Four and a half years ago, "Daily Show" correspondent Jason Jones went to Iran to record a series, "Behind the Veil: Minarets of Menace," spoofing popular American misconceptions of Iran. In the process, he gave Americans a glimpse not just of "real" Iranians, but of Americans' own propensity for seeing them as scary villains that they just aren't.
On Monday, the "Daily Show" did something similar with Russia, sending Jones to Moscow. He takes on the persona of a Russia-bashing, freedom-loving American (Jones is actually Canadian), in the process calling attention to American misconceptions of Russia as cartoonishly villainous. It's successful and funny – Jones asks Russian passers-by to identify the villain from casts photos of "Rocky IV" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and even meets with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who brought down the system from within.
The popular American treatment of the Olympic games in Sochi drives home how unsympathetic Americans can be toward Russia, and makes this a perfect moment to call attention to that habit. Coverage tends to take frequent jabs at Russia's political corruption and weak governance; the jabs are typically accurate, but there's often a certain glee to them. When the opening ceremony featured a song by the celebrated Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, for example, many Americans seemed eager to point out that he was gay, as if those homophobic Russians would be unaware of this fact or must all support the country's anti-gay laws.
"There's a fine line between fair criticism and schadenfreude, and the Western press has been largely well on the side of the latter," the New Republic's Julia Ioffe, who is not soft on Putin's Russia, wrote. "I'd also argue that there's something chauvinistic, even Russophobic in it."
It's good to point out human rights abuses, but the commentary around Sochi could not be more different than American coverage of the 2008 games in Beijing, which typically reflected wide-eyed wonderment at China's economic growth, even though the then-ongoing crackdown on Tibetan rights activists was arguably far more severe than anything happening in Russia today.
So Jones's task, of calling attention to our misperceptions of Russia, is an important one, but it's also a difficult one. It's likely much harder than doing the same with Iran, for reasons you can see play out in this "Daily Show" segment.
First, Americans feel they have good reason to be wary of Iran – its nuclear program, its sponsorship of terrorist groups. But there's also an emerging narrative, particularly on the American left, that the U.S. is too aggressive against much-weaker Iran (the legacy of the Iraq war plays a big role here) and that Iranians themselves are captive to their own government and its misdeeds. That's partly a legacy of the 2009 Iranian protests, with which many Americans felt a sense of solidarity, but it's also a bit simplistic: the Iranian government does not appear to be deeply beloved among Iranians, but nor is it universally opposed.
There is no such countervailing narrative in the United States that maybe we're too hard on the Russians, or that we should at least try to hold a sympathetic view alongside the critical view. Partly, this is a legacy of the Cold War, and the still-lingering idea that it is almost always okay to say bad things about the Russians. But it's also a product of President Vladimir Putin's own government, which after his disputed 2012 reelection and the ensuing protests has sought to whip up nationalistic sentiment, and thus popular support for the government, by heightening the idea of an ongoing clash between a proud Russia and a nefarious, American-led West.
You can see this in the interview with the Duma legislator, who – like many Americans – paints a highly self-serving picture of the Cold War, in which his side championed resistance to the other side's imperialist aggression. In truth, of course, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union played this game. When Jones brings up Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, the Duma member argues that the U.S. prevented the Soviets from solving Afghanistan's problems, and in the process "created al-Qaeda." This narrative is not just overly simplistic but outright false: the U.S. did sponsor anti-Soviet rebels, but not al-Qaeda. In fact, the most-favored U.S.-backed rebel, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was an avowed enemy of al-Qaeda, which killed him on Sept. 10, 2001.
The point is that, yes, both the Soviet Union and the U.S. share responsibility for Afghanistan's slide into chaos. But the fact that the official view in Russia is still so adversarial, and so defined by bashing the Americans as much as excusing the Soviets, drives home the degree to which it is not just Americans responsible for perpetuating the Cold War-era cultural and political antagonisms. They might resent Americans' gleeful insistence on bashing Russia, and they have a point, but it's also a narrative they can feed into themselves.
Americans, unfortunately, are probably not ready to question their views of Russians they same way they did toward Iranians in 2009 and have been since. But this is a start.