A national poll conducted by the independent Levada Center over August 15-22 – that is, in the immediate wake of the five-day Russo-Georgian war – found a high degree of anti-Western and particularly anti-American sentiment. A total of 75 percent of the respondents stated that Russian-American relations were to one degree or another not good, with 39 percent saying relations were “chilly,” 28 percent saying relations were “strained,” and eight percent saying relations were “hostile.”
Nearly half of those polled – 47 percent – said they believe that the major countries of the West are enemies of Russia, are trying to resolve their problems at Russia’s expense, and will, given the opportunity, harm Russia’s interests. Asked to identify the main cause of the conflict over South Ossetia, 49 percent of those polled answered that it was the leadership of the United States trying to spread its influence over Russia’s neighbors. In addition, 74 percent of those polled said they agreed with the statement that Georgia and the Georgian people have become hostages to the geopolitical aspirations of the U.S. leadership, and 66 percent said they believe that the leaders of Western countries support Georgia in the conflict over South Ossetia because those leaders are seeking to weaken Russia and to force it out of the Caucasus. Curiously, 47 percent of the poll’s respondents said they thought that Russia’s relations with Western countries would not worsen as a result of the conflict over South Ossetia, with 17 percent saying that relations with the West would even improve. Only 21 percent said they thought relations with Western countries would worsen as a result of the conflict over South Ossetia (www.levada.ru, August 27).
In a discussion about the results of the poll, the director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, said that the anti-Western sentiment reflected in the poll is not new, but began to grow in 2000 – around the time of Vladimir Putin’s accession as Russian president – as the result of a “propaganda” campaign in the state-controlled media, above all on television. According to Gudkov, this propaganda campaign “revived all the older Soviet complexes – confrontation with the West, confrontation with America, asserting yourself as a power that is strengthening, reestablishing your authority [and] power.” Russians “liked this very much,” said Gudkov.
“The ratio of positive to negative feelings about America above all was stable before that period, around 2:1 – that is, 60-65 percent thought positively [about the U.S.], and around 30 percent thought negatively [about the U.S.],” he said, referring to the period of end of the 1990s to 2000. “Today that situation has not simply turned around. For the first time, we recorded at the end of August a peak in anti-Western sentiment: around three-quarters [of those polled] to varying degrees have a negative attitude towards America, view it as the main opponent.”
The anti-American and anti-Western mood in Russian society, Gudkov suggested, is a result of an ongoing deliberate propaganda campaign by the Russian authorities. The aim of this propaganda campaign, according to Gudkov is to “consolidate” society. “The image of an enemy is an extremely powerful means of internal consolidation, [of creating] solidarity with the government,” he said “As soon as there appears this image of an enemy, a negative force that threatens our existence, spreads its influence in those regions where Russia had earlier controlled the situation, all internal contradictions, all problems disappear and an identification of the population or society with the authorities takes place; a powerful mechanism of consolidation emerges according to the ‘friend-or-foe’ principle, and America here is the main adversary.”
Gudkov said that anti-Western and anti-American worldview has been embraced not only by middle-aged and elderly people who grew up during the Soviet period, but also by young people born at the end of the 1980s or later, when the confrontational rhetoric of the Soviet era had already ended. Indeed, Gudkov went so far as to say that anti-American attitudes are found above all among young and well-educated Russians. It is precisely young people who “experience a deficit in the grounds for self-esteem,” he said. “And they derive the grounds for self-esteem in hatred towards the other, in antipathy towards a powerful opponent” (“Vlast,” RTVi television and Ekho Moskvy radio, September 5).
In another Levada Center poll, conducted August 22-25, respondents were asked whether reports in “official media” from the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone were “sufficiently complete and objective” or gave “fragmentary and one-sided coverage of events.” Forty-four percent of the respondents said such reports were “sufficiently complete and objective” while 43 percent said such reports gave “fragmentary and one-sided coverage of events” (www.levada.com, August 27). Thus a significant majority of Russians accept the official version of the conflict presented by state-controlled media – that Georgia has become a hostage to U.S. geopolitical aspirations and that Western countries support Georgia because they are seeking to weaken Russia and to force it out of the Caucasus – even while nearly half of them believe that state-controlled media are providing “fragmentary and one-sided coverage of events.”