America’s Mission in Russia

Professor David S. Foglesong from Rutgers University has written a fascinating book, The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”: The Crusade for a “Free Russia” since 1881. Foglesong traces the efforts of Americans to liberate and remake Russia over the last 140 years. He studied the involvement of journalists, political activists, missionaries, and diplomats with a special focus on how religious beliefs in America helped to shape their sense of duty to emancipate, convert or reform Russia. He also argues that for many of those involved in Russia, the belief that Russia was being remade in America’s image was held because of their desire to reaffirm America’s special virtue and historic mission in the world.

I found this book to be a stimulating read. I was especially interested in how Foglesong connected the religious currents in America to the nation’s political agenda, particularly the “evangelical streak” that undergirded U.S. policy toward the “evil empire.” He notes that in response to the Russian revolutions of 1905, March 1917, and August 1991, many Americans expressed great enthusiasm about the expected rapid transformation of Russia into a nation resembling the United States, with democratic institutions, religious liberty, and a market economy. Then, when Russia failed to follow this course, many Americans quickly became disillusioned, blaming Russia’s failure on the national character of its people and demonizing Russian leaders who failed to meet our expectations.

America and Post-Soviet Russia

I began my work in Russia in 1990 and lived through the period Foglesong described in chapter nine of his book, “Mission Unaccomplished: American and Post-Soviet Russia.” I was in Moscow in August 1991 when the attempted coup against Gorbachev by Communist hardliners took place and then failed after three days. For many Americans – journalists, politicians, diplomats and religious leaders, the collapse of the coup in 1991 and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union in December 1991 lead to great euphoria. I vividly remember being at a conference center outside Moscow when the coup collapsed on August 21, 1991, and we stood in a circle with Russian faculty members and sang “We Shall Overcome” in English and then hugged each other. For many Americans, the expectation was that Russia would become a liberal democracy, create a flourishing market economy, and experience the widespread revival of Christianity.

But, in the summer of 1998, the infant Russian stock market collapsed, the Kremlin defaulted on foreign loans, and a former head of the KGB became Prime Minister. The euphoria of the early 1990s quickly gave way to a demonization of unregenerate Russians who were corrupt, superstitious and slavish. American investors fled Russia, journalists blamed Russian national character for its fear of freedom and democracy, and Republicans took advantage of this opportunity to blame Democrats for having “lost Russia.”

Folgesong argues that the problematic assumptions of journalists and policy-makers in the 1990s can be grouped into two main schools of thought: 1) liberal universalist confidence in the inevitable democratization of the former Soviet Union; and 2) Russophobic pessimism about turning a former totalitarian enemy into a genuine democratic ally.

In the first case, liberal universalists maintained that Russia had no choice but to Westernize. Globalization set the context wherein nations needed to Westernize in order to modernize and become integrated into the world economic community. The problem with this perspective is that the resistance to the hardliners’ coup attempt in August 1991 in Russia was not a popular, democratic, pro-market movement. In fact, only a relatively small number of people in major cities opposed the coup leaders. In addition, liberal universalists exaggerated the depth of enthusiasm in Russia for America and its model as a society.

The second group, in marked contrast to the first, consistently stressed the ingrained resistance toward Westernization in Russia. Some scholars, such as Professor Samuel Huntington from Harvard University, defined Russia at its core as an Orthodox civilization that was almost impossible to change. Russia’s long history of top-down leadership and oppression of the people by the ruling elites made any democratic transformation highly unlikely.

Finding a New Approach

I agree with Folgesong’s assessment that Americans need a more balanced approach toward Russia and a willingness to work with Russia, but not for the purpose of remaking Russia in America’s image. Currently the negative attitudes toward Russia are as excessive as the euphoria about its miraculous transformation in the early 1990s. Many positive changes have taken place in Russia and Americans have played a role in encouraging religious renewal, a growing civil society, and an entrepreneurial spirit. But we also deserve blame for some negative developments, such as presidential support for an erratic and increasingly autocratic Boris Yeltsin who discredited democracy during his presidency. Encouraging the hasty privatization of state enterprises was another error that contributed to massive corruption by the Russian oligarchs.

Folgesong concludes his study with an observation that deserves our consideration: “At bottom, Americans were not as successful as they might have been in promoting a free Russia during the 1990s because they failed to live up to their own ideals: they showed a lack of faith in democratic processes, put short-term expediency above long-term goals, and allowed fears to outrun hopes” (p. 218).

In addition, I would add this: our policy toward Russia focused on the creation of new political and economic systems, without addressing the deeper issues of rebuilding the moral and ethical foundations of Russian society, a foundation destroyed by 70 years of Marxism-Leninism. Without the rebuilding of trust and respect for the dignity of persons made in God’s image, for example, how can we realistically expect a society to make the difficult transition to freedom and democracy? Russia does not have to be remade in America’s image to face a better future, but its moral and religious foundations need to be laid anew.