Against Russophobia

by Anatol Lieven

International relations Russia and her neighbours 40 mins read

Ever since the Cold War ended, Western officials and commentators have been telling the Russians how they need to grow out of their Cold War attitudes toward the West and Western institutions, and learn to see things in a “modern” and “normal” way. And there is a good deal of truth in this. At the same time, it would have been good if we had subjected our own inherited attitudes toward Russia to a more rigorous scrutiny. For like any other inherited hatred, blind, dogmatic hostility toward Russia leads to bad policies, bad journalism, and the corruption of honest debate – and there is all too much of this hatred in Western portrayals of and comments on Russia.

From this point of view, an analysis of Russophobia has implications that go far beyond Russia. Much of the U.S. foreign pol- icy debate, especially on the Republican side, is structured around the belief that American policy should be rooted in a robust defense of national interest – and this is probably also the belief of most ordinary Americans. However, this straightforward view coexists with another, equally wide- spread, view that dominates the media. It is, in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s words, that “the United States stands taller than other nations, and therefore sees further.” The unspoken assumption here is that America is not only wise but also objective, at least in its perceptions: that U.S. policy is influenced by values, but never by national prejudices. The assumption behind much American (and Western) reporting of foreign conflicts is that the writer is morally engaged but ethnically uncommitted and able to turn a benign, all-seeing eye from above on the squabbles of humanity.

It is impossible to exaggerate how irritating this attitude is elsewhere in the world, or how misleading and dangerous it is for Western audiences who believe it. Not only does it contribute to mistaken policies, but it renders both policymakers and ordinary citizens incapable of understanding the opposition of other nations to those policies. Concerning the Middle East, it seems likely that most Americans genuinely believe that the United States is a neutral and objective broker in relations between Israelis and Palestinians – which can only appear to an Arab as an almost fantastically bad joke. This belief makes it much more difficult for Americans to comprehend the reasons for Palestinian and Arab fury at both the United States and Israel. It encourages a Western interpretation of this anger as the manipulation of sheep-like masses by elites. At worst, it can encourage a kind of racism, in which certain nations are classed as irrationally, irredeemably savage and wicked.

Concerning Russia, the main thrust of the official Western rhetoric with respect to the enlargement of NATO, and Russia’s response, has been that the alliance is no longer a Cold War organization or a threat to Russia, that NATO enlargement has nothing to do with Russia, that Russia should welcome enlargement, and that Russian op- position is not merely groundless but foolish and irrational. It is of course true that Russian fears of NATO expansion have been exaggerated, and some of the rhetoric has been wild. Still, given the attitudes toward Russia reflected in much of the Western media (especially among the many supporters of NATO enlargement), a Russian would have to be a moron or a traitor to approve the expansion of NATO without demanding guarantees of Russian interests and security.1

This is not to deny that there has been a great deal to condemn in many aspects of Russian behavior over the past decade, the war in Chechnya being the most ghastly example. But justifiable Western criticism has all too often been marred by attacks that have been hysterical and one-sided, and it has taken too little account of the genuine problems and threats with which Russians have had to struggle. This has been especially true of comment on the latest Chechen war, which began in the summer of 1999.

Outworn Stereotype

Western Russophobia has various roots. One shoot is the continuing influence of what the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum has called “residual elites”: groups and individuals who rose to prominence during the Cold War and have lacked the flexibility to adapt to a new reality. To these can be added others who have sought to carve out careers by advocating the expansion of U.S. influence into the lands of the former Soviet Union, in direct competition with Russia. Then there are various ethnic lobbies, whose members hate and distrust Russia for historical reasons and whose sole remaining raison d’etre is to urge an anti-Russian geopolitical agenda. Finally, there are those individuals who need a great enemy, whether from some collective interest or out of personal psycho- logical need.

Much of the intellectual basis for, and even the specific phraseology of, Russophobia was put forward in Britain in the nineteenth century, growing out of its rivalry with the Russian Empire.2 Given Britain’s own record of imperial aggression and suppression of national revolt (in Ireland, let alone in India or Africa), the argument from the British side was a notable example of the kettle calling the pot black. Many contemporary Russophobe references to Russian expansionism are almost word-for-word repetitions of nineteenth-century British propaganda3 (though many pre-1917 Russians were almost as bad, weeping copious crocodile tears over Britain’s defeat of the Boers shortly before Russia itself crushed Polish aspirations for the fourth time in a hundred years).

When it comes to Western images of other nations and races, there has been an effort in recent decades to move from hostile nineteenth-century stereotypes, especially when linked to “essentialist” historical and even quasi-racist stereotypes about the allegedly unchanging nature and irredeemable wickedness of certain peoples (though it seems that this enlightened attitude does not apply to widespread American attitudes toward Arabs).

If outworn stereotypes persist in the case of Russia, it is not only because of Cold War hostility toward the Soviet Union (identified crudely and unthinkingly with “Russia,” although this was a gross oversimplification). It is also the legacy of Soviet and Russian studies within Western academe. Its practitioners were often deeply ideological (whether to the right or left) and closely linked to Western policy debates and to the Western intelligence and diplomatic communities. On the right, there was a tendency, exemplified by the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, to see Soviet communism as a uniquely Russian product, produced and prefigured by a millennium of Russian his- tory. In a 1996 article, Professor Pipes wrote of an apparently fixed and unchanging “Russian political culture” leading both to the adoption of the Leninist form of Marxism in 1917 and to the problems of Russian democracy in 1996 – as if this culture had not changed in the past 80 years, and as if the vote of ordinary Russians for the Communists in 1996 was motivated by the same passions that possessed Lenin’s Red Guards.4 Even after the Soviet collapse, this tendency has persisted, and developments in post- Soviet Russia are seen as a seamless continuation of specifically Soviet and tsarist patterns – patterns which, it goes without saying, are also specifically and uniquely wicked.5

To be sure, many of the crimes of communism in Russia and in the Soviet bloc were uniquely wicked. But the behavior of the tsarist empire and the dissolution of its Soviet version in the 1990s can only be val- idly judged in the context of European and North American imperialism, decolonization, and neo-colonialism. Pre-1917 imperial Russia’s expansionism was contemporaneous with that of Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, Britain, and the United States. As far as the Soviet Union’s disintegration is concerned, Russophobes cannot have it both ways. If the Soviet Union was to a consider- able extent a Russian empire, then the legitimate context for the study of its disintegration is the retreat of other empires and their attempts to create post- or neo-colonial systems. In this context – particularly bearing in mind France’s retreat from its Asian and African empire – the notion that the Soviet/ Russian decolonization process has been uniquely savage becomes absurd. Such com- parisons are essential in attempting to deter- mine what has been specifically Soviet, or specifically Russian, about this process, and what reflects wider historical realities.

A Historicist Approach

These comparisons are rarely made. References to allegedly unique and unchanging historical patterns in Russian behavior are an ongoing trope of much of Western journalistic and academic comment. Take for example a recent statement by Henry Kissinger: “For four centuries, imperialism has been Russia’s basic foreign policy as it has expanded from the region around Moscow to the shores of the Pacific, the gates of the Middle East and the center of Europe, relentlessly subjugating weaker neighbors and seeking to overawe those not under its direct control.”6 This not only implies that expansionism was uniquely Russian but that it represents an unchangeable pattern. Yet for virtually this entire period, the same re- mark could have been made about the British, the French, or (within North and Central America at least) the United States. It is also extremely odd that in 1989-93, “Russia” conducted what was probably the greatest, and most bloodless imperial retreats in history and that this has simply vanished from Kissinger’s account. At worst, such attitudes can approach a kind of racism, as in the conservative political commentator George Will’s statement that “expansionism is in the Russians’ DNA.”7

Another example of such thinking is former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s statement that “[the Russians] have denied many, many times now that they have committed atrocities [in Chechnya]…. In 1941, they killed 15,000 Polish prisoners, officers in Katyn, and they denied that for 50 years.”8 In his account, “the Russians” as a collectivity are fully responsible for the crimes committed by the Soviet Union under the Communist dictatorship of Joseph Stalin – an ethnic Georgian who at the time of the massacre at Katyn was also responsible for murdering or imprisoning millions of ethnic Russians who were accused of hostility toward communism or toward Stalin himself. This Stalinist past is then made part of a seamless continuity of “Russian” behavior, running unchanged through the years since Stalin’s death. The condemnation of Stalinism by Nikita Khrushchev, the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, the peaceful Soviet withdrawal from Poland, the Russian recognition of the independence of the other Soviet republics – all this is ignore.

As Brzezinski’s statement illustrates, this essentialist attitude toward Russia has played a major part in the reporting of and commentary on, the latest Chechen war. Take, for example, a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times: “Russians also fight brutally because that is part of the Russian military ethos, a tradition of total war fought with every means and without moral restraints.”9 Unlike, of course, the exquisite care for civilian lives displayed by the French and American air forces during the wars in Indo-China, Korea, and Algeria, the strict adherence to legality in the treatment of prisoners, and so on. The editorial read as if the wars against guerrillas and partisans involving Western powers had been wiped from the record. (What was most depressing was that it followed two articles on Russian and Chechen atrocities by Maura Reynolds and Robyn Dixon in the same newspaper that were the very models of careful, objective – and utterly harrowing – reportage).10

This historicist approach toward Russia also reflects the decline of history as an area of study, an ignorance of history on the part of international relations scholars, and the unwillingness of too many historians them- selves to step beyond their own narrow fields. The attitudes it reveals also spring from a widespread feeling that Russophobia is somehow legitimized by the past Western struggle against Communist totalitarianism, a struggle I strongly supported. This is deeply mistaken. With communism dead as a world ideology, dealing with Russia – or China for that matter – has become the much more familiar, historically common- place question of dealing with nations and states, which we on occasion may have to op- pose and condemn, but whose behavior is governed by the same interests and patterns that historically have influenced the behavior of our own countries. In fact, both the policy and the statements of Russian generals with respect to Chechnya not only recall those of French generals during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), but of Turkish generals during the recent war against the Kurdish pkk: the ruthless prosecution of the war (including in the Turkish case major attacks on PKK bases in Iraq); a refusal to negotiate with the enemy; no role whatsoever for international organizations. None of this is, or ever was, praiseworthy, but “communism” plays no role in it.

I might add that many old hard-line Cold Warriors-turned-Russophobes like Brzezinski and Kissinger have in any case rendered their pretensions to anticommunist morality dubious by the warmth with which they embrace the Chinese state, as well as their wooing of hard-line ex-Communist dictators in Central Asia and elsewhere.11

Architectures of Hatred

Russophobia today is therefore rooted not in ideological differences but in national hatred of a kind that is sadly too common. In these architectures of hatred, selected or in- vented historical “facts” about the “enemy” nation, its culture, and its racial nature are taken out of context and slotted into pre- arranged intellectual structures to arraign the unchanging wickedness of the other side. Meanwhile, any counterarguments, or memories of the crimes of one’s own are sup- pressed. This is no more legitimate when directed by Russophobes against Russia than when it is directed by Serb, Greek, or Armenian chauvinists against Turkey, Arabs against Jews, or Jews against Arabs.

The most worrying aspect of Western Russophobia is that it demonstrates the capacity of too many Western journalists and intellectuals to betray their own professed standards and behave like Victorian jingoists or Balkan nationalists when their own national loyalties and hatreds are involved. And these tendencies in turn serve wider needs. Overall, we are living in an exceptionally benign period in human history so far as our own interests are concerned. Yet one cannot live in Washington without be- coming aware of the desperate need of certain members of Western elites for new enemies, or resuscitated old ones. This is certainly not the wish of most Americans – nor of any other Westerners – and it is dangerous. For of one thing we can be sure: a country that is seen to need enemies will sooner or later find them everywhere.

As an antidote, Western journalists and commentators writing on the Chechen wars might read Alistair Home’s A Savage War of Peace (about the French war in Algeria), Max Hastings’s Korean War (especially the passages dealing with the capture of Seoul in 1950 and the U.S. air campaign), any serious book on the U.S. war in Viet- nam or French policies in Africa, or more general works like V. G. Kiernan’s Colonial Empires and Armies, With regard to Russian crimes in Chechnya, they could also read some of the remarks on the inherent cruelty of urban warfare by Western officers in journals like the Marine Corps Gazette and Parameters. Neither Home nor Hastings (both patriotic conservatives) were “soft on communism”; nor are most military writers “soft on Russia.” They are true professionals with a commitment to present the facts, however uncomfortable – and they have the moral courage to do so. Concerning the pre- 1917 Russian Empire in the context of Euro- pean imperial expansion in general, I could also recommend (by way of a family advertisement and to reveal my own intellectual influences) my brother Dominic Lieven’s re- cent book, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals.12

A familiar counterargument to this approach is that Western colonial and neocolonial crimes are long past, and that we have atoned for them. To this there are a number of responses, the first of which is that some allowance has to be made for the fact that Russia only emerged from Communist isolation about ten years ago, whereas at the time of their crimes the Western colonial powers were democracies and longstanding members of the “free world.” And while some have excused the crimes of other for- mer communist states on the nature of the system they have abjured, such leniency has not been shown toward Russia.

Then there is geography. Western powers escaped involvement in ex-colonial conflicts by putting the sea between themselves and their former colonies. Britain, for examples, was not directly affected by wars in any former colonies except Ireland, because they occurred at a distance. Russia thought it was making a similar break when it with- drew from Chechnya in 1996 – but in its case of course there was no ocean in between. If France had had a land border with Algeria, the war there might well have gone on far longer than it did.

I believe that the Russian invasion of Chechnya in October 1999 was a terrible mistake, and that the government in Moscow ought to have done everything in its power to find other ways of dealing with the Chechen threat. At the same time, any honest account must recognize that forces based in Chechnya had carried out attacks on Russia that would have provoked most other states in the world – including the United States – to respond forcefully. How would France have reacted if the French withdrawal from Algeria had been immediately followed by Algerian raids into France?13

And then there is the question of the brutal way in which the Russians conducted the war, especially the destruction of Grozny. Since the early 1970s, it has been difficult to say whether the Western conduct of antipartisan wars or urban operations has improved because, as a result of Vietnam, Americans have taken enormous care to avoid involvement in such wars – and once again, geography has given the United States that option. But when American soldiers became involved in a lethal urban fight in Mogadishu in 1994, the indiscriminate way in which retaliatory firepower was used meant that Somali casualties (the great majority of them civilian) outnumbered U.S. casualties by between twenty-five and fifty to one.14 In other words, to some extent the degree of carnage in Chechnya reflects not inherent and historical Russian brutality, but the nature of urban warfare.

That the Russian have been extremely brutal in Chechnya is beyond question – but explanations for this should be sought in Russian history than in the common roots that produced U.S. atrocities in Vietnam – a demoralized army under attack from hidden enemies operating from within the civilian population. I have no doubt that even in Chechnya, Western troops would have behaved much better than the Russians. But then again, the West’s soldiers come from proud, well-paid services, and are honored and supported by their societies. If American, French, or British troops had undergone the treatment by their own state that Russian soldiers suffered in the 1990s (notably the catastrophic decline in spend- ing on the armed forces, and especially on military pay), and were then thrown into a bloody partisan war, one would not like to answer for their behavior.

Moreover, especially with regard to the French and their sphere of influence in Af- rica, it is not true that Western crimes are necessarily long in the past. If one examines French “sphere-of-influence” policies toward Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide (as analyzed by Gerard Prunier, Philip Gourevitch, and others), one finds a record uglier than anything Russia has done since 1991 beyond its own borders. Why should Russians listen to French lectures? In France, leading figures deeply implicated in the Algerian debacle – like former president Francois Mitterrand – continued to play leading roles until their deaths. In both Algeria and Vietnam (and in British campaigns such as that against the Mau Mau), the punishments meted out to Western officers accused of atrocities were either derisory or nonexistent. Is this of no relevance to pre- sent demands that Russia punish its soldiers for atrocities in Chechnya?

To draw these parallels in no way justifies Russian crimes in Chechnya or else- where – and I firmly believe that the Russian state should try to punish some of the officers directly responsible for crimes in Chechnya – both as a matter of justice and morality, and as a means of reimposing order on what too often resembles an armed rabble more than a modern organized force. I also believe, however, that Western pressure for this would be better phrased in the terms used by President Clinton during a visit to Turkey. When he criticized the Turkish government and military for their policies toward the Kurds, he made it clear that he was doing so not from a position of moral superiority but as the representative of a country which itself had been guilty of racism and ethnic suppression.

This I believe is a more honorable and effective way of making the point. In contrast, I would condemn the statements of certain German and Belgian politicians who oppose Turkish membership in the Euro- pean Union – not for economic reasons or because of particular actions by contemporary Turkish governments, but because of supposedly innate, unchanging Turkish national features such as adherence to a negatively stereotyped Islam.

Rejecting Bigotry

Rejecting this sort of bigotry with regard to Russia, and insisting on proper balance and use of evidence, is what has led me to the extremely unwelcome position of appear- ing to defend some aspects of Russian policy in the Caucasus – not because I wish to de- fend Russian crimes (which have been legion) but because I cannot accept that Russia should be judged by utterly different standards than those applied to other countries.

The crimes of a General Massu against Algerian civilians in the 1950s do not justify the crimes of a General Kvashnin in Chechnya, any more than the crimes of a General Kitchener against South Africans during the Boer War justified those of Massu. Nor do French sphere-of-influence policies in Africa in themselves justify similar Russian policies in its “Near Abroad.” In fact, if the French (for example) who harangue Russia on its sins would make some reference to their country’s own past crimes, it would actually make their arguments stronger. Then, one could have a rational argument with a Russian about historical, ethnic, political, and geographical similarities and differences between, say, Algeria and Chechnya, and about what are Russian crimes, what is truly in Russia’s interest, and how Russia should reasonably be expected to handle Chechnya.

Such a comparative approach would eliminate the essentialist, or chauvinist/ historicist/racist element in critiques of Russia. It would allows an analysis based on common moral standards and, equally important, common standards of evidence and logic in the reporting and analysis of Chechnya and other issues involving Russia. This, in turn, would permit a policy toward Russia based on reason and Western interest, not on bigotry, hysteria, and nationalist lobbies.

An example of how blind hostility to- ward Russia – and the absence of any com- parison to other postcolonial situations – can warp Western reporting may be seen in the following passage from the Economist of last September: “Russia may be using still dodgier tactics elsewhere. Uzbekistan, an autocratically run and independent-minded country in Central Asia, is facing a mysterious Islamic insurgency. Its president, Islam Karimov, said crossly this week that Russia was exaggerating the threat, and was trying to intimidate his country into accepting Russian bases.”15 As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” I do hot know of a single shred of evidence or the testimony of a single reputable expert to support this insinuation, which is in any case counterintuitive, given the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s links to Russia’s most bitter enemies. It is a passage reminiscent of the baroque Russian conspiracy theories suggesting, among other things, that the CIA is actually behind the terrorist Osama bin Laden.16

Instead, we would do better to listen to Owen Harries, editor of the National Interest, a conservative who was a tough anticommunist and is certainly no Russophile:

During the Cold War, a struggle against what was truly an evil empire, there was some justification in maintaining that similar behavior by Washington and Moscow should be judged differently, because the intrinsic moral character of the two actors was so different. But that was due less to the unique virtues of the United States than to the special vileness of the Soviet Union, and even then applying double standards was a tricky business, easily abused. In the more mundane world of today there is no justification for applying one standard to the rest of the world and another to America. Not only does insistence on double standards seem hypocritical to others, thereby diminishing American credibility and prestige, but even more seriously, it makes it impossible to think sensibly and coherently about international affairs. And that is a fatal drawback for an indispensable nation.17

Hatred of Soviet communism helped take me to Afghanistan in 1988 as a journalist covering the war from the side of the anti-Soviet resistance, and then to the Baltic States and the Caucasus in 1990. In the 1970s and 1980s, I was prepared to justify nasty Western crimes as a regrettable part of the struggle against communism. But I never pretended these crimes did not occur, or that the reasons for them did not include a good measure of crude traditional national power politics.

The Cold War was a profoundly necessary struggle, but it was also one in which Western morality suffered and Western soldiers on occasion behaved badly. Westerners greeted their qualified but peaceful victory with overwhelming joy and relief. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, it is time to liberate ourselves from Cold War attitudes and to remember that whether as journalists or academics, our first duty is not to spread propaganda but to hold to the highest professional standards.

World Policy Journal, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Winter, 2000/2001), pp. 25-32 (8 pages)


1 . See, for example, the attitudes toward Russia reflected in Ariel Cohen, Thomas Moore, John Hillen, John Sweeney, James Phillips, and James Przystup, “Making the World Safe for America,” in Issues ’96: The Candidate’s Briefing Book (Washington, D.C., Heritage Foundation).

2. The classic study of this tradition remains John Howard Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Policy and Opinion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950).

3. A favorite example of mine – and one be- loved of anti-Russian geopoliticians then and now – is captain Fred Burnaby, a British Guards officer who traveled extensively in the Ottoman Empire and Central Asia, and wrote some brilliantly vivid accounts of his experiences with a strongly anti-Russian cast. Burnaby was later killed fighting with a British expedition to the Sudan. What was he doing there, one may ask? Well, he was trying to introduce Christian civilization to the Sudanese with the help of the Maxim gun and the Martini-Henry rifle. This of course bore no relation- ship whatsoever in his own mind to Russia’s introduction of Christian civilization in Central Asia with the help of slightly different brands of armaments. See his A Ride to Khiva, first published London 1877 (republished, London: Century Hutchinson, 1983).

4. Richard Pipes, “Russia’s Past, Russia’s Fu- ture,” Commentary, June 1996. See also his “A Na- tion with One Foot Stuck in the Past,” Sunday (London) Times, October 20, 1996. For a similar his- toricist view, see Mark Galeotti, The Age of Anxiety: Security and Politics in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia (New York: Longman, 1995), esp. pp.3-24.

5. For a milder version of such thinking, see Laurent Murawiec, “Putin’s Precursors,” The National Interest, no. 60 (summer 2000), in which the Putin regime is slotted into a desperately simplistic theory of a division between “Westernizers” and Slavophiles” that allegedly runs continuously from the eighteenth century through the era of the Soviet Union to the present.

6. Henry Kissinger, “Mission to Moscow: Clinton Must Lay the Groundwork for a New Rela- tionship with Russia,” Washington Post, May 15, 2000.

7. George Will, “Eastward-Ho – And Soon,” Washington Post, June 13, 1996.

8. Interview with Gene Randall on CNN, February 26, 2000.

9. “The World Must Not Look Away,” editorial, Los Angeles Times, September 19, 2000.

10. Maura Reynolds, “War Has No Rules for Russian Forces Fighting in Chechnya,” and Robyn Dixon, “Chechnya’s Grimmest Industry,” Los Angeles Times, September 17 and 18, 2000, respectively.

11. For the contrast between Brzezinski’s approach to human rights abuses in Russia and in China, or in the states of Central Asia he wishes to turn into anti-Russian allies, see, for example, his testimony to the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on Trade Relations with China, July 9, 1998, or his interview in Cyber-Caravan: News and Analysis from Central Asia and the Caucasus, vol. 1 , no. 2, February 18, 1998.

12. Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals (London: Macmillan, 2000).

13. See my essay, “Nightmare in the Caucasus,” Washington Quarterly vol. 23 (winter 2000).

14. See Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999).

15. “Russia and Its Neighbours: Frost and Friction,” Economist, September 30, 2000.

16. See, for example, Konstantin Truyevtsev, “Ben Laden v Kontekste Chechni,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 30, 1999.

17. Owen Harries, “America Should Practice the Foreign Policy It Preaches,” International Herald Tribune, August 24, 1999.