Historic mistrust and Xenophobia may be driving Putin’s Ukraine invasion

By David Wilson


In part two of this article, David Wilson explains how historical xenophobia towards Russia has resulted in that nation’s reciprocated fear and hatred of the free world

The xenophobic reaction within Russia

In the first part of my article, I traced the origins of Russophobia. For more than two centuries, much of the free world expressed xenophobic opinions towards an autocratically governed and seemingly uncivilised Russia.

Phobias tap into feelings as well as facts; they operate on deep levels of the unconscious as well as on the conscious mind.  So many negative experiences accumulated over generations leave an emotional mark on the individuals and societies who have suffered them.

And the external xenophobia felt towards Russians was bound to affect Russians’ own notions of self-worth, reinforced in successive generations by uniformly negative portrayals of their country in global media.

Within Russia, internal divisions between Slavophiles and Westernisers reach far back into the history of the country. Westernisers such as Peter the Great, the Russian Emperor, realised the need to modernise his country and he himself studied ship-building in The Netherlands, engaging Dutch citizens to work on building the Russian navy.

Throughout the eighteenth-century, many Russian aristocrats preferred to converse in French, admired European fashions and despised the Russian language. In the nineteenth century, social divisions grew between these two groups of intellectuals: Westernisers and Slavophiles. Slavophiles opposed the westernisation of Russia and considered the West to have polluted itself with atheism, science, materialism and wealth.

They were anxious to preserve Russian traditions and culture. Above all, many of them considered the Orthodox faith to be the superior Christian tradition, and believed Russian Orthodoxy had a special historical destiny to preserve the purity of the Christian faith: after all, Rome had fallen, Constantinople had fallen, and Moscow had become the Third Rome.

Deeply embedded in Russian popular memory is also the notion of vmyeshatyel’stvo (resentment of foreign political interference), particularly acute just after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when Allied troops landed in Murmansk, Archangelsk, Odessa, and Vladivostok in the vain hope of crushing the Revolution.

Or after the Great Patriotic War, the name Russians give to the Second World War, when the same notion led to their refusal of Marshall Aid.  The Kremlin today likes to accuse anyone who disagrees with their domestic policies as Russophobic. Contemporary Russian governments use the concept as a tool of self-defence and an excuse for their own disinformation and propaganda.

In a society where the mass of ordinary citizens has for so long been vulnerable to thought manipulation by oppressively autocratic regimes, it is hardly surprising that so many of them, especially the older generations, fear or even hate the free world.  And between Russia and the free world a spiral of permanent mutual suspicion and hostility continues.

Moreover, it is equally true that internally, Russia is no stranger to its own xenophobia. According to a Levada 2018 survey, growing numbers of migrant workers in a country with increasing levels of poverty have prompted 67 per cent of respondents to want labour migration into their country restricted and this has encouraged popular slogans such as ‘Russia for Russians’.

Russia – an unknown land with an unknown language

Another key factor that creates xenophobia is how distant and unfamiliar a people and its culture are. Russia is hardly a popular holiday destination, and its culture can seem strange and exotic. For many, Russia is a distant land large tracts of which are climatically inhospitable or globally inaccessible.

The Russian language isn’t studied or spoken widely outside the country. And Russia in its incarnation as the Soviet Union was relatively isolated from the rest of the world for just over 70 years. When few people have direct contact with those from a different country, there will be mutual suspicion and fear, and negative stereotypes are propagated.

Repeat xenophobic sentiments often enough and people begin to believe they are factually true. Is this what has happened in the case of Russia over centuries?

If so, any long-lasting diplomatic or political solution to the roots of the present conflict will be extremely hard to find even in the medium-term.

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: Wellcome Collection

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