Putin as Uncle Joe: Morals and Public Perception in U.S.-Russia Relations

History shows how little moral principles define the West’s perception of Soviet and Russian leaders.

September 19, 2016

By Dmitry V. Shlapentokh 

Whether or not Donald Trump will be elected, his candidacy has already caused a heated discussion unlike any before in American political history. Critics state that Trump’s ideas, including those related to foreign policy, are unorthodox, if not immoral. This includes his ostensible desire to befriend Vladimir Putin, who has emerged in this narrative as a Machiavellian dictator who cannot be trusted.

Trump’s assertion that the United States and Russia could be on good terms is an unprecedented departure from U.S. foreign policy tradition.  But as Henry Kissinger, John Mearsheimer, and other proponents of realpolitk frequently argue, moral considerations have hardly played a role in defining geopolitics, despite the claims of many Western politicians. The case of Putin in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is no different.

Even a cursory knowledge of modern history demonstrates how little moral principles have defined U.S. perception of Soviet and Russian leaders. Let’s start with the birth of the Soviet regime. Officials in Washington immediately assumed that Bolshevism was unnatural and would fall apart in Thermidorian fashion.  When this did not happen, Washington established a diplomatic relationship with Moscow in 1933. The horrors of collectivization, where millions of Soviet citizens were starved and/or sent to labor camps, had few implications for U.S. foreign policy towards the Soviet Union.  If anything, the Soviet Union’s image in the United States became increasingly positive in the years following the Great Depression. For example, FDR’s New Deal – a program that increased the state’s role in the economy and size of the social welfare net – found at least some common ground with Soviet economic principles.

Socialism, and implicitly the Soviet model, thus became a popular ideal among the American Left of the 1930s. Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent for The New York Times from 1922-1936, published a series of articles in the summer of 1931 that presented Soviet society, then in the throes of the first Five Year Plan, as generally harmonious, for which he controversially received the Pulitzer Prize.  At that time, the image of Stalin as a benign and upright leader became popular not just in the United States but in the West more broadly, where intellectuals and a considerable segment of the public felt threatened by the rise of fascism. 

Some supporters on the Left justified Stalin’s repressive actions, including terror, as necessary in the anti-fascist struggle. German-Jewish writer Lion Feuchtwanger’s travelogue, Moscau 1937 is an example of this view. In didactic prose, Feuchtwanger sees Soviet society as a model of economic and cultural progress, praising Stalin in contrast to the morally compromised and hypocritical West. 

In August 1939,  Moscow and Berlin penned the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which quickly reversed any benevolent Western feelings toward the Soviet leader. Both Western leaders and the general public soon discovered that Stalin was a dangerous tyrant, whose policies had led to the death of millions. This recognition was short-lived, however, as yet another transformation of perception took place after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Terror and famine were pushed to the back of the West’s memory or simply explained away. As the Wehrmacht pressed across the Soviet frontier in the summer of 1941, Stalin emerged as benign “Uncle Joe,” as President Roosevelt frequently called him, an ally to be trusted in the fight against NazismThis image persisted until the beginning of the Cold War. At that point, the memories of Stalin’s misdeeds were again resurrected from seeming historical oblivion. 

If this history is applied to the present day, one caneasily see that the West’s approach to the late-Soviet and post-Soviet leaders correlated not with their deeds or relationships with the majority of Russian and Soviet citizens, but with the political needs of Western, especially American, elite.  Mikhail Gorbachev, who became immensely unpopular among the Soviet people for overseeing a corrupt economic transition, was lionized in the West as a courageous reformer. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whose shelling and burning of the parliament resulted in the death of between 200 and 2,000 people, was accepted in the West as a democrat.  In short, despite their controversial actions at home, both Russian leaders were portrayed as “Uncle Joes”  because the West’s perceived interests were bolstered under their respective terms in the Kremlin. 

Putin was also elevated to this benevolent position in the early years of his rule after facilitating the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan by allowing military access through Central AsiaHowever, the Russian leader’s actions in the 2008 Georgia-Russia War and especially in the ongoing Ukraine conflict quickly removed him from the “Uncle Joe” pedestal.

Today the Russian president has positioned himself in opposition to U.S. interests in Syria, Ukraine, and other areas of contention, leading to his portrayal as the boogeyman of foreign and domestic policy in Western media. But Unlike Stalin, who remained an enemy of the West for the remainder of his life, the situation with Putin could be different. Western geopolitical interests could need Russia again and discover that Putin is actually “not-so-bad of a chap,” and he might be transformed into a contemporary iteration of “Uncle Joe.” On the other hand, the West’s foreign policy priorities may shift away from areas where Russia holds critical influence. If this happens, Putin could disappear from the American media space altogether.

As it was with the other Soviet/post-Soviet leaders, the transition from a mostly negative to a mostly positive image could occur without any rational explanation for the changes. The majority of the general public tends to accept these changes without questioning them, which indicates how removed foreign policy is from the daily experiences of many Americans.

Dmitry V. Shlapentokh is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Indiana-South Bend. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the position of the affiliated organizations or the Center on Global Interests.

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