Russian Stereotypes: Western perception of Russia as seen through Russian’s eyes. Part I.

Изображение
Viktor Vasnetsov – Flying Carpet, 1880.

                                                                                  Foreword.

First of all it should be mentioned that speaking about ‘the West’ and ‘Russia’ as monolithic entities is itself a stereotyping practice. It is appropriate here because using these general concepts one can perfectly show/see the genesis and evolution of these stereotypes without going too deep into interesting but distracting details. The author doesn’t claim ‘objectivity’: the post represents my own views which were formed as a result of my continuing study of the so-called ‘Western discourse of Russia’.  The latter itself is not a homogenic entity but rather a mixture of various Western concepts and political narratives applied to the complex discoursive construct called  ‘Russia’.

As it was stated in a post titled “How We See Russia” quoting Daniel Treisman, a scholar on Russia, there are two main methods of writing about Russia in the West:

“to focus on the country’s dark side, to present Russia as a land of deformity”

or

“to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic”

— i.e.

mystification and vilification.

Both approaches were utilized by Winston Churchill whose famous quote about Russia states that

It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…

What a magic sandwhich I might say!

American historian Martin Malia wrote in a book titled “Russia Under Western Eyes“:

Russia has at different times been demonized or divinized by Western opinion less because of her real role in Europe than because of the fears and frustrations, or the hopes and aspirations, generated within European society by its own domestic problems. The prime example of Russia refracted through the prism of Western crises and contradictions is, of course, the combined attraction-repulsion of the Red Spectre in the twentieth century.

In other words, Malia points out a very important factor which to this day continues to influence Western attitude towards Russia: the image of Russia perceived in the West is heavily connected to the Western self-image and projection of this image on the mirror of the Other, i.e. Russia. The gap between the idealized self-image and the crude collage between it and the simplified caricature image of Russia was a starting point for the vilification/demonization method of describing Russia.

The mystification trend in the Western discourse goes hand in hand with the divinization approach. In Russia this approach was also popular among many Russian writers, poets, painters, philosophers, etc., especially among those who were close or belonged to the Slavophile movement. One can cite the words of the 19th century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, a sympathizer of Slavophilia:

You will not grasp her with your mind

Or cover with a common label,

For Russia is one of a kind

Believe in her, if you are able.

 Fyodor Tyutchev
Fyodor Tyutchev, 1860—1861. Photo by Sergey Levitsky.

Or a poem by Sergey Esenin:

If the army of God tells me:

Give up Russia and live in heaven -

I will tell them: I don’t need any heaven,

Just give me my Motherland.

Esen_duncan_1923
Sergey Yesenin and Isadora Duncan, 1923.

In the first abstract Tyutchev depicts Russia as an unknowable thing-in-itself, a sort of terra incognita which cannot be understood using logic, thus, advocating Credo-quia-absurdum-like attitude towards Russia. Yesenin who is one of the best and most popular Russian poets of the 20th century (as Tyutchev is of the 19th) became himself a poster child of Russianness. He has been attributed as a symbol of ‘Russky dukh’, i.e. Russian spirit (and I am not talking about vodka here) and ‘mysterious Russian soul’ which Western Russophiles and Russophobes like to include in their essentialized divinizing or demonizing narratives.

Besides these mystification/vilification and demonization/divinization conceptual pairs I would also like to suggest another angle of viewing the subject that has been already implicitly mentioned above. The type of discourse an Author implements when writing about Russia is  obviously a derivative of his/her general attitude towards Russia. These two main attitudes are represented by either Russophobiaor Russophilia and almost all of the ‘Russian’ discourse spectre (at least mainstream) in the West lies between these extremes. The leading trend in the Western discourse pertaining to Russia (both Russophobic and Russophilic) can be characterized as very similar or even identical to the Western colonial discourse, e.g. the ‘barbarian’ stereotype in the first case versus the ‘noble savage’ stereotype in the latter.

Peresv_b
Viktor Vasnetsov – Duel of Peresvet with Chelubey, 1914.

This discourse of ‘Russian Orientalization’ reveals itself in various minor stereotyping discourses: from viewing Russian women as ‘hypersexual, beautiful and dangerous creatures’ and Russian men as ‘brutal, dumb and cruel’ (the stereotypical characteristics can vary: women can ‘be’ ugly and greedy, and men – rich, smart and delinquent, etc.), to food & dishes stereotypes (vodka, caviar, pirogi and borscht ‘mythology’).

Bilibin._Baba_Yaga
Ivan Bilibin — Baba Yaga. Illustration to the “Vasilisa the Beautiful” tale, 1899-1900, 1902.

Positioning Russia as the Other and depicting it as ‘backwards’ and ‘Oriental’ gives birth to the civilizing narrative which has several foundations:

Since the nineteenth century this ideological output has situated Western-Russian relations within a meta-narrative of freedom and democratization. This meta-narrative has alternated between two operating modes: an Orientalist search for a Russian civilizational “black box”, on the one hand, and a missionary vision, driven by an aspiration to recreate Russia in the Western image, on the other.

This “aspiration to recreate Russia in the Western image” has always been accompanied by a blatant inability to do so. Thus, Russophobia is to a certain extent the dissatisfaction of the West with its unlucky attempts to recreate its Eastern neighbour as a (quasi-)Western country. The dissapointment of the West in Russia also may be explained as a result of the following: Russia didn’t fit in the Procrustean bed of the of pre-made rigid paradigms and explanatory conceptions (but it doesn’t mean that Russia always can’t fit in any paradigm). This conceptual failure was also a reason and a locomotive behind the mystification narrative.

On the one hand Russia is classified as non-West and denied of its ‘Westerness’, on the other hand the standards applied to Russia are as high as those applied to any ‘purely’ Western country. Thus, for various reasons the West cannot accept Russia as a part of Western civilization and it is not only because of ‘Russia’s actions’ (whatever the case is) or, to be more precise, it is due to Russia’s place in the Western worldview where Russia simply doesn’t belong as a part of the West but only as an entity opposite to the latter.

russian_bear_map-800x577

It is clear that such type of portraying Russia as mentioned above is extremely essentialized and  patronizing: ‘Russia’ is completely denied of subjectity, it is only an object of the Western ‘democratization’ and ‘improvement’ being viewed/personified as passive, suffering and feminine ‘Mother Russia’ in comparison to masculine and active West (e.g., ‘Uncle Sam’).

The ‘civilizing mission’ discourse is also backed by the depiction of Russia and Russians as dangerous. The narrative of ‘agressive wild bear’ has a long history. The discourse of Russia as a strange and hostile ‘parallel universe’ dates back to the 16 th century when from

…European travelogues, one learns that Russian peasants at that time were drunks, idolaters, and sodomites. Seventheeth century travellers report that the country’s northern forests were a breeding ground for witches. Then come the famous denunciations of the Marquis de Custine, along with the jeremiads of Chaadaev – a homegrown convert to the idiom – who, just as Pushkin was publishing Eugene Onegin, chastised Russia for failing to contribute anything to human civilisation. Russia, he charged, was a “blank” page in the intellectual order,” which existed only to “teach the world some great lesson.”

M_qVj8SXc9gIn the 20th century these pre-existing Russian stereotypes perfectly fitted in the Western Cold War era anti-Russian propaganda. The ‘Soviets/Sovs’ implied ‘Ruskies/Rooskies’ and vice versa – moreover, the term ‘Soviets’ implicated not only the Soviet establishment, but also common people. These stereotypes are alive and well in the contemporary Western political, intellectual and public discourse to this day, and are also hugely promoted by the media and contemporary popular culture.

[See Part II]

P.S. If you liked this post you can thank the author via russianuniverse.org/donate/.

P.P.S. The short version of my first two posts in French available here: Introduction au plaisir de la klioukvification.

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20 thoughts on “Russian Stereotypes: Western perception of Russia as seen through Russian’s eyes. Part I.”

  1. The Slavophile discussion is very interesting. Russia and Russian culture has contributed a great deal to the world at large (including, but not limited to its wonderful music and literature). I would tend to side with the Slavophiles because I do not believe that Peter the Great did a positive service to Russia in his attempt to force the people to become more Western. I am not sure that Russia is any better today after becoming more open to Western culture. The culture which produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, and even Andrei Tarkovsky is gone forever. Instead, the people now have to content with a culture which promotes the virtue of making money (regardless of how it is made). I do not believe this would qualify as progress.

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    1. Robert, reforms of Peter the Great were indeed one of the bifurcation points of Russian history. Such huge historical events can’t be described in black and white. Yes, they were tragic because Russian traditional society was going through forced Westernization, but at the same time they were glorious because Russia became one of the leading nations on planet Earth, etc. The funny thing about Slavophiles was that they were also a Western movement: their longing for ‘authentic Russianness’ was itself a reaction of Westernized Russians to Westernization, an attempt to (re)construct pre-Peter-the-Great Russian identity. Hence, the ongoing Russian identity crisis which was only reinforced after the collapse of the USSR.

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  2. I’ve read this twice now and grabbed a bit more this time. Since coming to Russia and seeing it first hand has opened my eyes to so much. What I find so intriguing is that encapsulated within Russia are all the elements that exist outside of it. It’s kind of like looking in a mirror. It seeing but only superficially, stepping through the looking glass takes one into the other worldliness that can only be explained by the experience. It’s like wonderland in many ways, currently I’m looking for the Cheshire Cat to explain things.

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    1. Thanks for your comment! “What I find so intriguing is that encapsulated within Russia are all the elements that exist outside of it” – couldn’t agree more! That’s why I called my project the ‘Russian Universe’.
      The way I see it, Russia and the West can be compared with two crooked mirrors in front of each other. Any object between these ‘mirrors’ is identical to itself but the image of this object is distorted in each reflection in a unique way. That’s how the ‘Difference’ is born.
      Experience is also deeply influenced by stereotypes and cognitive patterns, so one needs to break the looking glass (or at least try to do it) to break through the ‘fossil knowledge’ of an object.
      P.S. You anticipated some aspects of my second post on Russian stereotypes, i.e. ‘Wonderland’ narrative, etc.

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  3. Fascinating discourse, and thank you for your obvious hard work on this important issue. I’m an American living in Russia who definitely falls into the “Russophile” camp. It is quite interesting to see the very dispassionate and sometimes startlingly accurate ways in which you are explaining the complicated relationships between our cultures.

    Thank you for doing this. Please keep it up. I am interested.

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    1. Thanks for your kind words, Daniel! I try my best. My study is also important to me because I have always been obsessed both with ‘West’ (I like Western music from rock’n’roll to hip-hop) and ‘East’ (I lived in Yemen in the early 80s and in India in the early 90s with my family when I was a child). I remember watching ‘Star Wars’ on VHS in English in India (1989-1991)… With all due respect to all cultures, recently I decided to step my native culture game up, given that I’m a candidate of sciences in culturology (it can be compared with PhD in cultural studies; thesis on African American cultural identity in the 1st 3rd of the 20th century – Marcus Garvey and all that). My 2nd post will also be devoted to the depiction of ‘Russians’ in contemporary Western popular culture. Stay tuned!

      Vsego khoroshego,
      Sergey.

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  4. Fascinating post. So many angles. I need to come back and read it again. But one thing occurs to me – and that is that Russia must be composed of so many different ethnicities – from south to north, west to east: it never can be a tidy, graspable entity. It is simply marvellous that at some point all these different peoples came together as a nation, possibly more so at times when they were uniting against invaders, from Hitler backwards, through Napoleon and the Mongols etc. Of course we outsiders all think we know what is meant by Russian-ness, but let’s hear a big hurrah for Russian diversity – human and otherwise.

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    1. Thank you! I agree that ‘Russia’ is a heterogeneous entity which was centered around the Russian cultural nucleus. The image of the Other is very important in nation building as well as identity building. So I’m very interested in contemporary Russian identity, the problematic of which I will also cover in my future posts, and hopefully it’ll be interesting to you!

      Kind regards,
      Sergey.

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