The Russian Obama Effect
- By Mark H. Teeter
- Oct. 27 2008 00:00
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It's all over but the shouting. Senator Barack Obama will carry Russia by a wide margin next week. The Levada Center reports that Russians favor Obama over Senator John McCain by more than two to one, and recent local headlines concur, proclaiming "Russia Prefers Obama Administration" and "Russian Analysts Expect Obama to Become U.S. President." There's been a report of incipient "Obama-mania" here, and an outfit called "Russians for Obama" has even rhapsodized that "the Russians in our poll love him."
If you put much stock in all that -- great. I'd like to talk to you later about investing in northeast Moscow beachfront properties.
Let's be frank. While Barack Obama enjoys remarkable popularity among non-Americans, including many observers here, it is likely that most Russians view the Democratic candidate with skepticism, suspicion, antipathy or all three. This is hardly surprising, as even "Russians for Obama" reminds us that "he is everything Russians stereotypically shouldn't like."
If Obama actually were running for office here, he would likely create the same problems for pollsters that he has in the United States, where measuring the attitudes of white voters to a black candidate can be a very dicey business. In 1982, surveys showed that Tom Bradley, the African-American mayor of Los Angeles, held a substantial lead over his white opponent in the California gubernatorial race, yet he lost the election. The large polling error was ascribed to white respondents' reluctance to admit they would not vote for a black candidate, a phenomenon since known as the Bradley Effect. In my experience, there is a Russian variant of the same thing.
As an exchange student in Leningrad in 1975, I had a roommate named Vitya, a straight-arrow Komsomol type who could argue the Soviet point of view on issues foreign and domestic at great length and with evident relish. I never found any of Vitya's pronouncements particularly striking until one evening he looked up from his teacup and noted confidingly, "In principle, we're internationalists, but when you get down to it, white people really ought to stick together."
Four years later, when I was working as an exhibit guide in Moscow on a U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange, a young Russian couple invited me to their home for dinner, an unsanctioned initiative that, if discovered, could well have entailed "unpleasantness" for them from official sources. Over chicken Kiev, the couple listened with rapt attention to descriptions of American life and society, clearly intent on getting the most from an evening that might later exact a high price. I was struck by a sense of incongruity, however, when these sympathetic Soviet twentysomethings observed, "You're right to keep your minorities in their place."
Sociologists dismiss such moments as "anecdotal evidence." But I've heard enough similar sentiment expressed here over the years -- usually casually but sometimes even in formal venues -- that I would hardly expect the heart-of-hearts reaction of most Russians to a black American president-elect to be upbeat.
Instinctive Russian apprehension will find ample resonance among many U.S. voters, of course. This campaign has not lacked for charged epithets or bared teeth. Yet attitudes in both countries can and should evolve. Think generationally, but not immediately. Darwin's still right, whatever the polls say.
Indeed, one Russian notion to dismiss forthwith is that by electing Obama, Americans will finally solve their race problem. This is what a veteran Russian political commentator wrote last month. That this is not the case is understood by virtually all Americans, starting with Obama himself. What electing Obama would mean in terms of race is that Americans will have given themselves a chance to make real headway in treating our 300-year-old national schizophrenia. The arrival of non-white Supreme Court justices and secretaries of state have been useful steps, surely, but electing a black president would be an enormous stride -- though hardly the last -- toward curing a sad distinction still made by too many between "real Americans" and "others."
Russians certainly grasp the concept of "ours" versus "other" -- nash and ne nash. In fact, that may be the best way of explaining to curious Muscovites the significance for many U.S. citizens of this Nov. 4. It's about belonging. If Obama wins, millions of Americans will feel more at home in their own country -- more American. I'll be one of them.
And if I run into Vitya, I'll be happy to share the news.
Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.