Stop poking the Bear

The West should try some empathy with Russia

The Boston Globe recently ran an opinion piece about Russia by a former diplomat that was anything but diplomatic. The piece was witty and terse – and mean. Perfect for clicks. “Russia is so far behind economically, technologically, socially, and politically, it just doesn’t matter anymore.”

I have a different take, one that goes back to the fall of 1994, the nadir of the post-Soviet unraveling. I was studying for the semester in Moscow. The government was struggling to deliver such basic services as fixing sidewalks, clearing snow, hauling garbage, and, to be frank, picking up the dead bodies. The burning piles of garbage in the residential courtyards were fitting ornaments to Moscow’s overcast charm.

On this lovely day, though, I was strolling through downtown Yaroslavl, a city on the Volga some hours north of Moscow, where the air did not make you choke. Walking past an adorable bear named Masha, who had come to Yaroslavl with a visiting circus and stayed, my Russian companion commented: “Americans think all Russians are bears, right?”

“What?”

“Americans think Russia is filled with bears.” She laughed.

Bear 1980 Olympics

“Hmm. Not sure.” It seemed like a strange image, but she spoke as if to confirm something well-known. I was only 20 and I had not yet picked up on bears as the symbol of Russia. The idea is that bears are large, fierce, and clumsy. The 1980 Olympic mascot was a smiling, cuddly cub named Misha – a huggable, loveable teddy bear. Putin’s Sochi Olympics featured an enormous cartoon-like bear with a tear running down its cheek in the closing ceremony. It was supposed to be heartwarming, but it looked mildly creepy.

“What do Americans think of Russians?” she asked.

I mulled it over. If anything, Americans might flash to Rocky V’s antihero: emotionless, single-minded, machine-like, hulking, and blonde. “I must break you.” The actor is actually Swedish, though, and the character was a communist bad guy, from an era that had ended. No, Americans did not think of Russians as stoic boxers or as bears. Worse: in 1994, they were not thinking about Russians at all.

When the Cold War ended, Russians had dropped off their radar, not to return until a certain image came across social media, an image that could not be unseen: Vladimir Putin shirtless.

Russians had not dropped off my radar. I was obsessed with Russia. I loved the home-cooked-from-scratch cabbage pies, the improbable adventures, the underground palaces called metro stations, the centuries of dramatic history all telescoped into spots on the map, the hunts for wild mushrooms, the poems people memorized, the flawless performances in imperial theaters, the chilling stories shared over tea (always with sweets, always), the cozy compartments in overnight trains, and the imposing scale of monuments and everything. I was even addicted to Red October, the intense chocolate confections that were nothing like bland Hershey’s. Of course, Red October made a candy called Clumsy Bear.

Moscow in 1994 was a tough place, though. Once winter settled over the city in mid-autumn, the city’s environment perfectly matched the city’s mood. I was struck that Moscow, the whole fabulous capital city, its people and infrastructure included, was in mourning. The overt mourning, notably, was for losses in the Second World War, 50 years earlier. There were not many old men around. Every person was telling me stories of loss from that era – the spouse, father, or grandfather who died at the front, the mother or baby who died from malnutrition and illness. People had found a way to move forward from the incomprehensible death and destruction of the 1930s and 1940s: they would work together to build the Soviet dream. When the dream fizzled out, and society spiraled into anarchy and violence, past and new trauma merged.

I remember the elation we felt in America at the end of the Cold War, the moment of possibility and new partnership. I signed up for my high school exchange to Moscow in both 1990 and 1992. As the Scorpions sang, “Follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park, and listen to the winds of change,” so I did. And what I heard in those winds of change, by 1994, was America celebrating during Russia’s dire moment.

Now, decades later, the Boston Globe has run an opinion piece promulgating a new patronizing metaphor: “Russia is a soccer hooligan: poor, drunk, and frustrated it can’t win anymore.” The same article refers to the famous bear: “After generations of fearing the Soviet Bear, the West patted it on the head, sent it some aid, and turned its eyes with expectation towards the emerging powers of Brazil, India, and China.”

The West had not only “feared the Bear,” but also engaged the Bear in a devastating arms race. When the Soviet colossus collapsed, President George Bush declared victory and celebrated that America could now go-it-alone as the world’s preeminent superpower. Then America turned its back. America had spent trillions on the Cold War, but did not mobilize for any kind of serious engagement with Russia once the Soviet Bear had met its demise.

People argue that Russia has vast natural resources: it should not need any help or make any excuses. That is easy to argue when you have inherited all of the advantages of the West.

While the West was turning away from post-Soviet Russia, the Russians were looking to the West. As James Billington wrote in his iconic 1966 cultural history of Russia, The Icon and The Axe: “Few problems have disturbed Russians more than the nature of their relationship to the West.” I recently sent the quote to my friend Vladislav Kukhtikov who lives in Moscow and works for a European company. I met him in Moscow in 1994, when he was a college student. Here is an excerpt from his comments:

“Russia aspired to be a partner whose interests are taken seriously. The West’s point of view was that Russia had lost the Cold War and should play by the winners’ rules.  The West saw Russia as a fading power, a small commodity-based economy, and hence not as a place with the right of veto in the new world order.

Over the centuries, Russia saw Europe as a model, but Russia is too big and clumsy to budge. Russia has an inferiority complex and is very anxious about how it is perceived in the West. On the other hand, Russia pulled some unbelievable stuff when everyone else failed. Russia loves to show off, to make something really big. This is the side of Russian identity that Russians are proud of – and how they differentiate Russia from the West.

Many here believe that Russia should not build its policy solely on opposition to the West. We need a constructive agenda, involving both the pursuit of national interests and collaboration with Western powers. Some rivalry is inevitable, though. I see rivalry as useful. It keeps us in shape, makes us work harder.”

Meet the Author

Perhaps we in the West can refrain for a moment from calling Russia names, and begin engaging in problem solving. Empathy might help.

Amy Dain runs a consulting business in Newton that focuses on public policy research. She can be reached atdainresearch@gmail.com.