Apparently there’s recently been a worldwide explosion of ‘Russophobia’. According to Alex Jones of infowars.com, hundreds of thousands of expats in Europe and elsewhere have decided to return home in the last couple of years because of anti-Russian sentiment.
Shamefully, I myself have never actually been to Russia, although I’ve nearly made it a couple of times. In winter 2007 I was offered a month-long job in a (presumably frozen) forest near St Petersburg teaching kids ‘on a campsite’. Since I was suffering at the time from what Russians call toska it sounded ideal. I’ll be able to see St.Petersburg, I mentioned to the interviewer. Hmm, maybe with…a chaperon, was her response. And when I asked who was organising the whole shebang, she sort-of-smiled and referred vaguely to ‘some…businessmen’. In the end I got a job working for Fetullah Gülen so it didn’t happen.
Russian stereotypes for my generation weren’t of heroic workers or freezing gulags but of the catastrophic consequences of economic collapse. In the 1990s Russian society was depicted as a hellish environment to survive in, one of ragged post-Soviet citizens gathered round salvaged oil drums for warmth, drinking bootleg vodka out of shoes whose laces their beleaguered grandmothers were out trying to sell on the streets whenever they weren’t in their furniture-stripped apartments making webcam porn for foreign cents. The country was synonymous with dodginess in the form of a resurgent mafia taking the place of broken state institutions. If it wasn’t dog-eat-dog then it certainly involved people doing just that. I once had a delicately-featured 17-year-old student from Siberia who, in a class discussion on weird things we’d eaten, told a mesmerising tale of the time she and her friends drunkenly killed and ate a dog. She may have just said it to have a laugh. I’ve found that Russians have a mordant sense of humour and a very strong sense of the absurd.
For years I told that story, vaguely aware that in doing so I was perpetuating a lazy stereotype of scary Russians. In reality I always enjoyed hanging out with them. At about the same time as the abortive St Petersburg trip I was teaching what is still one of my favourite ever classes. It was huge fun largely thanks for the presence of two Russian women: Tamara/Toma, a budding fashion designer bursting with wit and ebullience, and Natasha/Natalya, who on first meeting I was inclined to dismiss as a sloane but who turned out to be one of the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve ever met. I also spent about 18 months teaching private classes to a student called Vlad, an aging computer whizzkid as laconic as he was wise. Toma and Natasha helped me through a difficult break-up, while Vlad and I mostly ended up talking about the works of José Saramago, on the subject of which I was writing a dissertation at the time. I’m enormously grateful to all three of them.
Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, but the Russians I’ve known have almost all had an in-depth knowledge of and an appreciation for the wealth of culture that their country has given the world in the form of literature, painting, theatre and music. Most have been happy to discuss and draw lessons from Dostoevsky, Chekov, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and many more. At the level of fiction and cinema in particular Russia seems to be one of those cultures (akin to the Spanish-speaking world) which is so vast and dense you’d never really need to leave. Two more recent novelists who have influenced my understanding of not just Russia but also life and the world are Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. The former is like a cross between Irvine Welsh and Thomas Pynchon, and the latter’s novel ‘The Day of the Oprichnik’ is a futuristic dystopian fable as troubling as it is entertaining. As for film, the 2014 movie ‘Leviathan’ depicted the dismal reality of daily struggles for human dignity in the face of powerful and evil forces, in the form of an epic biblical parable. The film faced a campaign of vilification in the Russian press as a result. Similarly scripture-heavy is the brand-new release ‘The Student’ which I will, baby daughter permitting, endeavour to see as soon as possible, which may well not be til at least 2035, but still. There’s a moral seriousness to a lot of contemporary Russian cinema which I for one find extremely beguiling but would be deeply inappropriate for a newborn child who doesn’t even recognise Peppa Pig yet.
I was also lucky a few years ago to spend time in London with members of Chto Delat, a (genuinely) radical art/activist collective from St Petersburg. Their elaborate dialectical critiques (most often presented in the form of newspapers and films on themes such as Brecht, the political role of the Avant Garde, the Right to the City) I find both profoundly disorientating and deeply enlightening. The risks they take to produce and present their art surpass by far any challenges faced by artists in the UK or the US, with their publications seized by the State and members harassed and arrested. Together we organised a protest outside the Russian embassy in support of two antifascists arrested on an environmental protest. I hope that if I ever do make it to Russia this won’t turn out to be a problem and I don’t have to remotely post a series of gulag diaries. In fact, that’s quite a good point. Let’s just pretend I never mentioned it.
Those who do dare to oppose the abuse of the powerful in Russia exhibit enormous courage. The suffering and fortitude described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is almost beyond compare. Some of that bravery lives on in Pussy Riot, who in return for standing up against the Church and the State were sentenced to endure similar conditions in an actual full-on Siberian penal colony.
Their crime was to stand up to the patriarchal arrogance of a president who seems to take pride in the very worst aspects of Russian history: Tsarism, pogroms, showtrials and the gulags themselves. Those Russian individuals and institutions who exhibit the enormous courage required to resist his autocratic rule, who publicly object to the corruption, racism, homophobia, misogyny and state terrorism he promotes are labelled ‘anti-Russian’ and ‘foreign agents’ and driven out of their homeland – or, even worse, forced to stay. Now, through the Kremlin’s media outlet Russia Today and its useful bigots overseas such as Alex Jones, this bullying of anyone who opposes Putin has taken on international proportions. The Russian President may not be the megalomaniac psychopath that some of his detractors like to make out, but that his rule is brutally repressive and that he has plans to expand it overseas is beyond any doubt.
In the meantime, if US Republicans and neofascists want to go looking for anti-Russian prejudice, they need to look at the history of their own families and their own political traditions. For decades US mainstream culture portrayed Russians as less than human. A far-right xenophobic hate merchant like Alex Jones has no concern for the people of Russia. And anyone who, like him, implies that criticisms of Putin or attempts to investigate his seedy connections with Trump and Exxon is a manifestation of ‘Russophobia’ is, like the Russians say, “полон дерьма” – full of shit.