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The American Mission and the "Evil Empire:" The Crusade for a "Free Russia" since 1881

"The contemporary vilification of Russia may be less about the rationalization of U.S. interests and policies and more about the affirmation of an American identity," stated David S. Foglesong, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University, and former Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute. Speaking at a 9 June 2008 Kennan Institute lecture, Foglesong said that his book, The American Mission and the "Evil Empire:" The Crusade for a "Free Russia" since 1881, explores the American concern with liberating and remaking Russia over a span of 130 years. Using a wide array of both visual and rhetorical images of Russia in the United States, from advertisements and magazine covers to political cartoons and policy idioms, Foglesong demonstrated how the political crusade for a free Russia can be seen as part of the broader missionary enterprise that reflects America's national purpose, meaning, and identity.

Foglesong identified some of the predominant images of Russia that occur currently in the U.S., and then linked them to their historical origins. In contemporary representations of Russia, Foglesong recognized strong traditions of mission and crusade, powered by dichotomous paradigms such as good and evil, light and dark, freedom and oppression, and democracy and autocracy. According to Foglesong, U.S. politicians today denounce and disparage Russian leaders in an effort to gain favor with certain domestic groups. The U.S. media, he noted, regularly invoke the image of Russia as a prison, with former Russian president Vladimir Putin as its warden.

This contemporary picture of Russia as a prison, Foglesong observed, strikingly resembles images of Russia that were developed more than a century ago by George Kennan the Elder in his crusade against tsarist despotism. According to Foglesong, it was during this period that Russia began to function as America's "dark double," or rather, a foil for the reaffirmation of American national identity. "Russia was especially suited for this role of dark double," Foglesong posited, "because its people were believed to be—at least potentially—very much like Americans; they were white, nominally Christian, and had shared the frontier experience of expanding across a continent." Foglesong explained that these likenesses supported the sense that Russians could easily and naturally be converted, in both a political and religious sense, by the American mission.

The religious language that George Kennan the Elder used to mobilize the American population—against "oppressive autocracy" and "the corrupt, superstitious, Orthodox Church"—established religious liberty as crucial to the broader reformation of Russia. Foglesong explained how this linkage became a decisive and persistent fixture of the American view of Russia, shaping the prevailing messianic and Manichaean attitudes of the U.S. toward Russia.

"By 1905," Foglesong stated, "this fundamental reorientation of American views of Russia had set up a historical pattern in which missionary zeal and messianic euphoria would be followed by disenchantment and embittered denunciation of Russia's evil and oppressive rulers." The first cycle, according to Foglesong, culminated in 1905, when the October Manifesto, perceived initially by Americans as a transformation to democracy, gave way to a violent socialist revolt. Foglesong observed similar cycles of euphoria to despair during the collapse of the tsarist government in 1917, during the partial religious revival of World War II, and during the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s

Crucial to Foglesong's analysis was how these cycles coincided with a contemporaneous need to deflect attention away from America's own blemishes and enhance America's claim to its global mission. For example, Foglesong argued that "a vital factor in the revival of the crusade in the 1970s was the need to expunge doubts about American virtue instilled by the Vietnam War, revelations about CIA covert actions, and the Watergate scandal."

By tracing American representations of Russia over the last 130 years, Foglesong illuminated three of the strongest notions that have informed American attitudes toward Russia: (1) a messianic faith that America could inspire sweeping overnight transformation from autocracy to democracy; (2) a notion that despite historic differences, Russia and America are very much akin, so that Russia, more than any other country, is America's "dark double;" (3) an extreme antipathy to "evil" leaders who Americans blame for thwarting what they believe to be the natural triumph of the American mission. These expectations and emotions continue to effect how American journalists and politicians write and talk about Russia. "My hope," Foglesong concluded, "is that by seeing how these attitudes have distorted American views of Russia for more than a century, we may begin to be able to escape their grip."

About the Author

Sarah Dixon Klump

Editorial Assistant
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more