Overrun by ugly Americans

August 31, 1994|By Yelena Khanga

AFTER A FEW years away, I returned to Moscow recently and discovered something that surprised me greatly: a growing feeling of annoyance toward America.

Five years ago it seemed that we were knocking on heaven's door. The rich American uncle promised us the keys and sent advisers to guide us.

Now, as Russians see it, the advisers have left us with a mess while taking their handsome consulting fees back to the United States. Some people believe we've become a playground for the American experts and their world-class egos.

True, we can always reject their advice. But the international lenders are pushing it on us. Besides, it's always easier to blame someone else.

We do have professional America-haters, such as the right-wing Communists or the chauvinist followers of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but I'm not talking about them.

I'm talking about people who not long ago were warm toward the United States.

One of them is a friend, Boris Plujnesky, who works in nuclear disarmament.

"They said they came here to make the world safer," Mr. Plujnesky says of the United States' efforts to cut the Russian military. "Right. Now we've got massive layoffs. Whole cities have been wiped out economically.

"America, meanwhile, has the upper hand, plus a bigger slice of the world arms market -- maybe the only industry in which we could compete with them," he went on.

"Let's face it. Americans act only in their own interest."

That's a pattern Russians are seeing, rightly or not, in a multitude of ways. Some of us think, for example, that you are walking off with our best minds.

Boris Bunkin, a highly respected academician, says American interests seem to spoon off the cream.

"Their grants are a pittance by American standards," Mr. Bunkin says, "but they are huge by our own." So our best scientists are waiting in line to go.

"In Russia," says Nikolai Krotov, head of a publishing house in Moscow, "the pride factor is more important even than money." He points to the touchy area of foreign policy, the Balkans in particular.

"Serbia was a traditional ally, like a brother. Yet now America is trying to enforce its own solution without consulting Russia. How would they feel if there was a conflict on the Mexican border and Russia stepped in without talking to America?"

Even the clergy are grumbling. They suffered through the lean Communist years. Now that things are better, your American evangelists are marching in and stepping on their corns.

The Billy Grahams can afford lavish media campaigns. They rent whole stadiums and plaster their ads on subways and TV. The Russian clergy can't match those marketing blitzes, and they are miffed.

American foundations have become the objects of a prickly suspicion. The Moscow News reported recently that even George Soros, the founder of the Soros Foundation, was concerned that the foundation had more money in its Moscow bank account than it was supposed to have.

The article also noted that the foundation had not announced grant winners long after the competition was over.

We hear that such foundations are pouring in money. We are supposed to be grateful. But ordinary people don't see much of that money, which suggests to them that it finds its way to somebody's pocket -- American or Russian, and probably someone close to the trough.

All of this creates a situation in which small slights become large blows. Our veterans, for example, were deeply hurt that they were left out of the D-Day celebrations.

True, we were not directly involved in the Normandy landings. But the veterans feel that the United States was playing down their enormous sacrifices and their contribution to the Allied victory, which for many is their last source of dignity. They ask, "Weren't we Allies, too?"

The older people are not happy that English is coming at them from all sides -- advertisements, television shows, everything. They are deluged by third-rate terminator movies and soaps. And why, people ask, are we now bombarded with ads for cigarettes -- something Americans themselves are fighting?

There are signs that such annoyances are starting to feed an atmosphere of paranoia.

While I was there, for example, the FBI director, Louis Freeh, was in Moscow to launch a joint attack on organized crime with the Russian police.

But at least one television reporter saw a more sinister motive. Are the Yankees using the Russian mafia, he asked, as an excuse to worm their way into our law enforcement? America respects only its own law, he continued. America does whatever it wants. Look at what it did in Panama. Are we becoming a banana republic?

There's even talk that America was pulling strings in the assault on the Russian White House last fall by President Boris Yeltsin's forces.

People noticed that CNN seemed to have consistently good camera angles, as if it knew what was coming, and that President Clinton never actually denounced the unconstitutional attack.

I don't want to overstate the case. Lots of contradictory currents are running through my country. For many of us, America is still the land of the dream. Personally, I think a lot of the griping is off the wall.

There is a big irony in this, of course. During the Cold War, the bad feeling toward the United States came from the government. Now it's coming from the grass roots.

You used to be our scapegoat because you were our "enemy." Now you are becoming one because you are our "friend."

Yelena Khanga is a former reporter for the Moscow News and the author of "Soul to Soul: The Story of a Black Russian American Family."

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