20 February 2014

A critique of Russophobia

For his trouble, Stephen F. Cohen will most likely be branded an "apologist" for Russia or for the government of Vladimir Putin. It wouldn't surprise me if some accused him of being a hireling propagandist for the Russian president. Cohen has published the latest of his occasional critiques of American policy toward Russia in the March 3 issue of The Nation. His criticism is sweeping: across the board, or across the political spectrum, the American media has propagated a "shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory" caricature of Russia and its government, based upon a "relentless demonization of Putin." He traces the American attitude to our disappointment that Putin did not continue the "liberal" policies of Boris Yeltsin. "If Russia under Yeltsin was presented as having legitimate politics and national interests," Cohen writes, Americans "are now made to believe that Putin's Russia has none at all, at home or abroad -- even on its own borders, as in Ukraine."

I received my copy of the magazine as the news reported the collapse of a truce between government and opposition in Ukraine and a renewal of the violence which many in this country blame on Putin and Russia's desire to exercise hegemony over his western neighbor. Cohen writes a different story of the Ukraine crisis, arguing that the western/liberal media have exaggerated the extent to which President Yanukovich has moved toward dictatorship while minimizing the unsavory elements among the opposition. Read any comment thread on a Ukraine story and you'll see what he's talking about. Supporters of Yanukovich portray the pro-EU opposition, based in the west of the country, as fascists or neo-Nazis, while defenders of the dissidents dismiss such charges as government (or Russian) lies. The truth, it seems is that not all or maybe not many of the dissidents are fascists, but Cohen is probably right to observe that the reality of a fascist or quasi-fascist element is downplayed by reporters looking for a story of freedom fighters. Cohen also challenges claims that Russia bullied Ukraine into rejecting a trade deal with the EU, noting that the Europeans instead gave Ukraine an either/or ultimatum while Putin had proposed a "tripartite arrangement" that would have given everyone something. Behind it all, Cohen perceives a persistent desire on the part of the west to minimize Russia's influence anywhere.

Cohen questions whether "any Soviet Communist leader after Stalin [was] ever so personally villainized" as Putin.  He concedes that Putin has some "authoritarian" qualities, but insists that he "lacks such power" as the "autocrat" label implies. Likewise, Cohen takes a sentence to concede that "Russia today has serious problems and many repugnant Kremlin policies," but his main point remains that these have been blown out of proportion by the west. There may be geopolitical or economic reasons for this, but Cohen should know that Russophobia is nothing new. Long before the Bolshevik revolution, Romanov Russia embodied tyranny in western eyes. The country's sheer size and its (unfair?) reputation for simultaneous servility and brutality make Russia a threatening mass on the map. Since our first modern age of revolutions in the late 18th century, Russia has been identified with reactionary authoritarianism, its long experiment with totalitarian revolution in the 20th century paradoxically reconfirming the stereotype. While Cohen can look for immediate material causes for 21st century Russophobia, the lasting problem has been the identification of Russia with tyranny, a perception not exactly refuted by its defense of the Assad government in Syria and its stance against "humanitarian intervention" against other alleged tyrannies. If Russia has a distorted image in the west, it's because people here assume that Russia represents tyranny, asserts it as a guiding principle the way the U.S. supposedly represents and asserts "liberty." A deeper problem than Russophobia, perhaps, is the assumption that there exists a global entity called "tyranny" that is perpetually contesting "liberty" for dominion over the globe. From this perspective, anything that benefits Russia benefits tyranny worldwide and weakens liberty. This has been going on so long with Russia that it's probably a conscious lie for only a few people. What Cohen is trying to do, I think, is make people see Russia first as a nation like any other nation, with interests and rights like any other nation and no unique commitment to tyranny. That doesn't mean that Putin or his Cossacks don't push around or literally flog dissidents more than is ideal. But it's one thing to see these things and want Russia to change its ways, another to see them as proof that Russia threatens freedom around the world. Cohen challenges his American readers to take off their X-Ray Specs that purport to show Russia's true nature and see things as they are, not through the lens of ideology or ancient phobias. If that makes him an "apologist," I'm not sure that he really has much to apologize for.

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