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.