‘Russophobia’ has become a charge as common as fascism in the information war between Russia, Ukraine and the West. The accusation brings to mind the tale of the boy who cried wolf. The fact that the charge is levelled indiscriminately, doesn’t make the wolves, (in this case the ‘russophobes'), any less real.
In fact, the Russian government has been able to brilliantly co-opt public russophobia in the West in order to conflate it with a much more specific phenomenon, one that I like to call ‘Kremlinphobia,’ as a means of legitimising its policies at home and, to a lesser extent, abroad.
In order to understand how the Kremlin uses anti-Russian sentiment for its own ends, first it’s important to distinguish between two stereotypes. The first is the stereotyping of Russians by outsiders in both political and personal contexts. The second is a particular strain of Russian national mythology in which Russia is forever cast as an isolated victim, martyred by predatory foreigners. Both these narratives are valid, with roots stretching back into history.
A brief history of russophobia
Political russophobia as we understand it today might be said to have begun with Napoleon, and enjoyed a long and distinguished pedigree before the advent of the Cold War, which subsequently gave birth to most of the popular stereotypes of Russians. Students of Russian history are familiar with Marquis de Custine’s sweeping characterisation of Russians as brutal and stupid, and even such figures as John Maynard Keynes were not above talking about the ‘beastliness’ allegedly inherent ‘in Russian nature.’
As an American high school student — born in Ukraine, ethnically mostly Russian — I was personally struck by how eminent French-American historian Jacques Barzun could write brilliantly about European culture in From Dawn to Decadence, yet managed to reduce Russia to a couple of cruel caricatures, pretending as if the country and its people had contributed nothing of value in the last five hundred years. For a teenager, it was a bit like being told that you can’t sit at the cool kids’ table at school — in an overarching, civilisational sense.
As I grew up, I was made to understand that Russia never enjoyed a Renaissance or an Enlightenment period. It developed much more chaotically and erratically than Western countries. But the idea that Russia is not a contributor to world culture (or, for that matter, science) began to strike me as both laughable and politically expedient.
I began to notice that comparatively enlightened Western culture still left room for ‘acceptable’ stereotypes.
I began to notice that comparatively enlightened Western culture still left room for ‘acceptable’ stereotypes, particularly when a political situation demanded it. Whether it was beastly, alcoholic Russians in ugly fur hats, or the idea that one can bomb Muslim countries as a way of saving helpless Muslim women from barbaric Muslim men, political expediency has from time to time dictated that some groups can still be thought of as inherently inferior.
On a personal level, the lazy stereotyping of ‘Russians’ (a category that often extends to all former Soviet peoples) can be no less hurtful and damaging than other readily recognisable prejudices.
Russophobia and sexism
The Western male fetish for Russian women is another manifestation of this type of stereotyping. Russian women are regularly portrayed as sexually available, helpless, and in need of being ‘saved’ from their abysmal conditions by a foreign knight in shining armour (or, at the very least, in a shiny Lexus) who always knows better than them.
Since the Ukraine crisis began, I’ve struggled to explain to Western (male) colleagues how difficult it has been to write about unfolding events while being perceived explicitly as a ‘Russian’ woman. I may have a complicated, multicultural background, but my Russian surname ensures that first impressions of me are often based on stereotypes.
When you’re perceived as a Russian woman who is writing or saying something that your audience may not necessarily wish to hear, you’re cast as a KGB ‘honeypot’ at best and an evil ‘whore’ at worst, with all of the rhetorical fallout, which such stereotypes inevitably bring out.
‘Why are you paying so much attention to trolls on the internet? Aren’t you being a little dramatic?’ My male colleagues tell me when I complain about online abuse.
These trolls write that I ought to be gang-raped, have my head shaved, and be marched through the streets.
These trolls write that I ought to be gang-raped, have my head shaved, and be marched through the streets — all because they don’t appreciate some of my views on the Ukraine crisis. That’s why I pay attention. Because they specifically use the threat of sexual violence as a way to shut me up. Because as a woman I already live in constant fear of harassment escalating into something far worse. Anything seen as objectionable in my writing is presented as a part of my ‘KGB agenda’ or, conversely, as evidence of the fact that I'm, say, a ‘Ukrainian slut;’ and all of the clichés about dangerous or overly sexualised Slavic women are immediately trotted out.
Playing the Kremlin’s game
The irony is that in all of their incarnations, internet warriors crusading against ‘evil Russia’ play directly into the Kremlin’s hands.
The flipside of historic russophobia is the history of how authoritarianism in Russia justifies itself by exaggerating a constant foreign threat. This perception of a threat is not just based on the fact that both Napoleon and Hitler invaded Russia, causing catastrophic, unthinkable losses.
For example, plenty of Russians will eagerly tell you that the bloody Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War were solely the fault of the Germans, who supported Vladimir Lenin and delivered him to Russia like a dangerous virus. While various historical mechanisms that fostered the rise of Lenin should indeed be scrutinised, the idea that not a single Russian can somehow be blamed for the bloody violence which followed is ludicrous, but popular.
Plenty of Russians will argue that the Stalinist Terror was solely the fault of one man —who was Georgian by the way, so totally not one of us. They will remind you that it was Lenin and his people who really laid the groundwork for repressions during the Stalin era. Meanwhile, millions of supposedly nice, ordinary Russians who dutifully denounced their friends and neighbours, sending them to their deaths, will be ignored.
Such a myopic view of history is made possible by authoritarian leaders and their cheerleaders, who do a great job of stereotyping the Russian people themselves. First of all, they implicitly argue that Russians cannot possibly accept responsibility for the bloody mistakes of their immediate historic past. Accepting responsibility could lead to a more open, more tolerant society, and that just wouldn’t do. Better just to blame outsiders and keep the post-traumatic stress of wars and repressions completely unresolved.
The idea that Russians are noble savages, basically good yet just too wild and crazy, is also a form of russophobia.
Often propagated in state media, the idea that Russians are noble savages, basically good yet just too wild and crazy for anything but authoritarian leaders, is also a form of russophobia. For sure, there is a multitude of economic and historical rationales for Russia’s continued love affair with authoritarianism in various forms, but it has nothing to do with anything that is ‘inherent’ in the average Russian’s psyche or soul.
Second of all, authoritarian thinking casts the Russian people as foolish, childish, and naïve. This view suggests that Russians are in constant need of ‘protection’ from the threat of foreign influence by tough, manly leaders (and with all due respect to Catherine the Great they are almost always manly), who don’t go in for questionable, effeminate pursuits like reforms and free speech, but who know when to bang their fists (or shoes) on the table like the proverbial family patriarchs, and bring the whole country to attention.
Over 80% of Russians believe that the Western media is motivated by a desire to destroy Russia.
Today, the very concept of foreign russophobia is used by the state propaganda machine to muddy the waters as far as the Ukraine crisis is concerned – ‘They’re calling our Crimea referendum an illegal sham? Of course they would do that! They hate us!’ ‘They’re claiming we supplied the rebels with a missile that was used to down Flight MH17? Psshhh! They’ve been calling us barbarians for centuries, nothing changes!’ According to state pollster WCIOM, over 80% of Russians believe that the Western media is motivated by a desire to destroy Russia itself whenever it criticises the Russian president. This fact is telling, when it comes to understanding how Putin and Russia are conflated in perceptions of russophobia.
Russophobia or Kremlinphobia?
The Kremlinphobia emerging from the Ukraine crisis, when even the most objective Western analysts decided that the Kremlin was acting in bad faith, has neatly merged with russophobia in the minds of Russian officials. Many of these officials aren’t necessarily merging these concepts consciously. The Russian state has always done everything it could to conflate love of country with love of government, arguing that one is indistinguishable from the other.
This is why Russians who love their homeland but question their government are once again being cast as ‘enemies,’ ‘traitors,’ and ‘fifth columnists.’ They are hounded and threatened in both public and private. This is why independent media in Russia is not just in a precarious position anymore but has been almost declared anathema. The simple calculation made says that Russia equals the Kremlin. As it permeates most aspects of public life, the state is declared to be the face and soul of the Russian nation.
This equation is not without its logic. After all, Russia is the biggest country in the world. It contains many diverse populations who aren’t always that fond of one another. The country suffers from serious social inequality, corruption, and infrastructure problems, as well as a violent insurgency in the North Caucasus. All of these factors present a long-term threat to Russian stability and territorial integrity.
And because the Kremlin’s strategic thinking is more short-term than long-term, casting the government as the soul of the nation has become a kind of band-aid solution to this multitude of problems. Sure, things may be hard, the message goes, but the government is the glue that’s holding everything together —criticising us is like criticising the ground beneath your feet. People fall for this argument because they don’t feel they have a choice. The problem of autocracy is that it is like a perpetually collapsing house of cards. It leaves the people living under it few alternatives apart from propping it up, or being buried underneath it.
Casting the government as the soul of the nation has become a kind of band-aid solution.
In actual fact, the Russian state is a hybrid regime. It combines elements of autocracy with elements of democracy, and its future isn’t nearly as clear-cut as domestic propagandists or foreign hawks would like everyone to believe. As the unexpected twists and turns in the Ukraine crisis have demonstrated, it’s impossible to make confident predictions.
And as this crisis wears on, with thousands of lives lost in a cruel and senseless conflict in eastern Ukraine, the domestic and foreign stereotyping of Russians has, unsurprisingly, intensified, undoing years of progress towards greater acceptance and understanding in the process.
I personally have lost the will to argue with every self-righteous xenophobe who shows up — online or otherwise — to tell me that Russians are ‘inherently’ evil. I no longer have the will to explain to people that, by doing so, they only aid the Kremlin in its worst impulses. There seems to be little use in arguing for civility on either side anymore. The pain and damage of the last few months has been too severe.