Two world superpowers have been battling it out in the ring of politics for years with tensions and hostilities never seeming to cease. The frail relationship has been maximised at the box office as you cannot leave a juicy political debacle to its own devices. Let us travel back then. It is 1985 and Rocky Balboa is the World Champion boxer who is challenged by the Soviet Union’s ominous Ivan Drago. The two nemesis countries are pitted against each other and Rocky is portrayed as a hero who challenges Drago to avenge the death of his friend at the hands of the villainous Russian. The fight comes to an end and Rocky says the unexpected: ‘During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way, I feel about you…I guess what I’m trying to say is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!’
A film released at a time when the Cold War was ripe and on the brink of catching its second wind, Hollywood, of all the unlikely places, took a punt at reconciling two countries that got off on the wrong foot. The bad luck of the first impression never ceased for the pair as relations remained colder, perhaps thawed by Gorbachev’s dissolution of the Soviet Union, but ignited more intensely in recent years.
A symbolic pushing of a ‘reset’ button by the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then US Secretary Hillary Clinton was an attempt at improving relations. But the attempt remained only symbolic as the blame game continued throughout the Obama administration. Relations worsened over the Ukrainian civil war, tarnished by the supposedly illegitimate annexation of Crimea as well as the ongoing crisis in Syria.
More recently, Russia was accused of interfering with the US election and President Putin labelled as the revolutionary leader of a cyber-hacking army who gave the order from above. His involvement and Russia’s, however, was never officially proven. The media fed off of allegations as opposed to battling to secure hard evidence. ‘The way they behaved on the Russia stuff was outrageous,’ said Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, ‘they were just so willing to believe that stuff. And when the heads of intelligence give them that summary of allegations, instead of attacking the CIA for doing that, which is what I would have done’ it was reported as fact.
Russia fought back too, commenting on the decline in relations despite the hope for a fresh start. In a recent tweet, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev condemned the way the bilateral US-Russia relationship was handled; he remarked that the countries made an effort to work together to ‘resolve a number of major international problems’ such as signing the Iranian nuclear weapons treaty and the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. However, the praise was short-lived, ‘US-Russia relations completely fell apart by the end of the second term of the Obama administration,’ he added.
An individual who can empathise with both sides of the tug-of-war match is Cynthia Simmons, an American and a professor at Boston College who specialises in Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures. She says: ‘I can’t imagine anyone would suggest that relations between our countries have not worsened, particularly over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, and the economic sanctions that the EU and the US imposed as a response.’
Tensions between the two nations have been climbing recently but this should not be a reason for the populous of a country to be conflated with its politics. The sphere of politics is cut-throat and shameless. No one is afraid to hurt feelings and relations can get ugly. Politics should not consume the population resulting in ordinary people, like you and I, becoming synonymous with the political agenda of their nation. Suddenly, they are no longer autonomous individuals with a rich cultural heritage but a gross stereotype.
When asked if politics and the population should be kept separate Simmons added: ‘I would liken the Putin era (ever more) to the distinction that we needed to draw between Soviet citizens and the Soviet government. And we need to remember that this distinction should be drawn, we would hope, both ways.’
‘Governments and the media can easily present to their citizens perspectives and selected information about other nations, and unless common citizens are very well informed, their attitudes can be shaped to suit the political relationships of the day.’
She insists that academia is where this change of attitudes developed from a lack of a distinction between the government and its people can start: ‘We currently have what some Slavists (and government officials) [seeing] a “crisis”, because we are lacking a middle generation of specialists in Eastern Europe. This reflects the focusing of academic resources for some years now on developing expertise in Middle Eastern and Far Eastern studies. The hope is that a concentrated effort top-down, which means increased government funding in Slavic Studies, might help to ensure that our citizens are adequately informed about Russia and its people, not only about a problematic, for us, leadership.’
Perhaps, one day the two antagonists can be civil together. A hope remains that Americans will make the effort to be well-informed when it comes to the Russian people, and vice versa.