Category Archives: National History

Rude and Barbarous Kingdom: Russia under Western Eyes


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.

Je suis Charlie: Lost in Translation?


Along with everyone else, I watched in horror the events that unfolded in Paris last week, which saw the assassination of ten Charlie Hebdo journalists and the caretaker of their office building, two police officers and four Jews in three related terror attacks. Since then, I have observed with interest the French response to these attacks, most notably of course under the ‘Je suis Charlie’ motto. For reasons I will explain in this piece, I haven’t been surprised by the mass response to the shootings, but I have been struck by the level of criticism aimed at it.

Some of this criticism has been the inevitable pseudo-intellectual disdain for anything that is mass, and therefore immediately condemnable as unthinking or ignorant. I have read, for instance, that the current mood is ‘moral hysteria’ and that ‘When people don’t know their own minds – but think they do – they are liable to be swept away by self-righteous moral passion’. I have also read that it is ‘arrogant’ to try and colonise the experience of the victims, and that proclaiming ‘Je suis Charlie’ is a ‘Low risk, cost free’ show of solidarity. As ever, the arrogance of this kind of piece dismays me, as does the eagerness of the ‘intellectual’ community to gobble it up because it thinks it makes it look cleverer than everyone else.

On the other hand, the difficulty that many are having with reconciling the mass adoption of ‘Je suis Charlie’ to the current climate in France – and elsewhere – is of course entirely valid. France has desperate integration issues as do many other countries struggling with increasingly polarised societies where the more extreme ends of cultures and religion clash dangerously. As a result, millions of French citizens marching in reaction to the shootings can smack of hypocrisy, of ignorance and of provocation, as can the support of citizens of other countries.

While there is obviously a pressing need to address all of the issues that have been highlighted by the attacks and the varying responses to them, there is also a problem with the patronising assumption by so many commentators that French citizens are not aware of the apparent dichotomy between ‘Je suis Charlie’ and the reality of the situation. In fact, for the most part, they are. As this marcher states on his banner, ‘I am marching but I am aware of the confusion and the hypocrisy of the situation’:


So why then is he even marching? It is clear to me, both as a French national and as a historian, that an explanation for the massive and emotive response to the shootings in Paris can be found in the history of the French Republic.

During the European Enlightenment of the ‘long’ eighteenth century (1685-1815), ideas of equality and freedom became increasingly popular and widespread. When the French Revolution came about in 1789 abolishing the monarchy, separating religion from power and establishing the First Republic, these notions were a natural fit for a revolutionary slogan. And so ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ – ‘Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood’ – was born.

Today, these values are part of the mythology and legacy of the French Revolution. Perhaps without knowing France well, it is difficult to understand the omnipresence of these in French civic life: the slogan is on nearly all public buildings; it is exuberantly celebrated on the 14th July every year; it is constantly referenced in political speeches and in education. When I was eight years old, my school celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the Revolution by asking our parents to dress us up as little revolutionaries so that we may spend the day waving banners and shouting out those hallowed ideals. They are an inextricable part of the cultural and historical fabric of France and of French national identity.

lef ou la mort

In what may seem like an ironic twist, the aim of upholding these values has always been to ensure civic integration. Together with France’s post-Revolutionary public sphere secularism, equality, freedom and brotherhood were four principles that were intended to be implemented to ensure that all French citizens, regardless of race or religion, would be treated as equals and would be able to co-exist peacefully in accordance with the law and the principles of the Republic.

Regardless of whether they disagree with or are offended by Charlie Hebdo, the attacks on the paper have been so difficult for the French to swallow partly for this reason. However, there has a been a deep misunderstanding about this outside of France, where ideas of peaceful integration and tolerance have been erroneously pitched as the opposite of what Charlie Hebdo stands for. I have read many an accusation that Charlie Hebdo is a white boys’ club, that it is a base form of racist or xenophobic persecution aimed at already marginalised groups, disingenuously concealed behind the banner of freedom of expression.

In fact, Charlie Hebdo has always stood for the values of the Revolution, mocking with searing satire the failures of the French government or French society to uphold them. If you don’t keep up to date with French news, it is difficult to understand the context of most of the cartoons. Their construction is complex and one cartoon often alludes to several French news items of that week.

And of course, Charlie Hebdo is part of that other dearly held French revolutionary legacy, subversive satire. It has probably become increasingly clear to anyone previously unfamiliar with the genre that we are not talking a light chuckle along the lines of Spitting Image here, we are talking satire which is most often offensive, obscene and provocative in the extreme. This type of satire had already been prominent in France long before the Revolution although highly popular pornographic cartoons of Marie-Antoinette helped to cement its position in French culture as they were used to ridicule the monarchy and rally opposition in the lead up to the Revolution.


Underpinning this satire is the secularism established in post-Revolutionary France. When France declared its public sphere to be secular in 1790, the law no longer recognised blasphemy as an offense. It may surprise many that in a country often considered Catholic, a tradition of radical anticlericalism was born, and nowhere has this been more vigorously manifested than in the French satirical press. And, historically, this satire has aimed fire not at religious doctrine per se, but at its more fanatical, fundamentalist forms. In France, religious, political and social satire must be able to exist freely even, and especially, in its most offensive forms in order to uphold the founding values of the Republic.

It is obvious, however, that the conceptual world of the revolutionary legacy and the reality of modern day France aren’t correlating, a fact that has engendered much of the criticism for the ‘Je suis Charlie’ movement. Yet the millions of marching French citizens, whatever their ethnicity and religion, and whatever their personal views on Charlie Hebdo, are saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ exactly for this reason. ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ as well as French secularity and satire have since their founding days been about ensuring peaceful multi-ethnic, multi-religious integration and coexistence. ‘Je suis Charlie’ is both a cry for these ideals to be upheld and a protest that they have failed to be.


For further reading on the role of the revolutionary slogan in modern day France:

For an excellent explanation of the way in which Charlie Hebdo cartoons are constructed:

© Ariane Galy and History Box, 2015.