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[Leonid Bershidsky] Travel barriers are worst of new Cold War

The latest loop in the escalation of US-Russia hostilities is probably the dumbest and the most damaging: The two countries are introducing de facto travel restrictions for each other’s citizens, choking off the friendliest, most human channel of communication between them. It’s the biggest step back into the Cold War era that the two governments have taken yet.

The State Department has stopped issuing visas in Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok and St. Petersburg, a response to Russian demands for drastic cuts in US diplomatic mission based in the country. In 2016, those three posts combined issued 46,243 visas, about a third of the turnover of the US Embassy in Moscow, now the only visa-issuing office in Russia. The decision effectively ends all non-essential travel to the US from the Russian hinterland, and even from St. Petersburg, the country’s second city. Most travelers will end up picking a different destination rather than travel to Moscow for a consular interview.

As if that wasn’t enough of a retaliatory move, the US has also ordered Russia to close its San Francisco consulate. The Russian Foreign Ministry doesn’t break down its data in visa statistics, so it’s not clear how many of the 56,229 Russian tourist visas issued to Americans in 2015 originated there. But the closure of the office will mean an end to all non-essential travel to Russia for people who live on the West Coast.

I understand the logic of diplomatic tit-for-tat, and it doesn’t concern me who started this or whom to blame. One doesn’t need to take sides in the old academic argument over whether tourism is an instrument of peace or a beneficiary of peace. It’s just plain good sense to see that keeping casual travelers out of a country prevents people from forming an unmediated opinion of it. Stopping Russians who want to see the US from doing it leaves them at the mercy of the Kremlin propaganda machine, which will be happy to tell them its own stories of life in the US Creating obstacles for Americans to travel to Russia leaves them a choice between the increasingly anti-Russian mainstream press and the export version of the same Kremlin propaganda.

In my travels around the US during the 2016 election campaign, I have met people content with the mainstream narrative of a backward, morally bankrupt, hopelessly corrupt Russian society and the avid watchers of RT, the Russian government-funded TV channel who mistrusted that narrative and admired Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ideology and methods. I couldn’t convince either side that they’d feel quite differently if they ever visited my homeland.

I have also often met Russians who refused to believe my stories of American complexity.

The mutual misunderstanding isn’t as bad yet as it was in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union weakened and the Iron Curtain opened a crack. The Americans I met then were usually shell-shocked by their experience of informal contacts with Russians. The older ones invariably recalled the nuclear drills they’d done in case “the Russians” came. The younger ones listened, open-mouthed, to the Russian rock we’d put on. And I remember how stunned I was when I first came to the US in 1993 and rode a Greyhound bus coast-to-coast, talking to dozens of people along the way; it was uncanny how alike we turned out to be.

With less travel and fewer opportunities to meet each other, it’s only a matter of time before we’re back in the 1980s, knowing next to nothing about each other, devoid of casual, informal contact. The distortions this breeds are worse than the effects of a drop-off in trade, technological sanctions, propaganda wars. These distortions virtually guarantee further escalation -- it’s easier to hate people you haven’t met.

It’s especially difficult to understand why the US would embrace travel restrictions with such gusto. The soft-power advantage is on its side. It’s easier for Russians to find things to like in the US than for Americans to crack the surface of the more closed, more cautious Russian society. Americans also have more achievements to show off. Why squander this advantage on petty tit-for-tat?

In 2012, Georgia, a country that had lived through a brief Russian invasion in 2008, a country whose citizens had a hard time traveling to Russia, unilaterally abolished visas for Russians. Moscow denounced it as a “propaganda move.” I, and many other Russians, didn’t care: That year, I was among the 513,930 Russian tourists who visited Georgia, up from 278,458 the previous year. I saw first-hand that Georgians were friendly toward us, and I saw what progress the country had made since the 1990s. If letting me come and see it was propaganda, it was definitely effective.

If I had to guess why the US doesn’t make a similar move but appears to enjoy making travel more difficult, I’d side with Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, who recently published a column in the New York Times saying Americans -- and specifically US liberals -- are “mesmerized and terrified” with Russia because it shows them glimpses of America’s own future. “What disturbs liberal America is not that Russia will run the world -- far from it,” writes Krastev. “Rather, the fear, whether liberals fully recognize it or not, is that the United States has started to resemble Russia.” That idea is worthy of more detailed analysis because the similarities are striking indeed. But an instinctive fear of catching Russian social diseases -- from fierce nationalism to extreme cynicism -- could be behind the American inability to recognize that the US benefits from having as many Russians as possible come to visit.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I relished introducing Americans to my country and my city, messy as Russia was back then. Many people both in Russia and in the US will be deprived of this rewarding experience while the current bilateral idiocy lasts. It can’t be forever, though, just as the Iron Curtain wasn’t.

By Leonid Bershidsky

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.-- Ed.