Book Review: The Russia Anxiety

It seems that scarcely a day goes by without a major news story which in some way or another portrays Russia as the international bogeyman. Just yesterday, for instance, we had a completely pointless story in The Observer about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting an ‘ex-KGB agent’ (actually newspaper owner Alexander Lebedev) at a party in Italy. Meanwhile, today’s copy of The Times reports that an as-yet-to-be-published British parliamentary report says that, ‘Russian interference may have had an impact on the Brexit referendum, but the effect was “unquantifiable”.’

What both these stories have in common is that they’re utterly meaningless. Prime Minister meets newspaper owner! So what? And what does it tells us that interference ‘may’ have had some impact, or may not, and that anyway it’s ‘unquantifiable’? Nothing at all. So why were these stories published? The logical answer is that it’s because putting ‘Russia’ into a story automatically lends it some air of malign mystery and makes it look like something untoward is going on. In other words, such stories make headlines not because they’re truly newsworthy but because they tap into what British academic Mark Smith calls ‘the Russian Anxiety’.

In his new book ‘The Russian Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve it’, Smith describes the anxiety as a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard. Sometimes, Westerners fear Russia; other times they just view it with contempt (‘a gas station masquerading as a country’); and other times they prefer to ignore it entirely. The anxiety takes the form of a cycle: fear turns into contempt, then disregard, then back into fear again. And it ‘comes and goes’ according to circumstances. Still, says Smith, ‘The Russia Anxiety is a historically deep-seated feature of international relations’, and it has a very negative effect on how Western states treat Russia, creating tensions which do not need to exist.


At the heart of the Russian Anxiety, says Smith, is a thoroughly misguided understanding of Russian history. This is what Smith calls the ‘black legend’ (a variation of which is the ‘Pipes Protocol’, named after the late historian Richard Pipes). The black legend is the ‘idea that centuries of oppression have created a servile population forever fated to be hoodwinked by a tyrant’. Oppressive government is built into Russia’s DNA, one might say. Allied to this are other ideas: that Russian history is more much violent than that of other states; that Russia is inherently expansionist; that Russia is uniquely warlike and aggressive; and so on.

According to Smith, the solution to the Russia Anxiety lies in busting these historical myths. He therefore sets about showing why the all the negative claims about Russia’s unique historical nastiness are incorrect. For instance, he says, it’s not true that Russia is predestined to authoritarian government. There were many turning points in Russian history when things could have gone another way but for the workings of contingency. Russia’s past is not more obviously violent than that of other European states. Ivan the Terrible’s reign was something of an anomaly, and in any case wasn’t any bloodier than that of some other European rulers of the era. Smith notes, for instance, that the Tudor conquest of Ireland killed a third of the Irish population. Nor has been Russia been more obviously warlike or expansionist than other European states. ‘If Western Europeans ever reflect more carefully about their own imperial pasts, they will find it more difficult to think of Russia’s history of expansionism as unusual’, Smith says.

All this inevitably leaves Smith open to charges of ‘whataboutism’. He accepts the charges happily. Whataboutism plays a useful role in exposing hypocrisy and forcing people to engage in self-reflection, Smith argues. It ‘disrupts one’s assumptions’ and ‘invites one to experiment with the notion that the leading powers … share moral failures’. ‘Self-awareness is one of the antidotes to the Russia Anxiety’, he concludes.

Smith’s analysis of Russian history stands in stark contrast to that of the likes of Chatham House’s Keir Giles in his book Moscow Rules, who depicts an ‘eternal Russia’ which is forever authoritarian, aggressive, and expansionist. No doubt, those who follow this other view of Russian history will consider Smith something of a Russian (and Soviet) apologist. Certainly, there are moments when his interpretations of Russian history seem a little generous. Overall, though, he makes a very strong case that Russia’s past needs to be considered as much more complex than it generally is. For that reason alone, this book deserves a large audience.

If I have a complaint, it is that the thematic structure (which divides the book up into chapters on different themes – such as Russia’s alleged authoritarian nature, its alleged expansionism, etc), means that the text flits backwards and forwards in time rather too often. One moment you’re in the Soviet Union, then back in ancient Muscovy, then in the eighteenth century, then back with Stalin, and so on. This is the case even within individual chapters. I found it a little discombobulating.

A deeper issue connects with what I discussed in another recent book review – the question of whether the things one studies truly exist. By linking fear, contempt, and disregard, Smith provides a more sophisticated model of Western attitudes to Russia than normally provided by the catch-all expression ‘Russophobia’. But one wonders whether such different things as fear, contempt, and disregard can rightly be combined as a single phenomenon. Also, Smith’s admission that the Anxiety ‘comes and goes’ somewhat undermines the idea that such a thing a thing as the Anxiety actually exists.

Despite this reservation, The Russia Anxiety is a very welcome book. It provides a provocative and much needed analysis of Russian history which ably shows the oversimplified nature of most Western understandings of Russia. ‘The Russia Anxiety cannot dominate international politics when people study the Russian past in a critical and open-minded way’, Smith concludes. I heartily agree. The question which now arises is whether historians are able to rise up to the challenge. We must hope so.

33 thoughts on “Book Review: The Russia Anxiety”

  1. Watched the third season of “The Crown” on Netflix. What to my wondering eyes did appear but a near-crisis caused by the Queen taking seriously Prince Phillip’s lunch club gossip that Harold Wilson (newly elected prime minister) was a “Russian asset.” When her majesty’s secret service people disabused her of this notion, she apparently ended up apologizing to Wilson, but refusing to tell him why she was apologizing. Take that, Harold, and be happy about it.


    1. This happened to Wilson both times he was Prime Minister. Some people approached Mountbatten to ask him to lead a military coup against Wilson. To his credit, Mountbatten told them to get out of his office immediately or he would have them arrested.


  2. I would not even state that Ivan the terrible was that unusual. Politics were pretty harsh at that time in general and Russia has been through some exceedingly harash periods in particular.

    I think that you have different forms of russophobia in different nations during different times. The “contempt” component seems to be specifically anglo american, some darker voices imply that they are that contemptous because they did not truely face Russia in war.

    This would be a case where the cure is far worse then the disease.

    I think another aspect reinforcing the Anglo contempt of Russia is that Anglo propaganda is so good, the Anglos believe it themselfs. My impression is that this is much less the case for Germans/Russians/French/Italians.

    Not particularly fond of the specific form of Russophobia among German elites either. Essentially, they made up with Israel, found the process to be somewhat unpleaseant, and thus have no particular wish to redo the process with Russia/Poland etc. . They thus harp on any Russian imperfection as an excuse to go on as holier then thou “we have apologized for our crimes, when will you Stalin/Lenin/Pilsudski worshippers to the same?!!!” partly as an excuse to keep ignoring crimes against Russians.
    In several ways, this annoys Russians and Poles in very similar ways.

    I think with Poles, and to an even greater extent Balts its a mix of fear and a (somewhat quichotic in case of the Balts) quest for relevance.

    From my interactions with Chinese, while stereotypes obviously abound (seriously, the most drunk days of my life where in China, yet those guys keep going on how we drink too much) they arent particularly negative. Russia quite convincingly wins most “who would you rather have on your side in a fight” polls there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree re British & American state-guided propagandizing activities being quite effective relative to other states’ efforts. [I would argue they also do a lot more propagandizing] And thus they are capable of amplifying/sustaining in the public mind (when they wish) a vision of an aggressive & powerful Russia. And I agree that it is almost certainly the case that current elites’ views are influenced by the content of previous propaganda efforts. [How could they *not* be?]


      1. and thus have no particular wish to redo the process with Russia/Poland etc. .

        How much more then Poland you feel we owe Russia? And would you agree or disagree that we first should pay the reparations Greek demanded.


    2. Not particularly fond of the specific form of Russophobia among German elites either.

      I responded to this yesterday, but admittedly am glad it does not show up. It feels I am repeating myself too often on matters.

      Would you like to tell me from where (situated locally) you argue on matters?

      Basically concerning this:
      Essentially, they made up with Israel, found the process to be somewhat unpleaseant, and thus have no particular wish to redo the process with Russia/Poland etc. .

      If you like to ignore the above question could you paraphrase? Why would you want to single out German elites?


      1. Because I am half Russian/half German, have a lot more interface with German elites rather then with Anglo or Polish Elites and thus feel capable of making a judgement here.

        The “Elite” thing is because Russophobia, especially in terms of contempt (there is more fear though, generally speaking, commoners in Germany are less enthusiastic about war then their elites, and for good reason), is far less widespread among normal Germans.

        I am unfond of the “Elites” in general, because they far too frequently lack both knowledge and curiorisity about their topics, and cover it up with arrogance and using their influence as a cudgel “Putin apologist!!!”, especially if they probably know they are wrong.

        My job is data analysis. The data is rather complex, and a manager who would simply base decisions on the equivalent of “same GDP as Italy” would get fired for stupidity.

        The point is that even an Anti Russian foreign policy, which I would not be fond of personally but for which a case could be made, would require an honest and clear accounting of Russias strength and weaknesses. This accounting is lacking, and any attempts of bringing the perception of Russian might into a closer relation with the reality of Russian might (partcularly given that the perception of Russian might mistakes areas of comparable Russian weakness, such as influence in the west, for areas of comparable Russian strength) immidiatly gets you smeared as a Putin apologist.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ok, thanks. Appreciated. Hopefully PR forgives my babbling.

        Because I am half Russian/half German

        One of my best girl friend’s had a “Russian-German” father, I guess it get’s more complicated from there on considering passing time and decades. As kid I also frequentlly met the Russian-German newly arrived kids. “We” knew somehow. ..

        In hindsight I wonder, could she have been one of them? — Her mother was German. Solidly integrated into the Nazi’s offers for females. We found out later, My friend was basically brought up by her grandma. — For us, me wayback then? I somewhat doubt.

        The data and the complicated and annoyingly complicating details of lived lifes?

        But yes, family wise, myself, I have this ancestor that worked for the Tzar with some minor menial tasks. Minor, but suggesting closeness.. Only after he returned from Russia he recognized his earlier “illegal” daugther and married her mother.

        Thanks for your reply.


      3. “We” knew somehow. .

        Ok, maybe, they knew. I had to change places a lot as kid. Family following on my father’s career path. It’s more likely my mother explained it to me. It was also in hindsight one of the worst places you could end up as “non-native”, if you allow.


  3. “A combination of fear, contempt, and disregard”… Wow. Just wow. And this “a historically deep-seated feature”. So much for “love thy neighbour”.

    Coming from someone who is actually quite sympathetic, it is even more depressing.

    For some reason this made me think of Stephen King’s “Carrie”. Ugly ugly ugly, boy, it’s ugly no matter where you turn. If this whole sad little circus simply blinks out of existence one day, it will be less regrettable than many make it out to be.


    1. Wow. Just wow.

      approach, method a way to look on matters?

      Coming from someone who is actually quite sympathetic, it is even more depressing.

      Correct me, this doesn’t suggest you understood Paul’s review.


      1. Ok.
        “Wow. Just wow” is an emotional outburst provoked by the words inside the quotation marks (“A combination of fear, contempt, and disregard”). As should be obvious from the quote, I am reacting not to Paul’s review, but to Mark Smith’s definition of “Russia anxiety” (as quoted by Paul in his review). And “someone quite sympathetic” here refers to Mark, not Paul (although Paul also obviously meets this definition 🙂

        The reason this is so depressing is as follows: Mark Smith, according to Paul’s review, is trying to explain that viewing Russia with “a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard” is unreasonable. Thus, as a reasonable observer, Mark admits that such views are widespread enough to warrant writing a book to disprove them. Also, he notes that such views have not popped up overnight (or became widespread recently), but are “… a historically deep-seated feature …”.

        As such, this is hardly news. But when a serious, well-meaning book states that people you have to face every day are prone to regard your country – and thus, by extension, you and those you love – with “a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard”, and that for no good reason really, it feels like a hard slap in the face. It feels ugly.

        So I hope I could be excused for my highly emotional reaction, which was probably out of place here. On the other hand, it may help raise awareness that the ugly stuff being openly said about Russia is making lots of people quite aggrieved. And when people are quite aggrieved, they often say (and do) ugly, unreasonble things. As individuals, and as nations.


      2. that people you have to face every day are prone to regard your country – and thus, by extension, you and those you love – with “a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard”,

        guess, that’s the reason of my basic sympathy for Lytt (Lyttenbourg) here in the comment section. I Mind you, I did prefer to not use my own language outside my country as juvenille. … In England I enjoyed to watch people guessing: are you Irish? From the Midlands? It also allowed me to get a grasp of the basic imagery connected in people’s minds with the Germans or Germany, more generally, on the minds of the “splendid Island”. Not that I did ever stop to understand it partly.

        But in 1974 would you feel it was still likely


      3. Ok, curious:
        this wasn’t meant to be sent yet:
        But in 1974 would you feel it was still likely …

        .. a Brit would be arrested by soldiers in SS Uniforms shouting: Achtung! on entering German ground, one of the few German words he knew.

        And no, he wasn’t one of the Brits that spent time in Spain with his drinking partners, or on one of the Spanish Islands. Or anywhere outside his region, quite possibly including Ireland.



  4. “the anxiety as a combination of fear, contempt, and disregard”.

    Could that be the result of guilty conscience – always assuming the West does have conscience? No matter how you view the history, it’s pretty evident that Russia has much more reason to feel fear and, yes, contempt, for the West than the West has to fear Russia.

    I for myself interpret that as the manifestation of the built-in nazism forever present in the Western soul. We the Russians’ve always viewed the Western culture through its liberal tradition. But it seems the liberal part is marginal whereas the nazism/racism sentiments are the prevalent ones. Russia is the only non-Western country that has consistently challenged the dominance of the West and many times bit the crap out of it. So, Russia must be evil.


  5. Well, I for one am immeasurably “glad”, that that Mr. Smith book proved that the mental malady, affecting members of the Russian intelligentsia is a universal phenomenon. OTOH – that’s why I’m also kinda sad.

    The fact, that supposedly serious, grounded in facts and science book, resorts to deliberately vague and ill-defined emotional qualities, to build up its central thesis, is not merely an “issue” with which you can politely “agree to disagree”. No, it’s a symptom of a larger problem here. After all, judging by his profile available on-line, Mr. Smith has not degree in psychology whatsoever, to warrant such liberal use of terms “anxiety” or “fear”.

    In one of M.E. Saltykov-Schedrin’s satirical “fairy tales”, titled “The Wild Landowner” (1869), poor, oppressed peasants of the titular protagonist (who took every possible measure to deliberately eradicate “muzhik” from his domain out of sheer stupidity… and hatred), summed up his brutal, yet self-enriching efforts, thusly: “Though they have a stupid landowner, he’d been gifted with a great mind” (rus. “Хоть и глупый у них помещик, а разум ему дан большой”). When we have to talk about Russian intelligentsia at large (or, as Mr. Smith’s example shows us – about “intellectuals” worldwide), we need to modify this formula: Though they are not stupid, they’d been gifted with small minds.

    Imagine – you have to solve very real, nearly universal problem. E.g. – traffic jams. There are several principle approaches:

    1) “Mainstream approach”. Based on the experience accumulated while trying to solve this problem in the past, try to come out with the evolutionary development of the process. In this case, it means setting up organizations, responsible for teaching people how to drive cars, system of providing/depriving people of their driver licenses, development of the traffic laws, setting up the system of transport regulation, etc. Granted, despite the existence (sometimes – for decades) of all these wonderful developments, the problem of the traffic jams remains unsolved. Analysis, though, might find out that in particular cases (i.e. in small towns with little cars to begin with) such approach indeed works, i.e. there is some us from it after all.

    2) “Revolutionary approach”. Based on the experience accumulated while trying to solve this problem in the past, try to come out with the revolutionary development of the process. Lessen the need of the excessive cars by alternative city planning, invest more into the system of the public transpiration, and also don’t treat the car as an ordinary commodity, easily available to anyone. History, btw, shows that such approach did work.

    During his visit to the USSR in 1960, American Sci-fi author R. Heinlein lambasted “Bolshevik propaganda”, that Moscow’s population is more than 5 millions. According to the world-famous writer, this could not possibly be true – the “real” population of Moscow “have to be” about 500-750! Why? Because Mr. Heinlein didn’t see a lot of cars and the river traffic on the Moscow river was such, that it didn’t require regulation via light signals. And no traffic jams on the streets!

    [Gee, does this approach remind you of something?!]

    3) “Degenerative approach”. Based on burning desire to Do Something, while Toppling Old Authorities, Under the Loud Cheers of Appropriate Crowd. Actually, this one has everything to become a new Mainstream. Here the process (the LOUDER THE BETTER!) is more important than the result. Scientific basis is heresy for the proponents of the degenerative approach, because science is lame and too Ancien Regime anyway. But militant ignorance is not enough to encapsulate the essence of this approach – it also must be unbelievable narrow-minded, suffering from the tunnel view on everything, an prone to eternal jihad first of all with other, competing degenerative approaches. Thus, throngs of urbanists, eco-activists, neo-primitvists and others lucky escapees from the clutches of lamentable absent punitive psychiatry, are SHOUTING right and left catchy, populist, yet useless suggestions like making everyone drive only bicycles. Of course, inevitable, the sect of Bicyclists suffers its first (but not last) dual schism, with Scooterists and Children Scooterists paving the way for more madness to come. Proponents of the trams beef it out in the steel cage match against proponents of the trolleys. Meanwhile, neo-primitivists (still in the vague about how the food arrives into the store nearby) argue for the demolition of all multi-storied buildings and return to the subsistence economy. But all of them, absolutely all of them, promise that they have this “silver bullet” to solve ALL the problems once and for all.

    Ultimately, the degenerative approach, deliberately lacks any system, while resorting to the low, and rather pathetic appeal to the emotions.


    Mr. Smith’s book is one of the signs and portents, that the degenerative approach becomes more and more mainstream. Nah, of course no one is forcing shy and conscientious intilligents to bow down to the anti-intellectual demands of the “mob”. They do it all on their own according, totally willingly, albeit for different reasons. The chief reason being – they are way too self-centered and lack positive empathy.

    “The Russia Anxiety” as a book, poises itself to both a) name the problem. b) suggest a reliable way how to deal with it. The book mostly fails in the former, and, therefore, completely fails in the latter. The idea, that simply by knowing Russia’s history you can overcome the West’s collective “Russia Anxiety”, is exactly akin to the offer of the “silver bullet” by the various degenerates I mentioned above. Why this shy and tepid resort to the “Russia Anxiety”, which Mr. Smith fails to describe in the concise, not contradictory way? Hey, wanna see more or less “recent” example of “Russia Anxiety”?

    “The West and America have always been, and must remain, wary of Russia. Its position in the center of Eurasia — the global “heartland,” in the view of the famous British geographic scholar Halford Mackinder — renders it always a potential threat. Its vulnerability to invasion stirs in Russian leaders an inevitable hunger for protective lands. Its national temperament seems to include a natural tendency towards authoritarianism. Any sound American foreign policy must keep these things in mind.”

    That’s right from the mouth of the “moderate” American pundit, who tries to fight against “demonization of Russia” with… C’mon, say it already! Yes – with more Russophobia. How’s “a natural tendency towards authoritarianism” of the Russian “national temperament” is any different from the previous findings by the great minds of the America, about Russians’ “genetic” predisposition to lying and subverting? In this one short paragraph, he manages to check all/most squares on “Russophobic Bullshit Bingo” card, which now seems to be obligatory for writing about anything pertaining to Russia in the West, lest you’d be tarred and feathered.

    Here you are – textbook example of everything Mr. Smith riles against in both his book and academic life. Yet he is useless to combat here. Why? Because Mr. Smith’s writing are utterly devoid of solid foundation, applicability and system. OTOH for the Russophobes of this particular strain it’s all peachy. They are Mackinderian fanatics, after all. First, they arrive to the conclusion of why Russia is a threat. Second – they invent justifications for that. Merely reciting facts from the history of Russia proving their propaganda wrong won’t solve the fundamental issue of them being Mackinderian fanatics and viewing Russia as the eternal enemy (and thus them being in the eternal need of Russophobia) in any meaningful way. Something tells me, that Mr. Smith is not brave enough to challenge this particular “time-honored” view on the geopolitics.

    Thus, I have to conclude that the “Russia Anxiety” is just a well-meaning, meandering waste of paper, which would have absolutely zero effect on the reality, should anyone (first of all – its author) try to apply its suggestions IRL. OR!..

    …Or there is another option – this particular book is totally self-serving one, yet another (visible) thrust in the endless melee which is the world of academia. Maybe Mr. Smith understands, that what he’s suggesting is non-scientific belles-lettres, some kind of the over-blown “op-ed”, rather than a serious research – and he is fine. He just hopes that in the struggle against academic Establishment in his kingdom, he would set up himself as a new Guru, with a following, fame (even infamy would do) and resources.

    In that case – good luck! You’d need it, Mr. Smith. To imagine how this might end, I recommend another Saltykov-Schedrin’s fairy tale – The Liberal (1885).


  6. Hey Moon, sorry, didn’t mean to leave you hanging – busy days… Thanks for sharing, I do sympathize. We all carry our countries’ sins and blessings within us, for better or worse.
    For what it’s worth, growing up in Moscow in the 80’s, very aware of WWII history, I can tell you this – there was zero hatred for either contemporary Germans, or for Germany as a larger entity. For the Nazis – yes. But not for the German people.
    My father, born in 1940 in Samara, told me stories about the German POW’s, how he and his pals were bringing them bread and learning pigeon German from them. He said they were all ok guys, except for just one, who was a Nazi.
    I learned German in middle school. Both my grandfathers fought in the war and lived to tell about it (a miracle, that). Never, ever I was able to detect fear or contempt for either the German culture or the German people. Only for the Nazis.


  7. Lyttenburgh, Gosh, thank you for those Saltykov-Schedrin links! You made my day! I remember reading him in my 20s, loving his language and thinking – that guy is a genius, but I am not ready for him. Time to try again!


    1. I liked her One Two Three on how to deal with people example.

      I may like it since at one point in time the topic developped into a somewhat an obsession. Otherwise, I am a fan of Hans Monderman’s Shared Space concept.

      Note to Lytt, I haven’t finished reading the book yet. Since It made me feel I needed a more solid graps on Russian history. On the surface it looks as if it may be even for nitwits like me. Unfortunately I do not have a deep knowledge on matters. Neither do have knowlege on the works of basic scholars in the field, like father Pipes. Maybe these facts, after initially reading it quite eagerly while traveling as ebook, made me stop.

      Question: Is the Marquis de Cuistine really that representative? He may well have been. …

      Otherwise since I am easily distracted within my nitwit universe, it reminded me of a contemporary travel writer Klaus Kastner introduced me to on his Observing Greece blog


      1. ” works of basic scholars in the field, like father Pipes”


        Father? Pipes? He who blamed “Soviet aggression” on “Russian national character”, thus creating Respectable Academic Russophobia? Who’d then advocated a massive nuclear build-up as leader of the neocon Team B? Father of Russophobia – yes.

        “Is the Marquis de Cuistine really that representative?”


        Yeah, suuuuure. Oh, and I know (by now) that you are incapable of sensing sarcasm. I don’t care.


      2. Lytt, only recently I learned of the influence he had on the American GOP party saint Reagan.

        I can asssure you that I wasn’t a fan of Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative East at the time, quite the opposite. … I have yet to meet someone who was.


  8. As for the rest of your post, Lyttenburgh – come ON. Of course, neither Mark Smith, nor Paul Robinson, nor Richard Sakwa or Stephen Cohen or anyone else PROFESSIONALLY challenging “the narrative” is so naive as to think that one book – or one blog – is going to miraculously change the consensus.

    But collectively, they ARE building an alternative narrative, and “moderation, nuance, balance” is the only way for this narrative to be relevant. It is fringe now, but hopefully, one day, the shitstorm will subside, and centrist people will start looking for a safe haven. In order for them to come around, there will have to be some solid ground – solid by mainstream standards.

    “Mr. Smith is not brave enough to challenge this particular “time-honored” view on the geopolitics” – well good for him! Let’s thank Mr. Smith for being brave enough to say what he did, and smart enough to stay on message and not say too much.

    For the record, I am thankful. Even if powerless to turn the tide, books like Russia Anxiety – and blogs like Irrussianality – are giving a lifeline to people who’d have otherwise drowned in this ugly shitstorm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “But collectively, they ARE building an alternative narrative”

      Ah. In Russian, this kind of activity is called “разговоры в пользу бедных”.

      “It is fringe now, but hopefully, one day, the shitstorm will subside”


      I just provided an example of deep-seated, rabid, borderline racist Russohobia being mainstream for a supposedly “dove-ish” intellectual with the “realist” approach to the world. MacKinderian fanatics are real and numerous. These and similar musings about “national character of Russians/genetics, that make them [a shoplist of traits befitting such Non-Western Untermenchen]” are OLD. Ancient, in fact. They predate the current shitstorm by centuries. This means, that when/if said shit-nado subsides, the root causes of Russophobia won’t go anywhere, because NO ONE is even daring to recognize them. In the West, that’s it.

      “Let’s thank Mr. Smith for being brave enough to say what he did, and smart enough to stay on message and not say too much”

      Mr. Smith’s message is the following: “history helps overcome [Russia’s Anxiety] in the West”.

      Me: “Okay, let’s test this theory! Here’s an example of deep-seated Russophobic writing”.

      Mr. Smith’s Theory: “Pew-pew! I will point out how it is wrong to say that Russia is inherently authoritarian!”

      Me: “Okay, but what about the rational for eternal anti-Russian sentiments, based on geopolitics? That’s the reason of this [Anxiety]! If you won’t deal with it, then they will remain [Anxious] against Russia. What’s your plan?”

      Mr. Smith’s Theory: “Errrrhhhmmm…”

      Me: “Go home, Theory, you are useless”

      “Books like Russia Anxiety – and blogs like Irrussianality – are giving a lifeline to people who’d have otherwise drowned in this ugly shitstorm”

      Nah, they offer no solution. They shouldn’t be treated as some kind of “opium for the masses”, IMO.

      No one is “drowning”. At least – no one here in Russia.


  9. Look Lytt, you are smart and articulate and obviously well read in history, but you often argue just for the sake of it 🙂 Isn’t most ANYTHING anyone says, ultimately, разговоры в пользу бедных?

    But seriously, what people say, write, hear, or read is NEVER a cause for large-scale change. It is, at best, a symptom. “Influential” individuals, books, etc. only appear to influence things, because what they say (or do) fits an existing trend. They simply manage to articulate this trend before the majority is consciously aware of its rise.

    Yet, people are hard-wired to explain, to justify, to attribute AGENCY. Have you heard of Anton–Babinski syndrome? “Failing to accept being blind, people with Anton syndrome dismiss evidence of their condition and employ confabulation to fill in the missing sensory input”. The syndrome is rare, but employment of confabulation is anything but…

    Anyway. What I am getting at is this: the “rabid, borderline racist Russophobia”, “the MacKinderian fanatics” are not going anywhere, no matter what Mark Smith decides to write in his book. But collectively, “Russia realists” articulate a trend that objectively exists – though it is, right now, fringe.

    Guess what: this may reverse! But it won’t be because our Russia realists, the flaming geniuses kissed by God, manage to change the course of history, or because the rabid Russophobes see how nice we are, and get ashamed of themselves.

    Perhaps a few years pass, and the forces of History, otherwise known as Powerful Money Interests, will align…differently. And then the figureheads will go: “See what these respected scholars have been saying for YEARS? And we, unlike our stupid predecessors, thought they were right ALL ALONG!”


    1. “Isn’t most ANYTHING anyone says, ultimately, разговоры в пользу бедных?”


      What? No. No. Just… no.

      Mr. Smith have many options before him. He might have choose to write some light-prose tongue-firmly-in-cheek “myth-boosting” book, about most common “myths” about Russia that now dominate the mainstream of the Western discussions. He might have do so, and present his book as such.

      He didn’t.

      Alternatively, nothing prevented him from focusing on one particular myth, its history, impact and divergence from reality, then apply his mighty intellect and amassed knowledge to turn it into some kind of a monograph, adapted for the general “reading” public in the vein of “pop-science”.

      But he didn’t.

      What he did is to promise all of us a veritable panacea to the plague of Russophobia. I’m not making this up – that’s how he presents his own book. Only, as it turns out, his patent “cure-it-all” looks like a snake oil. At best – it’s a placebo. At worst…

      “But seriously, what people say, write, hear, or read is NEVER a cause for large-scale change.”

      I disagree. Speech and writing are mediums to communicate ideas, and “an idea becomes a material force when it takes hold of the masses” (c). Thus causing changes (even large-scale changes) all the time through the history of the humanity.

      “But collectively, “Russia realists” articulate a trend that objectively exists – though it is, right now, fringe.”

      With such attitude it will remain fringe and irrelevant forever. Changes don’t happen “spontaneously”, you need to work hard to bring them. Neither can you bring them “on a cheap”, which is chief modus operandi for the most in the West nowadays.

      “Perhaps a few years pass, and the forces of History, otherwise known as Powerful Money Interests, will align…differently.”

      Hopey-changey tactics for expecting bright future while doing nothing to bring it to reality surrenders initiative to those, who’d be ready to defend the current status quo tooth and nail fang and claw.

      Dolores, I *might* consider more charitable approach to your suggested tactic here, *if* you would provide me with the actual historical example(s) when it really worked. Can you?

      P.S. Sorry for my general stand-offish tone. I know, that when my interlocutor in the Net starts to compliment me, it actually means to rein in my… way of communication. Dolores – no need to compliment me. I am who I am.


  10. I guess I confused matters by using the word “people” where I should have said “individuals”. However, I insist that “an idea becom(ing) a material force when it takes hold of the masses” is reversed order. Any idea underlying real historical change must be literally birthed by the masses, not transplanted from the outside. It must adequately describe their immediate reality, and provide them with understandable solutions. It must be, or at least appear, organic. Writers and talkers help put ideas into words, which, granted, makes them more exchangeable… but they can’t make them actionable.

    Re. the rest – some “theoretical background”:

    How should one think about social processes? There are two basic approaches: think about individuals, or think about “masses” and “trends”. You can also mix&match the two – popular history and fiction writers love this – a charismatic leader followed by the excited masses: Napoleon, Lenin, John Galt, you know what I mean.

    But the more we study the natural world – and let’s face it, humanity is a natural phenomenon – the more doubtful the importance of the charismatic leader particulars. Especially when you go extra large scale.

    Fluid particles in Browninan motion know nothing about global temperature/pressure distributions, yet as a mass, they move rather predictably – just check out your 10-day weather forecast. Flocks of birds, schools of fish, termites, ants, bees, all the mass complexity of nature… more predictable and computer-simulatable than we used to think.

    But people are SMART! We have FREE WILL! We are RATIONAL AGENTS!

    Yes we are, ALL of us. And we are ALL equipped with remarkably similar headgear, which enables us to analyze our environments using remarkably similar methods, arriving at a probability distribution of behavioral outcomes that is much narrower than many would like to imagine. PROBABILITY DISTRIBUTION – this is the key concept.

    So, does it matter what we do, as individuals? Of course it does! Enormously! Every social process is a sum of individual actions, and the smaller the scale, the larger the impact. But at the same time, in a world as large as ours, there is a high likelihood that in our place, someone else – someone with a similar background and mental equipment – would do something similar, because they will be responding to a similar set of stimuli. Not identical, but… similar. And the more representative we are of a larger group, the larger the impact of our actions.

    So what are the implications here? It’s not 100% straightforward, but let me try.

    – You can wager that for every “rabid Russophobe” we hear from, there is a whole bunch of less outspoken ones, and also bunches of more rabid and less rabid ones, their “rabidity index” following Gauss distribution, their origin due to multiple, non-random social, economic, cultural, historical and geo-political trends.

    – Same goes for Russophiles/Russia Realists.

    – The number of BOTH Russophiles and Russophobes in the West is minuscule, as compared to the number of people who don’t know and don’t care about Russia, and who completely rely on random klyukva and recent MSM news reels for their opinions.

    – This last group, unfortunately, is the one that matters the most, and also the one that is hardest to engage rationally. It’s just this stupid, stupid blob. I am guessing the rabid Russophobes are almost equally frustrated by it’s inertia.

    So does this analysis somehow imply “surrendering initiative” and resorting to “hopey-changey tactics for expecting bright future”? NOT AT ALL!!! It implies taking a long hard look at objective reality and learning from it. Case in point: just look at antisemitism trends – only 80 years ago it was not just widespread, it was prevalent across the West! The change did not come from surrendering initiative (but neither did it come from “free exchange of ideas”).

    What it DOES imply, is that some specifics you seem to care about don’t matter that much. For the stupid blob, “someone respectable says no need to fear Russia” is about the level of the discourse. Arguing about Mark Smith’s methodology may be fun, but changes little. Also, let’s keep in mind that Russophiles/Realists are few and far between, so every single one is a boon, regardless of subtleties of approach and opinion. And the smart, respectable and outspoken ones are rare gems indeed.

    It also DOES imply that chances to induce opinion change through discourse alone are nigh zero, since the Russophile voices are relatively weak, and the stupid blob is not really interested. So in the absence of major “trend reversal” event(s), the big picture is unlikely to change. However, if such event(s) do occur, the seeds of change will need some fertile ground. This is where things like “alternative narrative”, the lingering World Cup afterglow, that nice Russian neighbor/coworker, really start to matter.

    Ok, this grew way too long! It should not become a habit 🙂

    Finally: do check out Peter Turchin’s blog and research for big data approach to human history (; also theguardian wrote about him). He is a mathematician/evolutionary biologist/anthropologist, publishing in journals like Nature and Science. Real deal.


    1. “However, I insist that “an idea becom(ing) a material force when it takes hold of the masses” is reversed order. Any idea underlying real historical change must be literally birthed by the masses, not transplanted from the outside.”

      [Yeah, what dem old dead XIX c. Germans know about philosophy 😉 ]

      Dolores, among the Irussionality’s regular commentariat, I’m probably the least likely to ever resort to the “Great Person in History” pseudo-theory. However… No matter how wrong this theory, it’s equally false to just resort to it’s apparent opposite and proclaim it to be The Truth.

      How to “wed” thorny issues of the “Individual” and the “Masses” dynamics? The solution, of course, lies in Dialectics 😉

      [10] Human being is a social creature, made by, living in and depending on the society of fellow humans.
      [20] Social being determines the social consciousness.
      [30] Social consciousness influences to various degree influences the individual.
      [40] The individual via various mediums produces some kind of Idea, which then has large/minimal/zero impact on the social consciousness.
      [50] If successful, then the social consciousness changes, thus affecting the whole of society and its future members.
      [60] Go to: [10]

      Mr. Smith is a fine specimen of particular strata of the Western society – Her Majesty’s Academician. He’s predictably liberal (because, frankly, all other options are ideologically inconceivable for that lot) member of the scientific intelligentsia living in the long established capitalist society. Despite making some noises, he’s perfectly accommodated with his own society. It’s just happens, that his society is also very Russophobic, forming the Vanguard of this pan-Western effort.

      This begs two questions:
      – How can he hope to treat this affliction (“Russia’s anxiety”) only by treating symptoms, without ever analyzing the root causes, treating the bacilli in the afflicted areas and suggesting a regiment of means to prevent its reappearance in the future?
      – Does he take the readers for idiots?

      I’m not interested in knowing whether the author himself is a… “subjective idealist” (to use a politically correct term) or a cynic that tries to establish a “rep” for himself by being a “bad boy contrarian” (in the most toothless, safe fashion possible). The end result is the same – a book with the zero impact on the state of the official, mainstream, all-society permeating Russophobia both in UK and across the Anglophone world.

      “But people are SMART! We have FREE WILL! We are RATIONAL AGENTS!”

      Some people. Some. Because people are often Dumb. They often act irrationally, under the influence of emotions and whims. As for the free will… While certainly a thing, but consider this: whether indeed possessing a free will, or lacking it completely, an individual won’t be able to tell the difference 🙂

      “You can wager that for every “rabid Russophobe” we hear from, there is a whole bunch of less outspoken ones… Same goes for Russophiles/Russia Realists… The number of BOTH Russophiles and Russophobes in the West is minuscule”

      Personally, I’m not much of betting person, unless I have “my man at the stables”, so to say. Therefore – no, I won’t wage anything, no matter how trivial the amount, on that. Because mainstream, outspoken, all-permeating (thank you, Internet) Russophobia is a reality given to us all via senses. Comments by otherwise “shy and conscientious” Western liberals, who hate Bad Stuff and close-mindedness, who call for the understanding and empathy, inevitably become fitting for the pages of Völkischer Beobachter in 1930s when Russia is mentioned.

      You, Dolores, suggest to basically put faith in a miracle delivered by Something, which is clearly incapable of it, for it is of Our World. I won’t, because that’d be simply wrong. Statistics in fact show that the number of the Russophobes in the West is always greater than the Russophiles. That’s reality. Not some assumption – it’s a fact.

      “Case in point: just look at antisemitism trends – only 80 years ago it was not just widespread, it was prevalent across the West!”

      Fine! You said “A”, say the rest of the alphabet. Dolores, are you suggesting that anti-Semitism in West became less widespread “just because”, due to some “mystical trends” at work? Or there were some objective trends, actions and events to result in it? How about analyzing the reasons of what caused the phenomena in the first place, then analyze the steps undertaken to reduce it, and then think whether it is ever be applicable to Russia and the Russians?

      By simply mentioning this particular very ill-fitting example (Russian Diaspora in the West is less numerous and devoid of the lobbying power), without dwelling further on how it might be relevant in Russia’s case, you, Dolores, committed a logical fallacy “associative mistake”. It’s the same, as claiming that “Zebras and horses are ”

      “Case in point: just look at antisemitism trends – only 80 years ago it was not just widespread, it was prevalent across the West!”

      A few paragraphs above you wrote that their number is equal to the Russophobes, whom there are “a whole bunch”. Are you saying that, yes, Russophobes are more numerous in the West?

      “So every single one is a boon, regardless of subtleties of approach and opinion.”

      Quantity rarely if ever possesses the quality of its own. If they are useless – they are useless, no matter their number. Russia is not the Ukraine. We don’t need to immediately fall on our knees and erupt into a string of “дякуемо!” when any foreigners says something vaguely positive about us. This lacks any human dignity. Russia has no need of the dead weight self-proclaimed Russophiles. We had enough of them prior to 2014, but then they immediately proved to be 100% to their respective mainstream native propaganda outlets. That’s the way Mark Adomanis went apeship pro-Ukraine. That’s how Kevin Rothrock came to work for Soros. Russia has no need of the same types. And now the rest have to prove their “objectivity” and lack of remaining ties with “the Kremlin” by ritualistic 5 minutes of hate.

      “It also DOES imply that chances to induce opinion change through discourse alone are nigh zero, since the Russophile voices are relatively weak, and the stupid blob is not really interested.”

      Gee, it’s as if they are weak because they are alone and disorganized, while their opposition is united, ideologically rigid and coordinated! Oh, if only there was a WAY!..

      “However, if such event(s) do occur, the seeds of change will need some fertile ground.”

      Only Mr. Smith’s book ain’t no wonder-science chemical fertilizers. It’s something more… closer to nature and “home-made”.


  11. You completely missed all the points.

    Whatever the reason – perhaps I am a poor explainer, additionally constrained by lack of space… perhaps lack of effort to understand on your part also played a role… but this discussion is useless, clearly.

    Besides, this is someone else’s blog, so not a good place for all this sound and fury.


    1. Just a quicke question, Dolores.

      The book promises a sure way to overcome [Russophobia] (which it fails even to define as such) by “informing people about Russian history”.

      Now, the question – can the book fulfill its promise?


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