The New Observer Uncategorized The trope about Russians and irrational aggression

The trope about Russians and irrational aggression

This is something in the Guardian which should give pause to think. The article suggests that Russia and Russians are pure evil and are motivated simply by a random attraction to torture and to causing death and destruction. Read the article; this is precisely what the author is saying.

There is no real evidence or argument in the article – of the kind we might expect say, from an academic. (The author is apparently based at John Hopkins University). He mentions Freud’s theory that people can be attracted to death; he cites a Ukrainian author who highlights the lack of morality in Dostoevsky’s character Raskolnikov – though it is not clear what that author’s actual point is; are they saying that this is characteristic of Russians? (Did Dostoevsky intend that, or was he concerned with a wider human theme of sin and redemption?) He runs through some taken-for-granted claims of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. He cites his Ukrainian source again with reference to Stalin’s terror: “Random violence runs through Russian history”. He mentions the “constantly changing” reasons given by the Kremlin for their “invasion” as evidence that, in fact, the only real purpose is pure brutality. The Russians, it seems, are so messed up and incapable of anything that they decided just to attack Ukraine, like a loser smearing faeces on life.

I highlight this absurd article because this does seem to not only legitimize but also reflect a kind of brutality in the West. Because, of course, if it is true – then you cannot in any way negotiate with Russia and the only way to deal with them is as you would a mad and raging psychopath; you have to subdue him with force, until he is no longer a threat. This is a classic trope or caricature of Russians; they are presented as given to extreme violence and cruelty and totally irrational. It seems strange, but in the West this view is in fact quite widely held, implicitly or explicitly, or as a kind of deliberate policy (that is because it is convenient even if it is known not to be true). The main “strategic” advantage of this view, of course, is that Russia is thereby held to have zero valid concerns and interests and no one needs to negotiate with them in any way. All we have to do is wipe them out. It is no accident that the author of the article leans so heavily on some Ukrainian sources. This article masquerades as some deep insight based on psychoanalysis and literary analysis but is in fact just recycling a convenient trope.

There is no argument in the piece just a collection of references. So it is difficult to present a counter argument. We can note that there was no “invasion”. As John Mearsheimer points out the initial force was nowhere near large enough to “invade” Ukraine. The column moving towards Kiev was designed to put pressure on the regime/government in Kiev and get them to agree to Russian demands – a sort of ill-fated attempt to reverse the Maidan coup. As for the “constantly changing” war aims; the aims were clear at the beginning; no Ukraine in NATO and protection of Donbas. It does seem that as the initial strategic aims were not realised the Kremlin has increasingly changed to a more nationalist narrative. But there is really no evidence that the “changing aims” reflect no aim and therefore mindless violence. The “changing aims” can be explained by the changing situation.

This kind of attempt to legitimize demonization of the enemy is probably pretty normal in war. The problem here is the way it is disguised as something serious and high-brow. But then, perhaps, that is how this kind of war propaganda is usually presented. A slightly more obvious kind of incitement to hatred is this one by the Guardian’s correspondent Simon Tisdall. This piece oozes visceral hatred and is personalised towards “Putin”, which is a little strange as the author has probably never met Putin. Rather than cite literature and psychoanalysis this one cites geo-political events but it lacks argument in just the same way; “Russia‚Äôs violent, destabilising and predatory behaviour in Georgia, Chechnya, Kosovo and the Balkans, Moldova, the Baltic republics, Syria, Libya and the Sahel follows an aggressive pattern set by Putin since 2000”. Well; the 2008 Russia – Georgia war was in fact started by Georgia, according to an EU mission. [1] Chechnya was a province of Russia and yes Russia used force to stop it breaking away and becoming a radical Islamic state on their border. Kosovo is a strange one to cite since this was a war in which NATO terrorised Serbia into granting independence to Kosovo. Libya also seems a strange example since here the main point is the total destabilisation of the country by NATO in 2011 when they decided to take out the regime which only a few weeks prior the EU at least had been busy selling arms too. I’m not sure what Putin is supposed to have done in the Baltics. And so on. Violent and destabilising would appear to apply much more to the West than to Russia. (We haven’t even mentioned Iraq).

The key point of all this is the trope that Russians are sub-humans (sub-menschen) who do not and cannot have legitimate and rational reasons for acting as they do. Therefore we are right. We are acting not in our own selfish strategic interests (as we conceive them) but in a sort of disinterested and superior way to defeat evil. The actual geopolitical reasons for the conflict are sucked out and we don’t have to engage with them. The purpose is to legitimise and disguise our brutality.

Notes

  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-georgia-russia-report-idUSTRE58T4MO20090930