’s treatment of Russia has continued to be misleading and distorted.

The New York Times and Post-Soviet Russia

Since I discussed American depictions of Russia in the first fifteen years after the collapse of communism in my last book, I would like to focus in this paper on American media representations of Russia in the last decade.  Among the many images of Russia – as an aggressive empire, as a bully, as a nation of sheep ruled by a paranoid, KGB-trained tyrant – I would like to concentrate on two related images: (1) a country beset by severe problems, weaknesses, and failures; (2) an unstable nation headed for a popular revolt against the Putin regime.  I will take most of my examples from The New York Times because: (1) it has placed more reporters in post-Soviet Russia than any other U.S. media organization; and (2) even in the 21st century it continues to shape how other media depict Russia.

In the first decade of the 21st century many good things happened in Russia — for example, rapid economic growth, expansion of a middle class, reduction of the number of people living in poverty, and recovery of the birth rate.  Yet American journalists depicted Russia even more negatively than they had in the 1990s and late 1980s. As journalism professor Hans Ibold demonstrated in a quantitative analysis, the percentage of negative articles in The New York Times was much higher in 2005 than it had been in 1989.

Instead of adding another quantitative study, I would like to offer a qualitative illustration from a specific phase. In the first five months after the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, The New York Times reported that a shaky economy made Russia look “distinctly volatile”; that a stock market slump made Russia seem like “just another bumbling backwater”; that the financial crisis was “just the latest in a long string of post-Soviet bank failures, financial swindles and economic collapses”; and that “slumping energy prices threaten[ed] the fiscal health and political stability that have underpinned [Putin’s] popularity at home.” (Like The New York Times, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times suggested that the financial crisis “raised questions about the viability of the Putin formula,” that the economic turmoil would lead to discontent, and that Putin appeared “politically vulnerable, with social unrest on the rise.”)

While Russia did face some serious economic and financial challenges, the articles cumulatively painted a picture of Russia that was darker than warranted at a time when the United States itself faced severe problems, including a mortgage crisis, falling real estate values, and bankruptcies of major corporations that helped to plunge America into a deep recession. It seems possible that exaggerations of the troubles in Russia served to deflect some unease about the diminished attractiveness of the American economic model.

In the first months of 2009 New York Times correspondents continued to look for signs of a revolt against Putin.
In the first months of 2009 New York Times correspondents continued to look for signs of a revolt against Putin.

In the first months of 2009 New York Times correspondents continued to look for signs of a revolt against Putin. In January, when riots broke out in the Baltic states over economic problems there, The Times publicized Swedish economist Anders Aslund’s expectation of “massive blowups” in Russia (as well as Ukraine). In February, while acknowledging that “for now, the streets are calm in Ulyanovsk,” The Times’ Moscow bureau chief, Clifford Levy, anticipated that broad economic distress “could confront the Kremlin with the first major challenge to its authority” since Putin came to power. Two weeks later Levy reported that protests in Vladivostok had “unnerved the Kremlin” and declared that “events in the Far East suggest broader rumblings.”

This line of reporting was misleading. Having followed a conservative fiscal policy and built up large financial reserves, the Putin-Medvedev government had the resources to manage the economic turbulence and did not face a serious prospect of a political revolt. By the end of March 2009, Levy recognized that “even with the global financial crisis, Russia is more stable and prosperous than at any other time in its history.”

Two and a half years later, when tens of thousands of mostly affluent Muscovites took to the streets to protest corruption and Putin’s exchange of positions with Dmitry Medvedev, The New York Times again highlighted possibilities for a popular rebellion against Putin. One correspondent reported on “new gurgles of discontent that seem to be rippling across Russia” and speculated that “a sharp decline in public support could send a signal that Mr. Putin’s hold on power is not as tight as he insists.” A second correspondent breathlessly reported that older Moscow protesters remembered “the oceans of demonstrators who marched on the Kremlin in the early 1990s, heralding the collapse of the Soviet Union.” A veteran journalist who had been in Moscow in 1991 reported that “the unfinished, nonviolent revolution that ended Communism … seems to be resuming its unpredictable course” and concluded: “What seems certain now is that history’s clock is ticking for the ‘managed democracy’ of Vladimir Putin, as it once did for the Communist order of Vladimir Lenin.”

Columnist David Brooks imagined himself as Putin  and declared: “Suddenly, I find myself in a moment of extreme vulnerability”.
Columnist David Brooks imagined himself as Putin and declared: “Suddenly, I find myself in a moment of extreme vulnerability”.

The Times’ correspondents would be disappointed. But disappointments have not led The Times’ editors to reign in prophets of Putin’s demise in the last year.  Last February The Times gave exiled Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili space to venture that “Mr. Putin’s fate might well be decided in the cold streets of Kiev.” Two weeks later, normally sober columnist David Brooks imagined himself as Putin and declared: “Suddenly, I find myself in a moment of extreme vulnerability.” In mid-March The Times published Republican Senator John McCain’s prediction that “eventually, Russians will come for Mr. Putin in the same way and for the same reasons that Ukrainians came for Viktor F. Yanukovych.”

Giving equal time to a Democrat, The Times then printed an op-ed piece by ex-Ambassador Michael McFaul, who could not say “how long the current autocratic government in Russia will endure,” but was supremely confident that the United States and its Russian allies would win the conflict with Putinism and bring democracy to Russia.

One could go on citing examples of how wishful thinking on The Times’ editorial pages ran counter to the rising Russian patriotic support for Putin, whose approval rating climbed to over 80% according to public opinion surveys. Instead, I would like to conclude this paper by addressing how we should explain the persistent predictions of the overthrow of Putin and the exaggeratedly negative depictions of Russia.

Explanations for Negative Images of Putin’s Russia

Previous studies have offered a range of explanations for distorted images of Russia in the American press, including the short duration of reporters’ assignments, their ignorance of Russia’s history, and editors’ desires to give readers colorful stories that confirmed preconceptions or stereotypes. However, since many American journalists (especially from The New York Times) who vladimir-putin-approval-rating-rating_chartbuilderhave reported and commented on post-Soviet Russia have been dedicated, hard-working, intelligent professionals who took the time to learn Russian, these explanations seem insufficient.

Journalists Ellen Shearer and Frank Starr have suggested that warped coverage of Russia stems from “a predilection among reporters for looking at events through the prism of their own expectations and beliefs” – a tendency that “has been especially noticeable among Moscow correspondents.” This explanation is important. Yet it begs the question why American reporters have been particularly prone to judging Russia by American standards.

American journalists have not always portrayed Russia in blatantly melodramatic ways. After the Cold War began to thaw in the late 1950s prominent journalists such as John Gunther and Irving Levine presented complex portraits of Russia that challenged and moved beyond the negative stereotypes of earlier years of polarized hostility. And during the détente of the mid-1970s influential journalists (most notably Hedrick Smith and Robert Kaiser) depicted the Soviet Union as a multifaceted country that was neither a terrible threat nor likely to be remolded in America’s image. It seems, therefore, that the nature of the U.S. government’s relations with the Russian government in specific periods may affect journalists’ depictions of Russia.

A related explanation has been presented by President Putin.  In 2007, when Time magazine writers asked whether he wanted to correct any mistaken American notions about Russia, Putin declared that the problem was not misconceptions but “a purposeful attempt by some to create an image of Russia based on which one could influence our internal and foreign policies.”

Although Putin has tended to exaggerate the U.S. Government’s influence on American journalistshe may be right that demeaning images of Russia serve to justify American preaching and to undercut Russia’s claims to have a say in world affairs. Some scholars have viewed news coverage of Russia similarly, as part of the articulation of hegemonic relations of power. In the light of U.S. military and covert operations around the world, American moral superiority to Russia is not simply self-evident; it must be constructed, and journalists’ depictions of Russia undoubtedly have played a part in that process.

Manichean depictions of Russia cannot simply be explained as cynical efforts to create leverage over the Kremlin, though. As Stephen Cohen has argued, journalists have shared with many policymakers and scholars a genuine, albeit misguided, missionary belief that the United States could and should remake Russia in its image.

Propagandistic portrayals of Russia can be traced back a long way.
Propagandistic portrayals of Russia can be traced back a long way.

The origins of that sense of mission and the related propagandistic portrayals of Russia can be traced back a long way. George Kennan, the late nineteenth century crusader against the Siberian exile system who roused American indignation at tsarist despotism and urged Americans to believe in a future “free Russia,” was a journalist.  (He worked for the Associated Press and then as a freelancer.) By depicting Russian revolutionaries as worshipers of the United States Kennan affirmed the American self-image as a shining city upon a hill.  By insisting that the Russian government’s sins (for example, condoning pogroms) were incomparably worse than problems in America (for example, lynchings), Kennan deflected anxieties about U.S. imperfections. During the Cold War, as Dina Fainberg has shown, key American journalists played similar roles, generating negative images of the Soviet “other” and affirming the superiority of American liberal capitalism. In the post-Soviet era many American journalists have continued to buttress American exceptionalism and messianism, in part by contrasting American truth and light to Russia’s lies and darkness.

As Kennan’s biographer aptly observed, Kennan exaggerated the evils of Siberian prisons in order to paint them “in even blacker colors than the shade that some of them so richly deserved.” Yet instead of looking critically at Kennan’s work, leading journalists have viewed him as “a model for investigative journalism,” a hero who realistically exposed the horrors of tsarist cruelty. And they have wittingly or unwittingly followed in Kennan’s footsteps, most sensationally when the Wall Street Journal in February 2008 featured a pair of articles on “Putin’s Torture Colonies” and “Putin’s Political Prisoners” that condemned “what Russia has become in the Age of Putin.”

Later that year New York Times correspondent Andrew Kramer stepped back for a moment from his hyperbolic description of Russia’s economic crisis and confided, “Dark pictures are easy to paint.”  Sometimes journalists apply the black ink directly.  In June 2008, for example, The Times editorialized about Russia’s slide toward the “dark old days,” and in November The Times claimed to see “dark flashbacks” to the Cold War in a speech by Medvedev. More commonly, as I have tried to show, journalists blacken Russia’s image by focusing on negative developments, overstating their severity, and rarely devoting attention to positive developments.

Almost fifteen years ago, Meg Greenfield, the editorial page editor of the Washington Post from 1979 to 1999, warned in a memoir that when journalists “start trying to get the story to justify our assumptions … we have walked off the job.” Unfortunately, in view of the long history of distorted representations of Russia by even the best U.S. newspaper, it seems likely that American journalists will continue to try to get the story of Russia to justify their assumptions about the United States and its role in the world.

Dr. David Fogleson is the Rutgers’ University Historian, specializing in U.S.-Russia history. Fogelson is author of “The American Mission and the Evil Empire”.

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    1. Seamus Padraig

      “Under Sulzberger’s heirs since 1961 The Times has maintained its overall reputation for unimpeachable integrity.”

      Two words: Judy Miller.

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