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Deconstructing Russophobia

  • Russia is the ideal scapegoat seeking to blame others for their own problems
  • Russia has no significant lobby in Western societies
  • Cultural prejudice goes back for 1000 years
  • English russophobia has been virulent for centuries - going back to imperial competition
  • Resentment against pogroms of Jewish immigrants in the West contributed and contibutes to a cultural stereotype of Russia
  • Russia has to learn to effectively argue against this ongoing prejudice in the court of world public opinion

Vladimir Golstein is an associate professor of Slavic languages at Brown University, an ivy-league university in the USA

There are objective and subjective reasons for Russophobia. And by objective I don’t mean to say that Russia provides the world with reasons to be hated (no more and no less than other major powers), but rather that objective condition of the West – the looming economic and financial crisis -- needs its scapegoats.

It is much easier for politicians and their corporate sponsors to blame others for their own failures, and Russia is an ideal scapegoat. It is not as powerful and indispensable as China, nor is it obscure and insignificant as North Korea.

Nor does Russia have any significant lobby in major western countries, in the manner, of say, Israel or China, so the attacks against Russia, have a zero political price-tag attached.

Russia is the country that the West loves to hate and that’s the objective reality:  it is simultaneously familiar and strange enough to be represented as nefarious and capable enemy; yet weak enough not to strike back at the bullying and lynching rhetoric, as for example, the Soviet Union could.

Soviet Union was a rival, Russia has become a scapegoat. Thus, brutal Soviet invasions of Hungary or Czechoslovakia produced much less hysteria, than the current Ukrainian crisis.

The solution out of this quagmire is quite obvious, the minute Russia becomes truly strong, prosperous, and confident, say, in the manner of Israel—this kind of Russophobia will cease to exist.  

There are also subjective reasons for this particular dislike of Russia that have to do less with economics and politics and more with cultural realities. Shakespeare, who understood it all, commented in one of his sonnets on the connection between the lies that we accept and our own anxieties and insecurities: “When my love swears that she is made of truth I do believe her, though I know she lies.” Why does it happen?

There is a mutual flattery, mutual acceptance of each other's faults which one is willing to forego for the sake of gratification: “Therefore I lie with her and she with me, And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.”

In other words, in its desire to be loved and consumed, Western media flatters, lies, and panders to its audience. In turn, the audience is willing to be deceived as its prejudices and weaknesses are being humored, rather than challenged.

The audience's anti-Russian prejudices eagerly embrace mass-media’s fabricated lies. The ignorant view of Russia as a strange, barbaric, backward, and cruel country, the very opposite of the prosperous West, gets re-confirmed –to everybody’s satisfaction.

The audience’s anti-Russian prejudices have a long historical pedigree. The religious suspicion of Orthodoxy which manifested itself already at the time of the Fourth Crusade (1204) was clearly magnified by Poles who, having been eclipsed by Russia in the seventeenth century could never make peace with it.

Incidentally, the word “Ukraine” is of Polish origin and it means the border, the edge, as the edge of civilization. In Polish thought, anything east of Poland and Ukraine is beyond the edge, it is barbaric chaos. So having lost to Russia, Poles tried to explain, to themselves and others that their eclipse was caused by the barbaric Russian force, rather than by some objective reality, or their own mistakes. I suspect that in the same manner ancient Greeks could never accept their eclipse by Romans.

Through frequent waves of Polish emigration first to France, and then to the US, the doctrine of Russian barbarism took a very strong hold in the imagination of these countries.

British rivalry with Russia also needs to be recognized, including the intense nineteenth century competition, the Great Game. That rivalry over the dominance in the East clearly shaped British perspective on Russia. Consequently, Great Britain has been conditioned to see Russia as a threat, and was willing to go to great length to challenge the country as they did during the Crimean War (1855), when they decided that it is more expedient for them to enter into alliance with France and Muslim Turkey, than tolerate Russian expansion.

Furthermore, Russian culture with its stress on collectivism and its religion-shaped suspicion of legality and property is the polar opposite of British thinking. Thus, as in the case of Poland, historical and political rivalry is magnified by cultural and religious differences.

And last but not least, there is also a Jewish dimension of the problem. Almost a million Jews left tsarist Russia during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, the period during which the word “pogrom” entered major European languages. American Jews are primarily the descendants of these exiles, who came from all ends of the Russian Empire. The family recollections of being prosecuted and attacked by those nasty Russians clearly persist.

If one looks at those who shape public opinion in the US, it will be very hard to find someone who is not the descendant of one of the groups that harbor their (one time real, but currently anachronistic) grudges against Russia: be it Jews, or Eastern Europeans, or Oxbridge educated Brits.   

Consequently, when one of those pundits rails against a particular Russian action, nobody really cares if it’s true or false, since Russians (in the eyes of both the media and its audience) cannot do anything but invade, attack, mistreat, and get engaged with things that the civilized world finds bizarre. Recent accusations are the case in point. Russia wants to restore Soviet Union, Russia wants to re-occupy Eastern Europe, Russia wants to shoot the civilian planes.

Politicians’ and presses' rabble-rousing reminds me of the demagogue Mark Anthony from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who incites the crowd into violence against Caesar’s murderers. When the crowd captures a person named Cinna, it doesn’t matter that this Cinna has nothing to do with the Cinna, the conspirator: First Plebian: Tear him to pieces; he's a conspirator. Cinna the poet: I am Cinna the poet,…  I am not Cinna the conspirator. … Fourth Plebeian: “It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going. (Act III, sc. 3).”

In the same way, it does not matter that Putin is not Alexander III, Lenin, Stalin or Brezhnev, that today’s Russians have nothing to do with pogroms, Gulag, invasions of Hungary, the murder of Polish officers or the exile of Tartars from Crimea. They are Russians, and that’s enough for the crowd – just “pluck their Russianness from their hearts, and turn them going.” This is not to say, that Russians don’t need to come to terms with their frequently unfair or violent past, but that’s the task that every country has to perform on their own, without external finger pointing.

While time might cure the subjective Russophobia as younger generations see Russia with their own eyes and learn to think on their own, the objective Russophobia is much harder to dispel.

As the West’s economic situation deteriorates (and so far, I haven’t seen any signs of the reversal), the need for scapegoating would only grow. Furthermore, this scapegoating, if not checked, can easily graduate into the aggressive behavior, as the competition for resources, which Russia has in abundance, will surely increase.

It is up to Russia to develop into a strong, prosperous, and independent country capable of generating a serious backlash against any political demagogue who would dare to hide his or her political failings behind groundless and hackneyed accusations.

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