I probably don't need to tell you that Donald Trump was just elected the 45th president of the United States. This is a very frightening development for a lot of people, and first of all I want to give all my love to you and let you know that you can reach out to me if you need help. I am in Russia, yes, but I'm planning to donate to charities and do whatever I can to help my fellow Americans from here.
Now, to business. Since many drew connections between Trump and Russia during his campaign, some people are wondering how Russia is reacting to his victory. Luckily enough, I am in a good position to report on that.
One myth about Russia that I like to "bust" when talking to Americans is the idea that Russians, on the whole, agree with one another. Russians sometimes have this problem when thinking about the US as well. So instead of writing a long, complex post analyzing "Russia" as a whole, I'm going to present a lot of different reactions and opinions, and talk just a bit about all of them.
Note: all translations are mine. If there are inaccuracies, I apologize.
America is Ours: Popular Journalists and Politicians
The most striking reaction to Trump's triumph, which needs to be mentioned first, is the reaction of the Russian parliament, or Duma, when the news was first announced. They stood and applauded his victory in the US elections. That sure does seem to support the idea that the Russian goverment and Trump were somehow connected, or at least that they were rooting for him. And some of them certainly were.
The funniest reaction was doubtless from Ernest Makarenko a Duma Deputy from Putin and Medvedev's United Russia Party. He posted an instagram video in which he, holding champagne and standing in front of a Russian flag, gives a small address, starting with, "America is ours! And America, like Crimea, was taken in an entirely polite, bloodless manner." This needs no commentary or analysis. Just watch it, even if you don't understand Russia, and savor it for a little while.
Anger toward the US and joy for Trump are common emotions among Russian media personalities right now. It is interesting to see how, in their criticism, these people are echoing certain American commentators more than anything else (although their celebration is a whole different story). Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of Russia's foreign news service, RT, unleashed a tweetstorm about America's mistakes and Trump's glorious victory after election day, including these highlights:
"People are sick of war. Sick of the media. People are sick of aggressive liberalism. Sick of immigrants. Good or bad, it's a fact."
"When the media and government spend years forcing values that society is not ready for, telling society that it is too slow, Trump wins."
"Today I want to ride through Moscow with an American flag in my car window. If I find a flag. Join in! :D They've earned it today."
I wonder how she would answer if asked what the over 50% of the US that did not vote for Trump is sick of, what the American liberals must be thinking right now. I also wonder if she recognizes the irony of someone who manages an avowedly anti-American news service driving around displaying an American flag. But her facts are hard to ignore--she has picked up the same thread as many US authorities, who explain Trump's election as a backlash against perceived radical societal changes.
Aleksei Pushkov, Federation Council member and TV host, also explained Trump's victory with a theory cited by many Americans: "the result of the elections showed a huge gap between the ruling elite of the USA, which was for Clinton, and the majority of the country's citizens. That is why Trump won."
Pushkov is also happy about Trump's victory, although, it seems, not enough to fly an American flag in his car window. He tweeted his opinion about what Trump's policy will be like, and here it splits from the US liberal media's narrative: "You can't expect love or presents from Trump: he is a patriot and a businessman. But he isn't an ideologue, he's a realist. And a realist understands the language of agreement."
Pushkov, by the way, tweets a lot in English, and even some other languages. He's a very educated man. Here is another tweet that goes against the grain a bit.
And let me just show you my very favorite Pushkov tweet of this cycle: "the battle isn't over: the US ruling elite will try to turn Trump into a political copy of Clinton. But they won't succeed. The hairstyles are too different."
Maria Zakharova, director of the Press Department of Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, joined in the US-bashing party in excellent form: "the Western media, the kings of mainstream, even now can't admit that they turned out to be bad experts . . . the reason for this failure is simple: the lack of objectivity. For many years, and in the last few very aggressively, they pushed their mantra about "bad Russia" as the cause of all evils on everyone. Then they talked so much that they started to believe it themselves. Of course in these conditions the results of the US elections were "unexpected" for them and their audience . . . time to take an interest in your own countries and, most importantly, start studying your own people. This isn't schadenfreude. On the contrary, it's hope. Because objectivity is an important prophylactic measure against global catastrophes."
It is tempting to dismiss these words as the ranting of a hateful Russian. But on the other hand, the US media did in fact predict this election wrong--overwhelmingly so. As did nearly every liberal in the United States. I had friends posting the night before election day that "we will elect the first female president tomorrow." That level of confidence can carry a monumental victory or fall into a crushing defeat. And since this time, it turned out to be the second option, those who still have the emotional energy to think about it should probably reconsider some long-held positions if they want future success.
Among the Russian celebrations was heard one very expected and very loud voice. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a bombastic far-right Russian politician active since the 90s, whom many are now comparing to Trump, wrote a congratulatory tweet: "Congratulations, Trump, on being elected US president! Russian citizens welcome this success! We've known it a long time." He then added "Congratulations, Donald!" in English. It is an entirely predictable message, as Zhirinovsky is also a demagogue who plays on fears and says ridiculous things to get attention. Unlike Trump, though, he is also a clever politician, so this cannot just be blind admiration for a kindred spirit: for the sake of his public character and for making connections with powerful individuals similar to himself, building a relationship with Trump is a good idea for Zhirinovsky.
One more interesting point: Zhirinovsky was recorded not long ago saying in English that Trump should and would become the president of the United States. What makes that interesting is the opinion about him I've heard from a number of Russians: Zhirinovsky is awful, but he's also very smart, and when he makes predictions, they come true. When I heard his prediction before the elections, I remembered what I'd been told, but thought, "no, this time it can't be true." Guess I was wrong. We were all wrong.
Subdued Celebration: the Kremlin Intellectuals
Another reaction that got a lot of attention recently in the US press was that of Sergei Ryabkov, a deputy minister of foreign affairs, who reported that Russia had "contacts" (meaning "communications") with Trump's campaign staff. He said: "these are working moments, and the following sequence of actions will depend on the situation and the issues that stand before us." He also added that, "in the US, during the campaign battle, a two-party consensus was formed on an anti-Russian basis," and said Russia should not look for great changes under President Trump.
Ryabkov's revelation is less shocking than it seems at first glance. First, his measured reaction to Trump's victory suggests that he was not praying for this result. Second, foreign authorities often communicate with US presidential candidates, trying to "feel out" the possible president's position toward their country. Given Trump's compliments toward Putin early in his campaign, it seems clear why the Russian side might want to investigate this candidate. This idea is backed up by the position of President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who explained that these contacts were "natural": "our experts, our specialists on the US on international affairs . . . of course they constantly discuss with their colleagues here [Peskov was, at the time of this statement, in New York], including those from Mister Trump's group."
Peskov has made a number of statements about Trump's victory, most of which echo the cautious line followed by Ryabkov. "It isn't worth expecting immediate changes in the system of coordinates in Washington. There's a lot of inertia . . . they have a system of checks and balances. But even so, if our two leaders--I mean the current leader of Russia, president Putin, and the [US] president-elect Donald Trump--will be wise enough to have the political will to talk with each other, to attempt to solve problems not through confrontation, not through, let's say, the language of sanctions or other illogical things that bring harm to both sides, then we will have a chance, at least, to talk and try to solve problems constructively.
Of course, he also said that Putin and Trump have "phenomenally" similar views.
Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, was also hesitant to call Trump's win a Russian victory. "We said that the American people would decide. And the American people decided. We waited to see their decision, and it happened . . . We have no preferences. As Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin said, we will work with any new US leader the American people choose . . . I can't say that all previous leaders of our partners were predictable in the past. That is part of life and politics. We hear a lot of words, but will judge by actions, and answer those actions with our own."
Valery Solovey, professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where I study, said that Americans want internal problems solved more than they want to export democracy, so they picked Trump. That sounds like a positive judgement, but it was followed by a pessimistic prognosis for all the issues Russians are hopeful about with Trump's rise. Will the US recognize Crimea? Probably not--it will just ignore it. Will NATO keep growing? Probably yes, though it might slow down. Will the sanctions be withdrawn? "I don't think they'll get right up and withdraw them. After all, we got a set of conditions a long time ago, for the Minsk Agreements and for Crimea. It's a different matter that with Trump coming to power, Russia will have a window of opportunity. We have to see which people Trump puts in key positions. Then it will be clearer what he's planning on in the future."
The same sentiment is expressed in tweet form by Vladimir Orlov, from the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (also the founder of the global security think tank "PIR Center," where I had an internship):
Aleksei Kudrin, former finance minister and head of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg State University (where I studied), also tweeted his opinion: "in spite of some of Trump's statements on economic questions, he depends on the existing system. It will "smooth" his ambiguous intentions."
A slightly more positive evaluation of Trump came, odd as it is, from Gennady Zyuganov, the old, sturdy head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation: "in my view, these were stange elections. On the one hand, they were just filthy, but on the other, an anti-system politician won, one who actually doesn't have a lot of experience, but is a great businessman. In my view, this election was a sign that not only the US, but the whole world will have to interpret. Globalists have suffered a devastating loss, because in recent times they have been trading in military risks and dollars and have been destroying international relations." The fact that a communist would support a Republican businessman like Donald Trump becomes less surprising when one takes into account that the CPRF is more a social-democrat party than a truly communist or even socialist one--the more radical party, Communists of Russia, didn't even make it into the Duma in the last election.
Here's a fact regarding my personal experience. I didn't attend the lecture I was supposed to yesterday--after the previous day's chaos, I was much too tired to stay at university until after 7 o'clock. But I asked a friend who attended what the professor said about Trump's victory, because he works in the Russian Ministry of International Affairs and is well-connected. My friend reported that the professor "has an American friend, who wrote him to say that Americans are upset," and "we mustn't celebrate, because Trump is too unpredictable."
The overall mood in the Kremlin--at least among its serious scholars and thinkers--is hopeful right now, but cautious. Vladimir Putin himself expressed this well in his subdued, encouraging congratulatory letter, which expresses desire for real change while gently reminding the president-elect of all the actions of his predecessors that the Russian government does not approve of.
"Dear Mister Trump,
Please accept my heartfelt congratulations on the occasion of your victory in the United States presidential election.
I am counting on collaborative work with you to move Russian-American relations out of their crisis situation, and also to solve relevant problems on the international agenda and search for effective answers to the challenges of global security.
I am sure that the organization of a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington, based on the principles of equal rights, mutual respect and real consideration of each other's position, is in the interest of our countries' people's and the entire world community.
I wish you good health, well-being and success in your very important work as head of your government.
No, America isn't Ours: Backlash in the Liberal Opposition
No doubt in response to the overenthusiastic announcements of Russian media figures and pre-election optimistic predictions, Russia's so-called liberal opposition (which in fact is nearly as diverse, and in some cases illiberal, as Russia on the whole) is in full-swing anti-Kremlin mode. They are largely critical of the Russian response to Trump, if not of the man himself, and very, very skeptical that Russian-American relations will improve during his presidency.
Ilya Yashin, an oppositionist, politician, analyst and activist on whom I have a crush that will not die, wrote a short, firey but pessimistic piece criticizing both the Kremlin and his fellow oppositionists, as usual. "Over the course of this whole presidential campaign in the US I watched with surprise as many of my colleagues in the liberal-democratic movement gave Hillary Clinton the guise of a savior of Russia," he wrote. "They said that if she were to win, she would strengthen sanctions, Putin wouldn't survive the pressure, and there would have to be democratic reforms." Yashin goes on to say that this can't be true, citing history--Clinton was actually gentle on Russia as secretary of state, while the Republicans pressured her and Obama to be strict. What's more, he thinks she and Putin would get along, having clearly observed enough US politics to understand her two-faced reputation. "Criticizing each other publically, Putin and Clinton would easily agree behind the scenes. After all, they both understand the principle of "say one thing for the public, with each other--something else."
Yashin then gives his conception of the Trump-Russia relationship: "The key problem with Trump is that unlike Clinton, he's unpredictable. During his campaign, the Republican allowed himself some compliments toward Putin. Russian and US media during the election gave him the image of a Kremlin hire, and Trump can't be overjoyed by that reputation. As a politician, he is ambitious, and wants people to see in him a savior for America, and not someone's puppet." He concludes that, given this, Trump will turn tough on Russia in the coming months, and those in Russia who are celebrating will have to change their tune. What's more, given the complex political system in the US, Trump will probably not be able to fulfill the promises he made during his campaign that Russia liked the sound of. These positions are the ones most commonly echoed in other Russian liberals' statements about Russia and Trump.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the scandal-ridden head of the democratic Yabloko party, which has hardly changed since it was founded in the 1990s, expressed a similar opinion. "With regards to Russia, it was already clear long before the elections that a victory for either candidate by itself would not radically change Russian-American relations . . . Trump won't be behind the wheel alone. In the US, the president is an extremely important figure. But he is only a part of the political system."
Yavlinsky also discussed the reasons for Trump's victory, sounding a lot like Pushkov, but with a negative evaluation of the situation. "The gap in the relationship between the elite and the mass of voters, the crisis in the system is also expressed by the fact that the so-called "silent majority"--citizens who do not talk about their views and sympathies during the process of the campaign, but affect the result--became an important factor. And that majority turns out to be the most sympathetic audience for populist play on fears, hate, and other "base feelings." That was how it was in the UK during Brexit, and how it is in the US now." Interestingly, it is exactly this ignorance of the country's majority opinion that many accuse Yavlinsky himself of. Perhaps he should reread his own text again and draw a life lesson from it. But to fair, he too has drawn an inportant conclusion about the significance of these strange recent elections.
Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption activist popular in the West, expressed the same skepticism about improvement in US-Russia relations as Yavlinsky with an apt metaphor: "the main reason why I think that the election of Trump won't change anything, and won't be good or bad for us: American foreign policy isn't a racecar driven by one person. That's possible here, yes--in the space of two months, the Turks our our main allies, then main enemies, and then again best friends. In a country where there are strong institutions, things work differently. It's more like a loaded-down tanker. Even if you really want to turn it, it will still chug along its former course for a long time simply out of inertia."
Dmitry Gudkov, former member of the Russian Duma (first in the Just Russia party, then as an independent), went a bit deeper, using his connections to explain the Kremlin's mixed reaction to the US election news. "The Duma's applause for Trump's win possibly shows that the deputies weren't told everything," he wrote. "Not long ago I talked with a certain high-ranking source, as they say in the news, and he explained that the Kremlin wasn't hoping for a Trump victory. They were even formulating a strategy for work with Clinton's administration. From a propagandist's point of view, the plan, taking everything into account, was like this: Russia supports the weaker candidate, and after his loss accuses America of unfair elections. And then back along the beaten path." He added that more important members of the government "have already quickly changed their line. Take note, the head of the committee for international affairs Leonid Slutsky didn't express concern that Trump might not fulfill expectations, practically "betraying Russia's interests", for nothing. Because when he really doesn't fulfill them, it will be very useful, as it was before, to accuse the US of all the deadly sins."
Of course, any statement by a member of this opposition will include sharp criticism toward the Russian government. But with regards to Trump, the criticism is fairly insightful, and closer to the actual Kremlin position (judging by statements from Peskov, Ryabkov and so on) than one might expect. Trump's unpredictability and lack of absolute power in the office of the US president have convinced the Russian liberal opposition that hoping for change from him is useless.
Maybe Trump is Something Good, or at Least Neutral: When Russia's Opposition is Not so Liberal
The position of the liberals above meshes nicely with that of many Americans who support their cause. But there are other liberals who say things that might drive Americans away.
Analyst Stanislav Belkovsky wrote a piece that sounds a bit shocking to the Democratic American ear, though in principle it's hard to object to it. He, like Simonyan of RT, takes the position that Trump's win is a form of backlash. "Of course," he said, "it was all coming together to bring forth a woman president. And then--a Jewish president, an Islamist president, a gay president, an Islamist gay president of Jewish heritage, and so on. But it turned out that they're repaving the highway to the bright future, and for now we have to take a detour. On an old country road. Essentially, everything is happening strictly by the third law of dialectics, and so there's nothing surprising here. Well yes, after Obama, we get Trump. And after him will be those gay Jews."
Ksenia Sobchak is an interesting figure. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, employed Putin and helped bring him to power in the 90s and 2000s. She began as a Putin supporter, but since then has moved toward the liberal opposition side. Also, she has gone from "Russia's Paris Hilton," famous for scandalous photos, sex tapes, and terrible songs, to a decently respected journalist. Her opinion always tends to contain something that no one else thinks to say, which is why I read her columns with relish. In this case, she did not disappoint. "America organized for itself its own Maidan, challenging the system. And the system heard, was scared by this result, and will unavoidably start to change regardless of whether Trump wins the next election or leaves in shame four years from now. As a result the system will perfect itself and become stronger." Sobchak seems to think that Trump's victory is something good for the US--a much-needed wake-up call at least, and proof that the US is a good, strong democracy. Sobchak did note that she was disappointed with Trump's election, though--because it meant she lost a bottle of wine in a bet.
Alright, so a rich former Putin supporter thinks Trump's election symbolizes something good. Perhaps that's just her? But it isn't; just ask Mikhail Gorbachev, first and last president of the USSR and Nobel Peace Prize winner: "it is striking that people gave their votes . . . for those who stood for the interests of wide layers of the people. That is just what came before serious changes in the life of our country. Maybe in the US too it will now be easier to bring about changes? Of course, so far it's hard to say for sure, what those changes will be. But we are within rights to say that the people of the USA are expecting them."
These are moments when the opposition's love for the US stretches to take Trump under its wing. He is American, and America is good, so he must be a sign of America's goodness.
An expert from the Carnegie Center Moscow went even further, writing in his blog that "Russia needs its own Trump . . . set on decisively and qualitatively changing matters in his own country . . . a Trump-like politician could save this country." Of course, it seems clear that he doesn't mean a politician who admits to sexual assault, insults every possible minority, and knows nothing about the actual process of politics. He means a politicia outside the system who nevertheless attracts a lot of popular attention. Should we hope he gets what he wishes for?
The Zhirinovsky Effect: how Russians Perceive Trump's Unexpeccted Win
It really seems that Trump's victory came as a surprise to the Russian leadership and opposition as much as it did to Americans. And some Russians have an explanation for why all the predictions were wrong.
I'll start with my experience this time. What I did go to yesterday was a shorter lecture, more like a Q-and-A session technically meant for bachelor's students, with a teddy-bear-like journalist from Russia's main government-run TV channel. Even he commented on Trump--that's how big the news is here. He said the reason no one predicted Trump's win was probably because of the "Zhirinovsky principle." To appoximate the journalist's statement: "you listen to this guy talk, he says a lot of awful things and you feel some internal protest, but somehow you like him, so you vote for him. But in the polls, you say you'll vote for someone else, because it's shameful to admit you support Zhirinovsky."
This journalist is not alone in his opinion: Aleksei Venadiktov, head of Echo of Moscow, Russia's "opposition" radio station, backed him up:
"A lot of people are shy to admit in pre-election polls that they will vote for some exotic candidate. They sort of join in with a traditional candidate to look respectable. But when they go into the booth to vote . . . Zhirinovsky got, at first, you remember, 3-5% in polls, and then--tada! First--20%, then 17%, then 19% . . ."
But perhaps these commentators are mistaken after all. Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling organization, disagreed: "could it be that people were simply afraid to tell the truth? Say, they support Zhirinovsky or Trump, but it's uncomfortable for them to admit that? That idea is actually an intellectual's invention. In fact, in America, almost no one is afraid to speak . . . of course, Trump is a populist, a demagogue. But he had support. It was his promises that strengthened the complexes and dissatisfaction of the white working population, which mostly voted for him." His explanation for the inaccuracy of polls is simpler: "Americans mostly use the cheapest methods--telephone or online polls. And all telephone polls give slightly higher results to the party in power. This is a well-known phenomenon. Second, in America they do surverys too often. So the level of refusal is very high, reaching 90-95%. People are just sick of sociological surveys! Here, by the way, the percentage is much lower."
And What do the People Think?
The opinions of ordinary Russians, like those of ordinary Americans, are based on the media and politicians they listen to, which means, in essence, that they vary. I have collected some of these opinions and will present them more or less without commentary, to let you get a feel for the voice of Russia.
First, from a Russian news source: reporters from the "New Times" asked ordinary Muscovites how they thought Trump's election might affect life in Russia. Here are some excepts, translated.
"I think positively," said one older woman. "Well, because if Hillary hadn't even come to power yet and was already saying she'd beat everyone, fight with everyone . . . he at least didn't say that. I understand that that could also happen with Trump, but at least he didn't say it earlier."
"I think that the country isn't run just by the president, but also by some mechanism--the president is just a public figure, who doesn't make important decisions," said a long-haired young man.
One young woman said, "Well, we need to observe. Trump is such an unusual person--at least until now he's been supporting Russia. What will happen in the future, time will tell." Her friend added, "I think that even so, some unseen people are in power. It doesn't really matter if they put person number one or person number two on the throne."
"Russia is Russia. We have our path, our road, and our own problems--so many!" said an older gentleman, not judging the question to be relevant.
A woman in all pastels gave a similar opinion: "Actually, the full day of discussion of elections yesterday made me nervous. Because really, that's their president--ours is here, thank God, and I wish him health. But even so, it was discussed so much . . . maybe we shouldnt' talk about it that much."
"I think that US policy toward Russia will hardly change. Because--national interests first, and as they say, everything else second. So if they recognize Crimea--well, maybe they'll recognize Crimea, but then in response they'll demand the recognition of, say, the division of Kosovo from Serbia," said a fellow in a baseball cap.
One of my Russian facebook friends noted that the gap between the liberal elite and majority of the population, which allowed Trump to be elected, exists in many places, not the States alone. (The post is not public, so I am neither quoting directly, not providing a link.)
Another acquaintance of mine wrote on Twitter, "I'm so happy it's Trump! This will be fun." And then, "can't wait for an official meeting of Putin and Trump," with a blushy face emoji.
And for a somewhat oppositional opinion, which I think will close this post well, we go to the twitter page belonging to Dmitry Sukharev of Transparency International Russia: "My whole feed is shaming the Americans for picking Trump. You guys chose Putin three times."