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.
Still, when I think about what my life would have been like had my family stayed, I know I never would have had certain opportunities. Even if I'd become a journalist, I would not have had the same freedom to write what I want, to do what I want. I found out only when I began studying journalism in college that my mother, too, had wanted to be a journalist. Growing up during the Brezh-nev era, she listened to my grandfather's advice to find a more objective profession--something straightforward, safe, and far from the dangers of the political world. She became a mathematician.
Journalists in Russia today are not as handcuffed as before. They can ask Putin controversial questions, write about his answers, and cover anti-Putin (or any kind of antigovernment) protests. But in my effort to report in Moscow, I found that access is much more difficult and transparency much more elusive than I expected. Guards at the state Duma at first turned me away when they saw my American passport, despite a previously arranged pass to attend a briefing. Vechernaya Moskva(Evening Moscow), a city newspaper, is partly funded by the government. During a newsroom tour, I asked a spokeswoman how that aid affected its coverage. She told me simply that the paper has a "government page," and that if something controversial happens, reporters just wait until the issue is resolved to write about it. In another newsroom tour, the politics editor of Komsomolskaya Pravdasaid that the paper's "position" is to support Putin. "It's just like The New York Times supports Obama," he said. The coverage does seem largely independent, but a massive photo of Putin in dark shades hangs over the paper's conference room.
During Putin's press conference, one question came from a journalist who had been shot twice in the head because of a story he had reported. He asked Putin what can be done to make his case less common. The Russian leader promised to look into the issue but told the reporter that journalism is a rough industry and that people should know what they're getting themselves into. My exchange had aimed to disabuse Americans of the idea that journalists in Russia are in danger or don't have the freedom to write what they want or should. Yet there was the country's president, giving credence to the idea. Although there are plenty of ways for Russians and Americans to understand each other better, sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason. As I returned to Sheremetyevo airport at the end of my trip, I realized why I could see those tropes at a distance. Russia had become, for me, merely a place of origin. Now I was going home.