“The system of ‘traditional values’ is a way to find an enemy. ‘Traditionalism versus liberalism’ helps us to fight liberals,” he told me. Although the traditional-values agenda is sometimes framed in terms of positive goals, such as putting a premium on families and childbearing, Chapnin argues it’s more often a negative project that consists of fighting LGBT activists, same-sex marriage activists, and pro-choice activists. And far from being a sincere expression of cherished beliefs, the values agenda is primarily a tool to bolster the “anti-Western political rhetoric of the government,” he said.
Interestingly, even as 85 percent of Russians want their country to counterbalance the West, 55 percent agree that their country should work with the U.S. and other Western powers. They don’t see this as a zero-sum game. In 2016, for instance, Lavrov called for long-term cooperation and a “partnership of civilizations” to combat contemporary geopolitical threats like the Islamic State.
In fact, majorities in most countries surveyed—including the Orthodox ones that want Russia to serve as a bulwark—also say they believe it’s in their nation’s interest to maintain strong working relationships with the West.
“They understand that they live in a part of the globe where Russia is an excellent ally, and that you basically need to have an ally,” Pheiffer Noble said. Especially for small countries like Moldova and Armenia, this makes sense not only geopolitically, but also economically. “You can’t ship tomatoes or watermelons to America. Ideology is one thing, but unloading a few tons of watermelons is another thing. And where can you do that? Russia is an enormous market.”
But, she added, these countries also understand that “in the global economy, you have to get plugged into the EU.” For young people in particular, this is about mobility; many want to be able to study or work in Western Europe and America.
The study notes that in Catholic-majority and religiously heterogeneous countries, a considerably smaller share of the public agrees that a strong Russia is needed to counter the West—only 42 percent, as opposed to the 66 percent in Orthodox countries. And in Catholic nations, people are more likely to say it’s in their country’s best interest to work with the United States than to say that the U.S. should be countered—as Sahgal put it, “Catholics look West.” It’s a logical choice: Structurally, the Catholic religion is oriented toward the papacy in Rome, and pragmatically, its adherents may feel they can gain more capital (both financial and social) by being perceived as Western.
How would the survey results differ if Pew ran its study today, with Trump as president? “The majority of Russians would say that the West is the enemy,” Chapnin said. “The attitude is still more or less the same.” Pheiffer Noble, for her part, said it’s possible that people would express “much less of an anxiety” about American influence. “Yes, those who are waiting for visas for travel to America are incredibly anxious about Trump. But for people who don’t interact with America in their daily lives, Trump just seems like some strange cherry on the top of a sundae that we ourselves ordered,” she said.
And as for how Russians view their own country’s alleged undue influence on America? “Trump talked so much about Putin on the campaign trail that Russians assume he was blustering and actually had no connection with the Russians,” she said. “If anything, they think Trump’s relationship to Russia is more fabricated than we may find out it is, once we have a new FBI director.”