Tag Archives: Russophobia

The semiotics of fear

I’ve never read the works of Leo Strauss, but a colleague (who we’ll call ‘TK’) once described Strauss’s philosophy to me roughly as follows:

TK: Strauss believed that people don’t actually mean what they say. There’s always a hidden subtext. If you are one of the initiated, who has the key to the code, you can decipher what they mean.

Me: So when Strauss said that people don’t mean what they say, did he mean that? Or did he, according to his own philosophy, actually mean something different? In which case, what he really meant was that people do mean what they say. But if that’s so, then he did mean that they don’t mean what they say. And then, well you get the point – we’re stuck in an endless logical loop.

TK: Indeed. Followers of Strauss are divided on this issue. Some think that he did mean that; some think that he didn’t. They’ve fallen out pretty badly over it.

I’ve no idea if that’s a fair description of Strauss, but it was enough to convince me that I could avoid reading him without doing great harm to my intellectual sanity. Apart from being inherently paradoxical, this sort of thinking is, I think, rather dangerous. It allows anyone who considers themselves one of the ‘initiated’, and as such understands what’s going on beneath the surface, to argue that we should ignore what others are saying because it’s not what they mean. Instead, we should pay attention to the initiate’s interpretation of what they’re saying, even if it’s the exact opposite of the actual words uttered. In this way, our intellectual high priests can convince us that black is white, dark is light, and the moon is made of green cheese.

Let’s take an example. If the Russians deny that they have plans to invade the Baltic states, are they are actually denying that they plan to invade the Baltic states? Or are they, by repeatedly denying the claim, deliberately drawing attention to it, thereby reinforcing in people’s minds the possibility that it might be true? If it’s the latter, then by saying that NATO fears are exaggerated, what the Russians are really doing is constructing a ‘fear narrative’. Denials are admissions, and attempts to reassure are in reality attempts to frighten.

Crazy? Yup. But this is precisely the argument put forward by four Estonian scholars in a new article published in the academic journal Media, Conflict & War. Entitled ‘Discourse of fear in strategic narratives: The case of Russia’s Zapad war games’, it needs to be read to be believed.

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Sickening

I read something recently which said that about half of all postings on social media are automatically generated (by so-called ‘bots’). You can bet your bottom dollar that every issue of social importance is being debated on the internet. That means that there are going to be a lot of bot-generated links to the matter in question. And, it goes without saying, some of those will have been generated by somebody in Russia. I say this just to point out that whatever the issue, if it’s important then it’s pretty much certain that you’ll find something about it on the internet that you can trace back to Russia. So if your measure of whether ‘Russia’ is pushing an issue, or is responsible for swaying public opinion on a given matter, is that Russian-based accounts have posted something on the subject, then there is absolutely nothing you can’t hold Russia responsible for.

Of course, regardless of the question, there will also be bots and trolls, and even genuine, ordinary people, commenting on it from America, and Canada, and England, and France, and Germany, and who knows where else. But for some reason, nobody ever holds them responsible. Russians are involved – it’s their fault. Forget about everybody else.

And so it is that in the past couple of weeks, a plethora of articles have appeared blaming Russia for, of all things, measles. As is well known, the disease has made a comeback in recent years, largely as a result of a significant reduction in vaccinations. It turns out that some Russian-based social media accounts have forwarded or provided links to anti-vaccination messages. Ergo, the revival of measles is Russia’s fault.

One of the most egregious examples of this logic appears in an article in the respect medical journal The Lancet. This blames an upsurge of measles in Ukraine firmly on Russia. In 2008, 95% of Ukrainian babies were vaccinated against measles. By 2016, this figure had fallen to 31%, ‘among the lowest in the world’. Vaccinations for Hepatitis B have similarly collapsed. Last year there were 23,000 cases of measles in Ukraine, about half the entire European total. The Lancet links this to the war in Donbass and also comments that, research ‘concluded that Russian trolls promoted discord and, masquerading as legitimate users, created a false impression that arguments for and against vaccination were equiposed. The result has been an erosion of public consensus on the value of vaccine programmes.’ The inference is clear: Russia is to blame for the massive outbreak of measles in Ukraine.

In fact, the research in question analyzes the Twitter hashtag #VaccinateUS, which was allegedly produced by the Russian ‘troll farm’, the Internet Research Agency. The research shows that this hashtag was associated with 253 posts, slightly more of which were pro-vaccine than anti. It also notes that ‘accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses (e.g. Zika) but not necessarily about vaccines. Finally, traditional spambots (designed to be recognizable as bots) were significantly less likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses than was the average Twitter user.’ This hardly suggests that Russian bots are the no. 1 anti-vaccine propagandists. Moreover, it’s hard to see the link between #Vaccinate US and Ukraine.

As The Lancet notes, ‘the precipitous fall in vaccination level [in Ukraine] began after 2008’. The supposed link to the war in Donbass is therefore irrelevant, as this process began long before that. Moreover, the Internet Research Agency wasn’t even founded till 2013, so I can’t see how it had any influence on plummeting vaccination levels in Ukraine before then. Added to that, as a graphic on Ukrainian vaccination rates on Anatoly Karlin’s blog shows, vaccination levels  have shot up since 2016, at which point not only was war waging in Donbass, but Russian bots were supposedly working their hardest. In short, there is no correlation with Russian bot activity and falling vaccination levels, and so no good reason to link measles in Ukraine to Russia. This, however, has not stopped the likes of RFE/RL from running articles suggesting that the opposite might be true.

And now, here in Canada, as we suffer an outbreak of measles in British Columbia, our very own Marcus Kolga has come forward to tell us who is to blame. In an article in yesterday’s Toronto Star, he tells us that ‘Russian disinformation is attacking our democracy and making us sick.’ According to Kolga,

As our information environment continues to be poisoned by Kremlin bots and trolls, it turns out that they’re also making us sick, literally. … Since 2014, the Kremlin has developed, distributed and amplified antivaccination conspiracy theories, urging parents not to allow their children to be vaccinated against life threatening illnesses, including measles. This has created a global health crisis.

There are some highly questionable assertions here. The first is that all Russian bots and trolls are ‘Kremlin bots and trolls’. Kolga produces no information to support the claim that this is a ‘Kremlin’ plot. The second is that Kremlin is developing and spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and ‘urging parents’ not to vaccinate their children. Actually, as shown above, alleged Russian messages tend to favour vaccines more than oppose them. The third is that it is specifically Kremlin bots who have ‘created a global health crisis’. This is blatantly untrue. The current crisis has its origins in a 1998 article by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, which linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Since then, the fear of vaccines has developed a life of its own, spread by vast numbers of people, most of whom have nothing to do with Russia. Even if it’s true that some Russian bots have spread anti-vaccine messages, nobody has yet shown that these constitute more than a tiny drop in the ocean of overall anti-vax propaganda. To say that Russian bots have ‘created a global health crisis’ is preposterous.

As for Canada, the current measles outbreak has been traced to the family of one Emmanuel Bilodeau, whose 11-year old son caught measles on a holiday to Vietnam. Bilodeau told the CBC that, ‘We worried 10-12 years ago because there was a lot of debate around the MMR vaccine. Doctors were coming out with research connecting the MMR vaccine with autism. So we were a little concerned.’ So this outbreak derives from a decision made eleven years ago. How then is it a product of Russian bots and trolls, none of whom, as far as anybody has yet claimed, was saying anything about measles at that point?

Connecting Russia to measles is fearmongering, pure and simple. And as the anti-vaccination issue has shown us, fearmongering is bad for the health. To quote Marcus Kolga, it ‘makes us sick’. Indeed.

 

Book Review: Moscow Rules

Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.

Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.

Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’

moscow rules

So what distinguishes Russia from the West?

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The Putin I knew

In my last post I drew attention to a strange schizophrenia in the way many commentators view Russia. On one hand, there’s what I will call model one, in which they blame the country’s problems and its supposed aggression on the authoritarian nature of Russia’s political system. On the other hand, there’s model two, in which they consider these problems to be the product of some supposedly innate characteristic of the Russian people – the ‘Russian soul’, as it were. Model one often takes the form of extreme Putinophobia – that is to say a tendency to blame everything one doesn’t like about Russia on the malign character of the country’s president. Model two manifests itself in sweeping statements about Russians, which if made about another people might be considered racist. The two models tend to go hand in hand, but they’re not easily compatible – after all, if it’s all Putin’s fault, then the nature of the Russian character is irrelevant.

This schizophrenia is on full display in a controversial article published yesterday in The New York Times. Entitled ‘The Putin I knew: the Putin I know’, it’s written by Franz Sedelmayer, a businessman who worked in the 1990s in St Petersburg, where he became well acquainted with the then deputy mayor, Vladimir Putin. In his article Sedelmayer recounts how Putin helped him set up his business. In 1996, though, Sedelmayer was a victim of ‘reiderstvo’ – raiding, or asset grabbing – when the Russian state illegally seized control of his company. Reiderstvo was pretty common back in the Yeltsin years, and it still happens, though one gets the impression that there’s not quite as much of it as in the 1990s and that Western businesses are safer than they used to be. Anyway, Putin apparently told Sedelmayer that there was nothing he could do to help him, and from that moment on their friendship was over. Putin changed, Sedelmayer writes. Previously, Putin ‘acted rationally and appeared to be sincere in his interest in St. Petersburg. He didn’t take bribes’. Now, though, he:

is in many ways similar to President Trump. Like him, Volodya makes decisions based on snap judgments, rather than long deliberation. He’s vindictive and petty. He holds grudges and deeply hates being made fun of. He is said to dislike long, complicated briefings and to find reading policy papers onerous.

Like Mr. Trump, the Mr. Putin I know reacts to events instead of proactively developing a long-term strategy. But in sophistication, he is very different. A former K.G.B. officer, he understands how to use disinformation (deza), lies (vranyo), and compromise (kompromat) to create chaos in the West and at home …. More than anything, he wants to be taken as an equal or a superior, trying to destroy anything with which he cannot compete.

There are quite a few unsubstantiated assertions here. And it’s all very personal. As so often, Russia is reduced to Putin – when things happen that we don’t like, it’s Putin’s fault. Thus Sedelmayer writes,

President Vladimir Putin of Russia celebrated the New Year by having an American tourist, Paul Whelan, arrested as a spy. Mr. Whelan was in Moscow to attend a wedding. But Mr. Putin needed a hostage as a potential trade for a Russian woman with Kremlin connections — Maria Butina, who had pleaded guilty of conspiring with a Russian official “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” So Mr. Putin grabbed Mr. Whelan, who has not been released.

Perhaps this is accurate, but then again perhaps not. How does Sedelmayer know that Putin personally ordered Whelan’s arrest – ‘Putin grabbed Mr Whelan’ (Really? He did it himself?) – and that he did so as a hostage to exchange for Maria Butina? Butina isn’t even charged with espionage, and given how long she’s already been in prison prior to trial, she’ll likely be out fairly soon anyway. There’s no obvious reason to want to exchange her.

All this falls firmly within model one. But like so many others, Sedelmayer can’t resist explaining matters also by model two. As he writes:

A couple of months ago Volodya tried — luckily, he failed — to insert a crony as head of Interpol, the international police organization, presumably so he could turn it into his personal posse. Of course he did. Corruption is in Russia’s DNA.

Putin’s friends are rumoured to be holding billions of dollars on his behalf. But when he retires, will his friends give him his money, Sedelmayer asks. Probably not, he replies:

Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve lived in Russia. Sharing’s not the Russian way.

‘Oh, those Russians!’ as Boney M said.

I have some sympathy with Sedelmayer. Like a lot of people in Russia in the 1990s, he got robbed. He has reason to feel bitter. But it wasn’t because ‘corruption is in Russia’s DNA’. And it wasn’t Putin that robbed him – it was Boris Yeltsin’s state. Sedelmayer would do better to analyze the causes of the anarchic lawlessness of the Yeltsin era and and to study the specific route that Russia took in the 1990s. That would require an approach closer to that adopted by Tony Wood in his book ‘Russia without Putin’. It would be more complex, but it would also be more helpful.

Instead we get a combination of model one and model two, both of which oversimplify. Mixing them together – by personalizing Russia’s problems while simultaneously blaming them on innate national characteristics – serves only to confuse and to reinforce simplistic prejudices which suggest that whatever differences we may have with the Russians are entirely their fault. But maybe that’s the point.

Get them while they’re young

It’s said that if you want to win people’s hearts and minds you should ‘get them while they’re young’. It’s a lesson that the Russian state seems to have learnt, at least if the Daily Mail is to be believed. Masha and the Bear is a popular cartoon for young children, produced in Russia, but translated into other languages and shown around the world. It might seem like harmless stuff, but appearances can be deceiving. For in fact, Masha and the Bear is a devious work of Russian propaganda. As the Daily Mail tells us:

A Russian-made children’s cartoon show has been accused of being part of the Putin propaganda machine. Masha and the Bear focuses on the relationship between a slight but imposing young girl and her protector, a huge bear. In one Masha even dons a Soviet border guard’s hat as she repels invaders from the Bear’s carrot patch.

Critics said this was a metaphor for how Russia protects its borders.

Last year, Finland’s top newspaper – Helsingin Sanomat – quoted a lecturer at Tallinn University’s Communication School as claiming that the bear symbolised Russia and was designed to place a positive image of the country in children’s minds.

The lecturer, Priit Hobemagi, said that the series was a ‘beautifully presented’ part of a campaign that is dangerous for Estonian national security. Anthony Glees, an intelligence expert from The University of Buckingham told The Times: ‘Masha is feisty, even rather nasty, but also plucky. She punches above her weight. It’s not far-fetched to see her as Putinesque.’

masha
Masha defends Russia’s borders

The Daily Mail concludes:

Russia’s state media have refuted the claims from the likes of Estonia and Lithuania. They have also branded the concerns in the Baltic states as ‘pathological’ Russophobia. The company who produce the popular cartoon, Animaccord, said the show is an independent project that has never received state funding.

This is one of those stories where any sort of commentary seems  superfluous. Its absurdity speaks for itself. One day, historians are going to look back on this period of our history and shake their heads in astonishment.

 

The Russians are coming – Aussie-style

Cooktown, Australia, is about 6,650 kilometres from Russia. You might imagine that it’s as safe from Russian invasion as anywhere on the globe. But, as I learnt this week, its inhabitants haven’t always been convinced of that. I thought it was worth sharing the story.

cooktown

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Book Review: Creating Russophobia

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

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