Russophobia exists and it affects politics in the West

Russian state propaganda labels any suggestion that Russia might be blamed for some wrongdoing as Russophobia. Does it mean that Russophobia is solely the fruit of imagination? No, alas it doesn’t. Russophobia exists, argues journalist Leonid Ragozin. The myth about an omnipotent Russia which meddles everywhere, obscures the fact that Trump and Brexit are the product of impotency that span entire Western societies.

russophobia nanette hoogslagImage Nanette Hoogslag

by Leonid Ragozin

In the age of victimhood exhibitionism, it is a norm to abuse people’s trust by playing victim, individually or collectively. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone do it as blatantly as Russian state propaganda. From its perspective, any suggestion that Russia might have been involved in some wrongdoing - be it the Salisbury attack, attempts to influence the US elections or shooting down the Malaysian airliner - constitutes Russophobia. This line of defence seems hapless in the face of abundant evidence pointing towards Russia-linked culprits in all of these cases, but the Kremlin keeps using it since there is always an audience that will give it a benefit of the doubt.

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There is a longer history of this term being abused to the point of becoming a laughing stock for Russia-watchers and Russians themselves. Employed by the crypto-fascist Pamyat movement in the late 1980s, Russophobia became a battle cry for the 'red-brown' coalition of communists and nationalists who tried to undo Boris Yeltsin’s government in the 1990s. For them, the ruling 'Russophobes' were intent on wiping out the Russian nation and giving up all of its riches to the Western, or indeed Jewish, oligarchy.

That sentiment has been inherited by Russia’s modern far right who - sense the irony - routinely describe Vladimir Putin as the chief Russophobe because he has opened the floodgates for mass migration from Central Asia, which has altered the racial composition of large Russian cities. The perceived 'Russophobic' nature of Putin’s regime is a commonly cited rationale for dozens of Russian ultra-nationalists to join Azov and other volunteer formations in Ukraine and fight against their own compatriots in Donbas.

So does it mean that Russophobia is a fruit of the Russians’ own imagination which doesn’t exist in the real world? That’s an assertion many in the anti-Russian camp seem to support, but that turns them into, well, Russophobes in the eyes of Russians and Russian-speakers in other countries who encounter xenophobic attitudes regardless of their political views or relationship to Putin’s Russia.

'Russian lice'

These xenophobic sentiments exist in objective reality. It would be very strange if they didn’t, now that Russia has occupied Crimea and staged all sorts of other subversive operations, including in leading Western countries. But it is important to put things into perspective. Unlike Islamophobia, a much stronger phenomena in today’s West, Russophobia is rarely manifested by hate speech and never by violence. Crucially, it mirrors anti-American, anti-Baltic, anti-Ukrainian and other phobias which the Kremlin propaganda has been sowing for many years. But it’s also wrong to dismiss it, because it does affect policies in the West. That helps no one else but warmongers on both side of the current standoff.

Understandably, much of the open Russophobia originates from Russia’s neighbourhood affected by Moscow’s aggressive policies. When Ukrainian TV anchor and blogger Serhiy Ivanov writes that the Nazis were killing the wrong people in the gas chambers (meaning it should have been Russians), is that an excusable emotional reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine? For many of those who rushed to defend him at the time, it was. I bumped into him at the July 4 reception in Kiev in 2016, which suggests that US diplomats see no issues with his rhetorics (or simply don’t follow his popular blog).

Russophobia helps no one but warmongers on both sides of the current standoff

It gets harder to find a reasonable excuse for Latvian politician Edvins Šnore who wrote in an op-ed, approvingly quoting a 1930s Latvian official: 'If you let Russian lice penetrate your overcoat, it will be hard to get rid of it.' People he is referring to are not even Russian nationals, but his Russian-speaking compatriots in Latvia. Šnore is an MP from a party that was part of various government coalitions ever since 2011 and successfully pushed legislation severely restricting education in Russian language. A minister representing the same party has recently proposed strangling Russian-language media in Latvia by heavy taxes. Members of his party leadership defended Šnore’s statements at the time.

Across the Atlantics, some people wear their Russophobe badge with pride. 'How can one not be a Russophobe?' wrote John Sipher, former CIA Moscow station chief, now one of the most outspoken Russiagate 'experts' who makes regular appearances on the main US and international TV channels. The rhetorical question was addressed to a Twitter audience of 126 thousand. The tweet, which went on to list out Russia’s alleged crimes, received thousands of likes and retweets.

It’s easy to attribute the emergence of this new sincerity amongst American, East European and, to a much lesser extent, West European commentariat to the aggressive posture adopted by the Kremlin in the last decade, but even before the 2008 war in Georgia, one of the most prominent and, admittedly, insightful blogs discussing Russian politics and run by US journalist Kim Zigfeld, was called 'La Russophobe'. Its official motto was 'Russia is the best country in the world… except for all the others'.

Conspiracy theories

Said that, this particular type of phobia - the irrational fear of all things Russian - usually doesn’t degrade into open hate speech, largely because a majority of people who spread it these days consider themselves to be liberals. The bulk of Russophobia today comes in the shape of conspiracy theories that strive to find Russia’s traces in everything that happens under the sun. Their authors have been aggressively trying to elbow out real Russian expertise since the start of the current political cycle in March 2014, when Putin seized Crimea, and especially after Donald Trump got elected in the US.

In the anti-Trump media bubble, Russia has been steadily losing the features of its real self - an extremely complex and diverse place with a population badly traumatised by genocidal experiences in the 20th century and vulnerable to modern political technology, like fake news, to a greater extent than most others.

In the anti-Trump media bubble, Russia has been steadily losing the features of its real self

Russia’s true history and current political reality is irrelevant to the horde of prolific grifters who are using the Kremlin’s hapless attempt at meddling in the US elections to blame all of their country’s internal problems on the new bogeyman, Russia. The inconvenient truth is that such unsavoury political phenomena like Trump and Brexit are a product of the arrogance and intellectual impotency that span entire Western society, including its liberal flank. The grifters’ trick was to replace it with the pathetic myth about the omnipotent Russia which meddles everywhere, striving to conquer the world.

Blood-soaked dream

Few people come closer to a strictly medical definition of phobia than Molly McKew, a lobbyist who worked in former Soviet countries before turning into one of the loudest of Russiagate voices. Her entire work is a piece of medieval doomsday prophecy permeated with dark shadows, terrifying omens, hidden messages and mortal threats. From her perspective - and she says it directly - the West is already at war with Russia and this is a war for its very existence. All her work is aimed at making this imaginary war feel vivid and real.

In one of her articles for Politico, she goes as far as retelling an actual dream related to her by a maverick Estonian paramilitary (formerly an 'outlaw', she says). In that dream, Russian troops stage a bloodbath in the streets of Tallinn as they invade Estonia pushing its defenders to the sea shore where they take their last stand.

russophobiaWestern media are obsessed by 'omnipotent Russia'. Photo free of copyright

McKew’s case is important because it is emblematic of misguided American policies that contributed to the current standoff between the West and Russia by fuelling Russia’s own phobias against the West. She used to advise Moldovan prime minister Vlad Filat at the time when the country’s oligarchic elite employed Russophobic rhetorics to dupe the West into believing that Moldova was moving in its direction, while turning the country into Europe’s greatest laundromat for illicit Kremlin-linked money. Filat, her employer, ended up being sentenced to nine years in prison.

Liberal and xenophobic

For crooked post-Soviet politicians, it is amazingly easy to sell themselves as noble fighters against Russian menace, because the buyer is so willing to believe them. It happens because the Western, both American and European, policy towards Russia has long been based on the idea that 'they will never be like us'. This is what the supposedly liberal thinker Anne Applebaum directly said in her famous Slate op-ed in March 2014, when Putin’s invasion of Crimea allowed people to say things they secretly believed in all those years.

Apart from being cruel towards millions of Russians who already see Western liberal democracy as the best form of government, this dictum is both ahistorical and xenophobic. Ahistorical - because no nation is condemned to perpetual non-democracy - Francis Fukuyama is great at debunking that kind of historical fatalism in his two-volume work on the origins and decay of states. Xenophobic - because it paints Russians as a people inherently (that is, biologically) incompatible with the Western approach to governance. It also feeds into the racist narrative of Russians being a non-European (read Asian and therefore inferior) nation.

The idea that Russians represent some other civilisation prevented Russia's inclusion in the European integration process

This kind of casual eugenics spills out in the mainstream Western media every now and then, like it did in a New York Times op-ed, which stated that corruption is in Russia’s DNA. Coming from the same playbook is the horrendously dehumanising term Homo Sovieticus - just google to see how often it is being used by all sorts of commentators to target Russians and Russophones living in former Soviet countries.

The idea that, despite their clearly European history and culture, Russians represent some other civilisation is the one that prevented Russia’s inclusion in the European integration process when the young and fragile Russian democracy was ripe for it in the early 1990s. Those who lived in Russia throughout the tumultuous 1990s know that Russia’s trajectory would have been entirely different had it had the beacon of European integration lighting its path, like it did in the case of the Baltic and other East European countries. Likewise, the fate of these countries would have been rather different in the absence of that beacon.

Romance with ethnonationalism

That same idea leads Western, especially American, politicians towards regarding Russophone and Russia-leaning populations (like Abkhazians, Ossetians in Georgia or Gagauzy in Moldova) as a removable temporary obstacle - like lice in an overcoat, in the words of Šnore. The mindless and reckless reliance on ethnonationalist forces who implement a dystopian project of transforming ex-Soviet countries into monoethnic and monolingual societies feeds into Russians’ own ethnonationalist narratives and the complex of the besieged fortress. Putin has skilfully exploited those sentiments after he realised early in his reign that building bridges with the US-led West, which dismisses Russia as a nuisance, is a hopeless endeavour.

The American romance with East European nationalism alienates Russians and Russophones in former Soviet countries on a catastrophic scale. That fact is underscored by Russia’s seamless annexation of Crimea, with an apparent support of the local population, as well as by the popularity bubble it created for Putin at home, while splitting and dispiriting the opposition.

Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, virtually no attempt was made in order to reach out to the Russophones and Russians and reassure them that the West is not aiming to upend their lives and destroy their culture, not to mention that there is a place reserved for them in united Europe. On the contrary, with its Western backers’ tacit agreement, Ukraine’s post-Maidan authorities embarked on a cultural revolution, heavily restricting the use of Russian and other minority languages in education and media, while promoting far right historical memory policies as if to deliberately insult the Russophones, as well as numerous Ukrainian-speakers.

No attempt was made to reassure Russian speakers that the West is not aiming to destroy their culture

In the April elections, however, Ukrainian voters clearly showed that they want these policies to be reversed. In doing so, they embraced the actual liberalism which the West claims to promote in the former Soviet Union. Bizarrely - if not unexpectedly - some western commentators interpreted the victory of the Russian-speaking Volodymyr Zelensky as a revanche of pro-Kremlin forces. There were very few reasons for that other than simple phobia.

Russophobia, in its rhetorical and institutionalised forms, has two primary beneficiaries - the Kremlin and those in the West who are building their political and academic careers on perpetuating the current conflict. It is important not to get paranoid about it, but it is equally important to counter Russophobia alongside phobias spread by the Kremlin - or else we might one day wake up in McKew’s insane dream.