By Nathan Brand
Since the election of Donald Trump in the US and the resurgence of the radical right across Europe, you’ll have seen the reports of Russia’s involvement in the democratic process in the West. You’ll probably have picked up on the McCarthyist-style links fashioned by the media against anyone suspected of being connected with the Kremlin. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll have seen the level of conspiracy theory in some commentary raised to Cold War spy novel standards.
What all of this points to is an ongoing crisis in Western analysis of contemporary Russia and its international relations. This is not so much an economic problem; the structure of daily life is defined in both Russia and the West by relatively strict adherence to neoliberal economic management. Rather, it is crisis borne of our relation to the past. As we know from Giorgio Agamben, amongst others, our knowledge of the past is the only way to access the present. It follows that a lack of interrogation of the past would lead to a mis-reconstructed present.
The dominant discourse in the Anglophone Western media about Russia is the thesis of ‘Continuity Russia’. This thesis argues that Russia has been a continuously dangerous power for the West over the course of the last couple of hundred years, despite its changing guises – Tsarist, Soviet, post-Soviet. It relies upon one particularly problematic construction in particular; that the current leadership of the Kremlin can be understood using the tools of the Soviet era because they are, more or less, continuations of the Soviet era.
As its big Other, the West constitutes one of the major defining points of Russian identity. Indeed, scholars such as Viatcheslav Morozov have argued that the question of Russia’s European-ness constitutes one of the major issues for Russian identity in the last 200 or so years. This is also evident in the recent conservative turn in Russian politics, but even more so in culture, where conservative cultural elites have claimed Russia as the true heir to the culture of European antiquity. It is especially dangerous, then, for Western (and particularly Anglo-American) analysis of Russian political culture to fall, at best, into cheap stereotype and at worst into outright historical revisionism.
Trump’s election exemplifies the thesis superbly. The coded argument here is that a Trump win could only have been down to Russian meddling, as opposed to a poorly-run campaign on the part of the Democratic party. Andrew Bacevich’s convincing article this month on the ISS forum shows how historical revisionism has become the stock response to Donald Trump’s election as President and the fear that American hegemony will no longer be prioritised in the international sphere. The irony, Bacevich points out, is that although Trump may appear “closer to full-fledged illiteracy than any president since Warren G. Harding” he nonetheless intuits the need for a change in U.S. foreign policy. In Great Britain, which has a great history in celebrating historical revisionism, The New Statesman has been the most frequent flyer in this great airplane of obfuscation.
In their most recent coverage of Russia on the front pages, the New Statesman commonly uses two tropes: 1) crude homophobic depictions of Vladimir Putin as a sexual predator, ready to come for other countries in Europe; and 2) the portrayal of Russia as a reincarnation, or even a continuation, of the Soviet Union. Most commonly these two tropes are combined, as shown by the two images below
The function of these recurring depictions of Russia is, of course, to inhibit resistance to the liberal interventionist foreign policy which has dominated the North Atlantic Anglophone powers since the heady days of the early 20th century. This foreign policy portfolio is recently exemplified by interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, as well as support for dictators in those countries (and many others) whilst it suited them. The argumentation follows that if Russia has not sought to change its stripes in the last
century, then why should we? Such specious reasoning escalates tension between the major powers, as well as encouraging the militarisation of our societies, sending us spiralling back toward the dark days of Cold War rhetoric.
This is certainly not to endorse Putin’s foreign policy exploits; the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent spiritual climate which it has created, capable of sweeping away the demands of the labour movement at home, are certainly nothing to stand up for. But the assumption of Russia as a historically continuous entity, threatening Western values, from the Tsarist empire, through the Soviet empire, to its current status within the neo-liberalised global economic system helps do nothing but mystify. It allows the New Statesman to argue for a foreign policy concept – in liberal interventionism – which has propped up dictators whilst they were useful, before allowing anarchy to spread in zones of the world which appeared resistant to the free flow of capital.
Ultimately, the thesis of continuity Russia leads necessarily to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Western media seek to exclude Russia from the symbolic global order by way of writing historically revisionist works of selective tradition, then Russia will indeed be excluded. Such is the power of the global hegemon. But if semi-authoritarian, anti-democratic rule can be seen to be on the rise in Russia, dogmatic, historically inaccurate portrayals of the contemporary leadership can surely do nought but help its cause.
Nathan Brand is a WRoCAH-funded PhD researcher based in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. His current research focuses on the so-called Conservative Revolution in post-Soviet Russia, with a particular emphasis on visual aspects of the political and media discourse of this far-right movement. He is co-convening a conference next year titled ‘Sovereign Bodies and Bodily Sovereignty: Mediation of Body in Semi-Authoritarian Countries’.