Deconstructing Russophobia

Streetwise Professor wrote On Russophobia,

The charge of “Russophobia” is hurled around with some abandon, and I have been the target of such accusations on more than one occasion, especially in the hothouse environment of the ongoing Russo-Georgian War. More often than not, this word is used as an ad hominem substitute for reasoned argument, and as such is intellectually lazy and intellectually dishonest, and hence not deserving of a reasoned rejoinder.

Inasmuch as I have been a harsh critic of the Russian government, however, it is legitimate to question the basis for that criticism, and to try to understand the basis for the emotional responses that it engenders.

The divide is a fundamental and philosophical one. My criticism is deeply rooted in classical liberal beliefs that put the highest value on human freedom, and which emphasize the essential importance of the rule of law, equality before the law, free markets and contract, and limited government as the essential means for guaranteeing liberty. These beliefs imply a particular relationship between citizen and state. I can say it no better than Milton Friedman, in the first paragraphs of Capitalism and Freedom.

In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country”. . . . Neither half of the statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that is worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To a free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above him. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshipped [sic] and served.”

This credo contrasts starkly with the political philosophy that has dominated Russian thought from the rise of the patrimonial state to the very present. Throughout Russian history, the individual residing in the territory ruled by Tsar, Commissar, or latterly, President has been more subject than citizen. The government did not serve the individual, the individual served the government. It was not a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; it was a people of the state, ruled by the state, to be used for the state’s ends. The role of the state was not to serve the people; it was the role of the people to serve the state.

The rule of law has seldom, if ever, existed in Russia. Citizens have never been equal before the law, and the sovereign almost never subject to it. Theoretically and practically, the government has almost always been unlimited (except for brief intervals 1905-1917, and perhaps 1991-1999.) The rights of property contract have almost always been highly abridged, and always at risk to the predations of the state. Until the mid-18th century, Russia was formally a patrimonial state in which everything was property of the sovereign, and under which everyone owed the state service. In subsequent years, service obligations were diluted and some formal property rights established, but even these were at risk to arbitrary expropriation that was limited more by political prudence than constitutional constraints. And, in the Soviet era, even these modest gains vanished.

Indeed, Russian thinkers and rulers have been harsh critics of liberalism, and proud advocates of an anti-liberal order (as Richard Pipes details in his Russian Conservatism and Its Critics). Post-1815, Russia was a leader of reactionary, anti-liberal forces in Europe.

Putin and his coterie are consciously heirs to this intellectual and political tradition. They have a decidedly state-centric view. They are dedicated to enhancing the power of the central state. They disdain the rule of law (which is evidenced more by deed than word), and under their rule private rights of property and contract are completely conditional on the acquiescence of the state. Those that support Putin are cheerleaders for the state at the expense of the freedom of its citizens.

[I should also note that Putin and his ilk cynically exploit these powerful memes to enhance their own personal power and wealth. In Russia today there is a creepy convergence of deeply held political beliefs and self-serving mercenary motives. It is the mutually-reinforcing nature of these things that makes them especially dangerous.]

It is this fundamental philosophical and moral divide between the classical liberal views I espouse, and the anti-liberal views of the Putinists, that explains my intense antipathy for the current Russian government and state, and which is the wellspring of my trenchant criticism. It is not a divide that can be bridged, as these are antithetical conceptions of the roles of the individual and the state.

Russia has long been among the most powerful (both physically and rhetorically) advocates of the anti-liberal cause. After a brief dalliance with liberalism at the false sunset of history in the 1990s, it has resumed this historical role.

Historically, Russia has also been an imperialist power, with its imperial ambitions fueled by a combination of pecuniary and civilizational (at times bordering on the messianic) motives. These traditions are too in the ascendant, as evidenced both by increased bellicosity and the terrified responses of those nations who were once in the Russian thrall.

In sum, there is a civilizational chasm that divides me, and many other contemporary critics of Russia, from our opponents. Does that make us “Russophobes”? The issue is largely a semantic one. To the extent that those that hurl the term insinuate an unthinking hatred for Russians as individuals–the answer is defiantly no. Even less is it (as one commentator absurdly asserted) “racism.” But to the extent that many Russians are proud intellectual heirs to their nation’s traditional modes of political thought, discourse, and action, well, yes–I do oppose you; I dread (for Russians most of all) the implications of your obtaining ascendancy within Russia; and believe it is the duty of people and governments everywhere to resist your efforts to extend Russia’s power beyond its borders.

Honest Russophiles should admit–indeed embrace–the civilizational dimensions of the dispute. Latter-day Slavophiles and Eurasianists are proudly anti-liberal; they conceive of Russia as a distinct civilization with a unique historical mission defined in opposition to Western, and especially Western Liberal, beliefs. I understand their antipathy to the West. I understand why they dislike me and what I have to say.

So, call me a Russophobe if you will. But don’t expect that such epithets will dissuade me from opposing, in my small way, a government, a state, a political system, and a worldview that is inimical to mine, any more than I expect that my words will have the slightest impact on a devoted Russian nationalist (except to arouse his ire or contempt). We come from different worlds–different civilizations, really–and neither is about to convince the other.

Instead, I conceive my role to be to communicate to those who more or less share my philosophical beliefs that the current Russian government is an enemy of those beliefs. Moreover, as I believe that that state is the enemy of the freedom of individuals of Russian heritage and culture, and thwarts the ability of those individuals to realize their human potential, in my opposition to that state I truly conceive of myself as a Russophile. Believe it or not.

In reply, Timothy Post made a connection between religious absolutism (which afflicts a worryng high percentage of the American population) and the Manichaean view of the world as being divided into “axes” of good and evil, etc, typically with America being the shining city on the hill and Russia being invariably shunted off to the “bad guys” team (further, there’s also the messianic component, which has been transferred from spreading Christianity to spreading democracy, whether the aboriginals like it or not).

My own view, which I also posted in reply to the good Professor, is as follows:

I believe conventional Russophobia is just another variant of Orientalism (as defined by Said) relying on one-dimensional caricatures of Russian cultural reality as one of millenial despotism, contempt for the individual, etc. This ignores the many instances of democratic/liberal tendencies organically appearing in Russian history, from the Veche of medieval Novgorod to Putin’s consolidation of liberal democracy in the last 8 years (I view Yeltsin’s period as closer in spirit to the Time of Troubles). I also question your thesis of a “civilizational chasm” between Russia and the West. It ignores the fact that there have been numerous despotisms throughout Western history and some general trends, e.g. the high status of the state in economic planning that one sees throughout French history from Colbert to Mitterand.

Finally, I find talk of chasms and divides that cannot be bridged both pessimistic and in a way self-fulfilling. I have long observed the sheer disconnect between Russian reality and Russian reality as presented in Western texts. This has led me to conclude that either Western observers really are all incompetent / myopic (i.e. slaves of their own misrepresentations, accumulated over centuries) or actively malevolent / eager to fight an info-war.

In my review of Western media representation of the War of Ossetia, I concluded:

“Control is all about imposing your view of reality on the minds of others. Since overt political persecution is no longer widely accepted, the elites have resorted to fighting wars over hearts and minds. Western media manipulation is not readily noticeable, since if that were the case the simulation’s plausibility would fall apart immediately (as was the case in the Soviet Union)…This makes them far more insidious and dangerous to freedom than any repressive dictatorship; for in the latter one knows one is a slave, while too many Westerners continue to be believe they are free, whereas in fact they are also slaves, like the rest of us.”

And that’s really the difference between Russophobes and Russophiles. Russophiles know they live in the matrix; Russophobes think they’re free and laugh at the poor Russians, not realizing that they’re laughing at their own ugly reflections.

Yet another intepretation I’ve had fun with in the past is the fundamental human need for enemies, opposites, etc, in order to define themselves. This is becoming harder and harded in today’s world, what with liberalism, secularism, etc, and thus the people need an outlet into fantasy. Hence Russia = Mordor. Such desires to see evil in others reaches its logical conclusion in the form of religious fanatics and other assorted loonies going on about the Final Phase of Communist Russia’s plans to extend its dominion over the entire world.

If you have your own idea on how to go about deconstructing Russophobia (and Russophilia), please comment.


  1. Giuseppe Flavio says:

    Hello Stalker,just a couple of ideas about deconstructing Russophobia, or more generally any something-phobia.As you wrote the X-phobic divides the world in black and white. But he concentrates on the black part, hardly speaking about the white part, because there is the risk to discover that white is not so white after all. Streetwise Professor says that he is for equality before the law, free markets and contract, and limited government as the essential means for guaranteeing liberty but fails to speak (in his entire blog, not only in the post you’ve reported) about the “Too big to fail” mantra that dominates the western world, which basically means to use state money to bail out big and near bankrupt financial enterprises. A clear violation of equality before the law, free market and limited government.As second I have noticed that X-phobics have something in common with conspiracy theorist, that is to say they use the same methods. Recently I have discovered the “Clinton body count” list, a conspiracy theory against Clinton that comes from mad US conservatives. It is built like the lists of “killed Russian journalists” and with the same aims. It is less “ennobled” (I doubt it has received so much funding) but really similar. If you google it, you’ll also find its debunking on As another example, in these days I’ve read several russophobes arguing (both in forums and “respectable” media) that Russia organized and provoked the South Ossetia war, citing as a proof the swift response of the Russian army. Well, anyone reading the news knew that something bad could have happened there, so the Russian army prepared to move in.Just my 2 cents (or kopeks)

  2. *Russophiles know they live in the matrix; Russophobes think they’re free and laugh at the poor Russians, not realizing that they’re laughing at their own ugly reflections.*Never a better analogy. My Russian language teacher often told me how she never liked capitalism because she equated it with American militarism/imperialism (a too-close-too-home similarity to what made her leave Russia in the first place). I told her America would be great – if it were really a capitalist country.In fact, no philosophical ideal as detailed in the text of a great thinker has ever really impressed itself onto a state that has actually existed on this Earth. They try, but it’s always a bastardization, whether you’re talking about Von Mises capitalism superimposed on the pork-barrel state of America or Marxist communism warped into Stalin’s slave state.The key is realizing that neither philosophers nor statesmen have yet figured out how to talk to each other – states are designed to impose a political order, not a philosophy, and philosophers are designed to develop ideology, not policy.