David S. Foglesong, The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”: The Crusade for a “Free Russia” since 1881, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
“Civilization is spreading rapidly eastward, it cannot stop or go around Russia, and whether with bayonet or psalm-book the march will be made through every part of the Tsar’s dominion.” Such were the words of James William Buel in his 1882 book Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia. A journalist by trade, Buel was one of the first Americans to set the tone for how Americans would imagine Russia over the next century. In Russia, which he visited in the summer of 1882, Buel was captivated by the beauty of the cathedrals and salivated at the “delicious” music of the church choir. He was also disturbed by the Orthodox Church’s “ignorance and superstition,” which he saw as the main culprit of Russia’s backwardness. The mysterious allure of Russia gave him hope that the Slavic nation would eventually evolve into a “free and fully enlightened government.”
Buel’s optimism for Russia’s free future, however, was not without its road blocks. For many Americans of both Russophobic and Russophilic ilk Russia was a starkly binary place. Its people were both bearers of progressive light as they were of barbarous “Asiatic” darkness. Russia’s system of governance was both a creation of its history and traditions as it was also an alien entity that imposed tyranny over its subjects. Whether that tyranny came in Tsarist, Soviet, or Parliamentary forms mattered little. Most of all, from around the 1880s to the present, Russia was an object that required liberation. And as Buel’s quote reminds us, for many American politicians, missionaries, and intellectuals, liberation would only come via the Bible or the bayonet.
David Foglesong’s main thesis in The American Mission and the “Evil Empire” is not so much about Americans’ desire to “free” Russia as it is about what that meant for American self-identity. For as Forglesong argues, the desire to “free” Russia made the Slavic nation the United States’ “dark double” or “imaginary twin.” The phenomenon of Russia as a mirror for America needs to be considered throughout Foglesong’s text. For the book is not really about Russia at all. His book is really about the United States and how through its strange mission to “free Russia” defined itself.
Why would the United States need a “dark double” to enhance its own national narcissism? As Foglesong argues, America’s desire to liberate those enshrouded in darkness, whether they be inhabitants residing in its “near abroad”—Cubans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Dominicans—, in its far off geopolitical domains—Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Philippine, Bosnians, Kosovars, Afghanis, or Iraqis, or of its own domestic others—African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants of all colors and shapes—always made the “persistent problems that sapped the vitality and belied the United States’ idealistic promise” far more palatable. According to Foglesong, Russia too played a role America’s constant need for self-assurance. “Treating Russia as both a whipping boy and a potential beneficiary of American philanthropy” he writes, “fostered in many Americans a heady sense of their country’s unique blessings, and reaffirmed their special role in the world.”
Before going on to why Russia was a deemed a potential recipient of the United States’ “unique blessings,” it’s important to ask why America has this need to displace its problems onto the Other in the first place? Why does this tendency translate into the belief that its system is not just universal, but that America has a right and duty to realize its universality? Unfortunately, Foglesong doesn’t provide an adequate answer except to say that it did. True, the origins of American democracy’s universal tendencies are difficult to place and surely can occupy a whole study in and of itself. But considering that he (and myself for that matter) both occupy a discipline that was created out of the very discourses that inform the desire to “free Russia,” these questions are not too far a field from his study. Perhaps this is where Foglesong might have consulted some of the voluminous literature on how the “idea of Europe” and its cultural and political demarcation from “Asia” relied on Orientialism. Here the ideas of Edward Said, though not cited, but certainly no stranger to Foglesong, might have been utilized as a way to think about America’s strange fascination with Russia.
That said Foglesong cannot be faulted for not splashing Said’s name across the page or devoting the proper number of footnotes to him. Academic name dropping is not necessary for a good book. My desire to know what Foglesong thinks of Said is because American Mission and the “Evil Empire” suggests that there is an interesting conversation to be had between the two. Still, something approaching an answer to the above questions seems in order. Perhaps the universalism of the American system is found within America’s own self-imposed uniqueness. Or maybe it’s rooted in American religiosity which suggests that the United States is a new temple on the mount; a divinely given tablua rasa where first “old” Europe’s dejected, persecuted and poor, and then the world’s sought refuge and a bright future. Ironically, and perhaps most importantly, American’s self image as unique did not allay its desire to use its very mantra of freedom as a means of imperial control. This last point is hardly new in world history. Europe’s great powers own imperial impulses were always “forked,” as Homi Bhabha once wrote. American imperialism was and is no different in this regard. American soft power always accompanied hard power. The ambivalence at the heart of the “liberate-subjugate dyad” has proved and continues to prove an effective means of domination.
Luckily for both countries (and perhaps the world), Americans’ fascination with a “free” Russia involved far more soft power than hard power. Throughout the history of American-Russia relations, the two never formerly met on the battlefield (except for President Woodrow Wilson’s dispatching 13,000 troops to Northern and Siberian Russia in 1918). Americans, beginning with fin de siècle Russophilic and Russophobic figures like Buel, Wendell Phillips, George Kennan, William Walling, Ernest Poole, and Arthur Bullard to Cold Warriors like George F. Kennan, Richard Pipes, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Burnham and many others, tended to emphasize the virtues of Protestantism, free markets, and democracy as the main weapon against Russian despotism and darkness. If the sword was ever to be an instrument of liberation, it would be wielded by Russians themselves against their own oppressors. This fetishism with revolution in Russia was best seen in Americans like Wendell Phillips’ justifications of the nihilist use of “dynamite and the dagger” to cast of Tsarism’s yoke.
American’s early fascination with a “free” Russia from 1880 to 1917 is perhaps the most interesting contribution Foglesong makes. It was in this period that American ideas of freedom, capitalism, and Protestantism led the charge for a free Russia. Foglesong points to two contexts for this political convergence of God, money, and freedom. First, was the fact that many advocates of a free Russia were either Protestant ministers or grew up in heady Protestant homes. Some, and perhaps this is the most interesting convergence, were former abolitionists or sons of abolitionists. In fact one of the first “free” Russia organizations, the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom (SAFRF) grew out of the abolition movement. As Edmund Noble, secretary of SAFRF and editor of its paper Free Russia noted in 1894, “There has always seemed a true and close analogy between the agitation which aimed at the abolition of slavery in the United States and the movement that now seeks to bring the blessing of free institutions to the political serfs of Russia.”
The easy transformation of the abolitionist into a “free” Russia crusader is one example of how Russia functioned as a “dark double.” Abolitionists’ embrace of liberation in Russia was an effective, even if unconscious, displacement of the realization that a racially equitable America was an utter failure. The increasing comparisons between the United States and Russia allowed many Americans de-emphasize the fact Jim Crow ruled the South, the lynching of blacks was at its peek, and “liberated” blacks were “re-enslaved” into sharecroppers. Pointing to Russian Tsarist despotism allowed Free Russia to declare that Americans should “be thankful” that “we don’t live in Russia.”
The second context for the emergence of a desire to “free” Russia was the fact that this period was also America’s first foray into imperialism. Foglesong is correct to note that the “free” Russia movement emerged precisely at the time when the Bible and bayonet marched lockstep into the Philippines and Cuba and American Protestant missionaries made their first penetrations into East Asia, Latin America, and Russia. The development of evangelical and Baptist sects in Russia is a story that has already been told in Heather Coleman’s Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution, 1905-1929 and in Segei Zhuk’s Russia’s Lost Reformation: Peasants, Millennialism, and Radical Sects in Southern Russia and Ukraine, 1830-1917. What Foglesong adds is how American missionaries saw their work in Orthodox Russia.
Indeed, Protestant missionaries play a major role throughout Foglesong’s story. Like their European competitors proselytizing in India, Africa, and Asia, American missionaries saw conversion as a means to “civilization.” This push to convert those shrouded in “darkness,” therefore, was not just about religiosity. It was about politics. Missionaries assumed that conversion to Protestantism would facilitate Russian’s political transformation into Americans.
Interestingly, the mission to free Russia also tantalized the desires of America’s “gentlemen socialists.” Inspired by the 1905 Revolution, American socialists like Ernest Poole, William Walling, and Arthur Bullard sought Russia’s salvation in the mythical democracy of the peasant commune. If only the peasant’s democratic seed was cultivated with Enlightenment, argued Russophile Walling, could a “United States of Russia” bloom.
Throughout the 20th century, American hopes and disillusionment that a “free” Russia was on the horizon oscillated as the United States and Russia designated each other friend or foe. The February Revolution was a new dawn. The Bolshevik takeover eight months later cast a new shroud of darkness. Light appeared to peak through in the 1920s, until the Bolsheviks engaged in a full fledged crackdown on missionaries and sectarians. The 1930s until the outbreak of WWII was the darkest period of Russian “freedom.” Surprisingly, “free” Russia advocates had glimmers of hope during late Stalinism. Outright “freedom” was all but abandoned for “liberalization” in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods. For your average Cold Warrior, Soviet containment was paramount. If Russia was to change, the aforiegn advisors of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson reasoned, it was going to do so internally. All America could do was employ the technologies of “psychological warfare” to help that process along.
By 1970, Cold War détente served as low point for the “free” Russia movement. The realpolitik of the Ford Administration, led by Henry Kissinger’s desire (in private Foglesong says that Kissinger “repeatedly expressed utter disdain” for promoting human rights and saw their provisions in treaties with the Soviets as a “joke.”) to get actual results from negotiating with the Soviets coupled with America’s defeat in Vietnam, made the desire to “free” Russia appear more utopian than ever before. However, as Foglesong shows, two events led to the movement’s revival: the rise of the new American conservativism and the Carter Administration’s adoption of the language of human rights.
The emergence of both American conservativism and the doctrine human rights were both a response to the realism of the Nixon-Ford administrations. For Nixon and Ford, the Soviet Union could be dealt with and pressuring them on human rights was seen as counterproductive. All of this changed with the arrival of Solzhenitsyn in the summer of 1975. But it wasn’t the “bearded prophet’s” appearance that spurred a “free” Russia revival. It was the political mileage the Democratic opposition got out of using Solzhenitsyn to bash White House Republicans. Gerald Ford ‘s utter snubbing of Solzhenitsyn upon his arrival to the US proved to a major political mistake. In a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko in 1975, Kissinger told him that “If the Soviet system toppled today, . . . I am not sure the successor government wouldn’t be more of a problem. The government Solzhenitsyn would establish would be more aggressive.” When Ford rejected meeting Solzhenitsyn before the Helsinki summit, he called the Soviet dissident “a goddamn horse’s ass.”
All of this provided fodder for first Ronald Reagan’s Republican nomination bid and Carter presidential challenge in 1976. Solzhenitsyn became a cause celeb in both politicians attempt to charge Ford with a loss in “faith” in America’s special historic mission.
As President, Carter and Reagan would return this “faith” in their own way. For Carter’s foreign policy gurus, most notably Zbigniew Brzezinski, adopting human rights as a means to pressure the Soviets coincided well with the belief that America’s defeat in Vietnam sapped the American people of their tolerance for crusading in the name of “freedom. Carter saw human rights as the cure that could “arouse the spirit of our people” and Brzezinski argued that it would “overcome a spreading pessimism” and “infuse greater historical optimism into our outlook on the world.” Like the late 19th century, Americans would be lifted out of their own domestic doldrums via the demonization of the “barbarous” Russian other.
The “free” Russia movement would only return to its roots of God, capitalism, and freedom with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Foglesong paints Reagan as a sincere, albeit naïve, crusader who believed that freedom would come to Soviet Russia through a combination of Jesus and sending Sears Roebuck catalogs to commodity starved Russians. After all, it was Reagan who called the Soviets the “evil empire.” But Reagan, more than anything, represented the epitome of the American “free” Russia tradition. Like Carter, he hoped that direct confrontation with the Soviet Union would facilitate “an American recovery from the self-doubt and polarization caused by the Vietnam War.” Luckily for Reagan, the appearance of Gorbachev allowed him to dismiss the hardliners in his Administration who questioned the Soviet reformer’s sincerity.
While Foglesong devotes a lengthy discussion of Reagan’s ability to make the crusade American policy, the reader can’t ignore the place of religion in the President’s efforts. Reagan is famous for placing the Cold War within a religious discourse. If the Soviets represented the “evil empire” then the United States played the role of God’s angel charged with the task to vanquish that evil. This binaried view of Russia gelled well with American sentiments. As George F. Kennan wrote, “A large segment of the American population has the need to cultivate the idea of American innocence and virtue—which requires an opposite pole of evil.” True enough, and this fact should not surprise us that good/evil continues to play well into logic of the War on Terror.
The fact that Reagan saw Russia through a religious lens cannot be reduced to rhetoric alone. In private conversations, he tended to preach to Gorbachev that “there is a God” urging the reformer to allow “church bells to ring out again” in Russia. He even believed that Gorbachev “might [have been] a closet Christian.” And like “free” Russia crusaders from the 19th century, Protestant missionaries weren’t too far behind. Billy Graham, a “free” Russia crusader since 1959 and Reagan’s spiritual advisor visited the Soviet Union in 1982 and 1984 where he went on a twelve day preaching tour from Leningrad to Novosibirsk. Graham believed that there was a “quite religious revival going on throughout the Soviet Union”—a view that came not so much from his permission to preach, but a perception that Russians “must be born again” (emphasis mine). If the yoke of Soviet “totalitarianism” was ever to be cast out of the Russian consciousness, tracts from King James’ Bible would serve as that exorcism’s script.
Gorbachev’s opening the religious door had a profound effect on Reagan. While many of his advisors (and presumably Reagan himself) saw glasnost and perestroika as Soviet trickery, it was Gorbachev’s evoking God at a summit in Geneva in 1985 that touched Reagan’s heart and proved the Soviet leader’s sincerity. It “stuck in my mind,” said Reagan, “and stays a nagging question that won’t go away.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the “free” Russian crusaders got their wish. Interestingly, the Bible’s revolutionary force lost power in Russia’s “transition” to democracy. Perhaps it was because the Clinton administration adopted the religion of globalization and “TINA” rather the universalism of God. “Shock therapy” displaced the Bible, revealing that capital was perhaps the real mantra of the “free” Russianists. Foglesong never really explains why this change in discourse occurred. It’s likely that such an explanation requires a study all on its own.
As a whole, Foglesong study reminds us of how deep Americans’ vision of Russia as either “tyranny” or “freedom” runs. It also gives us food for thought when we read proclamations like like John Edwards and Jack Kemps’ Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do. The idea that the United States can and should do something about Russia’s “democratic backsliding” is hardly novel. In fact, it is merely a recycling of a mentality that has longstanding historical roots; roots that are never too far from the United States own understanding of itself.