Why Russians are so captivated by Trump

Negative feelings toward the US are higher than at any time since scientific polling began in Russia in the mid-1980s. But many see the prospect for a turnaround.

Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, answers questions as he takes part in a meeting of People's Front Forum in Moscow on Nov. 22.

Nina Moreyeva, a Moscow pensioner, says she followed the recent US presidential election closely, and was totally behind Donald Trump.

She says the main reason for that was simply the fear of war, and her hopes for more peaceful relations. "Hillary Clinton was always against Russia, even when she was speaking to domestic audiences," she says. "I had sympathy for Trump. He has kind eyes in his pictures."

Ms. Moreyeva is not unusual in her intense interest in the US vote, nor in her preference for Mr. Trump. Russians have always been fascinated with the United States, seeing it as the only country in the world that they will compare themselves with. Their attitudes toward it have swung over the decades between uncritical love and bitter hatred. Right now, negative feelings are higher than at any time since scientific polling began in Russia in the mid-1980s, but the hopes aroused by Trump's election rhetoric about better relations with Russia could turn that around.

A post-election poll conducted by the state-funded VTsIOM found that almost 70 percent were paying attention to coverage of the campaign toward the end, and they were 11 times more likely to favor Trump than Mrs. Clinton. In the poll, 45 percent said they would have voted for Trump, while just 4 percent named Clinton. Almost 30 percent said they expect Trump to become "one of the best presidents in US history," and nearly half said they hope US-Russian relations will improve. 

"Since Soviet times, the idea to catch up and overtake the USA has been a key idea in Russian popular consciousness. The idea of competition has always been there, but there is also a strong desire to be treated as equals," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, Russia's only independent public opinion agency. 

"When the cold war was lost, public morale plummeted. Since then, public attitudes toward the US have been determined by how Russians perceive American policies toward us. They were good in the 1990s, because the US was seen as a friend that was giving aid, trying to help us. And they have deteriorated sharply since then, especially since the 2008 war with Georgia unleashed what our public viewed as a campaign of anti-Russian hatred in the West, and even more since the recent crisis, triggered by Crimea's reunion with Russia – which was supported by an absolute majority of Russians – led to sanctions, NATO military buildup near our borders and blaming Russia for everything that's going on in the world.

"In the popular mood, it is US politicians who stand in the way of better relations. So, Trump's appearance and some of his declarations really aroused hope."

A Levada tracking poll, faithfully repeated every year since 1990, shows the sharp changes in Russian moods (Russian language). As the USSR was collapsing 25 years ago, three-quarters of Russians said their attitude toward the US was "positive," while just 7 percent said it was "negative." By September of this year, that picture was virtually reversed, with two-thirds describing their feelings as negative, and just under a quarter answering positively.

"I don't wish the US any ill, but we can't be indifferent toward what they do," says Yury Shaparin, an Afghan war veteran who runs a club for patriotic young people. As a former military man, I hope for peace. Who needs quarrels? So, we are all waiting to see whether Trump will follow through on the things he said during the election."

Many analysts, particularly in the West, argue that Russian mood swings are the result of propaganda – particularly on state TV, from which 80 percent of Russians get their basic news about the world. Sociologists say it's more complicated than that. During Soviet times, state propaganda was ignored and even sneered at by most Russians; today, the views propounded on TV are widely mirrored by the things ordinary people say, reflecting Russians' strong popular support for their government.

"We are surrounded by a circle of military bases, even in eastern Europe and the Baltic republics. Why should we be surrounded like this, when we're not going to attack anyone?" says Moreyeva, the pensioner. "Obviously we need to protect ourselves. We suffered a lot from war in the past, and if it is necessary to sacrifice in order to make our army stronger again, we shall have to do that."

Valery Fyodorov, head of the VTsIOM polling agency, says the claim that Russians are misinformed about the world is wrong.

"Russians today have access to a wide variety of news sources, and public interest in information programing has been growing rapidly over the past couple of years," he says. "People know what's going on. I don't think you can characterize our TV news as 'anti-American'; it just reports the things that are happening."

Mr. Grazhdankin says that state propaganda acts to reinforce public moods rather than shape them outright.

"If the media were just lying to people, it would have lost trust by now," as happened in Soviet times, he says. "But all our polling shows that Russian society itself is not ready to compromise on key issues that are the apple of discord between Russia and the US, especially Crimea. Our political authorities are just playing to popular moods."

But history suggests that can change, he adds.

"There is a big demand to improve relations, and hence all the hopes attached to Trump. People remember we had friendly ties in the 1990s and think that even if that can't be restored, perhaps we could just be normal partners?" 

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