Russia's ambiguous view of the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, 18 June
Image caption Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland

Russian state TV showed a film recently about last year's clashes between anti-government protesters and police in Moscow. There was plenty of dramatic footage of the disturbance. But it was a different image which stuck in my mind: the picture of a giant wad of one-hundred-dollar bills being counted out.

It could have been filmed anywhere. But the subtext was clear: America has been funding and fanning the flames of Russian revolution.

The message being transmitted by the state media here is that it is time to batten down the hatches and defend The Motherland from outside interference. When an alleged CIA spy (wearing a blond wig) was paraded on Russian TV recently, it served as a reminder to the Russian public to watch out for the West.

Reports that foreign intelligence agencies had snooped on President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit in 2009 received widespread coverage in the Russian media. So did the scandal involving the owner of an American football team. He had apparently joked that Vladimir Putin, the current president, had stolen his $25,000 Superbowl ring. Russian Radio's breakfast show suggested the comments were part of an anti-Russia plot.

"You Westerners are interested in spying on us, in portraying us in black, awful colours," Breakfast Show presenter Vladimir Solovyov tells me, and complains that the West is bent on doing Russia down.

"We do have this internal feeling that you hate us. Nowadays everyone is saying to us: 'You are the bad guys of Europe. You must behave like you're a little funny kitten.' But we're not. We're a great, though ugly, bear and we don't have to behave like some funny little pet. We are who we are and you have to admit it. Sorry, guys."

'Always the outcast'

Bears may be powerful creatures, but this Russian variety comes across as increasingly paranoid. It sees conspiracy everywhere.

For example, after this year's Eurovision Song Contest, none other than the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed that some votes for Russia's song had been "stolen" and criticised the organisers of the competition. It is a similar story in international sport: from time to time you hear complaints here that foreign judges and referees are anti-Russian. But why should that be the case?

"Whether we're talking about the world of sport or industry, it all comes down to geopolitics and economic interests," says Nikolai Valuyev, the former world heavyweight boxing champion and now a Russian MP.

"Russia controls one sixth of the world's land mass. We have huge resources of minerals and fresh water. And many countries are irritated by this. That's why Russia will always be viewed as an outcast. The West is always trying to teach us a lesson and order us around."

President Putin has been doing his fair share of ordering around. Last year he signed a law obliging all non-governmental organisations that receive foreign grants and which are deemed politically active to register as "foreign agents". To many Russians, such a label is synonymous with "spy", but it reflects the Kremlin's conviction that the West is using some NGOs to destabilise Russia.


Talk of "foreign agents" sounds like something from the Soviet past but this does not mean we are back to the days of the Cold War.

The Russian establishment may demonise the West yet, curiously, it embraces it too. It goes shopping there, it sends its children there to study, its keeps its money there. Is this schizophrenia or hypocrisy?

"When I look at Putin, I really believe that he thinks there are enemies around but everyone else is playing his game," believes Lilia Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

"There are so many cynical people around the Kremlin. I don't believe that they, having their families in the West, being personally integrated into the West with their bank accounts, with their kids in London and Oxford, that they will believe this trash.

"Apparently they have to obey the rules of the game and the rule of the game is to pretend that we in Russia are living in a besieged fortress, otherwise, what is the justification for oppression? We have to have an enemy."

So, perhaps, Russia today is neither pet kitten nor bear? She is, like her own national symbol, a double headed-eagle: with one head looking east and the other west. One pair of eyes views America and Europe as something positive. The other pair turns away from a West that it views as a threat and a useful scapegoat for Russia's problems.

More on this story