There is actually a long historical precedent for how Russia and the West view each other in the post-Cold War era, dating all the way back to the early nineteenth century.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second from left, in Moscow, March 24, 2016. Photo: AP
Top Russian officials – including some within President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle – continue to suggest that the West is waging a well-orchestrated “information war” against Russia, with the aim of destabilizing the regime.
Most recently, Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, wrote an article about the so-called “hybrid war” launched by the West against Russia. In response, he called for Chinese-style censorship and other measures to win the “information war” with the West.
Earlier, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggested that “the Anglo-Saxon media” have been trying to discredit Russia. Moreover, he went further and expressed the controversial idea that Russia doesn’t need to spend resources to improve its image if the Western media is going to wage an information war against it.
While it’s easy to dismiss these claims as just an irrational belief in conspiracy theories, there is actually a long historical precedent for how Russia and the West view each other.
Historically, the Western media have chastised Moscow for its foreign policy since the nineteenth century. While there have been some periods when the image of Russia appeared to be changing for the better in the West, an unfavorable attitude toward the Kremlin has largely predominated amongst foreign journalists, politicians, historians, travellers and researchers.
In fact, what is written about Russia these days is reminiscent of what had been written during the Cold War and even the 1853-1856 Crimean War.
British journalist Peter Hopkirk attributes the creation of the “Russian bogeyman” to Sir Robert Wilson, a decorated British general and veteran of numerous campaigns, who personally witnessed the 1812 burning of Moscow. Wilson initially admired Russia but upon returning to London after Napoleon’s defeat, discarded this romantic image. He claimed to be disgusted by the atrocities committed by the Russian army against French soldiers. Later, Wilson even claimed that Peter the Great, on his deathbed, urged Russia to conquer the world.
The Marquise Astolphe-Louis-Léonor de Custine, the famous French aristocrat, traveled to Russia in 1839 and left a well-written, widely read and quite negative memoir in which he mocked the Russian nobility, the Orthodox Church, and Tsar Nicholas I (1796–1855), whom he condemned for suppressing the Polish uprising of 1831–32. He was no fan of Peter the Great and his regime, and wrote, “Russia’s governing style is absolute monarchy moderated by assassination.” Custine claimed that the air became freer when he crossed the Prussian border. Later, the American diplomat George Kennan would say that this description of Nicholas I predicted the emergence of Joseph Stalin.
The video contains materials from Boulder Camera (cartoon by J. Sherffius /Creators News Service), Library of Congress (cartoon by J. Costello), St. Louis Post-Dispatch (cartoon by R.J. Matson). By Pavel Gazdyuk.
Richard Pipes, a Harvard history professor and advisor to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, likewise gives a quite negative description of Russian history, from its beginning and continuing through the Soviet era. His main theory of Russia’s history is geographical determinism. If Russia’s climate is different from the rest of Europe, then its political system must be different too.
“The principal consequence of Russia’s location is an exceedingly short farming season,” and the natural poverty of geographical conditions thus made it extremely difficult to construct an effective regime. In his view, a “patrimonial” state arose in which the country was conceived as the personal property of the Russian tsars.
And for Pipes, this is key, as it is the “patrimonial state” that is the cause of all Russia’s problems and its “otherness” vis-à-vis the West. Russian monarchs looked at their subjects as their personal property as well. The failure of Russians to stand up to this “patrimonial state” meant the power of the monarchs grew, eventually leading to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The state was opposed by the radical intelligentsia, which eventually seized power and created a new and even more oppressive and brutal regime.
Pipes further developed these ideas in Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (1995), in which he characterized “Soviet totalitarianism” as a consequence of Russian “imperial patrimonialism.” Pipes ambiguously presents communism, fascism, and national socialism as identical. This view of history appears quite distorted when he states that, “The origins of the right-radical movement in interwar Europe… would have been inconceivable without the precedent set by Lenin and Stalin.”
Some scholars have expressed quite remarkable views of the history of Russian culture. Bringing to light dozens of examples of self-defeating activities and behaviors that have become an integral component of the Russian psyche, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, Emeritus Professor of Russian at University of California, Davis, “demonstrates” how masochism has become a fact of everyday life in Russia in his book The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering (1996). The author criticizes the works of many Russian writers, especially Dostoevsky.
The end of the Cold War did not change the way Western analysts viewed Russia. Steve LeVine, a correspondent for BusinessWeek, who lived in and reported on the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia from 1992 to 2004, wrote a quite biased account of the country. The title speaks for itself: Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia. Not surprisingly, the author contends that after a short period of liberalization in the early 1990s, Russia changed for the worse.
“Now Russia is again Russia,” he writes. “Its dark side emerged and is, for the most part, tolerated by the populace.” He argues, “The Russian people would respond to Putin’s steady withdrawal of their individual liberties with obedience combined with defiant nationalism, a standard set four centuries earlier under Ivan IV.” He explains that, “In the West, Ivan’s nickname Grozny, was translated as “Terrible” - but to Russians, Ivan was “Fearsome” or “Awesome,” an image that Putin would successfully cultivate.”
Also read: "How myths about Russia embrace US identity"
LeVine claims that then President Dmitri Medvedev and then Prime Minister Putin posed a serious challenge to the West. LeVine is convinced that Russia under Putin’s leadership has gone backwards, toward the authoritarian roots of both the Soviet and even tsarist regimes.
The Euromaidan revolution was a crucial inflection point in Russia–U.S. and Russia-Europe relations. In response, a number of U.S. politicians, analysts and political scientists noted the danger of Russia’s behavior for Europe and the whole world.
For example, Andrew Michta, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval War College, claimed recently that while NATO has failed to modernize itself, Russia has kept rearming itself and Putin is ready for new territorial grabs. Michta wrote in Politico last year that, “When it comes to Putin’s Russia today, expect the unexpected—or rather, more of the same.”
These are just several examples that demonstrate the one-sided approach of some Western thinkers, analysts, and scholars to Russian history and politics. Yet, Russia has always had complex relations with the West. There were variations in the policies of Russian tsars and Soviet leaders. Russian intellectual thought has always been divided by fierce debates between Slavophiles and Westernizers.
American historian Barbara Jelavich argues that diplomats in imperial Russia were always aware of the limits of their power, and feared overstretching Russian resources and drawing a foreign response. Also, historians studying the Cold War know that the Soviet Union never had plans for war with the West. Soviet leaders always understood that World War III would be disaster for the entire planet.
Today, Russia’s relations with the West are indeed very complex. Yet, there is a flip side to this view of the West. On September 11, 2001, President Putin was among the first to reach his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush to give his condolences and offer assistance. When Bush requested the establishment of U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—strategically important for conducting military operations against the Taliban-ruled government in Afghanistan—Putin responded, “We have got to help our friends.”
Then President Medvedev declared in a 2008 speech in Berlin that Russia belongs to Europe and is part of European civilization. Russia, along with the United States and its allies, might successfully cooperate in various fields such as solving the Iranian nuclear problem, the nuclear threat of North Korea, and fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East.
In 2007, when the United States decided to install anti-missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, the Russian commander of missile forces threatened to aim Moscow’s nuclear forces at these installations. And Russia’s problems with the West continued. The situation has dramatically deteriorated after all the “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet space -- the Rose Revolution (Georgia), Orange Revolution (Ukraine), and Euromaidan (Ukraine).
Video by Russia Direct
According to Andrey Bezrukov, associate professor at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), there are enough politicians in the U.S. and Europe who believe that the West won the Cold War. Therefore, Russia must be a revanchist power that is trying to reclaim its previous geopolitical status.
Bezrukov argues that this important fundamental contradiction between the U.S. and Russia is simply based on the fact that Washington seeks to preserve the existing system while Russia wants to conduct an independent foreign policy.
At a time when Russia's political elites are still reassessing the implications of the Soviet Union’s collapse, representatives of the U.S. political elite – some of whom have actually come from former Soviet bloc countries – are unwilling to take a more neutral stance. Bezrukov assumes their negative perception of Russia is partly based on their historical experience. If that is the case, it is indeed disappointing that that the old habits of thinking about history and international affairs are so hard to change.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.