The mist dried from the Western eye with the ascent of the strongman Putin—viewed, not without reason, as a sort of composite throwback to the autocrats of the Soviet and czarist past. Feelings of revulsion reentered the discourse. “The Russians, on whom I have wasted far too much of my life, are drink-sodden barbarians who occasionally puke up a genius,” Ralph Peters, a retired army lieutenant colonel and commentator, declared in 2008 at an American Enterprise Institute forum on Putin’s invasion of Georgia. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin, however cynically, embraced “old” Russian traditions like Orthodoxy, and he baldly affirmed that Russia had its own special character and destiny and was not to be a “second edition” of America or Britain. As a KGB officer he had been stationed in Dresden, and he bridled at ingrained Western preconceptions of Russians as “a little bit savage still,” as if “they just climbed down from the trees,” as he remarked to a group of American journalists back in 2007.
And now, a century and a half after the Crimean War, the conflict that arose there this year serves as a reminder of the durability of American and European derision for Russia, seen as “a gas station masquerading as a country,” in the words of Senator John McCain. “Russia is an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics,” Anne Applebaum, an author and journalist who is married to Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, wrote in Slate. (The headline: “Russia Will Never Be Like Us.”) The seemingly everlasting British tradition of Russophobia is nowadays embodied by an editor at the Economist, Edward Lucas, a former Moscow bureau chief for that magazine who, in a Daily Mail column back in May, labored to draw scary parallels between Hitler and Putin in their respective “expansionist” ambitions. While Putin’s actions no doubt fall far short of Hitler’s atrocities, “the Austrian corporal and the German-speaking ex-spy do share troubling similarities,” Lucas said. “History may not repeat itself. But, as Mark Twain once said, it often rhymes.” And in an imagined letter sent by Machiavelli to Putin, crafted by Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, Russia’s leader is scolded, “You have just reaffirmed a historic Russian habit: You would rather be the great spoiler and outsider.” Surely Europe, though, as Joffe must be keenly aware, has seen a great many spoilers in its periodic lettings of blood and gore. The history of Europe, it sometimes seems, is a prolonged case of pots calling kettles black.
IT IS TEMPTING to conclude on this note, punctuated with the wry observation by the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev that “the Russians have a disturbing effect upon the peoples of the West.” So they do. But the story has another and maybe even more curious facet. For it is also the case that a prime source of negative stereotypes about Russia—and of a seeming desire for a wiping away of “traditional” Russia—comes from within the bosom of Mother Russia herself.
The truth is, Russia often has been maddening to a certain strata of educated Russians (and by Russians I mean not just ethnic Russians, strictly speaking, but all peoples native to or attaching themselves to Russia). A recurrent motif, just as in the West, is Russia’s inherent and seemingly inescapable backwardness, as captured in Gogol’s supposed quip that Russia has just two problems—duraki i dorogi (fools and roads). Lenin, born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in the Russian heartland, was a standout student of Greek and Latin who came to see old-style Russian institutions and beliefs—czarist autocracy, the land-bound wooden-hut peasantry, icon-worshipping Orthodoxy—as so retrograde as to be beyond the scope of reform. The solution was demolition. Lenin castigated “that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist” as “in substance a rascal and a tyrant.” And his utopian dream, of course, was for Russia to fade away into a transnational amalgamation of the global proletariat.
This, then, is the tortured dynamic—the tension between a Russian intelligentsia with a liberal, radical or revolutionary critique of the country and a populace and a political elite generally accepting of Russian traditions and at times embracing them with fervor. And the criticism tends not to stop at the leader of the moment—in the current instance, Putin, who often does seem to be heartless and cynical, as in his efforts to dodge any responsibility for the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane—but rather to include the Russian people themselves. In 2002, with Putin embarked on post-Soviet Russia’s second war in Chechnya, and with the public rallying in support, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote in the Los Angeles Times that
it is common knowledge that the Russian people are irrational by nature. The majority of them do not require candidates running for offices to provide clear-cut economic programs. In fact, the people are even slightly irritated, as opinion polls show, when a candidate is too intelligent—or at least more intelligent than the mass. At the same time, Russian people love macho—they love brutality, demonstrations of strong-handed policies and tough moves made for show.
Politkovskaya was certainly not wrong to discern a thuggish element in Putin’s Russia—she herself was murdered in Moscow in 2006, on the day, suspiciously, of Putin’s birthday. (Gangsters in Russia have a habit of making “presents,” solicited or not, on the name day of their “bosses.”) Still, what stand out are the sweeping and unsustainable generalizations—the idea that Russians are “irrational by nature” doesn’t square, for example, with a society that produced world-class scientists from Mikhail Lomonosov in the eighteenth century to Andrei Sakharov in the twentieth. Such declarations amount to a form of masochistic self-flagellation—and seem to hold Russians themselves as collectively culpable for producing malevolent leaders.
Nevertheless, such critics are influential in the West—and have found a welcome in leading U.S. publications. “Russians have told so many lies about themselves they hardly know who they are anymore,” Masha Gessen, a Russian American born in Soviet Moscow and currently living in the United States, began an essay last year in the New York Review of Books. “These days,” she continued, Putin
talks gibberish about Russia having a “cultural code,” which he seems to imagine is some sort of a spy code for the spirit. They should have started with food. There is no common Russian equivalent for the saying “you are what you eat,” but it is no accident that Russians have hardly any idea of distinctively Russian food.
The overstatements are easy enough to correct. In my own experience living in and traveling around Russia, I have had no trouble finding Russians with a secure sense of identity. Once I asked a friend in Moscow, a young history professor, if he could point to some essence of Russia. He immediately suggested the ancient Orthodox church known as Pokrova, situated at the confluence of the Nerl and Klyazma Rivers near the medieval capital city of Vladimir. Viewed from afar, the church seems to be floating on a pool of water, the clouds reflected on the surface. A religious symbol, yes—but also, my friend stressed, a symbol of Russia’s deep immersion in nature. Nor have I had difficulty finding food that Russians (including my own Russian Uzbek wife) assured me was characteristically Russian, such as the cold soup, okroshka, typically made of sour cream, vinegar, potatoes, cucumbers, eggs and dill, which is a summertime favorite in southwestern Russia in particular. (And yes, it is also enjoyed in Ukraine, large parts of which, for most of its history, have been part of a greater Russia.)
IT IS PERHAPS an exaggeration to say that the impulse of Putin’s critics inside Russia—some, not all, of them—to deny Russia its Russianness is simply a species of loathing, since such critics do have an ideal of what their Russia should be: a model that amounts to making Russia more like Europe and America. This alternate ideal leads to the current spectacle in which Russia is beaten over the head for its regressive stand on matters like gay rights—an issue that is at the cutting edge of civil-liberties activism in America and Europe but not of any particular resonance in Russia outside of progressive enclaves in places like Moscow. In the West, the Pussy Riot episode made celebrity dissidents of the feminist punk band jailed by Russian authorities for hooliganism for their stunt in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior two years ago when the group prayed, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin.” Masha Gessen enshrined the affair in her recent book, Words Will Break Cement, to a laudatory review by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post. But in Russia, an opinion poll found that only 5 percent of Russians believed Pussy Riot deserved “no punishment” and nearly 50 percent supported either mandatory labor or a large fine.
In this vein, the lectures directed at Russia on what it ought to be rival and possibly even exceed the instructions that today’s China also regularly gets from the West on how to better itself. Russia needs to “sort out some of its psychological issues,” including “paranoid projection,” an “inferiority complex” and “delayed adolescence,” Julia Ioffe, the New Republic’s leading writer on Russia, counseled this February. (The headline for the piece was “The Russians Think I’m a Russophobe? They’re Right.”) A Moscow-born Russian American, Ioffe was also the author of the cover story on how Russia is “falling apart.”