Russia as the Ideal Other for the West

Russia West Mirrors

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son,
the jaws that bite and claws that scratch
Beware the jubjub bird
and shun the frumious bandersnatch.

Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky”.

It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.

Nikolai Gogol, “The Inspector General”.

Russia is the ideal Other for the West (and vice versa). It is rather obvious to me yet often overlooked by various Russia watchers and experts. The reason behind this phenomenon is not only ‘bias’ or ‘propaganda’. It is a common thing when a very Russia-friendly or even pro-Russian  Western article contains some wild klyukva. Of course, it is possible that an author is aware of existing Russian stereotypes in the West, understands their nature and tries to use them so they work as positive ones. But much more likely s/he’s doing it (un)consciously, not shifting too far from the existing Western master discourse of Russia, thus making the light version of the latter. Reminder: the -‘negative’ and +’positive’ stereotypes are equal in |modulus|. Although Russia has never been colonized militarily by the West, the Western discourse of Russia(ns) often reminds of a colonial one:

Let it be clearly understood that the Russian is a delightful person till he tucks his shirt in. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists upon being treated as the most easterly of Western peoples, instead of the most westerly of Easterns, that he becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle. The host never knows which side of his nature is going to turn up next.

Napoleon Bonaparte and Paul I as a Russian Bear
Napoleon Bonaparte and Paul I as a Russian Bear

To me this Rudyard Kipling’s quote represents the essence of the Russian Bear archetype in the West (the post on Russia’s archetypal image as a bear is in the making). To legitimize the ‘White Man’s Burden‘ discourse towards Russia (or the ‘democratization narrative’ in a contemporary politically correct mode) one should tag Russia as non-West or even anti-West which needs to be ‘colonized’, ‘democratized’ and reconstructed as Western satellite(s). The Russian Bear is an embodiment of ‘barbarirty’ and ‘backwardness’ which needs to be trained by a Real Western Gentleman . This narrative is very old indeed.

I’ve written in an older post:

…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 [of the West] 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. …Positioning Russia as the Other and depicting it as ‘backwards’ and ‘Oriental’ gives birth to the civilizing narrative…

Magic Mirrors

It should be noted that this discourse of Russian ‘Easterness’ also resonated with some Russian people. The ‘self-Easternization’ tendency was expressed by an outstanding Russian poet Alexander Blok in a poem called “Scythians“ (1918):

You are millions. We are hordes and hordes and hordes.

Try and take us on!
Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we are Asians –
With slanted and greedy eyes!
Viktor Vasnetsov – Battle between Scythians and Slavs, 1881.
Viktor Vasnetsov – Battle between Scythians and Slavs, 1881.

I mentioned in previous posts that the spectre of Russia’s images in the mainstream Western discourse (from modern “Meanwhile in Russia” memes, news and films to old caricatures) ranges from ‘Wonderland’ and the ‘land of antipodes’ (mystification narrative) to ‘Unworld’, ‘Mordor’ and ‘Hell on Earth’ (Russophobic, vilification narrative). Finally, the Western popular culture products which can be viewed as cultural propaganda form a ‘Western Iron Curtain‘ invisible to the general public but as ‘rigid’ as the original one. This ‘worldview blinders‘ can also be compared with Perseus’s shield having… a mirror with Medusa’s hologram.’

Iron Curtain by the Group "Nest", 1976. Oil on metal. The State Tretyakov Gallery.
Iron Curtain by the Group “Nest”, 1976. Oil on metal. The State Tretyakov Gallery.

I guess it is pretty hard for a Westerner (if not impossible) to break through this curtain irrevocably but you can succeed if you really want. That’s one of the reasons behind the popularity of the ‘mysterious Russian soul’ and other Russian clichés. E.g., see a representative comment on my post:

archecotech commentThus, ‘Russia’ and the ‘West’ as ideal entities can be compared with two crooked mirrors in front of each other. Any ‘object’ (e.g. a concept, a historic event, etc.) between these mirrors is identical to itself but the image of an object for an external observer is distorted in each mirror in a unique way. The reflection observer sees as (more) corresponding to the ‘original image’ of the object represents his/her worldview.

Alice Through the Looking GlassI tried to draw a Russia-West Worldview Pattern Scheme just using a pen, a pencil and a ruler (remembering my drafting lessons at school). The sceme represents the Russian and the Western worldview where RW is Western Reflection and ObserverW – Western Observer, RR – Russian Reflection and ObserverR – Russian Observer. MirrorWest and MirrorRussia (drawn here as opposite concave mirrors) are corresponding sociocultural matrices reflecting the Object.

Russia West Mirror Scheme

Let’s assume that ObserverW sees RW as an adequate reflection of the Object and RR as a distorted one. Similarly,ObserverR sees RR as an adequate reflection of the Object and RW as a distorted one. The ‘location’ of both Observers which determines their angle of view is  largely predetermined by cultural, historic and political background of their native societies. Needless to say, this basic scheme is essentializing but it’s closer to a strategic essentialism needed here to show how the ‘difference’ in views is born.

Russian Western Worldview

To be continued:

Mirror post “The West as the Ideal Other for Russia”.

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

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