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Russophobia Exists, but Overusing the Term Is Counterproductive

Those of us who express an understanding of Russia’s position on Ukraine and who share an affinity for Russia need to be careful that we don’t get into a habit of overusing the term Russophobia. It can’t be a word that we just trumpet out at every hand’s turn because it’s easy. That’s lazy — and in fact, it trivializes instances of genuine Russophobia.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Triggered by the war in Ukraine, Russophobia in Western society and media has again reared its ugly head.

That’s not to say it was gone before, but it is most certainly enjoying a renaissance — and it’s been a revival so widespread and durable that modern anti-Russian sentiment has been compared to anti-Soviet sentiment experienced during the lowest points of the Cold War.

<figcaption>We should challenge false beliefs instead of using a blanket term like "Russophobia" to immediately dismiss them</figcaption>
We should challenge false beliefs instead of using a blanket term like "Russophobia" to immediately dismiss them

We see it in the renewed Western focus on Russia as a grave threat. We see it in the denigration of the Russian people as less civilized mob unable to chart their own course. We see it in the overtly personal demonization of Vladimir Putin.

It’s so pervasive in fact, that merely questioning its validity causes one to be viewed with a suspicious lens. That suspicion, which sometimes verges on defamation, is manifesting itself in such a way that the author of a recent article in The Nation decried an emerging era of what he called neo-McCarthyism in American media. To inspire such a label, we must surely have reached a very low point.

In that toxic environment, there is an understandable defensive and emotional response that kicks in. But when you think about something too much — in this case Russophobia — you start seeing it everywhere. The unfortunate, but natural next step is that you then start to see it where it doesn’t exist.

Those of us who express an understanding of Russia’s position on Ukraine and who share an affinity for Russia need to be careful that we don’t get into a habit of overusing the term Russophobia. It can’t be a word that we just trumpet out at every hand’s turn because it’s easy. That’s lazy — and in fact, it trivializes instances of genuine Russophobia. 

Think of it this way: When a pathological liar wakes up one day and decides to tell the truth, no one believes him. Similarly, if you shout “Russophobia!” every time you are in disagreement with someone’s analysis or understanding, you aren’t going to do yourself any favors in the long run. Granted, these days it can sometimes be difficult to avoid using it, but we do need to be cognizant of the unintended consequences of its overuse.

Like it or not, there is cause for — and need for — valid critical analysis of Russia and its policies, whether internal or external.

Disagreeing with Crimea’s reunification of Russia, for example, is in itself not Russophobia. That is a political stance, an opinion. It might be the wrong opinion — and I believe it is — but I’m not going to call it Russophobic.

Dismissing all criticism of Russia as Russophobia is similar in fact, to how Washington dismisses the Russian perspective on Ukraine as pure propaganda, in that they have the same effect: They stifle debate and discussion. In other words, they are argument-enders. That’s Western Russophobia! End of discussion. That’s Putin’s propaganda! End of discussion.

In defending Russia’s foreign policy, which I have frequently done, a line must be drawn between reasoned argument and hysterical over-the-top anti-Western sensationalism. They are not the same thing and those who employ the former method should not be lumped in with those who employ the latter.

An example of someone who uses the former method would be an academic like Stephen Cohen (or Richard Sakwa), while an example of the latter would be something like the Russian equivalent of Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat (i.e. tendentious, insincere, obsessive about proving a point, interested in the total ruination of one ‘side’ or the other etc.).

Now more than ever, deteriorating relations between Russia and the West require an intervention of thoughtful, level-headed and fair thinking. This is so desperately lacking in both the mainstream media and in political discourse — and it is extremist, all-or-nothing, with-me-or-against-me rhetoric which will lead to further deterioration.

It might be the easier option to always go for a dramatic takedown of your opponent with an argument-ender, as mentioned before, but it’s really not in anyone’s best interests. In fact, that kind of response can actually have exactly the opposite effect than was intended in that you convince no one of anything and end up preaching to the choir, which is ultimately useless.

I have spoken about foreign policy, but we should also look at how this relates to criticism of domestic policy within Russia, because here again, we should tread carefully.

Putin enjoys massive support from the Russian people. On many issues, foreign and domestic, he leads Russia with a clear mandate from the vast majority of its citizens. But he is not the ‘perfect’ president. There is no such thing.

To defend him and Russia’s foreign or domestic policy, analysts, commentators or simply interested readers, are not simultaneously required to denigrate and vilify the entire political opposition. To give one example, there is an idea floating around that Russian liberals “hate” their country. While that kind of cynical tactic is not uncommon for a politician to employ, it is less common for an analyst or commentator, for the simple reason that it is not based on sound analysis.

On that point, I have to take issue with an article recently published on Russia Insider, which blanketly asserts that Russian liberals appear to “hate their own country”.

While there is probably some validity to the author’s admittedly interesting hypothesis where at least a few Russians are concerned, I have to disagree with such a sweeping statement about “Russian liberals” in general. In fact, I am quite sure many, if not most of them love their country. They may hold a different worldview than the average Russian and they may vehemently disagree with the policies implemented by Putin — but there’s more than one way to love your country. Feeding out this idea that those who disagree with the status quo or the current government “hate” their country, is not conducive to the kind of real debate and analysis we should be having about Russia — and again, I say that as someone who has been vociferously defending Russia in the midst of a bombardment of anti-Russian sentiment.

As a kind of thought experiment, I would ask: If Russian liberals or dissidents “hate” their country across the board, does Noam Chomsky, beloved by America’s critics, hate America? Or is he simply loving his country in the way he feels is appropriate?

I write a lot about Western hypocrisy, often with a sarcastic bent. By extension, I try to steer as far away from utter hypocrisy myself (while acknowledging that I have no doubt failed in that endeavor at some point, as most of us do). Put differently, we should at least make a sincere effort to practice what we preach.

Serious and balanced analysis of Russia is sorely lacking in Western journalism. We know the effects of fanatical anti-Russian bias on less informed readers; it dumbs down their understanding of Russia and presents them with a lopsided view of the world. Understanding that, our goal should not be to create a lopsided view from the other side.

As in politics, when you want to win an election, your best bet is to target the middle ground; the undecideds. Your diehard supporters are votes in the bag, but preaching to them alone is useless. They are the choir. Similarly, your diehard opponents are never going to be swayed.
It’s tipping the reasonable few in the middle to your side that will deliver the victory.

Where Russia and the media are concerned, if thoughtful and reasoned analysis prevailed, we might call that a victory, too.

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