How Putin made Russophobia
Russian policymakers routinely accuse the West of Russophobia, by which they mean not fear but hatred of Russia.
Some in the West concur. In 2020, two U.S. scholars, historian Stephen Cohen and political scientist John Mearsheimer, devoted a video to Russophobia and its supposedly pernicious influence on American foreign policy. Just a few days ago, another American professor wondered, “Why the unhinged Russophobia and anti-Putin hysteria?”
Russians generally ascribe Russophobia to some inexplicable, almost genetic hatred of Russia, forgetting that Russophobia is hatred and that their explanation is simply a tautology. Western supporters of the Russophobia charge trace its roots to some fundamental flaw or flaws in American political culture: a legacy of the Cold War in general, or McCarthyism in particular; the need for enemies to justify America’s own sense of superiority; the inability to think strategically and to recognize America’s own sins; the insidious impact of large corporations; the military-industrial complex; overeducated elites; and so on.
There’s probably some truth in all these explanations, but they ignore two obvious points. First, Russophobia isn’t just an American phenomenon; in fact, it has spread throughout much of Europe. Russia’s former president and prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, recently charged Poland with “chronic pathological Russophobia.” And the Ukrainians, many of whom thought highly of Russians and their language and culture for 30 years, now have become inveterate Russophobes.
Second, given that Russophobia affects a slew of different countries and cultures, the simplest and most persuasive explanation has nothing to do with any particular “pathology” but with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. The fact is, Putin is a dangerously unhinged dictator and the Russia he has built is a dangerously unhinged country. It’s no surprise, therefore, that people with minimally liberal notions about the world view both Putin and his Russia with alarm, distaste, fear and hatred.
Most people view the real Russia with a great deal of sympathy and admiration. Even if they know next to nothing about Russian imperial or Soviet Russian history, they are likely to have heard of Russia’s brilliant composers, artists, writers and poets. Some people even know that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fighting in World War II. And many on the left admired the Soviet Russian experiment in socialism. These Russophile attitudes survived the Cold War and blossomed in the late 1980s and 1990s, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin appeared to be ushering in a new era of democracy and liberalism in Russia.
And then came Putin, who over the past two decades dismantled Russia’s democratic institutions, destroyed Russian civil society, constructed a highly centralized authoritarian system with himself at its core, routinely employed violence against his political opponents, openly declared that he wanted to revive the Russian empire, and systematically interfered in the domestic affairs of all of Russia’s neighbors.
As if that weren’t enough to alter the mostly benign views of Russia that dominated before Putin’s accession to power, Putin proceeded to construct a hyper-masculine personality cult reminiscent of Benito Mussolini’s. Images of a bare-chested Putin wielding a fishing rod or rifle became commonplace. A pop group consisting of three leggy ladies sang a song, “I want a man just like Putin.” As Putin came to identify himself with Russia, Russians came to identify their country with Putin. One of his minions even wrote that, without Putin, there is no Russia. As a result, love or hatred of Putin automatically translated into love or hatred not of Russia but of his Russia.
And since most moderately inclined people in most countries look upon dictators and demagogues who fancy themselves worthy of adulation with some suspicion, it’s no surprise that Putinphobia, both as fear and as hatred, grew over the years. And it’s also no surprise that Putinphobia translated into Russophobia — not into fear or hatred of Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but fear and hatred of the dangerously authoritarian and imperialist system Putin has built. Unsurprisingly, Putin’s supporters, such as opera singer Anna Netrebko and conductor Valery Gergiev, have been castigated not for their contributions to Russian art but for their Putinphilia and, thus, their association with his Russia.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine — and the subsequent criminal bombardment of civilians and their homes — has served to confirm most people’s Putinphobia. Even if one believes that the remote possibility of Ukraine’s becoming a member of NATO by 2045 justified a full-blown invasion in 2022, it surely doesn’t justify the leveling of cities, the ethnic cleansing of the population, and the commission of multiple war crimes. Those are Putin’s sins, and they fully deserve both fear and hatred.
Unfortunately for the good Russians who detest Putin and are therefore Russophobes themselves, most Russians support Putin and his genocidal war. The world feared and hated the Germans for their complicity in Adolf Hitler’s crimes. Is it any wonder that ordinary Russians are held responsible for Putin’s crimes, considering their willingness to identify with him and his Russia?
Tragically for the Russians who don’t identify with Putin, as long as Putin represents Russia, Putinphobia will be Russophobia.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction.
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