Following the recent controversy over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, the British government blamed Russia for the incident, amplifying anti-Russian hysteria currently dominating Western politics. In fanning the flames against Russia, Western governments and media have employed Orientalist tropes usually reserved for the stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs.
As reported by the Guardian, despite the absence of evidence, British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted that Russia’s culpability for the poisoning was “highly likely.” According to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Russia’s involvement was “overwhelmingly likely.” Gavin Willamson, U.K. defense secretary, described Russia as the enemy.
In a March 14 op-ed for the Washington Post, Johnson raised additional, more general accusations against Russia, accusing the country of meddling in all sorts of elections, recklessly defying “essential international rules,” and involving itself in the Syrian war. Going even further, Johnson made the absurd claim that the nerve agent used to try and kill the former spy demonstrated “blatant Russian-ness.”
Johnson’s bizarre description is part and parcel of Western stereotyping of Russia, according to which the country and Russians, more generally, are “morally inferior.” In an interview with NBC News, James Clapper, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, said in 2017 that Russians were “typically, almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique.”
Judgments about Russia and Russians are, of course, based on Western norms. In his Washington Post op-ed, Johnson accused Russia of failing on its “special obligation to uphold the rules of good international conduct.” The definition of whatever “good international conduct” is, of course, a Western one.
While these and other instances of anti-Russian propaganda have increased in recent years, racist tropes about Russians as backward, evil, and a danger from the East have been present in the West for quite a while. Cold War rhetoric around the “Red Scare,” i.e. the fear that socialism and communism were spreading like a disease from the Soviet Union, has long shaped Western ideas about Russia. Much like Orientalist depiction of Arabs, Muslims, and – at present most obviously – Iran, Russia has been stereotyped as undeveloped, morally corrupt, and an existential threat to the West, in need of being contained. This manufactured fear has been at the core of the West’s approach towards the East, and has helped governments consolidate domestic power and generate consent for military interventions abroad.
With Russians defined by their perceived difference, accusations have effectively substituted for hard evidence. This has facilitated Russian scapegoating and anti-Russian hysteria that ultimately serves the Western goal of coercing Russia into submission.