What Isn't Russophobia?

Assessing the validity of Russophobia, whether as an overall concept or as an accusation regarding discrete incidents, is something of a minefield, since there is no way to occupy a secure position.  My status as an outside observer is something I wrestle with throughout this book, precisely because of the real danger of oversimplifying or orientalizing Russia. Certainly, the last thing I want to do is to reduce Russia to some sort of basic essence; quite the contrary, most of the (Russian) ideas I critique are themselves examples of essentialism.  

Yet there is something distasteful about an outsider dismissing someone else’s claim of discrimination, belittlement, or hostility as simply the product of their overactive imagination.  I’ve always tried to follow the American progressive practice of giving the benefit of the doubt to claims made by representatives of a group to which I don’t belong. Majority status does not grant automatic neutrality; instead, it accords the privilege of erroneously assuming your position is universal, a privilege that operates most effectively when it is never subject to question. The problem is mistaking privilege for neutrality. 

The key here is the question of personal experience and its relevance to claims of Russophobia.  And when Russophobia is deployed in either the English-language or Russian-language media, it rarely refers to the personal.  That is to say, while there are no doubt many instances when people identified as Russian are treated badly by non-Russians, these do not play a large part in Russophobia discourse (with the status of ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries and Ukraine being the obvious, glaring exception). 

For a counterexample of, if not Russophobia, then a general prejudice against people from “Eastern Europe,” we need look no further than the very recent controversy surrounding Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention.  A large portion of her remarks appeared to be lifted from a speech by Michelle Obama (although the SparklePony theory still has its adherents). 

On July 20, The Monkey Cage blog (hosted by The Washington Post) featured an article by Monika Nalepa entitled “Melania Trump and the culture of cheating in Eastern European schools." Nalepa claims that violations of academic integrity are pervasive in the educational systems of postsocialist countries, a claim that I am not particularly interested in addressing right now.  But there was no evidence to connect this alleged “Eastern European” tradition with Melania Trump’s actual practice, particularly in a world of speechwriters.  If we all take for granted that politicians are not the sole authors of their own public addresses, why would anyone assume that a fabulously wealthy, former supermodel-turned-trophy-wife for whom English is a second language would sit down and write (or steal) her speech entirely on her own? [1]  

Melania Trump is Slovenian, not Russian, so Russophobia is obviously not an accurate description of this particular kerfuffle.  But the orientalizing character of Nalepa’s original article is analogous to what a more personalized Russophobia would be.  That is to say, if she were Russian and not Slovenian, she would be open to the same attack within Nalepa’s framework, and, even though the broader context here is based on stereotypes about the entire “Second World,” one could easily imagine the incident being called “Russophobic."  

This imaginary scenario also exposes the weakness of “Russophobia” as personalized discrimination against Russians outside of Russia, since it has nothing to do with what Russians consider Russian ethnicity.  Outside of Russia and Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, it is highly unlikely that the distinction between an “ethnic” Russian and a Russian-speaking Jew or a Russian-speaking ethnic German would be at all comprehensible.  In other words, we don’t know enough to be properly bigoted.   

While we have yet to reckon with Russophobia as it plays out discursively within Russia’s borders, it is clear that the term’s deployment in relation to Western countries is far less about the personal experience of discrimination.  This does not mean that this sort of bias is absent, but simply that it is not what we are talking about when we talk about Russophobia.  Instead, the victim of Russophobia is usually construed not as Russians, but as Russia itself.  The offended party is the State.  

Next: Enemies of the State

Note

[1] I refer all interested parties to the very detailed takedown published by Balkanist on July 24.