Russophobia: Why things don't add up

5th July 2016

5th July 2016

Putinphobia: Understanding its basis

By Catherine Brown

Imagine that Vladimir Putin were not a murderous autocrat and kleptocrat who has spent his 14 years in power living up to his KGB past and dragging Russia ever back towards Communist autocracy, illiberalism, and expansionism. Imagine that instead he were one of the greatest leaders that Russia has had, whose policies have helped produce a massive rise in living standards and life expectancy, recuperation of national pride, and enforcement of the rule of law, who has tackled kleptocrats and gangsters wisely and well, whose foreign policy has on balance been realistic, diplomatic, and conducive to peace, who has presided over a country of which the human rights record is considerably better than that of the United States and in which civil rights are improving, and who richly deserves the steady support of 65% – currently at a Ukraine-related high of 83% – of the population that he possesses. It is my understanding that the reality is closer to the second scenario than the first – and I may note that I say this as someone with no ethnic, financial, professional or political ties to Russia whatsoever. It follows that I am not a Russian expert – but nor am I, on the other hand, parti pris. I am a friendly, distanced observer of the country.

Let me start by explaining the history of my connection to the country. When I was a teenager my somewhat timid and unimaginative school uncharacteristically decided to organise a trip to a wacky place such as Russia, where, as it seemed, considerable political change happened to be taking place. So it was that I visited the Soviet Union during the last month of its existence, whilst myself having almost as little conception of what the Soviet Union was, as of what might be about to replace it. Some years later, in my year, so-called ‘out’, before university, I found myself living on the Danube’s South bank in Ruse, Bulgaria, learning some Bulgarian but telling myself that if ever I properly learned a Slavic language it would be one that would allow me to converse with hundreds of millions not just seven million users. After a degree in English I made a diagonal move into an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at the London School of Economics, where it was abundantly clear that Britain’s finest kremlinogists had had very little idea that or when the Soviet Union was going to end – and who, tsarist nostalgists and Soviet nostalgists alike – were dismayed at what was happening in the country at the time. The worst time was already over when, in 2002, I moved to Moscow to improve my book-learned Russian, and to teach English. I became amongst other things an Anglo-Russian literary comparatist, and have visited the country at least annually since then.

The Moscow I remember of 1991 was febrile, almost but not quite panicked, and throngingly poor. The Moscow I remember of 2002 can best be summarised with the word ‘rough’. Though safe in ways in which London isn’t – I often used private cars as taxis, alone, at night – there were also several obvious ways to die which London lacked. Open manhole covers, slipping drunk in the snow, crossfire. This was ‘diky capitalism’ – wild capitalism, with its gloves decidedly off. Legless – literally – Afghan vets pushing themselves through the snow, their torsos balanced on makeshift skateboards. Families camped out singing for their supper. Concert-quality violinists busking. Professional gymnasts stripping in nightclubs. Makeup stores where Western brands were sold at what I at first thought were ruble prices but were in fact hugely inflated and illegal US dollar prices. My employer at a private English school wasn’t paying tax, on the grounds that he couldn’t both do that and be solvent. Police one crossed the street to avoid – both because one’s own affairs would inevitably involve some illegality, and because they were underpaid and relied on bribes.

A year later, on a visit, the situation was slightly better. The most extravagant misery was no longer apparent. A year later, better still. And that has been the consistent pattern on all my visits since then. Capitalism has been getting its gloves back on. Public facilities are in a much better state. Nothing is sold in dollars and Western brands have Russian rivals. A sensible tax structure means that businesses and salaried employees can and do pay their taxes. One sees no-one drunk in public. Muscovite women no longer exaggerate their femininity in a way which testifies to financial insecurity and a strenuous imitation of a pornographically-imagined West. And most reassuringly of all, to Westerners used to this custom, people have begun to smile. Even the hardest cases – the babushki guarding the museum rooms, and the border guards at passport control – will now return a smile. Last year, for the first time, I felt that Russia was in a new phase – the post-post-Soviet, in which people are no longer waiting for normality to be re-established, or yearning to live in a ‘normal’ country. A new normality, and a new optimism, have emerged.

My locus of pulse-taking of the country has usually been Moscow – to a lesser extent St Petersburg, Nizhnii Novgorod, and Perm – but from what I hear of the rest of the country, the improvement has been, if slower, widespread and also steady.

Now this period of my acquaintance has coincided with Putin’s time in power. 
It is one feature of the Western media treatments of Russia that it makes Putin metonymic of the country, one of its assumptions being his increasingly autocratic control of it. I dispute that assumption; but I have no doubt that Putin has had a decisive impact on Russian politics in this century. For this reason, my target in this post is not only Russophobia but Putinophobia, and I consider these to be related biases: here I am taking a phobia in the sense of a negative prejudice.

The impetus for this post is my sense that the Russia which I have got to know, and the Russia I see described in Western and specifically British mainstream media, have become increasingly discrepant. As Russia, in my experience, has improved with regard to just about every indicator I can think of, its image in the Western press has deteriorated. Now, there are all kinds of ways in which improving living standards could be compatible with increasing autocracy and international belligerence – one thinks of Hitler. But I believe that no such combination pertains in Putin’s case.

I will just finish this introduction with an anecdote. This April I visited the British Council in Moscow and spoke to two of its young Russian employees. One expects such people to be broadly Western-orientated and Anglophile. Part of their job was to analyse British press coverage of Russia, and, for as long as they were under the mistaken impression that I was a BBC journalist, they were guarded to the point of hostility. When I clarified my position as an academic, and a sceptic of British coverage of Russia, they burst into smiles, and shared with me how depressed reading and watching this coverage makes them. I know no Russian who has any knowledge of Russia’s representation in Britain who is not strongly critical of it. I too am depressed by it, specifically because I think that it is intellectually and morally demeaning, and counter-productive to a dangerous degree.

In the rest of this post I’m not going to simply contrast mainstream British and American media assertions with my own. What I will try to do is describe a few of the ways in which what I consider to be a false image is constructed, and the factors favouring the survival of this image – in the hope that if my description of those processes rings true, then it may influence your responses to the media’s representations henceforth. Finally, I will consider the practical effects of the media’s image of Russia.

The means of its creation are the usual suspects in cases of bias: distortion of fact through exaggeration, understatement, and fabrication; false inferences; inconsistent application of standards; and misuse of language.

To start with exaggeration: the argument that Putin has overwhelming control of the Russian media is often highly overstated. Much TV is state-owned, but some of the state-owned channels, such as RIA Novosti, criticise Putin, as do many radio stations and newspapers. Putin gets far more criticism in the Russian press as a whole than does Cameron in the British press. Now this isn’t comparing like for like, since there might in theory be more grounds for criticising Putin – but it is nonetheless a fact, which conflicts with part of the image of Russia as frequently presented. The internet is freer than it is in Britain – one reason why online intellectual piracy is rife – and many Russians get their news from the internet. Government control of the media therefore cannot convincingly be adduced as a significant reason for Putin’s consistently high popularity ratings.

Protests against him, on the other hand, receive coverage far out of proportion to their size – even as overestimated, despite the fact that large, peaceful protests indicate the right to protest. The demonstrations in Moscow after the March 2012 presidential election are a case in point. Coverage of such protests also involved understatement of their most important political component – the Communists. Support for the Communist Party is running at a steady 20%, making it by far the most important opposition party. The British media, however, focuses overwhelmingly on the ‘liberal’ opposition. It is understandable that it does this given that that is the tendency which it supports, but it also gives a false impression that the ‘liberal’ opposition is in fact at present the main one. Footage of the demonstrations in which the Communist flag predominated undermined the British commentary which was voiced over it.

This exaggeration of size and importance both of the protests and of the liberal component in them, is clearly the product of wishful thinking – but if one is really interested in seeing the replacement of Putin by a liberal, it does one no favours to overstate the current importance of the liberal opposition even to oneself. One should instead confront the fact that the liberal parties combined poll around only 5% of the vote, and should then try to work out what is wrong with these parties’ message and or leaders, and/or what is wrong with the voters’ ability to perceive the attractiveness of their message.

But the most important elision in coverage of Russia is of those improvements in demographic indicators, living standards, national affluence, and the rule of law, which I mentioned. During his first twelve years in power GDP increased by some 850%. The country is now largely debtless, with a large reserve of currency reserves. Due to Putin’s policies revenues from oil now serve the national economy. Mortality has sharply declined, and the birth rate increased.

Then there is fabrication, or speculation presented as fact.

A good example of this is Putin’s personal wealth – which has received some fantastically high estimates in Forbes and Bloomberg, including that he is the ninth richest man in the world, or indeed the richest man. These theories took much of their impetus from claims by two men, analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, cousin of Berezovsky, and liberal politician Boris Nemtsov. The allegations are that he secretly owns a large part or all of Gazprom and related energy companies such as Gunvor. Indeed, when The Economist published allegations about Putin’s ownership of Gunvor in 2008 it was sued and forced to print a retraction. There are probably only a very few people in the world who actually know the size and precise form of Putin’s wealth: he himself, and one or two others. I would only observe, first, that specific allegations have not been proved; second, that speculations should not be presented as confirmed fact; and third, that nothing which is known about Putin’s history and proud, workaholic character suggests someone to whom the things that money can buy have a strong appeal; a sybaritic Goering he is not.

Other claims made about corruption in Russia are self-evidently absurd. Certain claims made about corruption at the Sochi Olympics would, if true, mean that more money had been lost to corruption than the entire GDP of the country.

The credulity leant to the claims made by critics of Putin by virtue of being made by Putin’s critics leads me onto one false inductive inference found commonly in coverage of Putin: that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. When combined with the assumption that there is governmental interference in the operation of the law in Russia, this has the outcome that when somebody who is accused of a crime in Russia voices criticism of Putin they effectually enlist on their side in protestation of their innocence a preponderance of the British media.

That is, not only is my enemy’s enemy my friend, and not only is Putin’s critic therefore my friend, but Putin’s critic is innocent – not only negatively innocent of any crime as charged, but positively innocent and good, because by virtue of opposing a tyrant they are dissident, and therefore of the same genre of person as the saintly Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov. In actual fact, a prisoner with political views is not the same as a political prisoner.

It is true that the Russian legal system is less fair than the British, and lacks several of its important features in both criminal and civil law – for example the principle of disclosure of adverse evidence. The system is young, having been created for the new capitalist system at the end of Communism. Many of the lawyers and judges are therefore still relatively young and inexperienced, and adhere rather too closely to the letter of the law. Defence is still not as well established a profession as prosecution, and this shows. These factors affect the justice of all trials in the country.

But two things must immediately be added to this. First, that the situation is getting gradually better. Putin did not destroy the independence of the judiciary; before him it scarcely existed, and is being gradually built up. Second, the allegation that all trials of Putin’s critics are unjust by the standards of the system as it exists has very little evidence to support it.

In the 1990s much of Russia’s wealth corruptly and often violently became the private property of a few so-called oligarchs. When Putin became President he made them an offer that constituted quite possibly the optimum intersection of pragmatism, forward-thinking, and justice. They could either pay back some of their unpaid tax, invest some of their wealth in their home regions, and refrain from leveraging their wealth into political power – or be prosecuted for their past crimes as committed. Some, like Abramovich, accepted the compromise offered, and have flourished. Others, like Khodorkovsky, didn’t. His trial for tax evasion was widely criticised in the West as politically motivated and unfair. What has scarcely been reported is that on 25th July 2013 the European Court of Human Rights (to which Russia as a member of the Council of Europe is subject) found that the trial was not politically motivated, that Khodorkovsky was guilty as charged, and that he was appropriately sentenced (although it found certain procedural irregularities in his treatment, for which it ordered compensation to be paid). In other cases, such as those of Pussy Riot and would-be presidential candidate Aleksei Navalny (whose appeals to the European Court of Human Rights have yet to be heard), the defendants were found guilty of crimes under Russian law on the basis of strong evidence, and were given sentences which not only fitted well within the range of sentences available for the crime concerned, but which resembled sentences which the same crimes would have received were they committed in Britain. In Britain, Pussy Riot would have been charged under the Public Order Act 1986, for offences under which the maximum sentence is two years in prison (which is what Pussy Riot received). Navalny would have been charged under the Theft Act 1968, for offences under which the maximum sentence is six years (Navalny received five). In certain respects the operation of the Russian law is more lenient than the British. Prior to their ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, members of Pussy Riot had performed public sex in a museum, and thrown live cats at workers in a McDonalds restaurant. In Britain such acts could have resulted in prison sentences of at least two years, whereas in Russia they were not prosecuted at all. One reason why Pussy Riot were prosecuted for their ‘punk prayer’ was that it disrupted and parodied a religious act of worship, which is specifically prohibited under Russian (as also British) law, and which is particularly comprehensible in a country with a history of state persecution of religion.

Finally, criticism of the conviction on well-founded criminal charges of those who have opposed Putin amounts to a demand that anyone who has opposed Putin should be above the law simply by that virtue. It should rather be argued that Putin’s closest allies (such as the former defence minister Serdyukov, whose trial for fraud has been much delayed), if suspected of criminal activities, should not be above the law. To do the inverse is to argue that the rule of law in Russia be undermined. Indeed, it is implicitly to argue that Putin should prevent the law taking its course in the case of anyone who criticises him, which is the same as calling for political interference in the law, which is precisely what is ostensibly being criticised. If the point is made that not all oligarchs have been treated equally, the proper response is to demand that they all be held accountable for their crimes, not none of them.

It is worth adding that supporting anyone, no matter how criminally malodorous, provided that they publically oppose Putin, turns us into their useful idiots, and makes us appear idiotic to many Russians who cannot understand on what basis other than political enmity such a person as Boris Berezovsky was given asylum in Britain rather than being extradited to stand trial for crimes in Russia.

Internationally, something of the same dynamic of support for an enemy’s enemy is apparent. NATO is hostile to Russia, therefore, for some, there is a reason to support NATO. But on what bases do NATO and Russia disagree?
 First, Russia weakly or strongly opposed NATO’s interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Which was right depends on your attitude towards those interventions, but if one desires peace rather than war – civil or otherwise – then Russia rather than NATO should be judged to have acted better.

Second, NATO has behaved with much greater hostility towards Russia than Russia towards it. In 1990 both the EU and NATO promised Russia they would not expand Eastwards. Since then they have done that relentlessly. Russia has done almost nothing in response. It did, however, protest loudly and understandably against the planned deployment of US ballistic missile interceptors in Poland and Romania. The US would certainly not tolerate Russia basing similar systems in Cuba or Venezuela.

This brings us on to inconsistent application of standards. The Russian government is almost invariably interpreted in the worst possible light by being held to higher standards than other countries.

Let’s take the recent controversial ‘gay law’. Such positive aspect as the Russian government uncharacteristically and briefly enjoyed in the eyes of Edward Snowden’s supporters when he was granted asylum in Russia was quickly lost in the US-centred campaign against the gay law which began immediately afterwards. The law making it an ‘administrative offence’ [minor crime] to present homosexuality in a positive light to minors is a bad law, because it makes a minor offence out of something which was scarcely practised and which should not be banned. It explicitly outlaws ‘homosexual paedophile propaganda’ whilst making no mention of ‘heterosexual paedophile propaganda’. However, in Russia private and public homosexuality is as legal as heterosexuality – yet there was negligible support for a boycott on for example Qatar, scheduled to hold the World Cup, which has vastly more repressive anti-gay legislation. Furthermore several US states have anti-gay legislation much stronger than what exists in Russia, but nobody has proposed any kind of boycott of America on this basis. Pro-gay American barmen did not pour Scotch whiskey down the drains between 1988 and 2003 to protest against the very similar law (Section 28 of the Local Government Act) which was then in place in Britain. It seems clear that the anti-Russian gay law campaign flourished because of Russophobia – the phenomenon I am describing. You may remember during the coverage of the Sochi Olympics there was Claire Balding being genially responsive to the impressive facilities and the warm support of the local Russians, standing alongside BBC Russian correspondent Daniel Sandford, who would repeatedly interject – rather in the manner of a Soviet commissar – comments such as: ‘ah, but we must never forget that this is the country where the presentation of homosexuality to minors in a positive light is an administrative offence’.

I am not saying that any amount of impressive facilities and warm locals should whitewash egregious human rights violations – but the Russian gay law simply isn’t that. Russia’s leading gay activist, Nikolai Alexeyev, became increasingly distressed at the way in which the US-based anti-gay-law campaign was being used as a tool of Russophobia. On the 17th August 2013 he tweeted: ‘All Western media want to hear from me that Russia is shit and I don’t want to take part in this hypocrisy. So all interviews are over!’ For this reaction, he, a brave campaigner against the gay law, was unfairly branded a stooge of Putin – and so a divide opened up between Russophobic pro-gay activists and Russian gay activists, whose job it is to actually change opinions on the ground.

 (This article originally appeared in Off Guardian).

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