Do you suffer from Russophobia? The Kremlin thinks you might.

March 7, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a statement from his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko after a session of the Supreme State Council of Russia-Belarus Union State in Minsk, Belarus, February 25, 2016.  REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko after a session of the Supreme State Council of Russia-Belarus Union State in Minsk, Belarus, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

If Russian officials are to be believed, the reason people worry about what Russia might do next is because they suffer from Russophobia, an irrational fear of all things Russian.

In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assailed the “fashion of Russophobia in certain capitals” during a visit to Germany. Then Russia’s defense ministry accused General Philip Breedlove of Russophobia. The commander of U.S. forces in Europe had testified that the United States and its allies were “deterring Russia now and preparing to fight and win if necessary” following the Kremlin’s military adventures in Ukraine and Syria.

“Russophobe” has become a convenient label for anyone who disagrees with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior at home and abroad. You are not criticizing an authoritarian leader and his erratic policies; you are instead attacking the Russian nation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend a meeting with a delegation from Kyrgyzstan, led by President Almazbek Atambayev, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 2, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 2, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russia’s state media churns out reports on how enemies are tirelessly seeking to isolate the country — when in fact it is Putin’s own actions that are closing off Russia.

When I first visited Moscow as a college student 25 years ago, the Soviet Union was in its last year of existence. Kremlin reformer Mikhail Gorbachev was opening up the country after more than seven decades of communism, and Russians were hungry to rejoin the world. Goodwill, curiosity and hope were the overriding feelings among Russians and Americans alike. My host parents in Moscow even displayed a picture of then-President George H.W. Bush in their living room.

The Cold War was finally over. I was fascinated by the parallel world that had existed behind the Iron Curtain and shocked by the deprivations that people endured. Later, as a journalist based in Moscow, I would encounter dozens of Russians who welcomed me into their homes and hearts. It helped, of course, that I tried my damnedest to speak Russian. But it never hurt to be American. Often it was an advantage.

My initial interest in Russia led me to explore other countries that had belonged to the Soviet empire: Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, the Central Asian republics. Although anti-Russian rhetoric has cheapened the political discourse in those places, the Russian language is still widely understood, if not actively used. Given their difficult history with Russia, eastern European countries viewed membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a prudent defensive measure. Putin’s surprise attack on Ukraine proved them right.

kim-gorby

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. Wikipedia/Commons

To me, the folly of Russophobia became most obvious in Ukraine. Most of my Ukrainian friends speak Russian as their first language, and many have parents or grandparents from Russia. They aren’t afraid of Russia but of its revanchist, autocratic government.

The crux of the problem between Russia and its former satellites is that nationalism was the driving force behind the independence movements that split apart the Soviet Union. Estonians, Lithuanians and Georgians knew who they were and what they wanted: their own countries.

But from Russians’ perspective, it looked like their neighbors were abandoning them. Russians never had to liberate themselves from the Soviet Union: They just woke up one day in its ideological ruins. Not surprisingly, Russian nationalism today ties together a jumble of monarchist, Orthodox Christian and communist strands.

The appeal of Russophobia isn’t just based on resentment about the breakup of an empire. It’s also rooted in the frustration that the Western model of governance proved a more attractive way of running a country.

Putin, now in his 17th year of ruling Russia, is preoccupied with regime survival. That’s one reason the Kremlin is working so hard to discredit liberal democracy as a system of government. Telling Russians to fear the West because the West hates Russia is a way of distracting the population from the deficiencies of one-man rule.

Ever since my first visit to Russia in 1991, Russians have asked me why I decided to learn their language and travel to their country. People were incredulous that an American without any Russian roots could be so interested in their country.

My answer was simple: the mellifluous Russian language, the richness of Russian literature, the vastness of the country’s geography and the diversity of its peoples. It was all about what Russians themselves call the “Russian soul” — a generosity of spirit and a knack for improvisation amid adversity.

In their bluster about a brave new Russky Mir (“Russian world”) to redeem the perceived humiliations of the past, Russia’s current rulers are putting their own insecurities on full display. In the process, they have squandered the country’s greatest resource, which isn’t oil and gas but Russia’s enormous soft power.

Ironically, the biggest Russophobes inhabit Russia’s highest political offices. They are the people who believe the essentialist argument that the Russian people are too immature for real democracy and can only be ruled by a strong leader.

Russophobia isn’t an international problem. It’s a domestic one.

25 comments

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A phobia is an irrational fear. There is nothing irrational about fearing, arming yourselves and facing down the country who threatens the security of all its neighbours: Russia.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

Oh, but of course, there’s no “Ameriphobia” or “NATOphobia” in Russia today, right?

Posted by Danram | Report as abusive

So the build up of NATO troops on the Russian border only started after the Ukraine fiasco? Any chance you can do an article on the potential loss of US financial hegemony? which is a major cause of the worlds troubles

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

The real question is, do you suffer from Russophilia? Russophilia is the problem, not russophobia. Russians “unofficial” agenda is to turn everyone into a russophile by the end of the century. The fear of living next to russophiles is certianly not a phobia. How would you feel if you discover that your neighbor is a russophile? I would certainly consider attending russophilia rehab sessions.

Posted by Jundi | Report as abusive

Russiaphobia is in only in the lunacy minds of NATO director and the US defense director – the latter dancing to the tune of the former in bringing accelerated ruin-of-relations with both – Russia and China. Russia’s actions were seen consistent in bringing successful closure to the senseless calamity NATO foments on global borders. Trump’s approach is right in reaching out to repair relations with Russia and to hold actions of NATO/US defense more accountable to the much needed substantiation of their actions and efficiency in their spending across the board, in this otherwise unaccountable agencies with bloated budgets.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

The problem and the root of Rusiaphoba is that the current Russian leaders claim Russky Mir is all the former Soviet satellite countries who were slaves to their empire, they should come back to their masters. This xenophobic arrogance thought is implanted in the Russian mind and is showcased when they travel outside thier country. I have traveled most of my life and in countries where one thinks they should be liked like South East Asia (especially Vietnam) they are despised. Ask any cab driver, hotel worker, restaurant owner and they can tell you. When Russians look at the current world and see their economy and culture severely diminished, arrogance and ignorance and longing for their past empire takes over causing Rusiaphobia.

Posted by ceo030357 | Report as abusive

Lol!

Posted by Radfo | Report as abusive

I would not call the sentiment of most of the world towards Russia a fear but more of a hatred.

Posted by SMarynaKurskaya | Report as abusive

MR. Kim, do you suffer from Putinphobia?
Because I think many in the Western media and political class suffer from Putinphobia………..

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Russia is nothing to fear. Half of Russia does not even have working toilets. It’s a third world country. That’s why all the smart ambitious Russians…. leave.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

@Solidar

A 3rd world world country with enough ballistic missiles to destroy the earth. Your comment is a tad flippant.

Posted by TheTruth01 | Report as abusive

Yeah, well if you live in fear of ballistic missiles, you will never go outside. They exist. Russia’s main problem is that no one smart or rich wants to live there. Their talent has been drained for 80 years. Their chief export now is herpes and orphans.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Hey Alkaline Sta…er Solidar, how does Russia’s GDP fall in contrast to say the Czeck republic or Italy ?

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Mr Kim, you traveled a lot, you saw a lot, you talk a lot as well as write a lot, but you did not learn to much from those activities. Russia was a Great Power for the last 300 years, as well as England or France. Russia had the WORST from the XX Century, 2 World Wars, one Civil War and terrible dictatorship and hard times. But they not only survived, they were still able to KEEP the country GREAT and hope for the future. Non other country in the world had to face such adversities and still is moving on. All others no longer exist, or are in decline. I guess you miss something from the “russian soul”. Keep digging, and maybe you will find something, someday.

Posted by Igor55 | Report as abusive

Well, let’s see. Several years of holidays being spoiled by drunken, belligerent Russian tourists in Egypt, by far the most obnoxious visitors at London 2012 as a Games Maker being the Russians, a violently homophobic culture and a delusional and dictatorial asset-thieving leader who illegally invades neighbouring countries… Any particular reason you might think that my intense dislike of Russia and Russians might have a basis in bitter experience?

Posted by PaulHarper | Report as abusive

The author had to tell where to laugh, or use special signs in those places. This is bullsh*t. Anybody is free to disagree, dislike or hate Putin or any other person for some reasons. However when officials, presstitutes talk with contempt about Russians in general, or CNN moderator unvotes on a forum comments like ‘Russians are subhuman Mongolo-Finnish hoons’ this is definitely Russophobia. What for ‘Putin’s aggressive behaviour at home and abroad’ – are there any facts corroborating this claim? Is extermination of ISIS filth ‘aggressive behaviour’? I don’t think so. #ProbablyPutinVandalizedAristotlesStatue InUkraine

Posted by Tokarev | Report as abusive

Oh God, what a pile of clichés. The author seems to be stuck in the 90’s, all that vodka, perestroika and mysterious Russian soul stuff.

“”To me, the folly of Russophobia became most obvious in Ukraine. Most of my Ukrainian friends speak Russian as their first language, and many have parents or grandparents from Russia. “”
On the contrary, Ukraine is a perfect example. The punitive militia “battalions” like “Azov” or “Aidar” (dozens of them all over Ukraine) are almost 100% Russian speaking (for simple reason, not many Ukrainians actually know Ukrainian). And these nice guys are russofobic to the extent, that they will kill/robe/rape other fellow Ukrainians, if the latter are unlucky enough to look like they are prorussian sympathizers. Well, second fought, they may actually do that to any unarmed civilian…

Posted by Darknesss99 | Report as abusive

>>A phobia is an irrational fear. There is nothing irrational about fearing…
All right. Russophobia was created by the false articles of “free” Western press.

For example 2008 year: at each corner trumpeted about how Russia invaded poor the unfortunate freedom-loving Georgia. There was shown how the Russian systems of volley fire by night bombed the peaceful Georgian villages.
However, these systems of volley fire proved to belong to Georgia. And the conflict was started by Georgia. In 1993 two Autonomous republics have gained independence. And ever since, were actually independent States. The fact is that the Russian army didn’t start a war but stopped the war.

Posted by rus_programmer | Report as abusive

Yes I think so. President Putin is doing just what we want. Help in the fight against I.S.I.S. We have way to many right wing people in America that think we are still fighting the cold war communists. After all Russia has a right to protect there interests. Why not set down and talk and clear the air. Lift the stupid sanctions that are killing the E.U. We don’t know that much about Ukraine and just what goes on there. They overthrew the elected President and don’t like the one they got now. Once they overthrew the Government that gave Russia a reason to protect the crimea and there black sea port. Just as we would have.

Posted by touch128 | Report as abusive

“…the biggest Russophobes inhabit Russia’s highest political offices. They are the (only) people who believe the … argument that the Russian people are too immature for real democracy and can only be ruled by a strong leader.”

Posted by FUD312 | Report as abusive

In a society where truth is propaganda and propaganda is truth, the Orwellian government of Russia benefits from conspiracy theories against the west for the crimes they commit both inside and out side their country. A people who has an inability to confront reality while being fed xenophobia by its rulers will glorify these same rulers as they rape and pillage their country for the benefit of a few connected oligarchs. Welcome to the 2016 Russia or Orwell’s 1984!

Posted by ceo030357 | Report as abusive

Looks that there is a general myopia about what have been done in the last decade by Russia. After Yeltsin there have been a consecutive game of power among Putin and Medvedev. Let me refresh some memories about Russia in the last 15 years. War in Abkhazia (1991-1993), War of Transnistria(1992), Georgian Civil War (1991–1993), First Chechen War (1994–1996), War of Dagestan (1999), Second Chechen War (1999–2009), Russo-Georgian War(2008), North Caucasus Insurgency(2009–)[After linked with ISIL], Annexation of Crimea (2014), War in Donbass, Ukraine (2014–), Intervention in Syria (2015–). Let me remind that this President have been refusing to commit in foreign campaigns. Two days ago he made a bold statement about Middle East, GB and France stating that USA cannot be involved in proxy wars and that these countries have to learn to live with their neighbors’ enemies; this was a proposal that at the end of the day suggest living in their locals “cold wars” but in peace. If you include the UN resolutions, and somebody by frustration or hate to USA wants to be blind that’s OK, our constitution can protect them; ask Russians, ask Chinese, North Koreans, ask Cuban in spite of the stupidity of this President in having diplomatic relations with the communist country that has not change a bit in those aspects that was supposed to be the reasons why we had not relations in the past. This was a bold lack of credibility even that was part of a plan in which The Pop was included, similar to the threat to Syria and red line that went away without consequences, does no matter what he is saying to make him feel better, that was a fiasco, shame on US.

Posted by ralph2008 | Report as abusive

Guess who suffers from Russophobia the most? – Mr. Putin himself!
He’s so panicky afraid of the Russian people that he denies them almost any freedom of expression at all.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

I understand what you are saying, but,
80% plus domestic approval – how big a domestic problem?

Posted by k2d2 | Report as abusive

Spot on . After ten years of trade and family visits I have a similar experience . Like you I hear the groans when Mr P does something to wreck the global village prospect of so many of my Russian friends . But I guess that criticism is difficult when the school bully is still ruling the play ground ..
The one thing that was kept absolutely secret during that bloody awful Cold War nonsense was how wonderful Russian women are ! Amazing .. I got a Wolf whistle from a welder and a crane driver whilst visiting a factory in Volgograd..and then they argued amongst themselves over who saw me first ..great times . Can,t wait to be back in Moscow for my next trade visit ..
I worked in the Belfast shipyard that had built the Titanic and I confessed that I was born and bred in the same town as Captain Smith . After a brief pause the Foreman said ” Great ship . Lousy driver !”

Posted by tannerbob | Report as abusive