If you are a black man teaching African American history in Russia in 2010 you will be asked about Barack Obama. A lot. I began my class by projecting an image of black slaves picking cotton on a plantation alongside a picture of the Obama inauguration and explained that my goal for the semester was to explain how we moved from the picture on the left to the picture on the right.
Yesterday the NYT ran a story on a Pew study of Obama's impact on foreign perceptions of the U.S. abroad. Given the previous administration's antagonism toward the UN and references to "old Europe" it's not exactly surprising that the country's popularity in Western Europe surged post-Bush.
But it was worth noting that Russia was one of the two countries that showed the largest increase in positive sentiment toward the United States since Obama's election. The cornerstone quote is here:
Among the more surprising results of the survey was the substantial improvement in Russian attitudes toward the United States. Of those surveyed, 57 percent said they had a favorable view of the United States, an increase of 13 percentage points over the previous year. Among Russians who say their country has an enemy, more than one-third, 35 percent, name the United States as its biggest enemy.
The poll results more or less square with my experience there, which is to say that there was a curious ambivalence toward the United States and while Obama was admired he was not a pop icon in the way he perceived in some other places. Still he inescapably he complicated the Russian view of the United States. (The first time I mentioned the Bush administration in class students literally broke out in snickers.)
Admittedly, some factors in the Russian perception of the US have nothing to do with presidential politics--I saw a huge amount of indignation the week that an American adoptive parent sent her Russian son back to Moscow alone. People, with some justification, saw it as a barometer of Russia's falling prestige in the world that their former rivals could now basically rent Russian children and send them home when they were done with them.
For it's own reasons, the Soviet Union highlighted the history of slavery, lynching, disfranchisement and Jim Crow. As a consequence, even now the Russian students had more base knowledge of African American history than many students I've taught in the United States.) That said, the election of a black president might have been farther outside their expectations than many other places.
The question I encountered most often was whether or not Obama was actually calling the shots. I initially took that as a matter of racial skepticism--surely the black guy was some sort of racial PR stunt. But at some point I realized that the question also had to be understood in context of who was asking it. Many of the Russians I talked to didn't believe their own president was calling the shots. It wasn't cynical, it was raw experience that made it reasonable to doubt whether Barack Obama was actually in charge.
Where many people abroad seem--even at this point--to relate to the idea of Obama, the Russians were coldly practical. A random guy on the street heard me speaking English and asked me what exactly Obama planned to do regarding Ukraine's NATO ambitions and where the president stood on the conflict between Russia and Georgia. The recent nuclear arms treaty and Obama's removal of a missile defense system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic were footnotes in American media but hugely important discussions in Russia.
One thing that the poll couldn't tell, though, was that whatever positive effect Obama has had on Russian perceptions of the US it was probably higher in the spring than it is now. Victory Day, the annual May 9th celebration of the end of World War II in Europe is massively important to Russians. Past glory takes on grand dimensions in the face of present trials. This year marked the 65th anniversary of the war's end and for the first time soldier's representing the allied efforts were invited to march on Red Square. Heads of state from the UK, France the United States and the former Soviet republics (with the notable exception of Georgia) were also invited.
Obama's absence was taken as a slight not only in political and diplomatic circles but among many of the Russians I talked to during the celebration. I pointed out that Obama had also declined to attend the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and even the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis. He doesn't appear to be big on anniversaries.
That rang hollow in Moscow, another reminder of the prestige gap between the Soviet era and now. Maybe not something that does permanent damage, but certainly a missed opportunity.
The Russian word for hope, by the way, is надежда