Over the last year, Russia has featured particularly heavily in Western conversation. Since the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s actions during the subsequent crisis in Ukraine, what used to be an eye-rolling Western chuckle about badass macho man Vladimir Putin has evolved into a general discourse about the danger Russia and its leader pose, and its deviancy from what we would consider to be diplomatic, humanitarian and even moral norms.
Elements of this discourse will sound familiar to many because only thirty years ago, when Russia was still the Soviet Union, four decades of Cold War had definitively pitched it as the West’s ‘other’. Russia was the antithesis of the West, a notion based largely on binary terms: where the West was moral, democratic, liberal and, well, right, Russia was immoral, totalitarian, deviant and wrong.
Russia has taken worrying and deeply questionable measures recently and so current assessments along these lines are certainly not invalid, and there is much empathy, despair and support in the West for those suffering under the current regime. But the continuity of Cold War-era depictions of Russia are nevertheless striking, Ukrainian crisis or not. There has been much research on how prevalent Orientalist-type discourse is in Western political dealings with Russia. And once you start looking out for it, it is apparent how ubiquitous these representations of Russia, and especially of its political leadership and organisations, remain in Western media, television programmes and films. The Russian baddie of Cold War-era Bond films is still very much alive and kicking, and Russians in films and on television almost always occupy the role of the villain. Even Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Aleksandr Petrovksy – ‘The Russian’ – in Sex and the City started off as a sexy and sophisticated love interest for the show’s main protagonist, but ended up being cold, selfish and, finally, abusive. And in conversation it is remarkable how often I hear that Putin is the only kind of leader the Russians will ever want and how, unlike liberal, democratic Westerners, they need a strong hand like Ivan the Terrible, like Stalin and now like Putin.
This piece is not a comment on the accuracy, psychology or propriety of these ideas – the discussion of which is a field of study in itself – but instead aims to provide a brief historical background to this very specific relationship and the many ways in which the West has historically seen Russia as its antithesis. Indeed, the West’s wariness of Russia was not borne of the Cold War. While wildly exacerbated by it, and driven to new levels of intensity, the West has for centuries considered Russia its ‘other’, more so, I think, than any other specific nation in the non-Western world.
Othering is a process through which relations between the ‘self’ (here the West) and the ‘other’ (Russia) are constructed, often through stylistic means that compare, liken or distinguish, convince, empower or devalue. Implicit in the concept of othering is the formation of an identity not only for the ‘other’ but for the ‘self’ too. The latter is what the former is not and is not what the former is: both identities become dependent on these constructions. So, for example, by describing Russia as backward, the West is also saying ‘but we are progressive and modern’. And it is this sort of process that we see manifesting itself in many representations of, and conversations about, Russia.
So, if not with the Cold War, when did this very particular relationship begin?
Some of the earliest forms of the othering process can be traced all the way back to the second half of the fifteenth century, when the term ‘Europe’ had become a synonym for the Christian world. Russia’s then religious and political affiliations with Islam led to the conceptualisation of Russia as Europe’s other, since its Christian status was deemed questionable.
Later, during the eighteenth century, the term ‘barbarian’ was regularly used to describe Russians, amid fears that they were ‘at the gate’ and unlikely to ever be rid of their savage state. At the same time, an identity was formed of Russia as a ‘learner’ from Europe. Thus, two concepts that remain to this day a prominent feature in the West’s conceptualisation of Russia were formed.
These two notions emerged in large part due to Peter the Great. Peter made huge drives to Westernise Russia – St Petersburg is his masterpiece, intended to rival any European city. This led him to being considered a barbarian but one who nevertheless showed a will to shed his barbarianism, and learn from Europe. One British commentator stated that Peter was ‘extremely curious and diligent and has further improved his Empire in ten years than any other ever was, in ten times that space.’ His successes were seen as all the more admirable when considering the backwardness and barbarity of his subjects, described by one eighteenth century writer as ‘creatures with the Names of Men but with Qualities rather Brutal than Rational’.
Alongside ideas of barbarian and backward Russians, the question of Russia’s geography was important. In the eighteenth century, Russia was seen as ‘the North’. Pushkin’s famous ‘window on the West’ statement about St Petersburg was taken from a letter by Count Francesco Algarotti in 1739 that actually read:
‘I am at length going to give you some account of this new city, of this great window lately opened in the north, thro’ which Russia looks into Europe.’
But after the Great Northern War of 1700-1721, the defeated Sweden withdrew to Scandinavia and Finland, separating it from Russia and Poland and dissolving the idea of ‘the North’. Russia was thus no longer seen as one of the component of states making up the Baltic region. This was an important moment as it led to a reconstruction of the coordinates of Europe that eventually resulted in the East/West divide in the following century, a distinction that became and remains hugely significant.
Ideas of Russian barbarianism and difference continued to be propagated in the nineteenth century. The best-selling Marquis de Custine’s Letters from Russia provided damning assessments of the Russians, as this passage illustrates to perfection:
I do not blame the Russians for being what they are; I blame them for pretending to be what we are. They are still uncultivated and this state at least leaves the ground for clear hope. But I see them constantly possessed by the desire to ape other nations, and they ape as the apes do, mocking what they copy. So I think: these are men who have forsaken savagery and missed civilization, and I remember the pitiless aphorism of Voltaire or Diderot, now forgotten in France: ‘The Russians have gone rotten without ever ripening.’
While the Marquis de Custine still referred to Russia as ‘the north’ throughout his letters, he also employed the word ‘Orientals’ to describe Russians, and his usage of both terms illustrates the nineteenth century transition from the idea of Russia as a northern to an Eastern state as a long-term consequence of the Great Northern War. Thus, Russia was also becoming an Eastern, Asiatic other.
As the nineteenth century progressed, strategic tensions were high in Europe and the key development in Europe’s notion of Russia, through wars such as the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-1829, was to accept and recognise it as a legitimate power and player in Europe. This meant that on the one hand Russia was seen as a component of Europe. On the other hand, it was also still considered a barbarian – albeit a powerful one – at the gate.
In the twentieth century, Russia was seen in a variety of ways by the West, but whatever the stance, it was always considered wholly different to the West. For example, in the interwar period a racialist discourse emerged, which ranked different races against each other. Previously, Russians had been classed as ‘Asiatic’ and thus not European, but in the twentieth century a more extreme branch of this discourse developed (and which bore Nazism) that excluded Slavs from humankind altogether.
On the other hand, during this same period, a radically different school of thought looked to Russia as a land of the future. This was particularly well exemplified in the work of the British socialist economists Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who saw the Soviet experiment as an effort to attain a higher level of civilisation, one in which the many problems of the capitalist and Christian West could be eradicated.
The aftermath of the Second World War and the advent of the Cold War led these previous influences on Western constructions of the Soviet Union to be subsumed by two catch-all notions: the first defined the Soviet Union as an Asiatic and barbarian political power that had availed itself of the opportunity offered by the Second World War to intrude into Europe by military means. The second considered it the deliverer of Europe from the scourge of Nazism and as a model for Europe to emulate with a politico-economic model that could have an evolutionary, invigorating potential on Europe. In both cases, it is clear that these models of the Soviet Union represented what Europe and the West were not, although thanks to the Cold War, in the West the former notion ended up dominating.
Today, the West’s political and diplomatic relationship with Russia remains extremely complex, and the two are once again at odds. For now, it seems that the West’s long-standing antithesis, its Russian other, will remain just that. Wouldn’t it have been refreshing, though, had the all-American Carrie Bradshaw pirouetted off into the sunset with a charming, kind and erudite Russian?
The title of this piece is borrowed from two books related to this subject:
Berry, L. E. and Crummey, R. O. (eds.), Rude and Barbarous Kingdom: Russia in the Accounts of Sixteenth-Century English Voyagers and Malia, M., Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum.
As well as the above, several excellent books and articles on the historical Western othering of Russia informed this piece, and which I recommend for further reading:
I. B. Neumann, Russia as Europe’s Other (1996) (this is especially succinct and provided the basis for this piece).
M. S. Anderson, Britain’s Discovery of Russia, 1553-1815 (1958)
M. Confino, ‘Re-Inventing the Enlightenment: Western Images of Eastern Realities in the Eighteenth Century’, Canadian Slavonic Papers,Vol.36, Nos. 3-4 (September-December 1994), pp.505-522R.
R.G. Suny, ‘Reading Russia and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century: how the ‘West’ wrote its history of the USSR’ in R. G. Suny (ed.), The Cambridge History of Russia: Volume III The Twentieth Century (2006)
S. Webb and B. Webb, Is Soviet Communism a New Civilisation? (1936)
J.D.J. Brown, ‘A stereotype, Wrapped in a Cliche, Inside a Caricature: Russian Foreign Policy and Orientalism‘, Politics: 2010 Vol. 30 (3), pp.149-159
A. Litvin and J. Keep, Stalinism: Russian and Western views at the turn of the millenium (2005)
© Ariane Galy and History Box, 2015.