By Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL
Sergei Lavrov sees “Russophobia” everywhere.
Allegations that Moscow is supplying arms to the Taliban are “Russophobic.”
Accusations that Russia is interfering in Western elections are “Russophobic.”
And claims that the Kremlin is trying to undermine the European Union are, you guessed it, “Russophobic.”
And it isn’t just Lavrov.
Federation Council deputy Aleksei Pushkov, the former chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, has said “Russophobia” has become the official policy of the Baltic states and Ukraine.
Russian state television has alleged that the corruption allegations against former FIFA head Sepp Blatter resulted from American “Russophobia.”
And Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has accused Lithuania of “hysterical Russophobia.”
This list can go on and on, but, hey, you get the point.
In fact, from 2013 to 2105, references to Russophobia in the Russian media tripled, according to a survey last year by journalist Fabrice Deprez.
And all this “Russophobia-mania” can’t help but get one wondering: Where did this word come from? What are its origins? When was it first deployed? And to what ends? And how has it evolved?
And the answer is actually pretty interesting — and quite revealing.
Coined by a 19th-century Slavophile poet, revived and popularized by a Soviet-era dissident nationalist, the term has since morphed into a powerful weapon in the current Kremlin’s rhetorical arsenal — deployed mainly to obscure criticism of Vladimir Putin’s regime by smearing, stigmatizing, and discrediting the messenger.
More subtly, it is also used to underscore a sense of Russian exceptionalism, suggesting, in effect, that Russia not only has a distinctive culture, but one that is under constant attack.
“Russophobia helps Moscow to reinforce its ‘besieged fortress’ and ‘humiliated’ image,” Givi Gigitashvili of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs writes.
Indeed, in a 2013 article, the Russian historian Oleg Nemensky compared contemporary “Russophobia” to anti-Semitism and argued that it constituted a “complete ideology.”
Russophobia And Imperialism
The grandfather of the term Russophobia was the 19th-century Slavophile poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev, who is most famous for the phrase “Russia cannot be understood only with the mind.”
More than a poet and a diplomat, Tyutchev was also something of an ideologist and was was influential in the courts of Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II.
He was deeply concerned with Slavic unity and with the Russian Empire upholding traditional Christian and monarchist values at a time of rapid political change in Europe.
Tyutchev also collaborated closely with the Third Department of the Tsar’s Office, effectively the secret police of the time, lobbied for the creation of a Russian counterpropaganda operation in Europe, and was named chairman of the Foreign Censorship Committee in 1858.
It was in a letter to his sister in September 1867 — a letter that was, interestingly, originally written in French — that Tyutchev complained about a “modern phenomenon that becomes increasingly pathological — the Russophobia of some Russian people, who are highly respected by the way.”
Tyutchev coined the term Russophobia at a time when, in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848, liberals and nationalists were challenging Europe’s imperial monarchies and political change was in the air.
It was also a time when Poland’s struggle for independence from the Russian Empire was becoming increasingly assertive, leading Tyutchev to call the Poles “the Judas of the Slavs.”
In a 2015 article, Aleksandr Shirinyants and Anna Myrikova wrote that for Tyutchev, Russophobia was closely linked to “the Polish element” — independence-minded Poles and the Russian liberals who supported their aspirations.
Likewise, Jolanta Darczewska and Piotr Zochowski of the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies, wrote that the term “was intended to support the Russian imperial and civilizational discourse of the time,” adding that “Tyutchev made a clear link between Russophobia and ‘the Polish question’ and the struggle of the Polish people against the empire.”
Russophobia And Anti-Semitism
While Tyutchev may have been the first to coin the term Russophobia, it didn’t really take hold in the Russian lexicon. During the Soviet period, the it largely disappeared from public discourse, although it did appear in some Stalin-era dictionaries.
The term resurfaced, however, in the 1980s, and took on a distinctive anti-Semitic character when the renowned mathematician and nationalist dissident Igor Shafarevich published a lengthy samizdat essay titled Russophobia.
Essentially a polemic against pro-Western dissidents, Shafarevich accused Jewish intellectuals in the Soviet Union of being motivated by a hatred of Russia.
Drawing on the work of French historian Augustin Cochin, Shafarevich argued that a “small nation” can often destroy a “large nation” that hosts it, singling out the Soviet Union’s Jewish population.
In the essay, which was later turned into a book, Shafarevich assailed “Jews who are conducting a policy of Russophobia.”
“Hatred for one nation,” he wrote, “is usually associated with a heightened sense of one’s belonging to another. Doesn’t this make it likely that our authors are under the influence of some sort of powerful force rooted in their national feelings?”
Shafarevich’s essay and book were highly controversial and resulted in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences asking for his resignation as a foreign associate.
But it turned Shafarevich, who died in February, into a hero among the extreme Russian nationalists who were asserting themselves as Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika took hold.
It also firmly embedded the term Russophobia in the modern Russian lexicon, where it has since remained.
Russophobia And Putinism
So Russophobia has been an allegation levied against independence-minded Poles in the late 19th century and pro-Western dissidents in the late 20th century.
But it was Putin’s regime that essentially weaponized the Russophobia smear in the early 21st century.
The Kremlin has used the term to stigmatize criticism of Russia’s human rights record, to criticize investigations into Russian money laundering, and to argue against the enlargement of NATO and the European Union.
Moscow has attempted to portray valid critiques of things Russia’s rulers are doing — things that many reasonable people can easily find objectionable — as chauvinistic assaults on all Russians.
But as Jolanta Darczewska and Piotr Zochowski note, the Kremlin’s use of the Russophobia weapon illustrates “the rivalry of two cultural and civilizational models, as well as the conflict between two systems of values, those of the East and those of the West.”
“The fight against Russophobia,” they add, “justified this schematic division of the world; and, by stigmatizing those individuals and states which were deemed ‘ideologically alien,’ it mobilized Russian society in the face of these alleged threats.”
But in doing so, Moscow-based journalist James Kovpak argues, Putin’s Kremlin also inadvertently exposed its deep fear of its own people – its own Russophobia.
“What is more Russophobic?” Kovpak asks. “To say that the Russian government doesn’t treat its people with the dignity they deserve, or, like the so-called patriots, insisting that Russians cannot possibly achieve a certain minimum in terms of human rights and dignity, that they cannot handle the same level of freedom that the ‘patriots’ themselves declare meaningless or illusory anyway?
“What clearer example of ‘Russophobia’ can there be than claiming that Russians are backward savages who cannot possibly maintain a society of democratic norms, pluralism in political discourse, and rule of law?”
By Brian Whitmore, RFE/RL