Why Washington and Moscow Still Don't Trust Each Other

Small reminders of corruption are still sprinkled everywhere, because at this point the graft is a way of life. During my visit, my American colleagues and I wanted to see the Bolshoi Ballet. One day, a fellow reporter e-mailed me, disappointed: "called Bolshoi box office ... all tickets are sold out until January." I knew better. "Sold out" in Russia doesn't always mean sold out. I asked around at my host publication, an editor made a few calls, and suddenly I had second-row tickets waiting for me at the Bolshoi box office. We saw Spartacus. Written by Armenian composer Aram Khachutarian and choreographed by Yury Grigorovich, it is one of the most iconic Russian ballets because its fallen revolutionary hero was an appropriate figure for Soviet propaganda.

The next week, in Lubyanka Square, I witnessed another failed revolt. Muscovites took to the streets for an unsanctioned rally on the one-year anniversary of large-scale anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin protests. In 2011, many thousands had braved subzero temperatures to shout across the street from the headquarters of the FSB, the KGB's successor. Afterward, Putin's government cracked down on pro-democracy groups, election watchdogs, and opposition figures. This time, despite rumors, warnings, and a massive police presence, the rally was calm. Police officers with megaphones gently asked protesters to "please" make their way to the Metro. Only opposition leaders were targeted, arrested, and fined. The almost-civil reception enervated the crowd.

At dinner with my parents' middle-class Moscow friends a few days before the protest, I asked about the rallies. They had marched in a few in 2011, but they didn't see the point of going again. They live in an apartment just outside central Moscow and regularly griped about corrupt officials. They said everyone knows about the fraud in last year's parliamentary elections, which set off the protests. "None of us voted for [Putin]," Ira said, as she prepared dinner. "But," she added, shrugging her shoulders, "apparently we did." The system isn't just rigged for tourists; it's rigged for the people who live in it every day.

The Metro was closed at 2 a.m., so when three of us left an expat party across town, we needed a car. I walked out to Leningrad Avenue and stuck my arm out; within seconds, a dark sedan pulled over. "Arbat [Street], Hotel Belgrad, 200 rubles," I told the driver confidently, in Russian, as I opened the passenger door. (That's about $6.)

"200 rubles exactly?" the driver asked.

"200 rubles exactly," I confirmed, as my American journalist friends piled into the backseat. Taking my new role as gypsy-cab facilitator seriously, I sat in the front seat next to the driver and left my seat belt unbuckled, as I had seen others do before. I didn't want to arouse any suspicions that I followed the rules (and was therefore foreign).

The driver and I chatted in Russian, sticking at first to mundane, safe topics like traffic and the weather. Eventually, noticing the silence from my friends, our driver asked, "Where is your group from?" I cautiously responded that we were from America, gauging whether that was OK. "Oh, wow! And it's so easy to talk to you," he said, genuinely surprised at how well we got along. "Back in the day, if people knew I was talking to Americans, they would have accused me of being a Jew." I let him go on. For the rest of the ride, he told us how he had worked his way up in the Soviet bureaucracy and followed all the rules, stopping repeatedly to express his shock at how normal we, Americans, appeared to be.

Small reminders of corruption are still sprinkled everywhere, because at this point the graft is a way of life.

This reminded me of a story my mother tells. Her first-grade teacher instructed the class not to take or accept any bubble gum, a symbol of America, from American visitors, because they put razor blades in gum for Soviet kids. Faced with a contradiction made flesh, a nighttime cab driver could shake a lifetime's brainwashing. But could an entire nation?

Distrust runs deeper than Americans realize. Russians see America's push for a missile-defense shield in Europe--designed to counter Iran--as a way to neutralize Russia's power. When Ambassador Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar, arrived in Moscow, he met with opposition groups as part of a "dual-track engagement" policy. In response, state media released a YouTube video of dissident leaders arriving at the embassy titled "Receiving instructions from the U.S. Embassy."

Partly that's because distrust resonates politically for Putin, a former head of the KGB. "It's a useful tool to kind of manage [and] promote the status quo," says Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "With the United States, he's really playing identity politics. He is doing it to score political points." The anti-American sentiment today isn't just a legacy of the Cold War; state-owned media have nurtured it carefully. One of my Russian counterparts, in an essay about her exchange experience, argued that an American would have trouble convincing a Russian that the State Department isn't trying to foment an anti-Putin revolution.

At the same time, Russia isn't solely to blame for the rhetoric of recent years. Just like my taxi driver, American lawmakers--who knew that the Magnitsky bill could worsen relations--grew up during the Cold War, which helps explain why they wanted to send a message about human-rights abuses in Russia. In December, then-Secretary of State Clinton accused Russia of trying to "re-Sovietize" Eastern Europe and Central Asia with efforts to create a Eurasian customs union. U.S. discomfort over Russia's relationship with its neighbors sometimes verges on paranoia, says Samuel Charap, senior Russia and Eurasia fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Still, among most Americans, Russia is no longer, in Mitt Romney infelicitous phrase, "enemy No. 1." (Obama used the line to argue that Romney was stuck in the past.) Our movie and TV villains are no longer the fat, accented spies and computer hackers of the Soviet Union; now they're likelier to be Islamist terrorists. Even The Americans, a new drama about deep-cover KGB agents, takes a self-consciously nostalgic view of the 1980s.

This shifting focus isn't just evident in the culture. Obama made rapprochement a priority in his first term because of Afghanistan, his nuclear-disarmament goals, and Iran's nuclear program. Now operations in Afghanistan are winding down, Russia is not too interested in nuclear-arms reduction (let alone "global zero"), and Moscow seems hopelessly immovable on Iran and Syria. With a fragile recovery, a pivot to Asia, and so many fires to put out in the Middle East and North Africa, the White House doesn't see Russia as an urgent problem. "There's not a compelling reason for the administration here to invest a lot of political capital in Russia," says Kuchins. Which makes it hard to change cab drivers' and lawmakers' minds.

***

The weather's still cold, but Russia is a very different country than the one my family left nearly two decades ago. Almost every coffee shop, restaurant, and even movie theater in Moscow has free Wi-Fi. McDonald's, Le Pain Quotidien, Pinkberry, and Wendy's lined the street near my hotel. There's even a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, something unheard of when my family left. Lines aren't as long, food isn't as scarce, and people are mostly happy, thanks to the basic stability provided by an energy boom. Globalization and capitalism have seeped into everyday life, making the country's isolationist past an impossible future.

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Olga Belogolova is an associate editor at InsideDefense.com in Washington, D.C., where she covers the Navy. She was previously a staff reporter at National Journal, where she covered energy policy and other global issues.

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