The Perils of Russophobia
Anyone too young to remember HUAC and the destruction the Cold War wrought should study up. We are a few short steps away from both.
We are besieged, readers. As the archives of this magazine make perfectly plain, the spasm of Russophobia now threatening to overcome us is but a variant of the anti-Soviet paranoia that defined the 1950s and early 1960s. “We’re in the most dangerous confrontation with Russia since the Cuban missile crisis,” Stephen Cohen, the noted Russianist (and Nation contributor), said on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! earlier this month. This is just the point—the reality we must now consider with utmost seriousness.
The ever-greater risk of open conflict between nuclear powers that Cohen referred to is the most evident danger confronting us, but there are others requiring attention-paying people to bolt upright. Senator John McCain, oozing that faux-gravitas he likes to affect, asserts that anyone objecting to the anti-Russian orthodoxy is “lying,” and he wants a select committee to open hearings to investigate the CIA’s recent conclusion that Russia tampered with the US elections last month. The corporate press, from the government-supervised New York Times on over, now hastens to obscure the same shameful collaboration with power that it displayed in the Cold War’s depths. On a shocking website called PropOrNot.com, Salem witch-hunters who refuse to identify themselves list hundreds of media that they assert are manipulated by the Kremlin.
Read these, too, as danger signs. Anyone too young to remember the House Un-American Activities Committee and Red Channels and all the destruction they wrought ought to study up: We are a few short steps away from both. Russia is not destroying (what remains of) American democracy. “Patriotic Americans” are.
It is essential, as I suggest, to understand our moment in historical context. Then each of us must decide, just as those called before the HUAC had to: Do I acquiesce or participate in this freakish exercise in crowd control and fear-mongering, or do I repudiate a propaganda campaign as irrational and morally wrong as any concocted during the McCarthy years? At last the question confronts us, and it is especially acute this time for those self-described as progressives: Is one a descendant of that muddled, gutless lot known as Cold War liberals, or does one insist on clear sight and principle even in the face of the ideological blasts our corporate media deliver daily?
Think it through: This is the imperative of our moment—a significant moment, because the American propaganda machine is now unusually challenged. Its efficacy is no longer the certainty it was during the Cold War decades. My own view, to be clear straightaway, is without ambivalence. It is our minds that are the objects of this onslaught: They are finally what is at issue. Surrender yours to this most flagrant case of scapegoating—hatred and anxiety conjured from thin air—and your place in the history books will be with the ghosts of all the shrill Cold Warriors and cowering chumps of decades past.
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“Russian aggression” has to go down as one of the great, pernicious phrases of our time—requiring no further scrutiny whenever deployed. The Russians invaded Ukraine and then stole Crimea without prior provocation. Now they threaten to invade the Baltic states. They cultivate extreme-right nationalists in Europe so as to debilitate the European Union. The Russians are guilty of war crimes in Syria. They have just invaded us, too, corrupting our democratic process and throwing the 2016 election to Donald Trump and his houseful of “Kremlin lackeys.”
This is the stuff of our reigning Russophobia. Let us try to identify what it is actually made of.
Every sentence in the above list has four attributes: (1) It is broadly accepted as fact just as written; (2) there is little confirmed, published evidence from impartial sources, if any, supporting it; (3) it is either one or another form of disinformation or misleads by way of omission—or both; and (4) it is a source of delusion. And in the matter of the last it is very weird. Our policy cliques do well enough deluding Americans to the effect that Russia now presents America with “an existential threat”—a thought Pentagon and NATO brass are making common currency, believe it or not—but they appear to think a nation deluded by their incessant repetitions is somehow a fine and sturdy thing. Deluded people do not generally do well, in my experience.
Now, one by one and briefly:
- Washington cultivated the February 2014 coup in Ukraine, recklessly threatening Russia’s only warm-water port, on Crimea’s Black Sea coast. This is airbrushed out of all US accounts, in the media and elsewhere, but it is open-and-shut—a matter of record. So do we cultivate our delusions. Parenthetically, have you heard any cries of anguish and protest from Crimeans since Russia annexed it? I thought not. Half an hour with a good history text will explain why.
- There is no evidence that Moscow intends to invade any of the Baltic states. Would Russia risk a war with NATO? The thought is ridiculous. Its military activities in the region (all within its borders) are defensive—in response to NATO’s incessant manufacture of excuses to advance eastward. This is a tiresome old Cold War trope: Aggress, and call it aggression when Russia responds defensively, so creating space to continue aggressing. Never forget the immortal pronouncement of John Kirby, the State Department’s current front man, in October 2014: Russia is on NATO’s doorstep, he sagely warned.
- Ask yourself: Why would Russia want to weaken the European Union when it benefits from a dense economic interdependence and with which it wants to cooperate on a broad range of questions—including Ukraine, I might add? There have been Russian bank loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front National; we now have reports of some kind of agreement to do who knows what between the governing United Russia party and Austria’s extreme-right Freedom Party. These are among a handful of contacts between nongovernmental Russian political interests and rightist parties in Europe, but let us take the Times’s word for it this time: They are “murky,” and they are of little apparent consequence. (It is remarkable, I cannot resist noting, how closely Moscow’s alleged meddling in Europe resembles the political meddling Washington has long allowed itself in Ukraine and other such nations, as well as in Russia itself.) Assuming these contacts have any significance at all, there is only one plausible motive one can ascribe to Moscow: The European parties at issue oppose the sanctions regime imposed after Russia’s “out of the blue” annexation of Crimea. The sanctions are damaging, and action begets reaction—a truism Washington never seems to anticipate. There would be no surprise here even if the allegations were to prove true as stated.
- We do not have access to the truth of the Syrian war, other than its horror and its very many casualties. We, too, are victims in this respect. I therefore take the agnostic’s stance, tilting neither one way nor another. One pays attention, surmising what can be surmised, but knowing one knows very little. I see no other defensible position. We are constantly invited to believe, never to see or to think. It is important to face this truth to avoid false conclusions and to refuse submission to the propaganda machine. We have to wait for the truth, and it must come from impartial sources. In this connection, Western NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières do fine work, no doubt, but one must decline to credit them as impartial; in some cases the Western tilt is perfectly evident. Equally, “war crimes” is now far too thoroughly politicized as a concept to accept without clean evidence, of which there is so far none. Has Russia committed war crimes in Syria? One cannot answer either way. Has the United States? It is the same.
- As this magazine demanded in an editorial last week, let’s see the evidence supporting all these allegations of Russian interference in the American political process. Robby Mook, who managed Hillary Clinton’s campaign, asserted within a couple of hours of the first e-mail leaks last summer that the Democrats were certain it was the Russians—and certain, somehow, of their motives. That bit of chicanery has ever since been my cue: I will believe it when I see proof and emphatically not before. A few points here: One, a number of highly qualified intelligence veterans, including the estimable Ray McGovern, now say the e-mail caches at issue were almost certainly leaked, not hacked—an inside job. This, too, deserves more light, never mind you have read not one word of it in the corporate media. Two, assume for a sec that Russia is indeed the responsible party. Next to Washington’s routinely vicious cyber-sabotage campaigns, the exposed material stacks up as little more than a frivolous gossip column. Three, there is the larger context—and the necessity here is to bear it in mind. Considering everything the United States has thrown at Russia lately—a coup on its doorstep, a severe sanctions regime, incessant saber-rattling in Washington, NATO’s new military presence within miles of Russia’s borders—one would have to look upon an e-mail hack as a very restrained response.
Point 1 for all Russophobes, but especially the “progressive” variety: There are costs attached to this swoon into perfect gullibility. It leaves the door open to worsening what is already a dangerous level of global tension, and chief among those served are the Pentagon, its NATO subsidiary, military contractors, and Capitol Hill warmongers who act in behalf of these three. Ask yourself, liberal: Is this where I line up? Suddenly you are willing to take the CIA’s word for anything at all? You accept what the Times publishes as true—and the complete truth, nothing left out—because it is in the Times? Given the historical record in both cases, this is very odd. So is the fact that capital “D” Democrats are now leading the Russophobic charge. That used to be the work of rightist reactionaries. One feels like Rip van Winkle, awakening to find the world a different place.
Most of all, the reigning Russophobia worsens America’s creeping isolation in world affairs—evident for years but rarely mentioned among us, and so another of our delusions. At bottom, Washington still operates according to Bush II’s “with us or against us” construct, and the world’s vote starts to tilt toward the latter. In the end, the Russians will not be a lonelier people as a result of our efforts. We will be.
There is no clearer case than Aleppo. In the Syria context, your mind is the object of a propaganda campaign straight out of Edward Bernays, as already suggested. Now our “moderates”—kindly democrats who shoot fleeing civilians and bury them in mass graves, among much else—are cleared from their east Aleppo stronghold, and what have we got? We have Russia, Iran, and Turkey convening in Moscow, pointedly excluding the United States while declaring themselves guarantors of a political settlement in Syria. And we have the Obama administration’s admirable response: Nah, that’ll never work. Now watch as we do our best to obstruct it.
We come to the consequential matter of lost opportunity. Russophobes can carry on about the evils of Russia and its leadership all they like, but it comes, once again, at a cost. The reality is that until Washington learns to cooperate with Moscow on many, many issues of common interest, solutions will elude it; in notable cases—Ukraine, Syria—the cost is to be measured in lost lives and destroyed societies. The Obama administration has spent years ever more pointedly diminishing Russia as no more than a regional power. Let us at last mark this down as another delusion—this one among the more destructive.
Lesson No. 2 for Russophobes and all liberal fellow-travelers: You assume certain responsibilities as you cast Vladimir Putin as Beelzebub. And as you do, you are the fools of those addicted to great-power rivalry and the “indispensable nation” narrative.
For the record: Anyone capable of dispassionate thinking—hello!? anybody home?—will recognize the Russian president as a serious, effective statesman with an impressive grasp of history and the forces shaping it. This does not require liking him, I should add. He has been proven right about a lot of things—one reason, indeed, the policy cliques in Washington urge us all to detest him. In my view, Americans must consider the Russia question as one of primary and secondary contradictions—greater and lesser antagonisms. Russians, along with everyone else, have numerous domestic problems, and for too many non-Russians these are preoccupations. But Russia’s problems are for Russians to resolve, as I have argued many times, and they are secondary to that defining issue of our century, parity between West and non-West.
To understand Russia and its leadership in the above-sketched frame is to come face to face with the odiousness of our Russophobic majority and question why anyone going by the label “progressive” is part of it.
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“There are now but two great nations—the first is Russia, still barbarian but large, and worthy of respect…. The other nation is America, an intoxicated, immature democracy that knows no obstacles. The future of the world lies between these two great nations. One day they will collide, and then we will see struggles the like of which no one has dreamed of.”
Just my luck, I think, whenever I reread that passage.
It is Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the French historian and critic, writing, with exceptional prescience, in 1847. It is among the earliest expressions of the animosity now, just about 170 years later, playing out before us. Six years after Sainte-Beuve wrote, a German thinker was the first to call for a union of European nations against czarist Russia’s rise. Then came some heavyweights, among them Nietzsche and Jules Michelet, the celebrated French historian (but who looked upon Russians as subhuman, to his discredit). By the 1870s, the idea of “the West”—a trans-Atlantic union now—was fully ascendant. It was, then, formed in reaction—a defense from the first against “the Other” of the East.
This is the history we ought to know now. It is our history. During the Cold War, the long-brewing crisis between Sainte-Beuve’s “two great nations” reached the point when we were willing to say, via our nuclear options, that human life itself was not as important as our triumph over the East as represented by the Russians. Our current run of Russophobia is but the latest chapter in the story.
And now our obligations ought to be plain. The first is to see clearly. It is to “go beyond our past,” as Nietzsche once put it. The second is to recognize contention between West and non-West for what it is: A pointless exercise rooted in the notion that only one political and social model will fulfill humanity’s aspirations. The third is to refuse to take up and prolong this fruitless struggle. It is to abandon it in the name of global diversity, a multiplicity of preferences and forms. This is the 21st-century task, and the loud, crude bout of Russophobia now threatening to envelop us is nothing but resistance to it.