There's a history to Russophobia. Most Americans have imbibed it unconsciously, it saturated virtually all of postwar western media, subsided only slightly in the 90s and early 2000s. But it long predates the Cold War. 🧵
Maybe understanding how pitifully transparent & constructed it is will help ppl see how much space it takes up in their brains. I grew up with it myself, it's still endemic even among other Russianists, let alone people who don't have much direct contact.
It's pretty much a British phenomenon, and it's still most virulent and most unconscious there; we picked it up as part of our "special relationship" I suppose you might say. That's not to say others haven't had their versions, but for simplicity's sake, I'll stick to Britain.
It starts in its recognizably modern form with Ivan the Terrible. That name STILL carries the connotations here that the British created, among Americans who haven't the foggiest notion who Ivan actually was or what he did.
Which is not to say Ivan wasn't a bloodthirsty, paranoid, murdering & torturing monster. It's just that so was every other leader of his time, & to a similar degree, if they could get away with it. Ivan got the moniker in the old sense of "terrible" as in awe-inspiring.
He inspired awe partly from torturing & murdering the shit out of his own nobles, sure, but that's what was considered successful leadership at the time if you couldn't get a navy, and esp in a landlocked, youngish state surrounded by big scary neighbors w no natural boundaries.
What he did to piss off (i.e., scare) the British was that he expanded Muscovy to Kazan and Novgorod (brutally, as was done). He was making Muscovy into a great power. The British have always liked to think they were in charge of who ate at the European great power table.
Much more immediate than that, though, was trade. Ivan was, like all the successors would be, pretty darn focused on getting ports and defensible borders. Because that's how you survive as a state, and that's job number one for a ruler. But the British didn't like it.
The British were trying to compete with the Spanish & Dutch navies & their wealth was singularly dependent on water-based trade, being an island & all, so the last thing they needed was a giant empire full of furs & connected to the Silk Road to get ready access to shipping.
Next thing you know, ambassadors and traders start circulating reports all over Europe of how barbaric Ivan and his people were. Thus begins* a long tradition of western Europeans telling stories about barbaric Russians bc they secretly fear competition.
* nothing in history ever really "begins," you know, there are actually earlier precedents, etc, etc, I have to simplify a bit for Twitter. By all means check out Francesca Wilson, Muscovy: Russia Through Foreign Eyes and Marshall Poe, A People Born to Slavery
Mind you, Moscow kept all its foreigners quartered together for fear their various religions would tempt Orthodox believers in the wrong directions & the Russian word for German, "nemetskii" means mute, as if foreigners might as well be mute if they don't speak Russian.
So, you know, nobody has a monopoly on xenophobia. Not saying the British were especially xenophobic - if anyone was, it was Russians, because their lack of natural barriers to invasion and scary neighbors made them a bit panicky about invasion, for frankly good reason.
What was specific to the British, that drove their considerable, extensive, and consistent efforts to paint Russia as barbaric, inherently expansionist (as if there's a gene for that) and inscrutable, as they do to this day & many Americans, esp liberals, still kinda believe..
...what was specific to the British was the competition in trade and in leadership of that European great power table. You probably know the British were constantly fighting wars with whichever power was competitive on the seas, pretty much always.
Russia didn't even get a navy until Peter the Great in the early 18th century, but the Brits were antsy ab that potential as well as the immediate threat from a tiny Mongol vassal state growing into a landed empire connecting East Asian goods with Europe, starting from Ivan IV.
When do the traveler accounts of "barbaric" Russia get really hysterical again, though? During the Time of Troubles when the Poles nearly took over Muscovy? Nope. During the fairly quiet reigns of Michael or Alexei? Not especially. But Peter? Father of the Russian navy?
You guessed it: the Russophobia coming out of British sources ratchets up to hysterical new levels right as Peter starts building Russia's first navy and fighting for a warm-water port on the Black Sea.
Peter eventually smashes the Swedes, another major power at the time believe it or not, and the British are all like, "hmm, nice to have the Swedes off the table, but gee, now we're going to have to let the Russians sit at the table like, forever, fuuuuuck."
There's a bunch of messiness for a while then, hey presto, a German princess ends up on the Russian throne (Catherine the Great). From British eyes: she's illegitimate, she's a woman, she's busy fighting Turks & they don't mind her doing the dirty work to weaken the Ottomans.
Once that dirty work is effectively done, tho & there's easy pickings to be had in the middle east--the shortcut desperately wanted by British traders--well, that's a different story. Boom: Russians are barbarians again. Inherently expansionist - see how they took the poor Turks?
Turns out that Catherine's successors will be ludicrously easily manipulated & the British are distracted by Napoleon, so for a while they just humor poor Paul & his son Alexander. They pretend to even celebrate Alex as victor in London in 1815, making fun of him when he leaves.
(On what basis do they make fun of him, his sister, his entourage? As barbarians, of course - uncouth, even though in fact that generation of Russian elites was obsessive about imitating French and British manners and were if anything far more refined than British Society)
Cool aside: The Russian de facto ambassador to London, Countess Lieven, introduced the waltz to society & was a patroness of Almack's, THE most stringent arbiter of social rules. She was de facto ambassador bc her husband, the official one, was a nincompoop.
Fast forward to the next period of hysterical British Russophobia, now churning out of multiple major newspapers with mass reach: 1860s-1900s, height of British empire and the "Great Game" competition with Russia over Afghanistan.
This originates in the Crimean War, one of those wars most westerners only vaguely recognize the name of and associate with Florence Nightengale and war photography. It was a dumb war fought over, theoretically, the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
(Cool aside: there was a Russian nurse discovering and practicing many of the same medical and social advances as Nightengale, but the Russian version was a peasant woman: Dasha of Sevastopol.)
Obviously it wasn't really about that, it was about which European great powers were going to control the easy pickings left by a declining Ottoman empire (thanks, Catherine, not bad for a little lady...)
The Russians wanted that warm water port they desperately need for defense (yep, same reason Putin still wants the Crimea and made sure to keep it as soon as Ukraine looked too longingly toward NATO, obviously - ANY Russian leader would have to do the same or off with his head.)
The British wanted their shortcut. Other European wannabes didn't want to be left out. So, Crimean War. The British remember the tragedy of the Charge of the Light Brigade but the main story is the Russians lost, badly, embarrassingly, and showed their ass to Europe.
Specifically, their ass was bare because they hadn't industrialized as quickly as the other great powers(for fear of mass peasant revolt), so they didn't have the trains or guns to compete in the Crimean War. This massively undermined the Russian monarchy & forced reforms.
Those reforms incl emancipating the serfs & would eventually allow full industrialization & the monarchy would hold itself more or less together, but a socialist movement starts & periodically takes pot shots at the tsars, successfully killing Alex II, the "Great Reformer."
IOW, the British won that war and left the Russian monarchy reeling, barely hanging on to its own authority & fully occupied internally. But the British have their own paranoia, centered on their drive to make money off exploiting brown people.
So the Brits tell themselves that Russia remains a major competitor, that the Russian tsars have their eyes on India, that those barbarian Russians are *inherently* expansionist so of course they won't stop at securing their warm water port and defensible border.
So the Russophobic hysteria reaches new heights in the mass media of the late 19thc. No doubt felt pretty good to tell themselves over and over that somebody else is the barbarian of Europe while they stocked their houses with knick-knacks stolen from murdered brown people.
Then, there's World War I. Long story & I'm tired. Key pts: British are pissed when Trotsky makes a separate peace, not to mention freaked the fuck out by the socialist revolution thing. At the time, EVERYONE rightly believed revolution was more likely in Germany or Britain.
As it turned out, revolution came to Russia first, mainly because the incompetent Romanov dynasty collapsed under its own weight in February, and the provisional govt did no better, and that left an opening, though frankly Lenin took his bloody time seizing it finally it Oct.
What was the narrative in the British press? Oh, that revolution (read: violent destruction of good middle-class people like British newspaper readers) was just inherent to Russians, because after all, they're all power-hungry barbarians. Another comforting narrative.
Blah, blah, WWII, let's pretend we like Stalin so the Russians can suffer for us until this Hitler dude is out of the picture. Flash forward to 1949. Suddenly Churchill is yammering about Russians being an enigma and you guessed it, inherently expansionist.
Never mind that Russia has been far too weak to expand anywhere since Catherine the Great, never mind that Russian leaders were always quite clear about reaching natural defensible borders ag real threats & never actually have gone past that (unlike the British).
None of that matters, the narrative is well-rehearsed now and that's close enough to truth. Why not save a bunch of Nazis from the noose so they can serve as spies ag the USSR? Why not nudge the USSR into a Cold War out of terror they'll get the bomb you already have?
Obviously they get that bomb as fast as they can. The ones we dropped landed right in their damn backyard! Still, The Russians are pretty occupied trying to save themselves from their own demonic murdering dictator who targets his own more than anyone else.
Not that that matters for the narrative! There are bomb shelters to sell! Defense contracts to spread around to your friends! Largesse for everybody! The Americans take the leading role in the narrative now, in a "special relationship" transfer that suits everyone.
Fast forward to 1991 and goddammit, those idiot Russians manage to collapse of their own weight all over again, but the Narrative is quick to jump in and claim that we actually played a role in defeating them when really, they're awfully good at doing that all on their own.
Now we're stuck. No bogeyman to justify all that delicious money floating around for the taking by those with the right connections. No bogeyman to justify going after anyone left of Churchill (scion of British aristocracy and American money that he was).
Well, hell. The Russians are weak, as they've pretty much always been except for a couple of brief moments under extraordinary leaders, and it *shows*. God forbid anyone start questioning the Narrative. What to do, what to do?
When the Warsaw Pact dissolved with the collapse of Communism in Europe, one might have imagined that NATO, a military organization that existed solely to counter the Warsaw Pact, might also dissolve.
But no. NATO=$$ & GOP power. We can't let Russia just deal w its internal mess, possibly actually finding a way out of it (unlikely, but possible...). So we *expand* NATO, an unequivocal act of aggression against a country we're temporarily & grudgingly treating as an ally.
It works! The Russians elect the closest thing to a strong-man leader they can find (never mind that he looks like Dobby the House Elf, photo ops riding bears can fix that), & they frantically try to hold onto their borders against NATO (read: act on their inherent expansionism).
So, here we are. Americans who can't tell the difference between Russia & the USSR, who don't know the form of govt in today's Russia from a hole in the ground, who don't begin to understand foreign policy, are certain about "who" Russians are: inherently expansionist barbarians.
Now, before anybody jumps in with the "how dare you defend Russia (insert long list of Russian crimes ag humanity)." Slowly and in small words: pointing. out. the. flaws. in. the. Narrative. is. not. the. same. as. saying. everything. Russia. has. ever. done. is. hunky. dory.
Believe me, there's a long history to Russia's own paranoia and xenophobia, let alone the list of human rights abuses, which btw, every great power has. I'm aware of that too - this is my field, folks, do not effing mansplain this to me. That's just not today's topic, ok?
I'm also NOT saying there isn't a real threat from Russia today. There bloody well is. We created it, but that doesn't make it less real now. My point is that if we're going to defend ourselves from that threat, we need to understand it & we're VERY far from the first clue.
By "we" I mean Americans, which is a generalization, but a fair one since it includes most of our leadership of both parties and the vast majority of voters. There are of course people like me and a few 100 others who know better - you all paid for us to have this knowledge!
Yet, here's the funny thing about how we cling to these comforting xenophobic narratives (as all ppl do) - right when we MOST need to listen to those who are trained to follow the evidence instead of the feelings & conventional wisdom is exactly when we reject what those ppl say.
The proof of that will no doubt show in the responses to this thread 🤣 A whole lot of you have probably been having some FEELINGS reading this & I gotta say: thanks for proving the point. Now I'm logging off Twitter & if ya'll can't control yourselves I'll go private tomorrow.
You can follow @kpanyc.
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