Does Soviet era propoganda still maintain a distorting effect on Western conceptions of today’s modern Russian Federation?
In Soviet Russia — insert annoying, backwards scenario. Why is it that this incredibly irritating “joke” became so popular? The answer is quite simple: we see the Soviet Union (USSR) as inherently backwards.
Typically, if you ask a student to write down everything they know about the Soviet Union they will create a very short list: Lenin, Stalin, communism, etc.
So how is it that we have come to judge the USSR so harshly, while knowing so little about it? To help shed some light on this issue, I sat down with Leonard Friesen, Ph.D., professor of Russian history at Wilfrid Laurier University.
In short, he concluded that this idea stems from the notion of American (or Western) exceptionalism. He stated for decades, non-Western nations that have been viewed with a sense of inferiority, as well as inherently backwards.
Being at war with the Soviet Union for 50 years had a profound effect on the Western psyche. Generations were raised under the impression that the Soviet Union was an evil, hateful place that all its citizens despised. Despite this representation, a recent survey has shown that 60 per cent of the population “deeply regret” the demise of the USSR.
Despite this, Friesen suggests that our loathing of Russia began centuries ago. He noted that much of the Western view can be attributed to Peter the Great, a late 17th-century Tsar who instituted many Western policies and ideas.
The establishment of these concepts in Russia led the West to believe that, historically, Russia was a backwards place and used Peter’s reign as evidence that they were beginning to come around to the “right” view.
The West’s hatred of Russia has been building for centuries. However, the rise of communism pushed this resentment to new levels. While anti-communist sentiment had been prevalent in Europe during the post World War One era, it took somewhat longer to reach American soil.
Until the end of Second World War, the United States was relatively tolerant of the Soviet Union. Postwar Germany turned Europe into a battleground of a united West against the USSR. From this point onward, the West began to perceive the Soviets as threat, both politically and militarily.
At this point, the Western propaganda machine began to work overtime.
All former empires had fallen, and it was America’s responsibility to free the world. It became the goal of the West to prove that anyone who chose to live under communism was clearly not of sound mind and that they needed to be liberated by the all-knowing West.
Much to the delight of all Westerners, the Soviet Union eventually crumbled, largely as a result of the aforementioned propaganda.
Yet 30 years later, our understanding of the USSR remains unchanged. We still see modern day Russia as a backwards, isolated country. What was once the most feared country in the world has become an unstudied nation, disposed into the dustbin of history.
So how is it that we are left with this understanding of the Soviet Union, and why is it no longer studied? Friesen has an interesting theory as to why his field has became relatively unstudied: the Soviet Union is no longer evil, hence people no longer care.
He notes that now that the Middle East has become America’s target, the new evil empire. As such, he suggests that this area will become the new USSR, a symbol of inferiority which the West can rally around.
As the impact of the Cold War continues to fade, the West will need to reinterpret their understanding of the Soviet Union. A reassessment of history and the current society will reveal that, much to our dismay, the two societies are not as different as we like to imagine.