Wokedom Westernizes Russia to Malign Her

There is a strain of Western Russophobia, around 200 years old, which seeks to denigrate Russia on account of her alleged Asiatic character. The Marquis de Custine, in his famous Letters from Russia (1839), described Russia as Asiatic to the bone, indelibly marked by the long Mongol rule, and alien to Europe, which he saw as starting at Russia’s western borders.

According to Custine, the Russian people had “just enough of the gloss of European civilisation to be ‘spoiled as savages’, but not enough to become cultivated men. They were like trained bears who made you long for the wild ones.”

This type of narrative emerged in post-Napoleonic France, but it soon crossed the Channel and flourished in the Victorian Britain. Its corollary—which emerged during the Crimean War and matured during Benjamin Disraeli’s time as prime minister—was the view of the moribund and despotic Ottoman Empire as “Oriental” in an attractive, pleasingly exotic manner, and entitled to rule over the Christian riffraff in the Balkans and the Middle East. By contrast, Russia’s orientalism was presented as both backward and threatening. The palaces of St. Petersburg, the domes of the Kremlin, the guards’ uniforms, were just a façade concealing an Asiatic heart of darkness.

According to the historian James E. Casteel, a generation later, in the newly united Germany, “Russia became a site onto which Germans projected their ambitions and expectations for the future as well as their worst anxieties about modernity.” After the Kaiser fired Bismarck from the chancellorship in 1890, anti-Russian narratives were given a distinctly German veneer in the form of the looming and allegedly inevitable existential struggle between the Teuton and the Slav. It was reflected in the resigned remark of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to a visitor who praised the young oaks lining the roadway at his estate in Brandenburg: That, when they finally matured, some Cossack horsemen were likely to be resting in their shadows.

In Der Russland Complex (2023), Gerd Koenen found the roots of Germany’s alleged “Russia complex” in a “long-standing image of the ‘Russian peril’ that morphed into anti-Bolshevism” after the 1917 Revolution. Subsequently, the “Nazis did not need to invent an image of Russia from scratch since they could draw on well-established cultural discourses within German society and exploit them for their own purposes.” They merely wedded the yearning for land and resources in the East—the Lebensraum for the Thousand-Year Reich—to the notion of Russian and Slavic racial inferiority.

The conquest of millions of acres of chernozem (“black earth,” or rich farmland) for German colonization necessitated elimination of the native people. “The Slavs,” Martin Bormann wrote in 1942, “are to work for us. Insofar as we don’t need them, they may die.” Erich Koch, the Reich Commissar in Ukraine, was equally blunt: “We are the master race. I will draw the very last drop of blood out of this country… The lowliest German worker is racially and biologically a thousand times more valuable than the population here.” Such an approach was formalized in the Hunger Plan, drafted in May 1941, which aimed at starving to death some 30 million people, mostly urban Russians—three times the number of Jews the Nazis planned to murder at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942.

During the Cold War, on both sides of the Atlantic, crude Russophobia fell out of fashion for two reasons. Many Western intellectuals, including prominent authors and purveyors of popular culture, were ideologically sympathetic to Soviet communism. They were predictably averse to negative stereotyping of the core nation of the First Land of Socialism and preferred to focus on the supposed threat of German revanchism and revived militarism.

As for the Cold Warriors, negative stereotypes were incompatible with the Western strategy of containment—as envisaged by George Kennan—which had the implied objective of integrating a “normalized,” post-Soviet Russia into a stable, Western-friendly world. For this reason, Kennan was vehemently opposed to the eastward expansion of NATO half a century later. After the end of the Cold War, and especially with the war in Ukraine, the old stereotypes were revived, though, with the Russians replacing the Germans as the bête noire of the liberal internationalists.

There is a new and somewhat bizarre trend in the making, however. It can be summarized as a systematic attempt by the purveyors of wokedom to “Westernize” Russia—in other words to deny its Asiatic, non-European character—in order to subject it to the kind of diversity, equity, and inclusion-based (DEI) onslaught which, for the most part, has been reserved for Western nations and cultures.

A manifesto of sorts was published in February 2023 by Foreign Policy magazine, “It’s High Time to Decolonize Western Russia Studies.” Its authors, Artem Shaipov, a co-founder of the Ukrainian Global University, and Yuliia Shaipova, an advisor at the Ukrainian Parliament, argue that Russia’s nature as an imperial power is historically and geopolitically incontrovertible; but as the French and British empires were dissolved, the USSR expanded its colonial reach. Soon after the 1991 Soviet breakup Russia started reestablishing its empire, using an array of violent and criminal methods. Inside Russia, which is really “a tapestry of lands and peoples conquered and colonized under tsars and communists,” this included warfare and mass atrocities.

Unwittingly, the manifesto’s authors claim, “today’s Russia studies in the West still replicate the worldview of an oppressor state that has never examined its history and is nowhere near having a debate about its imperial nature at all—not even among the Russian intellectuals or so-called liberals with whom Western students, academics, and analysts generally interact and cooperate.”

To “decolonize” Western studies of Russia and the region, the authors propose that universities and think tanks should strike “Eurasia” from program names, “a geopolitical concept straight out of Russian far-right nationalism.” Existing centers of Russian studies should refocus their attention “to reflect the history and contemporary experiences of indigenous peoples inside today’s Russian Federation and establish and strengthen institutions studying Russia’s former colonies.” These efforts “can only be the beginning in removing Russian imperial narratives from the Western academy and mental space.”

As Chronicles contributor Guzi He noted in a private communication with me, it is remarkable that the article contained references to British and French colonial empires, oppressor states, indigenous peoples, diversity, representation, and the specter of the “far right.” He wrote:

In fact, if you replace the word “Russian” with “white/European” and “Ukrainian” with “black-brown-marginalized,” the entire piece would be indistinguishable from any other woke screed. It appears that the authors thought that by imitating the language of DEI, they could elicit Western support for the Ukrainian cause. Western elites who often harbor a deep and irrational Russophobia are all too happy to heed the call. 

Guzi He also notes that decommunization policies in former Eastern Bloc countries and Soviet republics were often brutal and vindictive, and included discrimination against Russian speakers and minorities. Ukraine never apologized for the May 2014 massacre of anti-Maidan protestors in Odessa or the shelling of civilians in the Donbas. Such abuses were often ignored by Western elites, including conservatives who were blinded by their hatred of the communist “evil empire.”

Their attitude, He adds, is not unlike that of the Entente powers whose preoccupation with “self-determination” did not stop them from turning a third of ethnic Hungarians into minorities in states newly created from the lands of St. Stephen. Leftists in countries like France seemed more scared by Emperor Karl’s attempts to reclaim his throne than Bela Kun’s Bolshevik revolution. 

What many Western conservatives don’t realize is that the impulse that drives Russophobia (often masked as neoliberal anti-communism) is the same as the one that gave birth to DEI and other pernicious anti-Western ideologies. You can’t be ideologically consistent if you support the former but denounce the latter. Both are obsessed with “oppression” and refuse to see any merit in the alleged oppressor’s legacy. Both attribute all present-day problems to real and imagined past injustices perpetrated by the oppressor. Both encourage vindictive rhetoric and conduct against members of the oppressor group, all in the name of liberation and justice.

The trend is clear, and its fruits are increasingly visible in the media, in academic studies and conferences. Its notable harbinger was the 2021 Amnesty International report on Russia, which claimed that “violent racism” was “out of control” in the Russian Federation. In September 2021, Slavic Review, published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press, posted “The Invisibility of Race in Sociological Research on Contemporary Russia: A Decolonial Intervention.” According to the author, “Following critical race theory’s understanding of race as relationally constituted and rooted in discourses of Europeanness, modernity, and civilization, the essay shows that race is highly prevalent but unacknowledged in sociological studies of Russia…”

In June 2022, Foreign Affairs published a virulently anti-Russian, ostensibly DEI-inspired piece, “From Pushkin to Putin: Russian Literature’s Imperial Ideology.” It was authored by Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor of UkraineWorld, a Kiev-based propaganda publication whose work “is supported by Internews Network (Ukrainian Media Program), Open Society Foundation, National Democratic Institute, and other partners.” 

The author opens by claiming that “Russian classical literature, chock full of dehumanizing nationalism, reads disturbingly familiar today … When Pushkin depicted Ukrainian Cossacks as bloody and cruel, this was just the 19th-century version of today’s propaganda narrative about Ukrainians as alleged Nazis whose historical fate is death and submission.” “Of course,” Yermolenko adds, “Russian culture is no single cause for Russian crimes, and the connection between culture and politics is never linear”:

But it is naive to think that Russian culture is innocent and free from the imperialist discourse that has been at the core of Russian politics for centuries. And although Western universities study imperialism and orientalism in Western literary canon—novelists Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad immediately come to mind—they have almost completely ignored similar strains in the literature of the world’s last unreconstructed colonial empire which is fighting another war of imperial conquest …

In May of last year a conference was held at Yale on “settler colonialism” in the Russian Empire and the USSR. It included a paper with the title grimly typical of the emerging genre: “Disordered Bodies in the Borderlands: Gender, Sex, Ethnicity, and the Problem of Settling Siberia.” You can’t make this up.

On Feb. 22 of this year, Euronews.com published a piece under the title “Russia is now pretending it knows nothing of its colonial-legacy.” “The inescapable fact is that Russia stood as one of the largest European colonial powers,” the article claimed, “especially from the non-Western perspective. This holds true even today.” It warned that “while Moscow’s roots lie in Western colonial power, it skillfully projects a contrasting image to appeal to non-Western nations.” From the DEI vantage point this is a racist statement implying, as it does, that Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans are just too uninformed and naïve to see through Russia’s machinations.

There are dozens of similar examples available online, and new ones are appearing almost daily. It would be foolish for Western conservatives to give credence the developing DEI narrative on Russia while they try to resist it on other fronts. As I wrote on the eve of the war in Ukraine, it is illogical for the United States to believe that Russia and America have cultural incompatibilities or irreconcilable geopolitical interests of the kind that had made wars likely between Athens and Sparta, Rome and Carthage, or the Bourbons and the Habsburgs.

Both neoliberals and neoconservatives detest Russia as such, not because she is a real threat to America but because they recognize Russia as the last major bulwark against the tide of cultural and moral self-immolation which has gripped the U.S. and much of the West. The current woke psychosis, combined with crisis escalation in Ukraine, has the potential to destroy the remnant of our common European civilization. This would be a favor to all those who hate that civilization and are committed to its destruction.

(Correction note: There was a copyediting error in the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph. It originally read “… it is illogical to believe that Russia and Ukraine don’t have cultural incompatibilities or irreconcilable geopolitical interests …” We regret the error. )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.