Russophobia: The Discreet Charm of Cultural Racism & the Legacy of Hate.

Russophobia vs. Westernophobia. Part I. Russophobia: The Discreet Charm of Cultural Racism & the Legacy of Hate.

Ivan Bilibin - Zmey Gorynych, 1912.
Ivan Bilibin – Zmey Gorynych (aka Slavic Dragon), 1912.

Foreword.

The meaning of the word ‘Russophobia‘ is very broad and vague. For centuries the term has been a part of political and cultural discourse and has been used in Russia and in the West for various reasons. The aim of my series of posts on Russophobia vs. Westernophobia is to reveal some of the reasons behind the on-going popularity of ‘Russophobia’ in the West (as well as ‘Westernophobia’ in Russia). The post on ‘Westernophobia’ in Russia will be one of the next in the series.

The term ‘Russophobia’ was probably first coined by the famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev who wrote in a 1867 letter to his daughter:

It is possible to provide an analysis of the modern phenomenon which becomes increasingly pathological. It is Russophobia of some Russian people who are highly respected by the way.

I will devote a post on this homegrown Russophobia in relation to Russian identity, (self-)hatred and to what can be called Russian double-consciousness. Obviously, this type of Russophobia is also used as a confirmation of its Western equivalent.

‘Russophobia’ is a very popular word indeed. To this day it is widely used and even abused in the world (especially, in Russia and in the West). Such usage of the term made its meaning so broad that I should start with the definition:

Definition of Russophobia as cultural racism
Russophobia can be viewed as a form of (cultural) racism according to which ‘Russians’ are inherently inferior (intellectually, culturally or even biologically) to some other ethnocultural entity or entities (‘Europeans’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’, ‘Germans’, etc.), prone to deviant behaviour and pose a serious danger to the established Western social norms and even to the Western civilization itself.

Russia old caricature One term – cultural racism – that I used in my definition requires some additional explanation. According to the Theory of Cultural Racism:

Cultural racism, as a theory, needs to prove the superiority of Europeans, and needs to do so without recourse to the older arguments from religion and from biology. How does it do this? By recourse to history — by constructing a characteristic theory of cultural (and intellectual) history. The claim is simply made that nearly all of the important cultural innovations which historically generate cultural progress occurred first in Europe, then, later, diffused to the non-European peoples (Blaut forthcoming 1992). Therefore, at each moment in history Europeans are more advanced than non- Europeans in overall cultural development (though not necessarily in each particular culture trait), and they are more progressive than non-Europeans. This is asserted as a great bundle of apparently empirical facts about invention and innovation, not only of material and technological traits but of political and social traits like the state, the market, the family. The tellers of this tale saturate history with European inventions, European progressiveness, European progress.

The ‘inferiority’ of Russians is explained by ‘excluding’ them from the Western/European civilization  and  exaggeration of Russian ‘non-Europeanness’ in history, culture and social reality. The uniqueness of Russophobia as a form of (cultural) racism is due to the following factors. First, in the dominant Western political and cultural narratives ‘Russians’ are positioned as ‘White’. Sometimes even the Russian ‘Europeanness’ is admitted. Thus, one can speak about the ‘Russian inferiority’ or ‘maliciousness’ without being exposed as a ‘racist’ and not fearing any negative consequences for his/her career and public image. This characteristic also contributes to the vitality and popularity of Russophobia and ‘legitimizes’ expression of strongest dehumanizing forms of anti-Russian sentiment. Thus, Russophobia can be attributed as a politically correct (!) (cultural) racism and hatred based on ethnocultural background. Existing Russophobic stereotypes and negative Russian stereotypes in general are reificated by the Western popular culture as Steven Kurutz points out:

I suspect screenwriters and studio executives have deemed Russians to be politically safe villains. No advocacy group will protest. No foreign distribution deal will be nixed.

March of Russian barbarity and cholera epidemic to Europe (French allegory, 19th century)
March of Russian barbarity and cholera epidemic to Europe (French allegory, 19th century).

Of course, Russophobia is a complex phenomenon: other ‘dimensions’ of it can include xenophobia, anti-Russia(n) prejudice, fear of the ‘Russian threat’ (i.e. the ‘phobia’ part itself) and even (geo)political ideology. Moreover, Russophobia should not be confused with ‘regular’ Russian stereotypes. The distinction is thin but surely not every Russian stereotype is Russophobic: it can be a mere (confirmation) bias, mystification or klyukvification. Only the most crude, hateful and essentialized Russian stereotypes should be treated as Russophobic: calling any Russian stereotype or critical approach ‘Russophobic’ undermines the concept of ‘Russophobia’ and waters the boundaries of the term meanings down.

The fear of Russia(ns) heated during the Cold War was (used as) a political factor both in the domestic and foreign policies of the Western countries. Similarly, anti-Western sentiment was exploited in the Soviet propaganda. The difference of this anti-Other (where the ‘Other’ equals the ‘Enemy’) discourse in the West and in the Eastern Bloc was as follows. Despite the basic similiraties in the anti-Western and anti-Soviet discourse’ texture the former was targeted mainly at capitalism as a system, i.e. it didn’t target all Westerners but capitalists and the ‘good guys’ were the ethnic minorities and working class. But the Cold War era anti-Soviet discourse cannot be reduced to anti-communism only because it was also deeply anti-Russian: ‘Ruskies’ were seen as ‘dangerous’ and ‘barbarous’ themselves. For example, American General George S. Patton said:

The difficulty in understanding the Russians is that we do not take cognizance of the fact that he is not a European, but an Asiatic, and therefore thinks deviously. We can no more understand a Russian than a Chinaman or a Japanese, and from what I have seen of them, I have no particular desire to understand them, except to ascertain how much lead or iron it takes to kill them. In addition to his other Asiatic characteristics, the Russian have no regard for human life and is an all out son of bitch, barbarian, and chronic drunk.

The Hirsute Kostroma People from the Primeval Forests of Central Russia (Advertisement for Fedor Jeftichew's sideshow), 1874
The Hirsute Kostroma People from the Primeval Forests of Central Russia (Advertisement for Fedor Jeftichew’s sideshow), 1874.

His words about ‘Asiatic characteristics’ echo what Marquis de Custine’s said about Russians in “La Russie en 1839″. Like I already mentioned what differs Russophobia from the ‘regular’ racist fear of ‘non-White takeover’ is that Russians are marked as ‘White’ in the dominant Western discourse. So there are several ‘solutions’ here: one can still stick with the biological racism positioning Russians as non-‘White’/European and ‘untermenschen‘ or portray them as ‘semi-Europeans’ who look ‘European’ but ‘really’ are ‘barbaric’ and ‘primitive’ (De Custine’s tradition).

Paradoxically enough, portrayal of Russians as ‘dangerous barbarians’ is maintained and escalated by the fact that there are substantial Russian inventions (for more info see: a wiki category, an article, a blog post, etc.) which only add to the ‘threat factor’.

Russia comic war map In “Black Skin, White Masks” Frantz Fanon noted that in a racist worldview a ‘Jew’ and a ‘Black’ symbolize intellectual and biological ‘danger’ correspondingly. Continuing this logic, it can be said that in a Russophobic discourse a ‘Russian’ represents an existential danger, a challenge to the world status quo and powers that be.

To be continued.

Author: Sergey A. Armeyskov, Candidate of Sciences in Culturology (≈ PhD in Cultural Studies). Follow me on Twitter: @armeyskov, @RussianUniverse & Instagram: @therussianart, @armeyskov.

15 thoughts on “Russophobia: The Discreet Charm of Cultural Racism & the Legacy of Hate.”

  1. You stole my words: negative prejudices concerning Russia matches with many negative prejudices concerning Byzantine civilization (until recently, historiography usually depicted Byzantium as a land of vices and decadence). Russia, obviously, cannot be reduced to Byzantium, but the roots are, under many points of view, common.

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  2. There is a book about Russian stereotypes in French literature that might give you another perspective about this very interesting subject: Krauss Charlotte, “La Russie et les Russes dans la fiction française du XIXe siècle (1812-1917)”, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2007, 446 p. Hope it helps.

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  3. You’re off to a great start, Sergey; I shall follow this topic with interest! Indeed, it is comfortable for most to view Russians as a people who look like Europeans but think like Asians. And there is some truth to be found in it; Russians’ outlook is far more Asian than European in, for example, their lesser interest in materialism (except for the oligarchs!) or their reverence for family. Unfortunately, this characteristic is also employed to endlessly criticize and ridicule Russians, on the basis that they do not think like we do and it is impossible to hurt their feelings because they are not sensitive.

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    1. There are several reasons behind the ‘otherization’ of Russia in the West which is a fertile soil for Russophobia. These reasons are related to certain Russia’s characteristics, the history of West-Russia relations and Western view of Russia. 1. The roots of otherization lie in the East-West Schism and the view of Russia ‘barbaric land’ which needed Christianization in the Western fashion (e.g., Teutonic Order, etc). 2. Geographical position (Ultima Thule; partly in Europe, partly in Asia). 3. Non-European influence in Russia especially after the Mongol invasion. 4. After Peter the Great and Westernization of Russia when Russia became one of the world’s leading states Russophobia became a part of identity building in the West: “they are strong but they are not us and still not enough European”. 5. The 1917 revolution and Cold War, capitalism vs. communism. P.S. About alleged Russian non-materialism, traditionalism, collectivism, etc.: again it’s more of a stereotype. I can say that ‘Russians’ are very individualistic but it’s also stereotyping of a big group of people. At the end of the day Maslow’s hierarchy of needs works in Russia pretty well.

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