A Mirror of American Mainstream Media: reviewing The Dark Double: US Media, Russia, and the Politics of Values by Andrei P. Tsygankov6 min read
Andrei P. Tsygankov is a Russian-born American political science professor at San Francisco State University. Although he has published extensively on US-Russian relations and has contributed to various international forums, I am surprised that The Dark Double presents such staunchly pro-Western ideals from the very first page.
It expresses disappointment in Russian politics, domestic and abroad, in every chapter. The back cover summarizes that this book “studies the role of US media in presenting American values as principally different from and superior to those of Russia.” Immediately, I was incredulous of what he could add to the anti-Russian discourse so prevalent in America. Turns out, a deeply biased text can still offer an insightful analysis.
A timeline of the shifting perception of Russia by American media
Tsygankov interprets the Cold War as a victory of the West’s universal values. As the defeated power, Russia was widely expected to accept those values in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Until the mid-1990s, mainstream American media viewed Russia as being on track in transitioning toward Western values. They were adamant in painting President Boris Yeltsin as a true reformer in demand of respect, and those who opposed him were labeled hardliners or spoilers. Mainstream media pushed the American populace towards increased assistance and greater engagement with Russia.
However, in the second half of the 1990s, the narrative of transition and optimism was replaced by chaos. Tsygankov draws from American news sources and well-known journalists as a mirror of how the American public viewed Russia during this period. Russia had not moved in the expected democratic direction as they hoped for and the uncertainty activated old fears.
The third stage, called the Neo-Soviet Autocracy, describes the period between 2005 and 2013. At this time, the mainstream American media perspective had shifted into one of opposition. This narrative emerged when President Vladimir Putin opposed US military intervention in Iraq along with the aggression in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and Russo-Georgian War in August 2008. The idea that Russia was an autocratic system with a Soviet foundation meant frequent characterizations of being “Stalinist”, even “KGB-style”, a nod to Putin’s past. Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy caused the US public to grow critical of the country’s political system at home – from the treatment of minorities, fraudulent elections, indifference to the rule of law, protection of citizens’ security, to the systematic violation of individual rights. Since 2013, American media has entered a stage of seeing Russia as a foreign enemy.
The other side
Despite the Western-centric point of view of the author, he does give some credit to Russia. The US media is known for their tendency to focus blame solely on Putin, when many of his policies are a direct response to US action. In addition, framing Russia as somehow controlled solely by Putin is erroneous. There is much political infighting within the Kremlin and a Russian media source reports that only about 30% of presidential degrees are implemented. Political elites are frequently preoccupied with personal rewards. Russia has yet to establish a patriotic political class.
Overall, “the system has been historically designed to meet challenges of ethnic diversity, economic development, and national security rather than those of individual freedom. This explains the difficulties of adjusting to the realities of spreading liberal democracy and globalization. Nevertheless, the system is far from being a dictatorship with no respect for citizens’ rights.” With this statement, although I disagree with Tysgankov’s argument of American supremacy, I see that at least his research is rooted in truth.
A Russian vision for Russia
Tysgankov writes that Russian analysts often reach back to its centuries-long political experience before communism, whereas American Russia experts only reference Soviet parallels. As outsiders, Western media also fails to acknowledge Putin’s popularity within Russia. In the early 1990s, public polls revealed that Russians were interested in cooperating with the US and an “unquestionable model to follow”. Opposition by communist and radical nationalist newspapers were weak, typically portraying the “West as a collection of atomized individuals deprived of moral values and united only by aspirations to become rich at the expense of the rest of the world.”
A large shift in framing Russia’s values took place following Putin’s return to the presidency in March 2012. In his campaign, he “promoted a vision of Russia as a culturally distinct power, committed to defending values different from those of the West and other civilizations. In multiple statements, he criticized what he saw as Europe’s departure from traditional religious and family values… In his 2013 address to the Federation Council, he further positioned Russia as a ‘conservative’ power and the worldwide defender of traditional values.” This suggests that the Russian public may agree with, or even yearn for, the type of leadership and reassurance Putin provides.
Debasing liberal American media
Perhaps the most insightful chapter in the book is Russophobia in the Age of Donald Trump. Trump saw Russia’s international interests as fundamentally aligned with America’s. He wanted the US and Russia to unite in their interests in fighting terrorism in the Middle East.
Tsygankov argues that from the very inception of his campaign, Trump was painted as a Kremlin-compromised candidate by the liberal media. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton attributed Trump’s victory to Russian hacking. However, investigations into the alleged collusion failed to provide substantial evidence. Thirteen Russian nationals were indicted for allegedly interfering with the elections, yet their connection to either Trump or Putin could not be established.
Tysgankov further suggests that during his presidency, Trump also authorized the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in US history and ordered numerous missile strikes against Russian-supported positions in Syria, escalating tensions with Russia. He also armed Ukraine, antagonized Iran, and imposed sanctions against Russian businesses. He certainly was no Siberian candidate. However, the damage of liberal media is done – many uncritical liberal consumers of media still think Putin played a role in Trump’s election.
A look at ourselves
Tsygankov writes that “the narrative of collusion in the media was symptomatic of America’s declining confidence in its own values.” This is parallel to how the Russian media has exploited anti-Americanism to stabilize its own regime. Russian officials have openly criticized American institutions of competitive elections, free media, and market economy. Like many critics of the US’ actions, they believe that “such institutions serve as a cover for narrowly based yet excessively powerful special interest groups” in the US.
The Dark Double is a short read that is interesting to passive consumers of American media. It’s difficult to get a read on how institutions view Russia, given the polarity of American political parties. While the book claims to be about values, it better portrays the attitudes of media, instead of the characteristics of each populace. It lauds American democracy on practically every page. However, its analysis of American mainstream media is filled with anecdotal headlines and quotes, which I found important and factual.
Book details: Tysgankov, Andrei. The Dark Double: US Media, Russia, and the Politics of Values, 2019. Oxford University Press. It is available to buy here.