Russian Youth See America As a Model
A public opinion poll of 1,365 Russians, done for The Christian Science Monitor, finds many younger people hold idealized views of America while older Russians distrust it.. GENERATION GAP
MOSCOW — A DECADE after their country began opening to the West, Russians hold sharply split views toward their former superpower rivals, the Americans.
Younger, better educated, more affluent Russians now hold a strongly favorable view of Americans and American life. But older, less-educated Russians tend to say their opinion of the United States has worsened since end of the cold war.
These conclusions come from a survey of Russians done for the Monitor this month by the Public Opinion Fund in Moscow.
Andrei Godomsky expresses views typical of younger Russians. ''People are more jealous than anything else because Americans can work well, and we can't for some reason,'' says the burly, bearded blond who works on a rescue boat near the old city of Vladimir. ''Here, people just want to fill their own pockets.''
Older Russians' less-positive view is not just due to a residual cold-war attitude that has lessened ever since glasnost (openness) was introduced here by former leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
A stronger force in their views seems to be their recent experience of a more American-style economy. Russians over 55 years of age, facing shrinking incomes, are significantly more likely to see American investment in their regions as negative.
''We see Russia living through what Americans went through a long time ago,'' says Sergei Makharov, a snack bar manager. Russia will achieve the kind of economy the US has now in 40 years, he estimates.
But if many young people tend to have idealized views of American life, older Russians have had a rough time as their country Westernizes. Their pensions are worth a small fraction of their purchasing power before the economic reforms of 1992.
While he associates Americans with progress in high technology, says Fyodor Galaida, a soft-spoken retiree from the St. Petersburg area, ''Capital is capital, and pursues its own interests.''
''I think America will be helping Russia very little,'' he says.
''Dollars are conquering all of Russia,'' says Marina Perelotova, a pensioner who also works at a Moscow train station. ''That's not good for Russia,'' she says, because it devalues the ruble. Although it is illegal to spend dollars in Russia, Russians hold most of their savings in dollars.
When asked what their attitude would be toward American investment in their local area, more Russians said it would be good than bad.
But of Russians over age 55, 16 percent more saw it negative than saw it positive. More Russians under 35 looked favorably on American investment (see graph).
If older Russians are suspicious of American capital, they also tend toward anti-Western views in other respects. When asked if they would like to live in Russia the way Americans live in America, the negative views again are grouped among the elderly. Those under 55 were 2 to 1 in favor of living like Americans, while those over 55 were 2 to 1 against.
When asked whether their view of America has improved or worsened since the beginning of perestroika (restructuring) in 1985, 6 percent more Russians over 55 said their views had worsened than those who said they had improved. But for under 35, the divide goes dramatically the other way: More young Russians said they saw America more favorably.
The balance said their views had not changed or that they had no opinion. During the cold war, Russians generally held more negative attitudes toward America than now, says the president of the Public Opinion Fund, Alexander Oslon.
Soviet propaganda disparaging the US was ''crude but effective,'' he says. America was like another planet seen as both the enemy and as a remote paradise.
Valeriy Ledvedev, a genial former merchant marine sailor wearing the decorations of a World War II veteran, recalls learning as a schoolchild that America was a place where rich capitalists exploited the poor, especially blacks. But television arrived during the era of former Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev, he saw something different.
''I could see that America's poor lived several times better than we did,'' he says. And he saw American blacks at sporting events and walking in clean parks in a way that did not jibe with Soviet rhetoric.
But the reality of Western-oriented economic policy in Russia has not been glowing for those on fixed incomes disintegrated by hyperinflation. By late Monday afternoon this week, Mr. Ledvedev had been waiting in Moscow's Leningradskaya station since 6 a.m. and couldn't afford to buy anything to eat. Five years ago, he could have.
When Andrei Godomsky, the young boatman, was in school, he would compare the cars and goods made in America to others and concluded: ''How could people whose rights were limited make such beautiful things?''
The poll surveyed 1,365 Russians from all regions of the country. Because telephones are not universal in homes outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, 99 percent of the interviews were conducted face-to-face. Russians also do not have a tradition of ''sincere communication'' over the telephone, says Oslon, so telephone interviews are less reliable. The Public Opinion Fund is one of about five leading polling organizations in Russia.