Russophobia and Homophobia

Like so many marginalized ideas, “Russophobia” has moved from the fringes to the mainstream since Putin came to power.  Though the term has a long history (dating back at least to a letter by Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev in 1867), it only began to gain currency in the 1980s, thanks to the work of Igor Shafarevich (more about him next time). This is not to say that the phenomenon “Russophobia” purports to describe did not exist before the term was coined; quite to the contrary, “Russophobia” follows a path parallel to “homophobia,” or at least to “homosexuality.”  Just as homosexual acts clearly occurred before the invention of the modern “homosexual” at the turn of the last century, the idea of anti-Russian sentiment gains discursive power only when the term becomes available.  The word “Russophobia” inevitably forms and deforms the contours of the debate about hostility to Russia.  Accusing someone of hating Russia and charging them with “Russophobia” appear to be the same thing, but function quite differently. 

The slipperiness of the word is a function of the vagueness of its referent:  just what, exactly, is the object of the “phobia”? Is it Russia, or ethnic Russians?  If it’s Russia, then the term belongs more to geopolitics; if it’s ethnic Russians, then we are dealing with xenophobia or racism.  The confusion is part of the larger question of Russian-related nomenclature in the Russian language:  Russian provides two terms for “Russian,” one derived from ancient Rus’ (russkii), the other from modern Rossiia (rossiiskii / rossianin).  [1] The second term is more bureaucratic, but it reflects the reality of the Russian Federation as a multi-ethnic state whose majority ethnicity is “Russian.” Thus one can be “from Russia” (rossianin”) but not ethnically “Russian” (russkii). Or, if you are an ethnic Russian living in, say, Estonia, you might be “russkii”, but not “from Russia” or a “Russian citizen” (rossianin). But whenever we are dealing with questions of culture, “russkii” is still the adjective of choice.  The “Russian World” (“russkii mir”), Putin’s recent emphasis on a common Russian cultural space, may smack of cultural imperialism, but it  would be both more threatening and more confusing if it were “rossiiskii mir,” stressing the geographic entity and the state rather than the language and the culture. 

Given the current Russian emphasis on “traditional values,” there is something supremely satisfying about the fact that the “Russophobia” looks like a homology of “homophobia.” The “phobia” part of “homophobia” presumes that anti-LGBT animus is based primarily on fear (rather than on, say, moral outrage or disgust), and also suggests a connection to a fear of the “homo” within oneself.  While Russophobia can have a strong component of self-hatred as part of internal Russian debates, it’s a safe bet that foreign hostility towards Russia or Russians is not rooted in an anxiety about latent Russianness.



If there is any connection between Russophobia and homophobia currently, it would be that the two concepts function as implicit opposites in contemporary Russian discourse. Homosexuality, framed as both a foreign infection and the result of “gay propaganda” and predation, is a failure in the proper, traditions, patriotic education of youth; it is a failure of Russianness. By contrast, Russianness is something essential and unconstructed, a transcendent value that is as much a matter of metaphysics as of genetics and language.  And yet, Russianness, like heterosexuality, is posited as fragile: always under attack by Russophobia forces, it can be subverted and suppressed through the promotion of foreign values and liberal propaganda.  As the popular nationalist saying goes, “Russians aren’t born; Russians are made” (русскими не рождаются, русскими становятся”).  No one, apparently, is “born this way."


Tomorrow: Russophobia and Anti-Americanism: Two Terrible Terms that Deserve Each Other



[1] I’m sticking to the masculine gender here out of linguistic rather than political concerns. I am trying my best to make this discussion understandable even to those who do not speak Russian, which is why   the words are transliterated rather than rendered in Cyrillic.  Non-Russian speakers are more likely to be familiar with “russkii” than the feminine “russkaia”.