I’ve started preparing for my fall semester courses, including my introductory human geography course, and am thinking of examples to explain one of the more ‘fuzzy’ concepts upon which my discipline rests, geographical imagination. The fuzziness of this concept lies in the contested nature of any claims to describe a place or accurately and fully describe how that place fits into a larger network of places, as this in turn depends on a range of social factors, connections with other places and spaces, and power over geographical knowledge and representation. In other words, many different geographical imaginations can exist at the same time, each purporting to adequately and accurately capture the character of a place, a set of geographic connections, or a whole worldview. It is also the case, however, that some geographical imaginations – that is, our ways of making sense of geographical complexity and how we imagine ourselves and our place as linked or positioned relative to other places and the world as a whole – are more powerful and far-reaching than others. This can be incredibly obvious, but it also means there are almost too many good examples to demonstrate the point to those encountering this idea for the first time in a systematic or critical way.

In poking around the internet and various readings for good images and ideas of empirical examples, I settled on the bogeyman that threatened America during the Cold War and which haunts American politics today in a somewhat different form – Russia. I don’t necessarily mean the reality of Russia as a place or a state, a territorially bounded unit or the communities within those boundaries and beyond who identify in some way as Russian, or even how Russians view themselves and their place in the world. I mean specifically, the Russia that exists in the geographical imagination of mainstream, official American political discourse, and, to a large extent, the way everyday Americans view Russia. Partly this is because of my own interest in the long history of American foreign policy, informed by my background in political geography, international relations, and the subfield of “critical geopolitics,” which focuses (sometimes myopically) on representation and discourse in the exercise of power and statecraft in the international state system. Part of that, in turn, hinges on “popular geopolitics,” or how popular culture and mass media help produce, circulate, and reinforce or challenge commonly held views of international power and relations. I often joke with my students when I cover this in my courses that my objective is to ruin movies for them forever. But I am also currently rereading Michael Latham’s book The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development, and US Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present, and next after that in my reading pile is Timothy Barney’s Mapping the Cold War: Cartography and the Framing of America’s International Power. Both of these describe how American policymakers and publics accepted and advanced a certain vision of Russia (often used interchangeably with the Soviet Union during the Cold War) as a global threat, an unholy octopus spreading its tentacles far and wide to forge what Reagan called an “evil empire,” promoting communism and threatening not just American interests and national security, but our very way of life.

So what was this Russia that Americans envisioned at the time and how did these views of Russia/the USSR as a place, its role and ambitions in the world, and its relationship with the US, the West more broadly, and the “Third World” change over time? How did these change again after the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War fizzled to an end? And what continuities and discontinuities are there in American imaginations of Russia as we enter what some call a “new cold war” and the US government investigates allegations of Russian election interference and collusion by the 2016 Trump campaign?  These are big questions that I can’t fully answer in a blog post, but I can point to a few things that illustrate how Americans’ geographical imagination took shape and placed Russia at the center of a global existential threat, in turn requiring American intervention abroad, and, more recently, a reassessment of American power and vulnerability globally and at home.

My own research is on foreign aid and the historical and ongoing evolution of development thinking and institutions, especially donor countries’ aid agencies. The US Agency for International Development was established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, who had lobbied hard as a senator for aid reform and rationalization of the United States’ many but often conflicted and ineffectual aid accounts. Part of the rationale for creating USAID and cleaning up the US foreign development aid system stemmed from a growing perception among American policymakers that, like the greatly feared “missile gap” that had emerged between the US and Soviets in the 1950s, the US was lagging behind its superpower nemesis in the provision of development aid to the poor and often newly independent countries of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, or what came to be known during the Cold War as the Third World. The Third World was one of the major proxy battlegrounds for US-Soviet tensions, resulting in widespread political instability, brutal regimes supported by both superpowers, and more than a few civil wars. Both the US and Russia saw their opposition as unfairly infiltrating, swaying, and controlling the states of the Third World, promoting ideological falsehoods and capturing satellite states to threaten the other and collect more allies, resources, and influence on the global stage. Materially speaking, the US had more to offer in the form of tangible resources – money and credit, food, agricultural and industrial equipment, military hardware – than the Soviets, but by the late 1950s, many in the US government were concerned that the US was losing the ideological war in the Third World to Russia because of an “aid gap.” In other words, US aid was stingy and ineffective compared to the Soviets. But how could the Soviets do it? They had, many American policymakers feared, an ideological coherence and fervor that belied their limited resources, which, as Latham explains, demonstrated an alternative vision of modernity and social order hostile to the US’s vision of itself in the world. Shortly after the June 1961 Vienna Summit, for example, President Kennedy stated that a “small group of disciplined Communists could exploit discontent and misery … and seize control, therefore, of an entire country without Communist troops ever crossing any international frontier.” His Secretary of State Dean Rusk likewise told the US House of Representatives that “[t]he battleground of freedom … is the whole southern half of the globe,” where a great revolution to modernize economies, political systems, and daily life was underway. He warned though that without American guidance and leadership, “the Communists can leap aboard this great revolution, seize it, direct it to their own ends and make it the instrument of their own limitless imperialist ambitions.” Although Communist forces had won the Chinese Revolution following World War II and allied themselves with the Soviets, Chinese-Soviet relations were tense at the best of times, and the phrase “the Communists” was typically a synonym for the Soviet Union, and more specifically the leadership of the Communist Party in Moscow. Many American policymakers envisioned a world where Soviet Communist leaders in Moscow directed the most minute movements of people and materials from the center of a vast global web of Communist conspiracy tied together by ideological and political allegiance to Soviet dictators. Soviet Russia was not simply another state in the postwar international system of states, it was the terrifying nexus organizing a global web of conspiracy, subterfuge, and insurgency. Russian advisors were everywhere across the Third World (as well as Europe and even at home, in the US government, leading to the “witch hunts” and purges of suspected Communists during the McCarthy era in the 1950s), training their servants and undermining American interests and democratic values. This geographical imagination envisioned vast swathes of the world lost to American influence and investment as the Russian enemy snuck in during the dead of night, directing otherwise potentially free, democratic, market-oriented societies away from the US and into the control of a false ideology and imperial control from Moscow. This imagining of global space saw little to no room for non-aligned states, and spiraled fearfully to a world in which the US was isolated, threatened from all sides by Communists directed by Moscow, unable to protect itself and advance its interests or preserve its way of life. This informed not only a thorough reformulation and expansion of American foreign aid, but also expanded the American strategy of territorial containment of the Soviet expansionist threat, necessitating further American military and political intervention across the world to combat the Russian presence and influence in developing states. This had occurred in Korea, Greece, Iran, and Central America throughout the 1950s already, but led the US to intervene (often covertly and sometimes much more overtly) in Cuba, Vietnam, Indonesia, Chile, Sub-Saharan Africa, Grenada, Afghanistan, and many other places from the 1960s into the 1980s.

An important component of geographical imagination is how we represent these imaginaries back to ourselves, through certain kinds of discourse and language, and also through visualizations such as maps and other spatial images. Americans represented Russia and its threatening global influence in several ways. I can’t go through all these here (and I haven’t read the Barney book I mentioned above just yet), but below are some of the images I stumbled across from the internet the other day while collecting things for my class. As Barney notes in the intro to his book (I have read through that part at least), “maps bring together art and science” and in this, just as in the conduct and development of the Cold War over four-plus decades, we find multiple tensions, between art and science, abstraction and reality, strategy and ideology. Maps that Americans made to represent the realities of the Cold War, including the extent and multifaceted nature of the Soviet threat, the place of Russia and the US relative to one another and in the world, and the very meaning of power amid a nuclear arms race, not only reflected that geographical imagination and the material world of Cold War infrastructure and strategy, they helped construct them. These maps are typically full of potent symbols: Russia embodied as a bear or an octopus; nested circles showing the blast radius of nuclear missiles and demonstrating how many could or would be killed in a strike; the use of color, particularly red, and negative space to influence the audience’s perception of movement and vulnerability; new projections centered on the North Pole, to illustrate the relative closeness of Russian territory, bombers, and missiles to the US. These maps, which not only provide visual metaphors and grounding to Americans’ geographical imagination about Russia/the USSR, also served strategic political and military purposes. But they also created a very strong sense of Russian territory, ambitions, and interests in mainstream American political thought and worldviews that has persisted well beyond the end of the Cold War.

That brings us to the current moment, in which a constant stream of news regarding (potential and real) meetings and emails between Russian government agents and Trump campaign members makes it seem more and more likely that elements of the Russian state actively sought to sway the 2016 US presidential election by favoring Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and when presented the opportunity to participate in this effort, some members of the Trump campaign thought it might actually be a good idea. I am not going to comment on the legality of any particular meeting or action, as that’s not what this blog post is about, and I am not Robert Mueller. But all this has reanimated old-school Cold War era narratives and views of Russia within some wings of the US political establishment and the American public, which have re-emerged after two decades of muddled post-Cold War visions of Russia as a place to invest and get rich quick, a failing state, and a useful ally in the war on terror. In discussions over Russian influence in the 2016 election, as well as Russian incursions into Ukraine and its tense relationship with the EU and the Obama administration, we can detect echoes of past concerns about a small number of Russian agents seizing control of an entire country through subterfuge and ideological persuasion, undermining the ideals of free and fair elections and transparent, democratic decision-making. Why, it appears the Russians haven’t changed at all in two or three generations! There is little in-depth discussion in most American media of why such interference would be in Russian interests, save that Russia is an “enemy of the US,” with divergent views on key issues like democracy, Ukraine, and Syria stemming from an innate desire by President Vladimir Putin to maintain an iron grip on power and to regain Russia’s old Soviet empire by dominating neighbors and projecting its power globally, threatening US interests and influence, and upsetting an otherwise peaceful multipolar world system by acting in bad faith and violating other states’ sovereignty. The space between ideology and interests has collapsed in this geographical imagination – Russia wants some stuff, and the US simply cannot allow Russia to have it – but so has America’s ability to control what goes on inside its own borders. Russian meddling has highlighted a series of places and spaces in the US itself that demonstrate (for some) the inherent and widespread fragility and vulnerability of democracy and American institutions: secret meetings in Trump Tower; voting machines in rural Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; the invisible wall of cybersecurity measures that protect sensitive government and political data; border checkpoints and the visa processing system; and even the very hearts and minds of our neighbors, with partisan division and vitriol at a very high level. Others, meanwhile, might note that the US has repeatedly interfered in the internal affairs of other states, to the point of helping overthrow elected governments (Chile always emerges as the clearest example of this) or engaging in attempts at nation-building, which often fall short of political objectives and sometimes fail miserably (Afghanistan and Iraq as the obvious post-9/11 examples). This of course doesn’t make the obverse of foreign interference in American elections morally or politically right or desirable, and it’s unclear at this point what material impact Russian interference and potential Trump campaign collusion had on the outcome. American voters still had the weight of agency in determining the election outcome, sharply divisive political rhetoric is not new even if it’s at a high few Americans can remember in their lifetimes, and attempts to influence outcomes through voting rights restrictions and gerrymandering are widespread homegrown problems, so there’s no need to necessarily fear a foreign threat to American institutions.

But I digress. The point here is that “Russia” remains an existential menace in some iterations of the American geographical imagination, a foreign enemy always seeking to infiltrate and undermine American interests, freedom, and democracy, and a potent symbol to reflect back and shine a light on perceived limits to and vulnerabilities in American power and identity. There is some link to the material reality of Russia as a place and a state – it is likely that Russia has engaged in high-level cyberwarfare against the US and other states, and it is true that Russian agents sought and gained considerable influence across the Third World/Global South during the Cold War. But is Moscow an octopus at the center of vast global web curling its tentacles around a hapless America and its allies (putting Donald Trump Jr. aside for the moment)? Probably not, at least not in the fully coordinated and comically nefarious way this is often understood and represented. Are there political forces and movements in Russia that would like to see the state regain the territorial extent and global influence it had at the height of Soviet power? Is there violent repression in Russia directed by the state against political enemies and social minorities such as homosexuals? Are there severe limits on free expression in the media and the street? Most definitely. But I would argue that knowledge and appeals to these are adding to rather than newly defining how mainstream American political discourse understands and portrays Russia in its geographical imagination – a distant place that remains hostile to American freedoms and interests, a political and ideological Other against which we can measure American democracy, transparency, and global beneficence. The difference now is that the object of Russian aggression is the structure of American electoral processes, and the executive power itself. That has re-inverted the spaces of vulnerability in this geographical imagination. The McCarthy era aside, during the Cold War these vulnerabilities were most visible and most feared in the polar regions or Cuba or Turkey, where Russian bombers and ICBMs could launch from or slip through to strike America at its core (I highly recommend Matt Farish’s 2010 book The Contours of America’s Cold War), whereas today it’s America’s internet news feeds, the voting booth, and the very halls of power that are seemingly at threat from the Russian bear. This has somewhat scrambled the geographical imagination of Russia that mainstream American discourse holds, rewriting the intimate connections between spaces of American political power, knowledge creation, and democratic decision-making, and the global space of US-Russian relations. Yet it also builds on longstanding tropes, visions, and representations of Russian aggression and hostility, reinvigorating dormant, and inadequate, Cold War perspectives and understandings of geopolitics and the international system.

Image sources

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