"Distribution of Food" by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1892
"Distribution of Food" by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1892

Since Before Civil War, America Has Framed Russia in Terms of Domestic Politics

September 06, 2019
Ivan Kurilla

Contrary to what some contemporary observers may think, Russia did not emerge as a focus of domestic U.S. political debates during the years of the Cold War, much less during the presidential contest of 2016. The habit of using Russia in internal American disputes, and the political language around it, first arose in the early years of the republic, some 50 years before the Civil War. As a historian of that period, I could not help but see “Russiagate” as part of that long tradition. For both sides of these domestic U.S. debates, then as now, the real Russia was a blur: They used their own constructions of Russia in order to score points in domestic political battles. This is by no means to say that Russia as an international actor is inculpable or gives no reason for U.S. apprehensions; however, when the topic of Russia crops up in American political debates, domestic fissures are sure to be the cause.

In the first decades after independence, America did not pay much attention to Russia: The country was too far geographically, economically and politically to include it in foreign-policy calculations. England, France and Spain were much more important counterparts for the young republic.

The first big U.S. discussion about Russia took place in 1813, when both countries were at war—the United States against England, and Russia against Napoleonic France. The choice between England and France for the first generation of American politicians coincided with a stark domestic division: The Federalist party tended to promote British connections, while Jeffersonian Republicans considered France the best ally for the American republic. The Federalists fiercely opposed the War of 1812, calling it “Mr. Madison’s war,” but it would have been unpatriotic to openly support the enemy. Russian victories over Napoleon gave the Federalists reason to celebrate the defeat of France, an ally of their domestic foes. The Federalists organized two big dinners (about 500 guests each), the first in Boston and the second in Georgetown, to toast Russian victories, Russian bravery and Russian love of freedom. In response, politicians and media supporting U.S. President James Madison’s administration started a campaign to discredit Russia as an uncivilized nation not deserving of American sympathies. It was that public debate that started the accumulation of contradictory images of Russia in the American political discourse—brave and freedom-loving on one hand, barbaric and autocratic on the other.

The next “Russian debate” in the U.S. happened in the middle of the 19th century, when European revolutionaries in Germany, France and Hungary invoked the American model in describing their goals. Russia, on the contrary, served as guarantor of the Vienna system of international relations—created after the Napoleonic wars in 1815 and based on the principle of legitimacy (i.e., keeping European monarchical dynasties in power, even with the assistance of foreign armies)—and thus was considered a natural foe of the bright-new-future national states that would emerge from the European revolutions. The United States even sent a diplomatic agent to the Hungarian revolutionaries in anticipation of the independent Magyar state’s emergence. However, Russia helped Austria suppress the Hungarian rebellion, the monarchs won and the revolutionaries were punished or emigrated. (The U.S. received an energetic group of “forty-niners” who actively participated in U.S. politics during the second half of the century.)

One of the results of 1848’s “Spring of Nations” was a new set of references by which radicals both in the U.S. and in Europe described international politics. The United States became a model society. Such a social construction required a binary alternative to stand in opposition , some place that was (or could be described as) exactly opposite to everything Americans cherish. Russia, the most traditional among European nations, was the natural choice. A group of U.S. politicians who called themselves “Young America” insisted that the United States should revolutionize diplomatic practice and support revolutionaries versus their governments. For them, Russia was the embodiment of everything hostile to their goals. In 1852, a young politician and future congressman, Henry Winter Davis, published “The War of Ormuzd and Ahriman in the Nineteenth Century,” in which Russia represented the force of dark and America represented the force of light. It was the first American treatise on U.S.-Russian relations.

Such a worldview, while eerily familiar to students of the Cold War that began a century later, did not last long. With the defeat of revolution in Europe, radical views on U.S.-Russian relations gave way to more traditional diplomatic practice, and the new approach to international relations suggested by Young America was postponed until the following century. However, the Russian theme did not disappear from U.S. politics. During the last decade before the U.S. Civil War, Russia was repeatedly invoked in domestic debates about slavery. As the largest European nation that had kept intact its own institution of involuntary work and personal bondage—serfdom—Russia provided a variety of examples for both defenders and critics of slavery. A leading ideologue of slavery, George Fitzhugh, in 1857 described the American South, together with Russia, as the only conservative part of the civilized world. In the same year, young abolitionist Andrew Dixon White lectured his compatriots on the evils of Russian serfdom with a view to educate Americans about the sins of slaveholding. When Russia emancipated serfs in 1861, for several years Russia became a model for American abolitionists. In 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln even asked former chargé d'affaires in St. Petersburg Bayard Taylor to lecture in the U.S. on the subject; Lincoln needed to use Russia as an example in preparation to abolish slavery in the United States.

We see in these examples the shaping of a tradition that is now already two centuries old: using Russia in America’s domestic political battles. The problem with such usage is not with factual precision but with emphasis and framing. Again, whatever Moscow’s actual misdeeds, Russiagate nonetheless serves as another example of the re-invention of Russia as a foreign foe responsible for domestic troubles. Contemporary Russia deserves much of the criticism it receives from its own domestic opposition and from the international community; however, the way it is criticized in the U.S. media proceeds much less from the problems the Russian authoritarian regime creates for the world or for its own people than from a U.S. need to export responsibility for unexpected domestic political developments. From the early 19th century to today, the “Russia” of American political construction is almost as far from the real Russia I live in as the “America” of Russian propaganda is from the real United States I study and often visit.


Ivan Kurilla

Ivan Kurilla is a professor of history at the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia.