“There probably wasn’t a nation on Earth that watched Donald Trump’s US presidential bid more closely than Russians,” Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of a popular news program on Russia’s state-owned TV channel, declared in January. Not only were Russians glued to TV screens watching Trump’s ascent to power, Kiselyov continued, they were cheering him on. After all, Trump was the only candidate who specifically argued for better relations with Russia. It was a rare factual statement for Kiselyov, who is unofficially known as the country’s “propagandist-in-chief.”
The love affair between Trump and Russia was a major theme of the 2016 election. The infatuation dates much further back, however. Indeed, Donald Trump has long been a part of everything from Russian pop culture to investment opportunities. But while government officials reveled in the suddenly positive American spotlight, Trump’s unpredictability is causing unease within the Kremlin.
Trump’s triumph has caused a lot of confusion and anxiety about the true meaning of this victory for Russia. Unapologetic, fawning praise heaped on Trump by state TV anchors and pundits is now giving way to an awkward realization: What if the man they’ve spent so much time and effort praising to high heavens fails to be the messiah they thought he would be?
Russia has had a soft spot for Trump the businessman for quite a while, long before his presidential aspirations materialized. As Russia entered the oil boom of the early 2000s, many Russian entrepreneurs saw Trump as an inspiration. If you Cyrillize Trump’s name (Трамп) and look it up in Russia’s official corporate registry, you’ll find 257 businesses bearing Trump’s name. Some overenthusiastic anti-Trump activists have taken this as a proof of Trump’s alleged business ties to Russia. But none of these entries are connected to Trump: Russian law places few restrictions on the naming of companies. Likewise, you can find companies called “Obama” and “Clinton” (and if you Cyrilize your own name, you’ll probably find it there too).
Like many of Trump’s own enterprises, most of these businesses failed. One “Donald Trump LLC,” registered in 2002 in Krasnogorsk, a suburban town to the north of Moscow, wanted to build a gated housing community adorned with Trump’s portraits and inspirational quotes. It went bust in 2010, with former partners seeking millions of rubles (link in Russian) in damages, according to the independent investigative outlet The Insider.
In July of 2015, Konstantin Rykov, a former member of the lower chamber of the Russian parliament and current media entrepreneur, penned an op-ed (link in Russian) in Vzglyad (The Look), a loyalist web publication he had helped launch. Rykov extols Trump’s anti-establishment qualities and presciently predicts out that all the criticism—“he’s a racist, a scumbag, a woman-hating sexist and a puppet”—will end up rallying Trump’s constituents against “establishment” smears.
Russian media, meanwhile, jumped at their new anti-Obama ally. Ever since Putin’s third term in 2012 and the souring of relations between the US and Russia, America has occupied a disproportionate amount of airtime on Russian TV. Hosts loyal to Putin (like Dmitry Kiselyov) were all too happy to detail the various ways the US had wronged Russia. And with Trump’s rapid progression in the US polls, Russian media found a new, unexpected friend.
The “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic is strong in Russia. Allies are often picked based on their opposition to Russia’s adversaries, real or perceived. Trump’s strong opposition to the former US president Obama, who has been blamed for most of Russia’s recent ills, made him a friend.
And so, a week before elections in Russia’s State Duma—the most important legislative organ in the country—Russian state TV seemed to be dedicating more airtime to Trump’s campaign than to Russian candidates. (Marred by abysmally low turnout, the ruling party, of course, still won). In the last weeks before America went to the polls, Russia’s TV propagandists were so convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win that they were preparing to declare the entire election illegitimate, uncritically reporting Trump’s own claims of “rigged elections” and “stuffed ballot boxes.”
After the votes were tallied, as Dmitry Kiselyov and other TV pundits were busy denouncing conspiracies against Trump, ordinary Russians saw the newly elected president as both a business opportunity and a way of expressing their own political aspirations. Trump-themed ventures proliferated: from Trump burgers to sugar cubes to commemorative coins.
And, of course, there were Trump parties. In Moscow, a group of fervent Putin loyalists from the militantly anti-US National Liberation Movement held events on both election and inauguration days. Politicians celebrated Trump’s victory with champagne toasts.
But while Russian glee over Donald Trump’s victory was clearly evident, the afterglow is fast fading.
For one thing, the fact that a lot of people in Russia have seemed more enthusiastic about another country’s election results than their own is also starting to look downright unpatriotic.
For another, Trump is unpredictable and his cabinet is a tabula rasa. So it’s fascinating to watch Russian TV pundits trying to rationalize Trump’s actions while also trying to save face. After all, Trump could backtrack on his Russia-friendly statements at any moment.
His cabinet is already undoing some of this goodwill. You could feel the tension start to build in the studio of 60 Minut (60 Minutes), a political talk show, as the hosts watched Rex Tillerson’s congressional hearings live. Tillerson condemned the “taking” of Crimea by Russia, an assertion that could result in a fine or even jail sentence if uttered in Moscow. How could this be? the hosts appeared to be wondering Tillerson was supposed to be “our guy”—we gave him the Order of Friendship! In classic propagandist fashion, the hosts soon collected themselves: It’s all a bluff, he’s only saying those things to get approved by the Congress. But the doubt is starting to creep in.
Such handwringing is also being reflected in a parallel trend online: memes ridiculing both state propagandists’ vilification of Obama and their obsession with Trump. As control over the @POTUS Twitter account was being transferred, another symbolic exchange was happening online. A Russian-language spoof account, @DonaldTrumpRF, tweeted a picture of a Trump-Obama handshake with a key ring Photoshopped onto it. It held the keys to all of Russia communal entrance halls—a reference to a running joke about state propagandists’ attempt to pin all of Russia’s ills on Obama. (According to the joke, propagandists are so shameless they might as well claim the smell of pee in Moscow is Obama’s fault.)
And so, while Russia treated the US elections as an 18-month-long party, it appears the celebratory mood is fading fast. Dealing with Trump’s actual presidency is already starting to look like an embarrassing attempt to explain last night’s booze-fueled social media posts to your coworkers in the morning.