Russophobia – literally, fear of Russia, but more commonly understood as dislike or hatred of Russia – is not a new phenomenon. Academics have written a number of books about how citizens of various Western countries have viewed Russia over the centuries – Marshall Poe on early modern European perceptions of Russia, James Casteel on Russia in the imagination of Germans, David Fogelsong on Americans’ missionary attitude towards Russia, and so on. But until now the general phenomenon of Russophobia has never been comprehensively analyzed. This gap in the literature, as we academics like to say, has now been filled by Swiss journalist Guy Mettan, with his 2017 book Creating Russophobia: From the Great Religious Schism to Anti-Putin Hysteria. Or at least, partially filled, for while Mettan’s work contains much which is perceptive, it also suffers from certain biases which, I think, will make it more of a starting point for future studies of Russophobia than the definitive, final word on the subject.
A former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tribune de Genève, Mettan is an intelligent and well-informed observer who deserves to be taken seriously. He’s also very much a Russophile, as shown by the fact that he was granted Russian citizenship in the mid-1990s by the administration of President Boris Yeltsin. He complains of ‘widespread prejudices, cartloads of clichés and systematic anti-Russian biases of most western media,’ and states that the purpose of his book is ‘convincing readers that there is no need to hate Russia.’ While Creating Russophobia is founded on detailed research into centuries’ worth of Western writings on Russia, it is not, therefore, a neutral academic book, but one with a definite political purpose.
Mettan divides his book into three parts. The first provides examples of Russophobia in the modern era, with a particular focus on how the Western media has portrayed events such as the Beslan hostage-taking in 2004, the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, and the Maidan revolution and subsequent war in Ukraine from 2014 onwards. In the process, Mettan exposes widespread anti-Russian bias in the Western media. The second part seeks to explain why this bias exists, by means of historical study, looking at the great schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the history of Russophobia in France, Great Britain, and the United States. The third part of the book then analyzes the linguistic and other techniques used by Russophobic writers to distort news stories in a manner unfavourable to Russia.
In Part I Mettan argues that, ‘With the help of the Ukrainian crisis, detestation of Russia has reached proportions that go beyond rationality and defy imagination.’ He concludes that the reason for this is that
Russia upsets the image the West has of itself and of the world. The clash between the West’s idealized vision of itself and its harsh reality as viewed by Russia clarifies the Western psychological need for demonization of Russia. … By ceaselessly renewing and remodeling its anti-Russian discourse, the West enhances and reassures itself, strengthens the high opinion it has of itself achieved by belittling the Other.
This fits with what I have previously written on this blog about the ancient Greek concept of hybris – which is to say the habit of belittling others so that your own status rises in comparison. Mettan’s conclusion thus strikes me as a fair one.
Part II of Creating Russophobia also contains some interesting material. Mettan’s analysis of French, British, and American Russophobia is quite thorough, and I certainly learnt some new things. Mettan, for instance, describes the French ‘theory of the cultural gradient’, according to which ‘progress’ advances from west to east, gradually civilizing the world in the process. This theory provides an essential framework within which Russia is placed, allowing it to included or excluded from Western civilization according to prevailing needs. I found the chapter on Britain particularly interesting. Mettan places British Russophobia within the context of domestic British party squabbles and reveals some historical incidents of which I was not aware, such as the 1836 Vixen affair, in which the British tried to send arms to Circassian rebels via the schooner Vixen. Mettan’s description of hidden Russophobic messages in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was also intriguing, as was his analysis of how Cold War Americans subtly changed their vocabulary when describing the Soviet Union, substituting the word ‘totalitarianism’ for the previous ‘dictatorship’, ‘in order to better distinguish friendly regimes from antipathetic socialist regimes which were to be fought.’ Insights like this make Creating Russophobia worth the read.
So too does some of the analysis from Part III. An example is Mettan’s analysis of ‘framing and factual distortion’ in which he notes that ‘one of the great ploys consists in dating the start of events in a way that favors one camp rather than the other.’ The problems in Ukraine are thus generally depicted as starting with the Russian annexation of Crimea, rather than with the violent protests on Maidan. Framing of this sort shapes public opinion in subtle ways which evade most peoples’ understanding.
But despite these good points, Creating Russophobia has some serious deficiencies. Most importantly, in his desire to combat Russophobia, Mettan swings far too far in the direction of uncritical Russophilia and harsh anti-Westernism, particularly anti-Americanism. The result is exaggeration, one-sided analysis of complex historical issues, and occasional factual inaccuracies. Mettan begins, for instance, by claiming that ‘critics of Russophobia … have no access to the mainstream media.’ This isn’t true – they undoubtedly have limited access, and are greatly outnumbered in the mainstream media, but they are not entirely absent. Describing the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, Mettan writes of a ‘promise to give the Sebastopol naval base to NATO’; ‘the massive military aid provided by the Americans to the Ukrainian regime’; and ‘the Kiev provisional government’s decision to forbid the use of the Russian language in the Russian-speaking parts of the country.’ There was no such ‘promise’, military aid has not been ‘massive’, and Kiev never issued an order ‘to forbid the use of the Russian language’ (the Rada merely attempted to repeal a law permitting regions to establish education in Russia, and has subsequently imposed some restrictions on the use of the Russian language – not good, but not the same as forbidding it.) Maidan ‘saw the Kaiser’s old dream materialize,’ Mettan claims, adding that, ‘Germany … has never given up her territorial ambitious on the East nor her will to dominate Europe,’ and with Maidan, ‘Germany has just won the First and Second World Wars.’ In my opinion, this goes far too far.
‘Americans are habituated to converting the schismatic and burning heretics under napalm’, Mettan remarks in reference to the modern era. But, according to Mettan, the West’s guilt stretches far beyond the United States and events today. In his eyes, the responsibility for centuries of poor Russian-West relations belongs entirely to the West. Describing the Great Schism, for instance, Mettan entirely takes the side of the Orthodox church, writing that, ‘the schism … had been entirely provoked by the pretention of Westerners to rule over the temporal as well as the spiritual realms.’ Analyzing the Russophobic writings of early modern European visitors to Russia, Mettan quite rightly makes heavy use of Marshall Poe’s 2000 book A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern Ethnography 1476-1748, but he ignores Poe’s conclusion. For as I recall the book, Poe concludes that the reason why so many European visitors reported Russia as being despotic was that, by comparison with Western Europe, it was. In short, the visitors weren’t so much Russophobic as accurate. But Mettan ignores the possibility that Russian deficiencies might have played any role in the spread of Russophobia. In fact, he ignores such deficiencies entirely. He complains, for instance, that Westerners downplayed the ‘positive achievements of the Communist regimes’. That may be so, but Westerners weren’t wrong in depicting the Soviet regime as repressive. Anti-communism, and any associated Russophobia, weren’t just fabrications of devious Westerners seeking to expand their own power.
There’s a lot which is original and interesting in Creating Russophobia, but ultimately I found it flawed. Its obvious biases mean that it is unlikely to persuade any but those who are already convinced Russophiles or anti-imperialists. And that’s a shame, as there is an important story here to be told. At the end of his book, Guy Mettan notes that, ‘At no time do western political leaders, historians, journalists ask themselves the question: do we bear any responsibility for the crises in the world? … Aren’t there wrongs on both sides?’ These are important questions which ought to be asked more often. Mettan concludes: ‘The discourse must be changes: it must be made to evolve away from long-induced antipathies and move toward negotiation, coexistence, multipolarity, and most importantly: peace.’ I heartily agree.