Where Russia Is Seen as a Buffer Against the U.S.

As some Americans worry about alleged undue influence from Russia, many Orthodox Christians are anxious about the inverse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on April 16, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, on April 16, 2017.  (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

For Americans who worry about Russia’s impact on the United States, recent events have provided plenty of fodder. This week, it was a report claiming that President Trump divulged highly classified intelligence to Russian officials, a disclosure that some say is sure to hurt American interests. Last week, it was the news that Trump had fired James Comey, the FBI director who requested more resources for a probe into Russia’s alleged election meddling. Events like these add to some Americans’ anxiety that Russian influence on the U.S. may be going unchecked.

But across the pond, the anxiety runs in the opposite direction. In many Central and Eastern European countries, people are concerned about America’s influence on Russia and on their own nations—and they want Russia to push back, according to a major new Pew Research Center survey.

The results of the survey—released, by coincidence, just hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited the White House and joked about Comey’s firing—reveal that in most nations with Orthodox Christian majorities, Russia is seen as an important buffer against the influence of the West. Because the study was conducted between June 2015 and July 2016, before Trump’s election, it does not capture any shifts in public opinion that his administration may have provoked. Still, the survey offers illuminating insights into how America is perceived, and about how those perceptions correlate with religious identity.

The Pew researchers interviewed more than 25,000 adults in Russia and 17 other countries, from Ukraine and Poland to Bulgaria and Greece. They found that Orthodox Christians make up an estimated 57 percent of those in the region; in Russia, that number rises to 71 percent. The survey also found that the share of the population that identifies as Orthodox has risen dramatically in the region’s largest countries since the fall of the Soviet Union. By contrast, in historically Catholic countries, Catholics have seen declines.

The rise of Orthodox Christianity carries important implications: Those in Orthodox-majority countries are more likely than people elsewhere to be socially conservative, to say they’re very proud of their nationality, to see their culture as superior to others’, and to state that “a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West,” the survey found. Most people in these nations agreed with that last statement. Even in Greece, 70 percent were on board with it, despite the fact that the country is a member of the European Union.

What it actually means to want Russia to assert its influence as a counterweight to the West, however, is multi-faceted. “The look toward Russia is multi-dimensional: It’s geopolitical, it’s cultural, it’s religious, and it’s also economic,” said Neha Sahgal, one of the study’s lead authors. She explained that Russia’s desire to balance the West on all these fronts appears to stem partly from a perceived values gap—a conflict between the “traditional values” in respondents’ countries and the values of the West.

Economically, the clash is perhaps not so surprising given that many of these countries were previously ruled by communist regimes; ideals of equality still hold sway there. “There’s a deep suspicion with America because there is a real anxiety about full-blown capitalism … and how truly egalitarian it is and whether the Western rat race is all that it’s cracked up to be,” said Brittany Pheiffer Noble, a doctoral candidate in Russian cultural history at Columbia University.

But the perception of clashing values goes beyond different economic models. Pheiffer Noble added that there is a widespread sense among Russians that they are safeguarding civilization, be it through the conservative gender norms and sexual norms they advocate, the literature they produce, or the soldiers they send off to war in every generation. “In Russian culture, they have their canon, and their canon is pretty impressive,” she said. “They’ve got Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They’ve got iconography. They’ve got the idea of suffering as a cultural value—and they feel like they’re also winning at that.”

Sergei Chapnin, the former editor of the official journal of the Russian Orthodox Church, agreed that many Russians feel their country is both integral to European culture and superior to it. (Indeed, 69 percent say their “culture is superior to others,” the survey shows.) “We have a desire to cooperate with Europe and to call Europe an enemy,” he said. “These exist at the same time in the mass consciousness in Russia.” But he also warned that “politicians manipulate” this psychological tension, appealing sometimes to pro-Western feeling and sometimes to anti-Western feeling, in order to serve their own purposes.

“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.”