Russophobia is Russophobia. Russophobes reject the Russian state structure (i.e. Russian politics), optionally also the Russian language and culture, and thus Russian people as a whole.
Technically, Russophobia belongs to xenophobia (xenophobia). Its opposite is Russophilia, i.e. the exaggerated high esteem of everything Russian. Xenophobia (a Greek portmanteau word) is the general fear of everything foreign. The points of reference can be social, religious, economic, cultural, or linguistic. Xenophobes perceive all differences from strangers as a threat. Xenophobia can give rise to exaggerated nationalism.
Political use of the term Russophobia
Putin and his supporters use the term Russophobia as a political argument to discredit opponents of current Kremlin policies. This tendency has existed since the earlier 2000s, but it has intensified considerably at least since Russia’s military operations in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), Syria (from 2015), and throughout Ukraine (since Feb. 24, 2022). Accordingly, any critic of Russia’s current policies is Russophobic. This argument is supported since the beginning of March 2022 by the fact that quite a few Western cultural institutions dismissed Russian artists (such as Valery Gergiev as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra) or no longer allowed them to perform (including the star soprano Anna Netrebko).
Since when has Russophobia existed?
Russophobia has a surprisingly long history. It was first documented in the 13th century. At that time, the Teutonic Order fought against Russian „schismatics,“ who were described in contemporary accounts as infidels who would plunder Christian lands. Such incidents may indeed have occurred, but a phobia (pathological fear) is characterized by painting exaggerated, sweeping pictures.
Even at that time, Russophobia crystallized as a reaction to the military threat posed by what was, after all, a large Russian nation and territory, and this has not changed to this day. With this tangible background, it differs from other forms of xenophobia, such as anti-Semitism: The Jews have hardly ever threatened other peoples in their many thousands of years of history, at least until the founding of the state of Israel (1948), yet anti-Semitism is one of the oldest forms of xenophobia.
Russophobia took a new upswing in the early 16th century, when the Grand Principalities of Moscow and Lithuania (the latter allied with Poland) fought bitterly over the rest of Kievan Rus. King Sigismund I of Poland wrote to the Pope and to his fellow European rulers that the „Muscovites“ were enemies of Christianity and conspired with the Tartars and Turks against Christianity. This was an unrealistic, Russophobic image. Tsar Ivan the Terrible (1530 – 1584), with his reign marked by mass executions, also promoted Russophobia in countries to the west.
Beginning in the 19th century, Russophobia spread to France. Although the European Enlightenment took a positive attitude toward Russia, whose culture (Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, etc.) was greatly appreciated, Napoleon Bonaparte, at the latest after his failed Russian campaign in 1812, called the Russians barbarians, whose backwardness was contrary to his liberal ideas. Accordingly, he behaved in an uncivilized manner in Russia: Before he had his troops withdrawn from Moscow, he even wanted to have the towers of the Kremlin blown up, which failed. Russophobia persisted in French historiography and press throughout the early 19th century.
Russians were either described as very backward or even completely excluded from history books, as in the case of the authors François Guizots and Jules Michelet. In 1830, the Poles revolted against the rule of the Russian tsar, and all of Europe supported them, arguing Russophobia. In 1835s Alexis de Tocqueville introduced the two world powers, the USA and Russia, and constructed between them the contrast between democratic freedom and servitude under the Tsar. Similar intellectual disputes with a Russophobic basis also occurred in the later 19th century.
Eventually, Russian authors took up these enemy images and, for their part, constructed an opposition between Slavs and Westerners. However, there were also countercurrents in the 19th century. The Germans Rilke, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann turned to Russia because the Russians had resisted Napoleon, who had eventually occupied Central Europe, including large German territories. Russia was thus the „savior of Europe,“ and tsarist rule was inevitably described as a legitimate monarchy. Left-wing revolutionary circles around Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in turn, called Russia a reactionary state, which did not prevent the Russians under Lenin from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 onward from invoking precisely Marx and Engels:
After all, the communist Bolsheviks had put an end to reactionary tsarist rule. At the end of the 19th century, Russophobia, which was widespread in France and also in Great Britain, gradually subsided until the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the civil war in Russia and its satellite states, which lasted until the early 1920s, nurtured new fears of the now communist Russia, which grew into the Soviet Union. The latter soon threatened the capitalist states with world revolution.
At the end of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin took power, exercising outrageous repressive power internally and isolating his country externally. Russophobia grew again considerably in the West and reached a new flowering in Germany in National Socialism from 1933. Hitler combined it with his anti-Semitism and anti-Bolshevism; he wanted to fight „Jewish Bolshevism,“ which was pure propaganda, because Jews played no significant role in Soviet governance.
Russophobia from the second half of the 20th century onward
During the Cold War, the Russian-dominated Soviet Union provided a steep template for Russophobia, which also received new nourishment in the Eastern Bloc countries (especially East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary) after Soviet troops put down popular uprisings there (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).
To be sure, pro-Soviet leaders tried to paint a Russian-friendly picture, and Russian became the first foreign language in Eastern Bloc schools. But Russophobia persisted among the population, coupled with a dislike of their own dictatorial leaders. Even Putin today acknowledges that the events of 1953, 1956 and 1968 in the three Eastern bloc countries mentioned above severely damaged the relationship of the population there to the Soviet Union and, above all, to the Russians: Only Putin blames everything on Russophobia and fails to recognize the political context.
In the West, Russophobia dominated at the latest from the era of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (from 1981) even in Hollywood productions, which drew stereotypical Russophobic images. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entire Eastern Bloc, at the latest from 1989, this Russophobia in the West subsided considerably. Films of that time picked up on cooperation between the Russian and U.S. intelligence services, for example, in the fight against terrorism, which also existed in reality.
But even then, former dissidents and Sovietologists warned urgently against a picture that was too friendly to Russia. Russia’s immediate neighbors in Eastern Europe (the Baltics, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Georgia, and Moldova) remained Russophobic and pushed very quickly into the EU and, if possible, NATO. They even built their national identity on Russophobia.
This was fostered not only by Russia’s expansionist drive under Putin, which soon flared up again in the early 2000s, but also by the Russian mafia, which since the 1990s had already provided supposedly unquestionable proof of how criminal, corrupt and kleptocratic the whole of Russia seems to be. Even Mikhail Gorbachev criticized this after his resignation in the early 2000s. Although he had pushed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc with glasnost and perestroika, he now criticized that Western reporting on Russia was undifferentiated and predominantly dismissive, i.e., Russophobic.
Russophobia today (2022)
Since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Russophobia has experienced an unheard-of upswing worldwide. Several facts contribute to this:
Russia, in its extremely short liberal phase under Boris Yeltsin (President 1991 – 1999), had too little time to paint a balanced to positive picture of itself in the West. By comparison, Germany has been struggling to create such an image for 77 years.
Putin draws heavily on tsarist and communist traditions, which at the time had always encouraged Russophobia. The majority of his people obviously follow him. This revives a historically grown Russophobia.
The current Russian propaganda is so backward-looking that even reasonable people now react to it in a Russophobic way.
As described at the beginning of this article, Russian demagogues in the public service are picking up on this tendency and have been accusing all critics of Russian policy of Russophobia for years. Liberal Russian authors defend themselves against this, some of whom would prefer to ban the word Russophobia so that it cannot be used as a propaganda tool. Eastern Europe researcher Andreas Umland has observed that Putin himself and his media cleverly use Russophobia, which has indeed grown historically in Western Europe, as an argument to brush off any criticism of current Russian policies.
Dealing with Russophobia Appropriately
It seems appropriate to consider Russophobia for what it really is: a subset of xenophobia, a sweeping prejudice, no better than anti-Semitism, and not at all conducive to a purposeful discussion of current Russian policy (as of March 2022). The Germans should actually know best: Their ancestors started two world wars in the 20th century and committed a singular millennium crime with the Holocaust, but there has always been German culture, science and humanistic society. These also exist in Russia.
This consideration is important because otherwise, if one were to believe the polls that more than two-thirds of Russians agree with Putin’s policy, only a war of extermination against Russia would remain, as Germany had to experience from the 1940s on. That cannot be an alternative. But if we assume that Russophobia is unfounded, it may be possible to promote liberal aspirations in Russia that will lead to a change of system there. After all, this was achieved only a short time ago in history, in 1989, in Eastern Europe, including the GDR.