Western mainstream media continues to exploit the hospitalisation of a Russian man who spied for the UK intelligence services prior to being arrested by the Russian authorities in 2004. Since being released as part of a prisoner exchange in 2010, Sergey Skripal has lived in England and has seemingly led an uneventful life. Today, he remains hospitalised due to an unknown condition that is thought to be related to poisoning. The story has the western political and mainstream media elites up in arms, although in reality, the story has merely fed an already bloated beast that is Russophobia among western elites.
Russophobia in western countries as a whole, but particularly in the English speaking world has taken on a different narrative than more historically discussed forms of racism. In counties whose population has traditionally been comprised of a white English speaking majority, most forms of bigotry transpire against former colonial subjects or the ancestors of former slaves. This helps explain anti-black/African racism in Europe, North America, South Africa and Australia, while it also helps one to understand anti-Asian racism, whether it be anti-Pakistani racism in Britain or the broader net of anti-South East and anti-East Asian racism that has been present in modern North American societies, as well as anti-indigenous racism in Australia, Canada and the United States.
Anti-Russian racism has a different origin and hence modern Russophobia expresses itself in different ways. Russia was never colonised by the western powers and nor were Russians formally enslaved, as for example Africans were by the European empires and throughout the Americas. Instead, Russia was a geopolitical rival to major European powers ranging from Poland and Sweden to Britain, France and later, to Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Because of this, Russians were not portrayed as inferior subjects fit only for colonisation, enslavement or exploitation, but instead, Russians were seen as strong but beastly creatures that were on par with Europe in terms of strength and geopolitical influence but whose innate “barbarism” made them less deserving of power than those in Berlin, Paris and London. Much of this was owed to anti-Orthodox prejudices in the Roman Catholic and Protestant world, as well as the anti-Slavic sentiments which became ever more pervasive in 19th and 20th century western Europe.
During the Cold War, anti-Orthodox sentiments were merely replaced by anti-Communist ones, while other stereotypes remained. Today’s anti-Russian racism in the west is something of an amalgamation of that which existed during the Tsarist and Soviet periods, which in a way is logical enough as today’s Russia is something of a modern amalgamation of a culture shaped by both prior political systems.
The kinds of stereotypes attributed to Russians play a large part in helping one to understand why Russians in Russia and even many Russians abroad have not put in much effort to fight these stereotypes. One of the reasons for this is that some Russians either ironically, half-ironically or occasionally earnestly have embraced negative stereotypes by assigning them positive connotations. Take the following examples from well-known stereotypes about Russians:
“All Russians are drunk”
While this stereotype was invented to portray Russians as degenerate alcoholics, in societies with a historic drinking culture, this stereotype can often take on a surprisingly positive connotation. If one is able to drink vast quantities of vodka and remain standing and somewhat salient, it is considered a sign of achievement in many quarters. Hence, some Russians have played it up.
“Russians always get into fights”
This stereotype was invented to portray Russians as angry and violent which was de-facto designed to indicate that Europeans are more refined and educated, while also excusing European armies who lost wars to Russian forces whether those of Napoleon or those of Hitler. However, physical strength is universally recognised as an attribute and Russians historic excellence in the martial arts is an objectively positive attribute. Thus, there are two divergent perspectives about this stereotype that co-exist, due to the fact that in Russia martial arts are more highly valued than in much of Europe.
“Russians are all nuclear weapons experts”
Like the previous stereotype, this one is greatly effected by context. The Soviet Union’s emphasis on excellence in scientific education, meant that there are many highly qualified Russian scientists in the world today, including in the field of nuclear science and weapons technology. Thus, while westerners sought to imply that Russians are nuclear armed mad scientists, in reality, the USSR and modern Russia do produce a high quantity of experts in this field.
“Russians are obsessed with bears”
In an age of European industrialisation, this stereotype is both designed to ridicule Russia for industrialising later than some western European countries, while it also demonstrates a profound ignorance of the role animals play in Slavic folklore. Not just in Russia but in Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and beyond, fairy tales involving humans interacting with animals have long shaped national children’s stories, poetry and even informed philosophical adult fiction. Again, this is a stereotype based on reducing something culturally intriguing into something negative.
A slippery slope
Many Russians abroad have comically played up these stereotypes, as many can be seen as endearing or even “fun” in the right lighthearted context. This only becomes problematic when political and media elites degenerate already tainted stereotypes into saying that all Russians are dangerous killers whose combination of scientific knowledge and unabashed barbarism puts the lives of westerners in danger.
This is the essence of the scaremongering surrounding the illness of Sergey Skripal. The clear implication is that a violent Russian state is dangerous to the world and that an ethnic Russian who betrayed his government is a literally “toxic” individual to be around.
In reality, the idea that Russia would want to draw negative attention to itself, days before a Presidential election and a few months away from the Football World Cup, is simply preposterous. Since there has not been any evidence released linking any individual or state to the illness of Sergey Skripal, the elites are merely resorting to stereotypes about ‘dangerous Russians with powerful chemical poisons’, in spite of the fact that individuals fall ill due to a variety of factors, including accidental and intentional bodily contamination on a daily basis.
Where other groups subject to racism in the past banded together to fight negative stereotypes, for Russians outside of Russian speaking lands, this is generally unusual with the exception of Latvia and Estonia where various Russian groups have come together to protest various forms of social and legal discrimination. Elsewhere, Russian expats don’t tend to congregate in groups apart from during certain holidays, for the simple reason that unlike African slaves in the US or post colonial South Asians in the UK, contemporary Russian migration has neither been forced nor uniform, it has been voluntary, in the same way that a Swede might move to Italy because he prefers to work in a warmer climate.
Racism from the top down
Because most westerners don’t have many experiences with populations of a sizeable Russian minority, the racism against Russians in the 21st century has been largely a top-down phenomenon, as opposed to the racism that develops from the bottom up in areas with significant minority populations who find themselves on the receiving end of racism from the an ethnic, religious or national majority group. When it comes to Russians, most ordinary people in Europe or North America don’t particularly care about Russia one way or another. This contrasts sharply with what some white Americans might feel about Latinos in the south-western United States or what some white British in England might feel about Pakistanis. Thus, due to little interaction with Russians, the stereotypes which exist are neither enforced nor challenged by meaningful real life interactions.
A mundane reality feeding outlandish conspiracy theories
The above mentioned phenomenon has produced a unique effect in western societies that are experiencing widening gaps between wealthy elites and workers with declining living standards. Among working class westerners for whom Russia and Russians rarely factored into one’s daily life, the racism of elites against Russians has created an atmosphere that is often sympathetic to Russians who are demonised by unpopular political factions in the west. In this sense, the underdogs of western society have in part rallied to a Russian state and Russian culture, not out of a new found love for Russia, but out of a desire to support those unilaterally slandered by the same elites who have allowed western economies to become increasingly inequitable for their own citizens.
This has allowed elites in the mainstream media to weave a narrative which paints a kind of multi-cultural alliance between the Russian state and all marginalised voices in western politics ranging from the legitimate left-of-centre and right-of centre, with the added and incredibly bizarre element of the far-left and far-right. In this sense, the fact that marginalised or seemingly marginalised voices in the west are occasionally sympathetic to the Russian state that takes a beating from the same news sources they no longer trust and the politicians they no longer like, has been spun from a very logical and easily observed phenomenon to an outlandish conspiracy theory which is promulgated by western elites, indicating that Russia has a direct involvement with just about every social segment and political movement outside of the ruling elite.
Breaking the cycle
The pattern is simple enough to observe. Every time Russia or Russians are demonised by the western elite, someone in a marginalised group will express sympathy for Russia or Russians, which in turn will feed the conspiracy theory promulgated among the elites stating that there is a direct and meaningful relationship between those sympathetic to Russia and the Russian state.
The only way to break this cycle is for Russians in Russia, as well as Russians abroad to say ‘enough is enough’. Russians need to make it clear that racist conspiracy theories have no place in domestic politics or geopolitics and that in spite of how easy it is to scapegoat Russians who themselves have embraced many originally negative stereotypes, it still should have reasonable limits.
There is however, a big problem prohibiting this. Russians outside of Russia are incredibly ideologically diverse and while this itself is actually a healthy thing, the danger is that groups of Russians abroad can be easily manipulated by the elites in the host society, thus disabling Russians to speak out against racism in a united voice.
This has been one of the reason that Arab public opinion is so easily divided. Because Arabs outside of the Arab world have naturally diverse opinions and backgrounds, Arabs abroad are easily put into categories by various host nations.
Thus, just as western elites can divide Arabs between being pro-Syria and anti-Syria, pro-Qatar versus pro-Saudi Arabia etc., so too can Russians abroad be manipulated between pro-government and anti-government individuals, who all fail to see that when all is said and done, western governments will still invoke old stereotypes to demean both Russians and Arabs as a whole.
If Russians were to come out and reject the use of racist stereotypes against them by western elites, at the very minimum, the elites would be forced to develop a more nuanced narrative and maybe even a more mature narrative about Russia. Instead, Russians abroad allow themselves to be divided by these same elites, thus disabling them from using their potential agency against elites who for too long have used a combination of guttural racism and arrogance to slander all things Russian for too long.