More on Deconstructing Russophobia

Back in August the Streetwise Professor, Timothy Post and yours truly had a trilateral discussion on the meaning of Russophobia. Unfortunately, I missed out on the Professor’s August reply, which is reproduced below.

I genuinely appreciate the comment, to which I reply as follows:

1. Edward Said? Puh-lease. Tiresome pomo-ism that elevates banalities about the difficulty of understanding a different culture and the inescapability of subjectivity into 400+ pages of whiney defensiveness with more than a tinge–dare I say it–of stereotypical Middle Eastern conspiracy theorizing.

2. Any broad and deep culture is bound to exhibit a variety of tendencies and behaviors. There is variability in the cross section and over time in a particular state or nation or culture. Nonetheless, there are also clear central tendencies, and clear cross sectional variation across nations/cultures/states. The key thing is the ability to see the forest for the trees. Identifying salient characteristics, trends, and tendencies of course involves some inevitable distortion of a complex reality, but even purely scientific inquiries face this trade off. Mental models and the use of central tendencies to help better understand the whole are both essential engines of inquiry to advance understanding, even though they will not accurately capture every detail.

3. There are clear historical differences between Russia and non-Russian nations and states. This is not just the view of the “Other.” Indeed, a major theme in much Russian political thought and literature is the profound, indeed civilizational, difference between Russia and the West. If there is a “disconnect between Russian reality and Russian reality as represented in Western texts,” there must be a similar disconnect between Russian reality and Russian reality as represented in Russian literature, philosophy, and political writing.

4. Even within Russian discourse it is widely recognized that the state is far more powerful vis a vis the individual in Russia than in the West. A major divide among Russian thinkers is between those relative few that perceive it as a bug (e.g., Chaadaev), and the more numerous who consider it a feature. (The Slavophiles are an interesting case. Although Russian chauvinists, they were deeply critical of Petrine autocracy and centralization. At the same time, they were deeply hostile to “Western” individualism and idealized and romanticized a Russian collectivist (or communitarian, if you like) worldview defined by opposition to the West. And Peter is also often difficult to categorize. He was a Westernizer when it came to technology and the military, but a devoted centralizer hostile to institutional constraints on the Tsar.)

5. With respect to the West, no classical liberal like Friedman–or me–would argue for a minute that this philosophy is, or ever has been, the predominant strain in Western thought, or an accurate description of actual political and economic systems in the West. Indeed, liberalism developed primarily as a reaction to nearly ubiquitous statist and mercantilist systems of economy and governance, and made only limited headway against these systems in only a few nations (notably Great Britain and the US). Moreover, the classical liberal critique of the trajectory of Western economic and political development since the turn of the 19th century emphasizes the expansion of government power at the expense of individual liberty. If I criticize Russia, know that I also criticize the metastasization of the state in the United States and Europe.

6. Perhaps the different evolutions of the West and Russia were contingent events. The balance of power between citizen and state in each was not the result of a theoretical discourse or a conscious choice. They were instead the results of struggles for power between armed elites. The English barony that forced my ancestor King John to sign the Magna Carta did so out of self-interest and because they possessed the power to advance that interest. Throughout Europe, struggles between different elites affected the balance of political power, and the balance of power affected the negotiations over rights and duties. Liberties were not granted out of benevolence, or in pursuit of a political theory. They were wrested from sovereigns who would have been Peters or Ivans if they could have prevailed. The outcomes were not homogeneous even within Europe, with very different developments in England, France, Prussia, Holland, Sweden, Spain, and Poland. The simple historical fact is that, for a variety of imperfectly understood reasons, no credible rival sources of power to the Tsar were able to secure enduring liberties as occurred (with varying degrees of success) in the West. Events in Russia today represent another example of this historical tendency.

7. Exceptions prove rules. Novgorod was certainly exceptional by Russian historical standards, and its fate reveals that Russia’s evolution was in fact very different from what occurred throughout the West. Ivan III sure took care of the Veche, no? (One Russian commentor from a couple of years back was quite adamant that Ivan did the right thing in extirpating Novgorod.)

8. And, dear DR, your second example is? (I will charitably interpret your statement about Putin’s “consolidation of liberal democracy” as an attempt at irony. If you are in fact serious, the statement is risible, nay, Orwellian.) I am highly confident that any further examples that you could present would just be additional exceptions proving the general rule.

9. “The Matrix”? (Eyes rolling.) That makes Edward Said look coherent by comparison. A tired trope that we only imagine that we are free even though we are in fact manipulated by some faceless, unnamed “media.” In other words–another conspiracy theory. To practical, empirically minded people (like me), all I can say is that there is no doubt that as an American I am at much less risk of coercion at the hands of the state, and that I have far more rights protecting me against its predations, than any Russian counterpart (though I am still subject to far more coercion than I would like.) And what’s more, although Putin has arguably reduced the vulnerability of Russians to the predations of private violence specialists, his concentration of power in the state (the “power vertical”) and his encouragement of “legal nihilism” (not my term, but Medvedev’s) has in fact inflicted grievous injuries on Russian liberties, and has set back the cause of liberty in Russia for decades, if not more. Put differently, given the choice between living in the US and living in Russia–even holding my material standard of living constant–I would choose the US every day without a second thought. Which raises an interesting issue, DR. I see from your blog that you live in California. That’s what’s called voting with your feet. Or as economists phrase it, revealed preference. It speaks volumes.

I couldn’t reply to his post directly (either it was too long, or you can’t comment on old pieces), plus it is quite an interesting discussion, so I’m posting my reply here.


First off, I’d like to note that once you take the effort of looking at Russophobia in a serious, analytical as opposed to rhetorical-emotional way you instantly become far less jarring. And in fact I agree with much of what you say in 1-7. So congrats. 🙂

Still, I take issue with the sharp delineation between “West” and “Russia”, opposed against each other in the sense that one developed pluralist institutions while the other one did not. That is a simplistic, black and white picture and the very fact that exceptions exist (as you yourself acknowledge) means the rules are blurred rather than “proved”. Plus, you also note that Western history is riddled with exceptions too – in fact, the histories of several entire Western regions, like the Catholic South of Europe until democratization in the 1970’s, would qualify as just one long, continuous exception to the “rule”. Basically, the sheer difficulties in defining what “pluralism” or “rule of law” are preclude the placement of a dividing line between a civilized Europe and barbarous Muscovy.

That you join me in listing all these caveats, and then nonetheless insist on drawing out these sharp boundaries, indicate to me a disturbingly Manichean outlook on the world (albeit one trying to hide under fig leaves for the sake of appearances, when directly confronted with such an accusation). And I would go even further and conjecture that what you exhibit is in a sense a “central tendency” of the Western Anglo-Saxon soul – this messianic, smug, truthy belief in the ultimate and absolute moral superiority of one’s own civilization. (In this it bears striking similarities to Judeo-Christian religion, as Timothy Post noticed in his reply to your original “On Russophobia”.) Liberal democracy, or rather its kitsch, is the Anglo-Saxon world’s modern gospel that needs to be preached to all so that the heathen outsiders get converted, irrespective of whatever they might think about that.

Like it or not, we are both deeply religious people, SP. The main difference is that a central tenet of mine is that there are many different truths, whereas you only accept One Truth (and whose “exceptions” only further confirm its Truth). Since you have deeply internalized your Truth you will find it very hard and maybe impossible to see that it is just one of many. I too am imprisoned within my own matrix, the truth that there are many and no truths, and as such, like you, I find it impossible to empathize with your worldview, your matrix of One Truth, on a spiritual level.

I think that also explains many of the differences between Anglo-Saxons and Russians. Russians tend to be cynical, conspiratorial, relativist, while most Anglo-Saxons seem to sincerely believe in their religion of freedom, of liberal democracy, etc, as absolutes. And many, like you, would dismiss these conspiratorial views as silly drivel (while making a show of eye rolling). I think that is simply because the system of control is much better hidden and “organic” in Western societies than in Russia. Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model” is dismissed as radical nonsense by most Americans outside liberal university campuses. In Russia it would just be a statement of the obvious, because the system of control in Russia is less developed, more jarring to the casual observer. (Although it must be admitted that it has made great strides since Soviet times and I am confident of rapid convergence to Western standards in this area.)

Anyway, for reasons already covered, you will probably never internalize my worldview, and the same vice versa (indeed, holding contradictory viewpoints is a sign either of great intelligence or madness, as IIRC Nietzsche remarked). But let’s explore your worldview with a few examples…say, from your latest post on how Russians are in fact Poles with Megalomania.

Reasoned, balanced discussion is hard; rhetorical-emotional outbursts are much easier and spiritually fulfilling. Here you take take off your fig leaves and reveal the workings of your Manichean mind:

The independence of upstart, pipsqueak nations like Estonia and Georgia is an affront, a violation of the natural order. Hence the over-the-top outrage at the impudence of Estonia in moving the Statue of the Unknown Rapist, and the jingoistic, nearly orgasmic rapture over the humbling of Georgia

The subjugation of others is nothing; Russian self-esteem is everything. The stubborn refusal of Russia to acknowledge crimes like Katyn, or the Great Famine (which affected Russia, to be sure, but which devastated Ukraine) is merely just another symptom of this Russocentric worldview.

Never mind that actually most Russians don’t give a damn either way if Estonia or Georgia is independent or not, but are affronted at the horrifyingly neo-fascist way the former treats Russians or how the latter feels free to murder sleeping Russian civilians and UN-mandated Russian peacekeepers, and whinge to its sponsors when it gets checked in its genocidal ambitions. Never mind the truly execrable smears against the Soviet soldiers who fought and died so that Estonians could live to dishonor them and professors in ivory towers like yourself could have the freedom of insulting them, while pontificating about Russian moral degeneracy, AND while supporting the continued occupation of Iraq and Western neo-imperialism in general. Never mind that the Soviet Union recognized and apologized for Katyn in the late 1980’s and that Russia doesn’t want to keep apologizing for it till the end of days. Nor does it have any responsibility whatsoever for the Great Famine to anyone with a semblance of intelligence and integrity (the USSR’s top leadership at the time was multi-ethnic and many Russians as well as Ukrainians starved, so how that translates to genocide of the Ukrainian nation in the febrile minds of Ukrainian nationalists and assorted Russophobes I can’t begin to imagine).

Now is truly surprising then that your one-sided religious fervor arouses similar, but opposite, sentiments amongst Russians? (Actually, I misuse the word similar. At least their hatred of the West comes without the whingeing hypocrisy).

So Russia confronts the world with the following ultimatum: Russia has its pride; its pride must be respected; and the only way its pride can be served is if the polygot nations of the near abroad defer to its wishes.

Returning to our discussion. Well, not much of it to discuss, is there, considering we have such incompatible worldviews? Well, at least I believe that I had a good stab at summarizing them. Now there’s just a little mopping up left to do…

8. And, dear DR, your second example is? (I will charitably interpret your statement about Putin’s “consolidation of liberal democracy” as an attempt at irony. If you are in fact serious, the statement is risible, nay, Orwellian.)

It is neither ironic, nor risible/Orwellian to someone who cares to venture time to time outside the Freedom House/CIA/Council on Foreign Relations matrix.

The Polity IV Project, the world’s most comprehensive database of comparative political systems across countries and time, qualifies Russia as a democracy (with 7 on a scale of -10 to 10). It is better than Estonia’s 6 and the same as Georgia’s 7, which I consider broadly fair.

Also, political scientist Nicolai Petro has done excellent work on the topic in Russia through the Looking Glass. And guess what – Russians agree with him.

For the first time in history, the global reach of the internet is allowing large numbers of Russians (and others within the former Soviet Union) to talk to the West directly, rather than only through the filter provided by visiting journalists and pundits. This means the free pass given by Russians to those who write about them, something that most of us here have long taken for granted, is rapidly coming to an end. We already see the first signs of the new era in the blistering comments from outraged Russian readers that now appear regularly on the web sites of major British newspapers.

Today’s politically and technologically savvy young Russians, well traveled and with more disposable income than their Western counterparts, will increasingly turn to the internet to respond to the western media’s hyper-negativity about their country. Their message is simple: Go ahead and caricature our country if you must, but learn to do it right! That way, at least, your readers will be under no illusions about the nature of the information they are being fed.

Finally, about your claim that I reveal my preference by voting with my feet and living in California. I applaud you for your skill at substituting elegant wording for meaning. We aren’t discussing which country is better in general, let alone which is better for me in particular.

The US has a diversified, 13tn $ economy that attracts skilled workers from across the entire world, since nowhere else contains the same huge spectrum of opportunities. That many Russians live and work here does not justify (or invalidate) Russophobia any more than the presence of hundreds of different ethnic groups has bearing on their original homelands – which is to say, not at all.

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