Delusions in place of knowledge and analysis – Western media coverage of Russia

Really this topic deserves a paper. I just have time for a quick post to point to the topic.

This is from an ‘associate editor’ at the Independent:

Russia has returned to type, arguably – paranoid, near-absolutist, revanchist, expansionist, nationalistic, imperial, and a place where human rights, in reality, don’t exist. Internally and externally, spying, espionage and assignation are a normal method of stagecraft. We know that Putin is close to being a modern-day dictator, a tsar in all but name, and the latest round of elections show he has no intention of releasing his grip on power.

Unfortunately this simplistic perspective seems to govern as a kind of meta-map of much of Western political-media thinking (I am not sure there is any significant gap between them) on Russia.

It contains an element of racial abuse.

More to the point it is simply wildly wrong.

“Paranoid”? Because the US has edged powerful missiles very close to your border? Putin might reply – just because they call you paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you.

“Revanchist and expansionist”. This is a myth. It is not just a misunderstanding; portraying Russia as expansionist justifies Western aggressive moves against Russia. (The ultimate dream of the West is to turn Russia into a compliant region of the world, integrated into the US global system, with no national political independence; they fully understand they will need to overturn the current Russian state in order to do this). This myth is often supported by quoting Putin who referred to the breakup of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century“. They usually miss the context. For the context we have to turn to an academic:

He reiterated that view in April 2005 when he characterized the break-up of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century’ but promptly added that it was impossible to fantasize about resurrecting the old Soviet state

Freeze, Gregory L.. Russia (p. 495). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

This point is confirmed by another academic – writing (it has to be said they can occasionally print something sensible) in the Indepdendent:

The view of some in the West that Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union is, I believe, a fantasy that a realist like Putin has himself rejected. Yes, in 2005 Putin commented that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century” and “a genuine tragedy” – a sentiment he shares with a majority of Russians. But pundits in the West are less eager to reference Putin’s other pronouncement that “He who does not regret the break-up of the Soviet Union has no heart; he who wants to revive it in its previous form has no head.” Ronald Suny History Professor Michigan

Where is the evidence for this “expansionism”? Since the collapse of the USSR where has Russia invaded? They have supported the regions of Georgia which wanted to break away – South Ossetia (which is tiny – a population of about 50,000 people) and Abkhazia. They support small regions which have heavy Russian-speaking local populations in Transnistria and Donbass. You don’t have to be a historian surely to grasp that with the fall of the Soviet Union there were always going to be a few contested border regions because of the way the USSR encouraged population migration. That’s it. They haven’t invaded anywhere – unlike of course the UK-UK who since 1991 have undertaken bombing campaigns and regime change operations all over the globe – killing hundreds of thousands and leaving whole countries in ruins. The idea of an expansionist Russia is a complete joke.

“Near-absolutist and imperial and Putin is like a Tsar”. Oh, the danger of reading a little history. The author of this article in the Independent has probably read one or two books on Russia imperial history and thinks he has sussed modern Russia. It is lazy thinking. “Imperial” – with no Empire? “Near absolutist” – in reality modern Russia bears no relation to a 17th century absolutist monarchy – or Tsardom. People have in their day to day lives as much (and as little) freedom as they do in the West. People have social, economic and geographical freedom of movement. They can participate in politics and express views on the political and economic direction of the country quite at divergence from the current view of the government. Elections are held and the make-up of parliament can change in response. Of course Russian politics tends to be conservative and centrist. There are limits on what you can call for in public. (It is out of scope but of course the Western system where you can say more or less whatever you like can be analysed as a sophisticated system for breaking up dissent). An “illiberal democracy” as some academics call Russia is different from the Western system – but it is a long way from Tsardom.

“a place where human rights, in reality, don’t exist”. This is used as a kind of abuse. I wish the ‘journalists’ who produce this line this would turn their attention to the human rights record of the West. Let’s just take one example; Afghanistan. A failed nation building project has left tens of thousands of civilians dead and none of its goals have been achieved. Once they finally admitted failure (and under cover of the pandemic) they left, pulled out their support, stole the government’s funds, and plunged the country into crisis with millions of children starving. Yes; Navalny may be languishing in prison – but the human rights issues of the West are more or less infinitely greater than those of Russia.

“spying, espionage and assignation are a normal method of stagecraft. “. And the West does not do espionage? We could of course talk about the people tortured by the CIA in ‘black prisons’ – but it is not a nice topic. “assignation” (he means assassination) – yes, quite likely, Russian state organs polished off Litvinenko and tried to polish off Skripal and some others. But it is a matter of cultural preferences. Russia may tend towards assassination and even have a preference for poison. But that is better than Britain which has a preference for mowing down tens of thousands of innocent brown people with machine guns or incendiary bombs or burying them alive in trenches with bulldozers.

(As for Putin not releasing his grip on power. They always claim that Putin grips onto power. Maybe. But they rarely tell you the other side; many people in Russia support Putin. I quite often meet people who genuinely even fervently support Putin. Older people tend to see him as a ‘strong leader’. Younger, middle-class professional people, may see him as bringing stability and continuity to the country. Russians tend to be conservative and value stability; they would probably see the constant change of leadership which we are familiar with in the UK for example, as strange and vulgar).

The kind of lazy uninformed view of Russia presented here by this journalist is no more than a facile caricature. It is babyish in its thinking – but potentially very harmful in its effect.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer