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'Russia is such a wonderful enemy'

The propaganda war between the US and Russia is at fever pitch, as Washington accuses Moscow of meddling in its election. With Cold War animosity back in style, can young people look past the old stereotypes?

For Vladimir Kattsov, a 28-year-old IT-expert from St. Petersburg, the first thing that comes to mind after hearing the word "America" is fast food.

Kattsov, who has never been to the US, told DW that he also pictured people "exiting skyscrapers in suits, but wearing tennis shoes at the same time, and huge city quarters with townhouses and American flags flying," as well as "baseball, American football, and cheerleaders."

A stereotypical American from the Russian perspective is a "tourist wearing shorts and a baseball hat, a short-sleeved shirt, and chewing bubble gum," says Kattsov. "He wears a camera on his belly, but takes almost no pictures. He is a hard man to impress, because he has already seen all the European sights back in Las Vegas."

In turn, 27-year-old California-born airport worker Scott Campbell says that his impression of Russians is that of a "hard working blue-collar people who fully trust in the government," along with the usual imagery of "vodka, fuzzy fur hats and [President Vladimir] Putin."

'Americans don't care'

With the US ending a turbulent presidential election campaign and Russia still struggling under Western sanctions, the two countries have traded accusations of political meddling and hawkishness. The nuclear powers are also bumping heads internationally over conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

The rhetoric on both sides looks suspiciously like Cold War propaganda rehashed for the digital age.

Watch video 01:45

How is the US election playing in Moscow?

In the US, anti-Russian attitudes can grow "hysterical" at times, says Russian-born American author and international affairs professor Nina Khrushcheva. Still, she adds, young Americans are usually not overly concerned with the Russian threat.

"Russia is such a wonderful enemy, such a compelling enemy and Putin presents such a great villain, both in reality and imagination, that you really just have to go with it," says Khrushcheva, who is the granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. "But generally, the Americans don't care. For them, it's something they 'know' historically - that Russia is not a good country, that the Russian president is always eager to do the US harm, whatever that means. They just know it from the Cold War."

Enemy on the backburner

Russland Karikatur von Sergey Elkin

Putin deciding whether to unleash a 'cold; or a 'hot' war - from cartoonist Sergey Elkin

With the two superpowers not engaging directly during the Cold War, Americans felt "comfortable" viewing Russia as an enemy, but not a direct threat. This image was preserved in the popular culture even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, according to Khrushcheva.

"If you look at Hollywood films, even in the 90s, when Russia could not be more obedient to US wishes, there were still a lot of movies where Russians were horrible guys," she told DW. "It's not politically correct to malign the Asians or the Arabs, but with the Russians - we look like you, we act like you, we are a very politically correct enemy to hate."

Even when former US President George W. Bush during his time in office publicly praised Putin, the residual animosity was "ready to flair out at any moment" between old rivals.

"So you always keep Russia as an enemy on the backburner and Hollywood has never allowed it to die down," Khrushcheva said.

Pet bears and saber-rattling

Scott Campbell, however, claims his family's perception of Russia has changed significantly in the last three generations.

"My grandparents are always scared of Russia, who at any time could turn the world upside down. My grandfather also served in the US Navy in the Cuban missile crisis," Campbell said.

His parents "haven't given Russians a thought" since 1991, and no longer consider the country a threat. However, Campbell's generation "thinks Russia is a sword rattling, overly aggressive country, who just wants to make headlines."

When asked about Russian prejudices of the US, Campbell said he believed the perspective was equally bleak. Russians probably see America as a "war mongering, corrupt government that wants to control the world."

The Moscow-based Katsov is also aware of the anti-Russian prejudice, including  his compatriots' reputation for drinking vodka.

"We all have a pet bear at home and we are all wearing fur hats," he jokes. "At lunch, we always serve borsch."

Semi-democratic brainwashing

The Russian government also reinforces prejudice on their side of the fence through constant, anti-American propaganda on regime-controlled TV stations and online, says Khrushcheva.

"I think the young people are being brainwashed," she said. "It's not the total brainwash like in the Soviet times, it's more dangerous, semi-democratic - when you have an illusion that you have an option to get information."

The new propaganda builds on old anti-American prejudice, according to Khrushcheva.

"There is an idea, not just in Russia, but also in Europe, that Americans are stupid and uneducated. This stereotype has existed for a long, long time," she said. "Another thing about stereotypes is that they do carry truth - if you look at Donald Trump and the complete craze about this election."

Watch video 00:59

Donald Trump praises Russian leadership

Washington has repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to bolster Trump's campaign. However, "Russians certainly did not create Donald Trump and did not create this psychosis with American democracy that is happening now," Khrushcheva said, adding that while Trump pursues a friendlier tone towards Russia, the diplomatic freeze between the two powers is likely to continue regardless of the election's outcome.

"My experience tells me it would get worse either way," said Khrushcheva. "The propaganda has rocketed to the point where it would be very difficult to dial it back, so it would have to go forward."

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