Are we witnessing the return of the “big bad Russians”?
The other day on Twitter, a public radio journalist I follow wrote, “It’s like the ’80s again. Russia’s soldiers are invading countries and its judges are jobbing us at the Olympics.”
Back at the end of the 1980s, I was sliding seamlessly from graduation to graduate school. As I cast about for a master’s thesis topic suitable for journalism school, I kept coming back to one issue: how is it that everything we knew as ‘eternal’ about the Soviet Union could be wrong. I wanted to see how this played out in the media. I analyzed Associated Press stories from 1983-84 — when movies like “The Day After” and “Red Dawn” seemed plausible — to 1988 — across the years of glasnost and perestroika when our whole worldview was turned upside down. What I studied was how the state of relationship and conflict between countries has an impact on the use of stereotypes in the media about Russia and its people. The hypothesis: that when our countries were opposed, there would be an emphasis on differences in culture and values between us and them; in times when our interests were more aligned, the emphasis would be on similarities.
The thesis was, perhaps, a bit obvious. But the AP was supposed to deliver the news; it wasn’t supposed to be portraying Russians as evil, violent, bearlike, ruthless, drunken and foolish with an evil government that every last Russian would flee if they could. But they were, subtly. And as our conflict with the Soviets thawed, so did the use of these kinds of stereotypes.
And now, as Russia continues to rise as a US competitor and as a potential threat to US interests in Georgia … and perhaps Ukraine, the Middle East and South Asia? Well, if you believe a callow graduate student from the early 1990s, watch for more stories in the media that make you see the Russians not just acting against our interests, but as different. And in international relations and journalism, different is not good.