Stereotyping Russia

27 February 2008

Stereotyping Russia

By Gwynne Dyer

The coronation of Dmitri Medvedev as Vladimir Putin’s anointed successor, by means of a presidential election on Sunday whose outcome is a foregone conclusion, has unleashed the usual deluge of stereotypes about “the Russians” in the Western media. They are backward, they cannot ever escape from their dreadful history, they are “different from us.” They are “reverting to type,” and the next stop is a new Cold War.

A striking example of this kind of reporting is provided by British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, who spend a whole eighteen weeks travelling in Russia for his new book “Russia: A Journey to the Heart of a Land and its People.” In a newspaper piece promoting the book, Dimbleby writes: “I have returned more aware than ever before that the Russian people are not like “us”. In a fundamental way, they neither belong to the West nor share Western values.”

In a fundamental way, Dimbleby is talking nonsense, but it’s true that the Russians have been through a very bad time recently and that their scars are showing. That’s why the election of Medvedev as the new president amounts to a coronation, and why most Russians wouldn’t have objected if Putin had simply declared that Medvedev would take over without a vote.

It may even be the case that Putin’s promise to serve Medvedev as prime minister is mainly meant to reassure the Russians that there will be no surprises. This promise has been universally interpreted in the Western media as a stratagem to let Putin cling to power while formally observing the two-term constitutional limit on the presidency, but he may not actually want to cling to power. (At his farewell press conference, Putin said that being president was about as much fun as being away on “an eight-year business trip.”)

Putin’s eight years in office gave Russians stability and a measure of prosperity after the political chaos and economic banditry of the 1990s, and they don’t want to lose that. The experience of the 90s is also why a large majority of Russians show no great enthusiasm for “democracy,” or even openly reject it.

It often shocks visiting foreigners when Russians talk like that, but what they mean by “democracy” is really “the way Russia was under Yeltsin.” That was a place where inflation wiped out the savings of the whole middle class, where well-placed members of the old Communist nomenklatura and their clever young neo-capitalist allies “privatised” large chunks of the economy into their own pockets, and where elderly people who had worked hard all their lives went cold and hungry.

It was humiliating to be Russian under Yeltsin. Powerful foreigners treated the country almost as a colony, and Yeltsin went along with it. The elections were manipulated just as much then as they are now, but then the manipulation was being done at the behest of foreigners who wanted to keep Yeltsin in power. Of course Russians don’t want that sort of “democracy” — and they have never known any other sort.

Does that mean they are not “Western”? Of course not. Look at their art and music and literature, look at the way they behave towards one another, look even at their religion, which survived over seventy years of official atheism under the Communists virtually untouched: about the same proportion of people in Russia are observant Christians as in France or Canada.

Russian politics are different, at least for the moment, but Spain was still Western under Franco, and Germany was still Western even under the Nazis. Russia may move towards democracy once the traumas of the recent past have healed, or it may not, but it remains a part of the West. It will be no less so even if it slides into a military confrontation with the rest of the West (like France did in the early 19th century, and Germany in the early 20th).

If that should happen, it will be at least as much the fault of the United States and Western Europe as it is of the Russians. NATO formally promised the old Soviet Union that it would not expand into Eastern Europe if Russian troops were withdrawn from the former satellites, and then it broke its promise.

The United States unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it had signed with Moscow, and is now planning to install exactly that kind of missiles in Poland on the pretext that they are needed to intercept the long-range rockets that Iran doesn’t have, carrying the nuclear warheads that Iran doesn’t have either. Nobody in Russia believes that story, and neither do I.

Most recently, the larger Western powers partitioned Serbia and recognised the independence of Kosovo in defiance of passionate Russian protests and of international law. It may have been the least bad remaining option, but Russians are quite right to think that it shows a contempt for their state and its interests in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin.

Even so, with any luck there will not be a new Cold War. With enough time, there may even be democracy in Russia. In the meantime, most Russians are reasonably content with their lot, and the oil wealth that is the main reason for their new-found prosperity is being invested in ways that will ultimately enable Russia to re-emerge as a fully modern country with a viable and competitive economy. There is no need for panic.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“It may…trip”; and “Does…Canada”)

This article may be used before the Russian presidential election on March 2nd, or after it by changing “is” to “was” in the first sentence.