What’s driving Putin’s proxy war in Ukraine? A history of Russophobia and mutual Xenophobia

By David Wilson


In part one of this series, David Wilson sets the current conflict in the context of historical xenophobia towards Russia.

‘SCRATCH a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar’ is an unattributed French aphorism from the early nineteenth century.

In other words, under a veneer of civilisation, Russians are primitive and barbaric. The 19th century statesman Joseph Chamberlain once publicly said ‘Who sups with the Devil must have a long spoon.’

And famous wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill said that ‘Russia was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ that always liked to play by its own rules in international affairs.

Nowadays, these opinions would be condemned as racist or xenophobic and most politicians tend to avoid airing such sentiments directly, at least in public.

And we must not forget that throughout its history Russia has produced its fair share of saints, writers, artists, and composers who have contributed significantly to global civilisation.

Yet Russia has form when it comes to autocratic government accompanied by political and social repression.

And the free world has every reason to distrust what Russians and their leaders say. The inscrutable Vladimir Putin has the world holding its breath as we wait to see what his next move will be with regard to Ukraine. And what is his real objective?

Is it simply a wish to reassert the russky mir or Russian world of Greater Russia, Byelorussia and Ukraine, a united geographical and spiritual entity of Holy Mother Russia? Or restore the Russian Empire which the collapse of the Soviet Union swept away? Or is it something more than all of these? Is it a proxy war against the free world which Putin has persuaded many of his citizens to fear and hate?

Russophobia – a historical perspective

While most people would say they aren’t racist towards the Russian people themselves, the broader conflict between the free world and Russia goes beyond political ideology and realpolitik.

Apart from Putin’s blatant disregard for international law and human life, xenophobia is a powerful factor behind much of the reaction on all sides of the conflict. Fear and hatred of Russia have a long history and with good reason. In the nineteenth century, the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev coined the word Russophobia to denote xenophobia specifically towards Russia.  Much Russophobia can be attributed to the negative experiences of neighbouring countries who historically have been victims of border incursions, skirmishes, and wars.

Tensions between Russia and China, for example, go back to the Sino-Russian border conflicts of 1652-1689.

In Denmark, a 2019-2020 YouGov Cambridge poll survey showed a massive 70 per cent of the country’s citizens hold a negative view of Russia.

The 2019 Pew Research Centre poll indicated that 69 per cent of Japanese people view Russia unfavourably, with only 25 per cent well-disposed towards them. Since 1945, Japan has been in a dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands which separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. These islands were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

The 2019 Pew Research Center poll also revealed that 61 per cent of French citizens regard Russia in a negative light. As long ago as the eighteenth century, the French writer Denis Diderot, had presented Russia in a negative light because of its lack of enlightenment or middle class and its tendency to favour harsh dictatorship.

An International Gallup Organization survey last year revealed that 77 per cent of U.S. citizens view Russia unfavourably.

For a long time in the United States academics, journalists and other commentators have expressed the view that Russian behaviour has been unique and unchanging.

In his 2001 article Against Russophobia, Anatol Lieven quotes US politician Henry Kissinger as saying: “For four centuries, imperialism has been Russia’s basic foreign policy as it has expanded from the region around Moscow to the shores of the Pacific, the gates of the Middle east and the centre of Europe, relentlessly subjugating weaker neighbours and seeking to overawe those not under its direct control.”

In Britain we see Russophobia beginning to appear at the beginning of the nineteenth century, heightened later by the Crimean War of the 1850s.

Throughout that century British travel writers and newspaper correspondents portrayed Russia as a semi-barbaric and despotic country. Russophobia was undoubtedly intensified by the general Victorian dislike of Tsarist autocracy.

In the 20th century the economist John Maynard Keynes attributed the mass murders which took place in the Soviet Union to the nature of the Russian and Jewish people. He maintained that there was a ‘beastliness in an alliance of the Russian and Jewish natures.

“Out of the cruelty and stupidity of Old Russia nothing could ever emerge,” he wrote.

Nazi Germany viewed Russians and Slavs generally as an inferior race if not downright sub-human.

Xenophobia against Russia has been building for at least two centuries. How will, and did, Moscow respond?

The second instalment of this piece will go into the Russian reaction to inherent Russophobia.


Opinion articles featured on Redaction Report reflect the views of their author, not those of the publication as a whole. Only Editorials display the opinions of our management.


David Wilson is a freelance writer and professional linguist with expertise in the language and culture of Russia. He lives in York, England.


Featured Image: Thomas Depenbusch @ Flickr

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