Viktor Vasnetsov – Flying Carpet, 1880.
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”
“to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic”
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, 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.
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 Russophobia or 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.
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’).
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.
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.”
In 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.
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P.P.S. The short version of my first two posts in French available here: Introduction au plaisir de la klioukvification.