Russians’ images of their post-Soviet neighbors

Elena Shestopal,
PhD, Professor, Head of the Chair of Sociology and Psychology of Politics,
Political Science Department, Lomonosov Moscow State University,

Rapid change of countries’ boundaries, local and global conflicts, impetuous development of Internet, influence our  perceptions of our own and other countries. As for Russia’s perceptions of countries that used to be a part of the former USSR, it differs from our perception of those countries that had never been a part of the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire.

We’ll focus on only one question among many that we have studied in our project concerning country images: how Russian citizens today see their post-Soviet neighbors. Who are they for us:  are they “alien” for us or they are “ours”, are they enemies of friends, rivals of allies?

Our neighbors, former Soviet Republics were represented in a study by two Slavonic countries (Ukraine and Belarus), three republics of the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) and three Asian countries (Kirgizia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan). Answering to some questions respondents also remembered some Baltic countries.

These countries are mentioned in the Russian strategy as a key course of our foreign policy. But perceptions of rank-and-file people differ from official position of Foreign Ministry. Our citizens do not regard these neighbor countries as a focus of  either for the  state or personally to themselves. Even if they recognize their importance, they find the USA, Europe or China more important for Russia than them.

Relation to these countries one can call ambivalent due to a transitory character of our relationship: from the Soviet  unity and peoples’ friendship we have went away and a new type of formal relation with another foreign country did not yet reach.

Perception of this or that neighbor country is strongly influenced by a personal experience of a respondent, his visits of a country, meeting people from there etc. So, for instance contacts with migrants strongly correlated with positive mentions of professional qualities of people from Kirgizia, Tajikistan, Belarus and Ukraine. This differs Russians’ relation to migrants from the similar attitudes in many European countries.

It is interesting to note that authoritarian tendencies of political regimes of some of post-Soviet countries are perceived by Russians not as their weakness but rather their advantage. Kazakhstan and Belarus are regarded as countries with a more wealthy future due to their personalistic regimes that are perceived as an important condition for their development.

Identification factor in a different degree manifested itself in Russians’ representation of neighbor countries. So, cultural and historical similarity determines more closeness with Slavonic Ukraine and Belarus. Religious factor defines more emotional commonality with Georgia, Armenia, Belarus and Ukraine as Christian countries.

Respondents’ answers have shown deep influence of communicative factor on perception of neighbor countries that define their political color and form stereotypes. At the same time, the level of information about neighbor countries was extremely low in comparison with the USA or Europe.

Our images of countries both close and far from Russian borders, all our picture of the world have lived through several serious turns and stresses during last three decades. The concepts, formed by a Soviet ideological system lied on a basis of this picture of an outer world during the first years after the collapse of the USSR and even earlier in the Perestroika period. In this time image of the Soviet republics was a part of our representations of ourselves, of “us”.

Destruction of this picture of the world started in the end of the 1980s and continued in the beginning of the 1990s. A formula “they are good, we are bad” replaced the previous formula “we are good, they are bad”. Neighbor countries from the former USSR started to be perceived negatively as a part of ourselves.

Parting from the former Soviet stereotypes our citizens naively believed that the world have changed and that it will gladly accept us into its embrace. The so-called civilized world seemed to them friendly and ready to collaborate.

The next decade (2000-2010) and especially events of 2014 have brought some sobering. Facing sanctions and threats from the West Russian society have remembered the old saying that Russia has only two friends: army and fleet. Perception of no only of the West, but also former allies, partners and neighbors have lived through substantial transformation. To the current moment, the majority of population perceives the complicated context of our relation with other countries more realistically. Our distant “partners” resemble rather competitors if not open enemies. As for closer neighbors from the former USSR they are not regarded as totally “ours” though they did not become completely “alien”. Russian society started to elaborate a new optics toward the neighbor countries. Some country images preserve the influence of former Soviet stereotypes though one should not overestimate them. These feelings are more salient in the older generation new ones are free from them. Generally, images of all these countries are quite positive except one – Estonia that was perceived as being an enemy.

That complex of “national inferiority” that dominated in Russian society during three decades, as our study have shown, is over for the majority of our population. Though some of its manifestations could be found in the most educated and cosmopolitan strata. The group of the young respondents is most interesting. On  the one hand, their view of the other countries is formed by the global networks, being borrowed from outside. But on the other hand, his group is free from any complexes except may be the superiority complex. They are not felling ashamed of anything in comparison with the older generation that is still sometimes see themselves as worse than others.

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