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Is Russophobia a Thing?

Yes, it sounds like paranoid, Putin-backed propaganda, but the term also sheds light on the West’s history of Russian stereotypes.

Screenshot from Eastern Promises

Earlier this month, the World Russian People’s Council, an international organization whose goal is to promote a positive future for the motherland, announced its intention to create a new Center for the Study of Russophobia. Members of the organization, founded and nominally led by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Moscow, believe that Russia, Russian people, and Russian language speakers are often unfairly portrayed in the international media, much to their detriment. So as a service to Russia and an academic exercise, the WRPC now believes it must stand up to identify, explain, and correct the rough and cartoonish caricatures of its people—which it believes have become more common since the Ukraine conflict began in 2014.

At first blush, this concept sounds like it might just be part of a pro-Russian propaganda campaign, revising history and spinning the news to paint a picture of a beleaguered Moscow struggling for its rights in the current eastern European kerfuffle. Especially to those of us in the West who like to believe that our press is fair and balanced and our coverage of Russia’s aggression is more accurate than Moscow’s apparently censored media-sphere, the notion that we might be systematically slandering Russians seems absurd and insulting.

We’re especially prone to ignore accusations of Russophobia as last year President Vladimir Putin used the term in a speech to dismiss critiques of his Ukraine policy, and a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) proposed a bill to ban Russophobic propaganda in the nation, on pain of a 15-day prison sentence or $1,000 fine. This latter decision especially seemed to throw the term around like a tool of political control, giving moral justification to attempts at controlling the portrayal of events for Putin and company’s benefit. The fact that this new Center was proposed by the WRPC, which granted Putin a high award in 2013, just lends more fuel to those who’d like to dismiss Russophobia as a facetiously indignant smokescreen.

Screenshot from Rocky and Bullwinkle

Yet when you step back and think about how Russians (not just the modern nation of Russia) are portrayed in the media (not just the news), you do start to notice that they tend to show up as two-dimensionally sinister, corrupt, and chauvinistic individuals. The Daily Show brought that reality home in 2014, when it sent Jason Jones to Moscow, contrasting his exaggerated American stereotypes of a smarmy and seedy Russia against a predictably more human reality.

You can test this status quo characterization yourself, by picking literally almost any movie featuring Russians, either as villains or heroes. Even David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, a film I actually liked for its rounded characters (and for the chance to see Vigo Mortensen swinging some pipe in a bathhouse fight scene), plays into these tropes. Despite having a number of complex characters, and Russians fulfilling (anti-) heroic, villainous, and murky roles, no matter what part they play, the movie’s Russians are uniformly surly, besotted, and suspicious.

Beyond the Boris and Natasha image of Russians in entertainment, you also start to notice that we did, for example, shit on the corruption of the Sochi Olympics and Russian politics last year much more than we questioned the shady practices and human rights abuses before the Beijing 2008 Olympics. These realizations, combined with the fact that Russian organizations with no clear ties to Putin’s regime have also decried Russophobia in the recent past, force us to admit that the WRPC might have a point: we may have a bit of a twisted view of Russians that’s bleeding over into our creation of Russian characters and news analyses.

This isn’t a new concept. The term Russophobia dates back to at least the mid-19th century, when it was used to describe the British press’s mocking characterizations of their imperial rivals. These depictions, it’s suggested, moved beyond occasional stereotypes to systematic distortions of the region because it had become a national foil and cosmic threat to Western empires, guilty of their own sins. During the Cold War, this existential threat and rivalry became exceptionally relevant in America, during an era of politicized and increasingly omnipresent media.

Screenshot from Rocky IV.

For many who got used to this milieu, the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War didn’t mean that a negative conception of Russia faded. Instead, in our rush to promote the dawn of a new American-led world order (think Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”), any Russian attempts to resist Western ideals were painted as barbaric. Old biases naturally grafted onto new images of Russia as a backwards, chaotic loser state struggling over its past mistakes and inability to get with the new global program. Between the forces of history that popularized and acclimated us to flat Russian caricatures, and the continued utility of Russia as a national foil, we somehow just slipped into new patterns of seemingly innocuous but ever-present Russophobia.

To be clear, acknowledging the existence of Russophobia doesn’t mean that we must subscribe to the sometimes overblown descriptions of the phenomenon you find in some Russian circles. Attempts by some skeptics to link Russophobia to anti-semitism, ascribing an illogical yet intentional malice to these portrayals of Russians, bleeds over from fair critique into conspiracy theory. Attempts to interpret bad coverage of Russia in the media as a direct dictation from the White House reads as an uninformed, if not a narcissistic, assumption that American policymakers spend all their nights thinking of ways to pike the Russians. Yet for every paranoid explanation of Russophobia (all of which have a seed of truth in them), there are many who recognize it as the almost unconscious, emergent byproduct of centuries of politics that it is. Confronting Russophobia as a child of history, we can start to confront and subdue these unfair and unrealistic depictions.

Similarly, confronting Russophobia in the media and in our own minds doesn’t mean that we have to pull a U-turn and accept sunny narratives of Russia that laud Putin and apologize for his actions. We can and should still be critical of Putin, the state of the Russian economy, and the nation’s human rights record. We might just want to do so with less of smug look on our faces and a few less Yakov Smirnoff jokes (or subtler equivalents). We may be surprised how much easier it is to communicate with and relate to Russians and their native land if we were to start presenting a nuanced and three-dimensional depiction of Russia and Russians—even if it’s still a skeptical and scrutinizing one—in place of the borderline Ivan Drago image we’re running around with now.

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