American Suspicion of Russia Is Older Than You May Think

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Now is not a great time for warm feelings about Russia in Washington. After a campaign season full of intrigue, the fallout from questions of foreign involvement in the most recent presidential election continues to grow. And most recently, the revelation on Wednesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke with Russia's ambassador to the United States twice during the 2016 campaign season, only to say during his confirmation hearings that he had not communicated with Russian officials, has spurred calls for Sessions to resign.

This wave of tension has sparked numerous comparisons to the Cold War period, which is unsurprising. Though the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies in World War II and helped each other to victory, that cooperation was followed by decades during which the opposition between the two systems they represented dominated global politics.

But, though the Cold War may be the most obvious example of a time when American feelings about Russia or the Soviet Union were dominated by suspicion, experts say that hostility between the two dates back to long before that period.

“The trope [of Western European suspicion of Russia] goes back a long ways, to the 1500s and 1600s, and became stronger after the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain and Russia were grappling,” says Kees Boterbloem, an expert in Russian and European history at the University of South Florida. “That image of Russia as an ‘anti-world’ was already there. There are these old-fashioned myths about Russia being a different entity altogether from quote-unquote 'civilized' humanity, and time and time again I get the facile impression that everybody goes back to that dichotomy whenever there’s some kind of problem.”

Those old ideas were brought to the United States in the nation's earliest days, and were amplified in the centuries that followed. By the 19th century, as the U.S. became more firmly established as the home of liberal democracy and that system of government became closely linked with citizens' ideas of the nation, those Americans who gave thought to Russia saw the region as in some ways their opposite.




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