Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Lets Be Beastly to the Russians

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Lets Be Beastly to the Russians

Article excerpt

Lazy, bigoted and conspiracy-minded criticisms of Russia only help Vladimir Putin

Oh those Russians. When they're not beating up English football fans, they're cheating at the Olympics. They occupy other countries and shoot down civilian airliners, then pretend it wasn't them. They're helping Assad win the Syrian civil war. They're even driving up London house prices. There's no infamy, apparently, of which Russians are not guilty.

'OK -- we did do all those things,' admits a Moscow broadcaster friend, a little sheepishly. 'But everyone else does them too! We're the only ones to get punished, because everyone hates us.'

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russians have become the world's official pariahs. Russian athletes have been kicked out of the Olympics for doping, their football team was threatened with expulsion from Euro 2016 over fan violence, and there have been calls to take Euro 2018 away from them over bribery. A swath of top Russian officials have been banned from travelling abroad and had their assets frozen by at least three sets of US and EU sanctions -- over Crimea, support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, and the 2009 murder of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Russian companies can't borrow money on international markets.

But there are two problems with demonising Russia and Russians. The obvious one is that the part doesn't stand for the whole: Russia is a great civilisation currently run by cynical thieves. Almost everything for which the world hates Russia is the work of corrupt bureaucrats desperate to preserve their power and hide their money. The Crimea invasion and the Olympic doping scandal are really about the same thing -- Russian officials deciding that they are above international rules, as well as Russian ones.

The second problem is that these guilty men use 'Russophobia' as a shield to hide their crimes. A report from the World Anti-Doping Agency saying that Russians had a 'deeply rooted culture of cheating' was 'revenge for Russia's independent foreign policy', according to Aleksey Pushkov, chairman of the Russian parliament's international affairs committee. Cronies of Putin who parked billions of dollars in Panama? 'An organised information attack on Russia,' says Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. A leaked report by Dutch investigators that Malaysian Airways flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft rocket? The work, in the words of a Kremlin-owned TV station, of 'fervent Russophobes'.

Unfortunately, many Russians seem only too happy to be tarred with the same brush as their rulers. It's a fundamental cultural difference between us and them: to outsiders, Russians tend to strongly identify themselves with their state, their president and their fellow citizens, even if they have private doubts. The word, and the concept, is nashy -- 'our people'. You hear it all the time in conversation and on TV -- 'Nashy smashed up Marseilles'; 'Nashy bombed Isis'; 'Nashy got banned from the Olympics.'

Collective identity has been fundamental to Russian culture for centuries -- for instance sobor , literally 'a gathering of people', is also a synonym for 'church'. And the idea that Russia is under attack is used on a daily basis by the Kremlin's propagandists. The message is: Russia must unite to fight fascists in Ukraine and global hegemons in Washington who seek to humiliate us with their information warfare and constant lies. …

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