How Politics Shape Reputation—A Case Study of George Soros

When ideas make their way around the globe, they are interpreted at a local level. This is exemplified in the case study of George Soros, a well-known philanthropist, who has different reputations in Lithuania, Russia, and the USA.

McMaster Researcher


McLaughlin, N., & Trilupaityte, S. (2013). The international circulation of attacks and the reputational consequences of local context: George Soros’s difficult reputation in russia, post-soviet lithuania and the united states. Cultural Sociology, 7(4), 431-446. doi:10.1177/1749975512457142

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What is this research about?

This paper examines how political attacks circulate globally, using George Soros as a case study.
George Soros is a Hungarian-born Jewish philanthropist and billionaire investor who has used his wealth to promote his concept of an “open society”, something that is controversial among both American conservatives and supporters of the Soviet and current Russian governments. When Lithuania left the Soviet Union, Soros stepped in to provide financial backing that the state could not supply. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he spent significant amounts of money promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. He is also active in American politics, notably spending over $24 million in efforts to defeat Bush in the 2004 presidential elections.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers traced the story of Soros' public life in Russia, Lithuania, and the United States, focusing on attacks against Soros in the mid-2000s. They looked at how his reputation varied in different geographic areas.

What did the researchers find?

Consistent with current theory, local context ultimately determines how globally circulated ideas are interpreted. Local political and cultural context shape the translation of the reputations of international personalities.  In the time leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lithuanians generally viewed Soros positively, as a representation of American philanthropy and liberal market reforms. Lithuanians saw his actions positively, and this view was not altered when he became less involved in the country. His enemies in Lithuania followed the lead of the Russians, who stressed Soros' Jewish background and support for abortion rights, reflecting the history of anti-Semitism and traditionalism in that region. Now that Lithuania has gained stability as a country inside the European Union, Soros has a neutral reputation and is mentioned like any other billionaire in the media. 
Soros’ involvement in trying to overturn Communism gave him a fame that turned him into a controversial figure in Russia, in particular, disliked by communists and nationalists for being a symbol of capitalism, America, and Jewry. His reputation in Russia worsened in 1997 as the conflict over how Russia would be run after Communism intensified, and he heavily lost in Russian markets. He remains highly controversial and often attacked in Russia.
Throughout the 1990s in North America, Soros was known as a successful currency speculator who had “broke the bank of England” and as a supporter of democracy because of his opposition to communism. In the beginning of the 21st century, however, Soros developed a reputation as a renegade democrat in the United States. In the USA it was his perceived left wing ideology that was highlighted by his enemies alongside the fact that he was not a major supporter of either Israel or traditional Jewish charities. While his Russian opponents see him as a CIA agent and supporter of the United States government, right-wingers in North America have called Soros anti-American and attacked his pro-drug law reform and liberal views.  Soros is more associated with being a liberal democrat in the United States now, where earlier he was seen as an opponent of Communism.  But he is controversial on both sides of the political spectrum because some left wing activists in the United States don't want to be associated with him because of the way he makes money as an investor.

How can you use this research?

While this article is specific to George Soros, it sheds light on how politics can shape reputations.  Follow up studies could be done to help understand the reputation of musicians, sports figures, writers and ex-politicians who attempt to use their fame and money to change the social order according to their vision of a good society.

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