Chen: How the US ‘americanizing’ of Russia led to present day tensions

Sophie Chen, Op-Ed Contributor

Russia has Americans in a tizzy.

Recent news of Russian troll farms and Facebook social engineering have many Americans calling for isolationism, protectionism and harder stances towards their long-time rival. Predictably, this has also caused old stereotypes about Russian “spies” to resurface and I have heard angry friends denounce Vladimir Putin as a one-sided, unforgivable jerk.

These notions are misguided.

We should realize, though, that Russia’s interferences — beyond their legal and political implications — seem so frightening because we are accustomed to the United States. “American-izing” other nations, we are not used to the feeling of foreign hands slithering around our domestic sanctuaries. Conversely, ask nearly any other country in the world, and they can tell you how familiar the tendrils of U.S. influence feels to them.

And in the history of American intervention, arguably few nations have experienced national mortification on a global scale as deeply as the Russian Federation has. As the U.S. recoils from the trepidation of foreign invasion, it is important to understand that American history of international meddling may have contributed to Russia’s seeming embarrassment with its international standing. This has likely come to influence their activities in Eurasia and on this side of the Pacific.

To understand this possible embarrassment, we should trace the story of a seemingly innocuous agreement from the end of the Cold War — “the chicken deal.” The chicken deal, struck in 1990 between Mikhail Gorbachev and former President George H.W. Bush, dictated that the friendly U.S. was to send its abundance of dark meat chicken legs to Russia, where there was a food shortage. Happy to send these “Bush legs” throughout the 1990s to reformed Soviets, American citizens chomped away at their own white chicken breast dinners, pleased with their humanitarianism.

Yet, a decade and a half later, in “thinly disguised” attitudes of protectionism, Putin banned imported poultry outright in 2014, thereby ending chicken diplomacy. Why would Russian reject this offer which was so palatably delicious, both in subject and political-economic savvy?

In part, it was because, for a long time, Russians could have felt like they were becoming strangers in their own land.

In reality, the chicken deal was only a small part of a larger trend of Americanization in the former Soviet Union. During his tenure, Thomas Pickering, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996, noticed the jarring impact that American imports had on the landscape. He saw that Russia was flooded with American goods from “Snickers bars, which were quite famous, to wheat and grain.”

But the novelty soon wore thin and the grating self-assurance of American bounty in Russia could have contributed to making the country feel insecure. The aforementioned glut of incoming chicken prompted Russian uncertainty about the strength of their own meat industry, causing them to reject assistance in order to develop internal industry. This was in line with a strong tradition of recent and not-so-recent protectionist reactions in the food, banking, and steel sectors. In light of American economic fertility, Russia seemed barren in comparison and that self-doubt is still being manifested in self-destructive and aggressive foreign policy today.

On top of that, the unfurling of the U.S.S.R. was simultaneously used to highlight western dominance in humiliating fashion. As early as credit could be taken, the Reagan administration hailed the fall of the Berlin Wall as a personal victory and Boris Yeltsin — the President succeeding Gorbachev in 1991 — was perceived negatively by many Russians, a mockery to his own people. By the late 1990s, such social embarrassments led Russians to believe that they had become merely “Bangladesh with missiles.”

Now, I am in no way advocating we let violations go unchecked. We must crack down on oligarchs’ kleptocratic investments and electoral interference. We should also denounce Russian imperialism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. We cannot not let Russia reap what it believes to be its just revenge because of spilled milk. I only argue that we cannot dismiss Putin’s actions to some inherent Russian character or ancient, predestined hatred towards the U.S.

We cannot continue to isolate Russia, without sympathy, as if Putin were an evil aberration, borne from nothing but national incompetence. His rise to power and (some) of his foreign policy has roots in the horror of the U.S.’s own interference in Russia. Without empathy towards Russian frustration, these proposals will only exasperate the helplessness that Russia feels from the West and prompt destructive behavior from an already volatile leader.

Sophie Chen is a Weinberg junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.