MOSCOW — ON a warm August evening, I found myself sitting with three educated young Russians at the Beverly Hills Diner, a chain restaurant whose gaudy décor includes human-size figures of Porky Pig and Marilyn Monroe.
They had invited me to join their table, inside a green convertible car, after I had asked a few reporter-type questions about their country. But all talk of Russia kept leading to America.
“America is trying to encircle us,” said Kristina Donets, 29, swabbing a slice of dessert waffle in banana compote. “We have finally risen out of chaos and you don’t like that.”
Reporting in Russia after more than a decade away felt a lot like visiting an old friend. It is where I owned my first car (and had it stolen), met my husband and first worked as a journalist.
But the friend had changed.
In some ways, it was for the better. People were wealthier — despite the recent decline in the ruble and jump in inflation — and better traveled. The kindhearted woman who hosted me when I first moved to Moscow in 1997 said it best: “We don’t have to wash out our plastic bags anymore.” Her tiny salary had quadrupled since I’d last seen her. She had taken her first trip abroad — a package tour to Tunisia.
But there was a darker side. Society had grown more defensive, and self-conscious, like a teenager constantly looking at herself in the mirror. Oligarchs had always had exit ramps — a house in London and a second passport — but now my own friends were looking for escape routes.
Intellectuals pointed me to books on Berlin in the 1920s and the concept of “ressentiment,’’ a philosophical term that describes a simmering resentment and sense of victimization arising out of envy of a perceived enemy. It often has its roots in a culture’s feeling of impotence. In Berlin in the early 20th century, it helped explain the rise of German fascism. In Russia in August, it seemed to have many targets: Ukraine, gay people, European dairy products and above all the United States.
“America stuffs its democracy in our face,” bellowed a cabdriver named Kostya in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. (His main beef was with the “propaganda of pederasts,” using a derogatory word used to describe homosexuals, a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s approval of gay marriage.) “If you’re saying yes, yes, yes, all the time and nodding your head, well sometimes you have to say no,” he said, explaining that Russia had finally stood up to the United States.
There is, of course, a lot of history behind such sentiments. In the 19th century, Slavophiles and Westernizers clashed over the right path for Russia. There was obviously the fierce rivalry with the United States in Soviet times. Since then, there have been low points, often connected with American actions in the world. (The NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the American invasion of Iraq are examples.) But nothing like the current opinion of America, which this year sank to its lowest level since the Soviet Union collapsed nearly 24 years ago, according to polling by the Levada Analytical Center in Moscow.
Anti-Americanism is more potent now because it is stirred up and in many ways sponsored by the state, an effort that Russians, despite their hard-bitten cynicism, seem surprisingly susceptible to. Independent voices are all but gone from Russian television, and most channels now march to the same, slickly produced beat. Virtually any domestic problem, from the ruble’s decline to pensioners’ losing subsidies on public transport, is cast as a geopolitical standoff between Russia and America, and political unrest anywhere is portrayed as having an American State Department official lurking behind it.
“America wants to destroy us, humiliate us, take our natural resources,” said Lev Gudkov, director of Levada, the polling center, describing the rhetoric, with which he strongly disagrees. “But why? For what? There is no explanation.”
DURING my visit, Russians were thinking about America a lot, which was a kind of compliment, but in the way of a spurned lover who keeps sending angry texts long after the breakup.
“Tell her how well we all live, how much better than in Europe and how wonderful Crimea is now,” hissed a woman in a skintight dress to someone I was interviewing. She was referring to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed last year. That of course, was the other big change I encountered.
Inside Russia, Mr. Putin’s actions in Crimea have broken friendships and split families, leaving society as divided as I have ever seen it. Politics, once everyone’s obsession, now seems like a distant land no one visits. Those who do, pay a price. Mr. Gudkov said he felt like “a Jew in Hitler’s Germany” when he opposed the Crimea annexation.
The move also caused the biggest break in relations with the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“It’s like a divorce,” said Keith Darden, a political-science professor at American University. “They are saying: ‘the relationship we had is over. We’ve had enough of your efforts to change us. We’re doing our own thing now.’ ”
He added, “But they don’t know what their own thing is.”
What is the Kremlin’s grand strategy? Many Russian liberals I talked to believe there isn’t one. Mr. Putin and his inner circle are simply lurching from crisis to crisis. How else to explain Russia’s sanctions on imported food, which have driven up inflation at home, or Crimea, which has lost a chunk of its tourists and saddled Moscow with expensive new social obligations.
Dmitry Volkov, a journalist who took part in the 2011 protests against Mr. Putin, compared the annexation, and Russia’s subsequent military action in eastern Ukraine, to a mugging that ends in accidental murder.
“They keep crossing boundaries only to find that once they are across, it’s only logical to cross the next one,” he said. “That’s not a strategy. That’s a behavioral pattern.”
Others believe that the government is unraveling, and that the shrillness of the nationalist narrative is a harbinger. Oil prices have plunged, shrinking the pie that Mr. Putin’s loyalists had been feasting on.
“It’s like before Pompeii, when all the springs dried up,” said one Russian friend, a former journalist who is a keen observer of the political system. “The ground is hot.”
The low opinion of America, Mr. Gudkov said, is not a permanent condition. The resentment seems to have more to do with Russians themselves than with any American action, a kind of defensive, free-floating expression of current anxieties.
But the biggest question is where it is all leading. Some Russians aren’t sticking around to find out.
“I don’t like what’s happening now,” said Alexander Yeremeyev, an Internet entrepreneur, walking with his family in Sokolniki, a park in central Moscow. “Now we’re all supposed to unite against what — the U.S., Europe, cheese?”
He said he was considering leaving. “I have friends who say, ‘it’s great to do business in Russia.’ But you know what they all have in common? Foreign passports.”