Russia is not a superpower. Its population was shrinking, and so is its military, political, and economic might. Yes, Russians have their oil money to organise Olympics or buy fancy flats in London, but Russia itself is a far cry from the big nasty “bear” that was invading Afghanistan, when I emigrated from this evil colossus in search of a political freedom so lacking at home. Yet, this cherished western freedom is being threatened by a stifling hypocrisy.
For reasons that are both obvious and complex, Russia, the main heir of the collapsed Soviet Union, continues to be seen as an evil country. So any politician down on his luck – Senator McCain from Arizona is a case in point – is more than happy to invoke the ghosts of the Cold War and use Russia as a stepping stone for his failing attempts to stay relevant. What could be simpler? Just get on the Fox news, or if you are more sophisticated, on the pages of New Republic, Weekly Standard, or NYT Review of Books, and pontificate about the need to get tough on Russia. You gain immediate access to the deep recesses of the American psyche raised in constant fear of the Evil Empire. The public is yours to take.
The same strategy works well in Great Britain as well, where anti-Russian phobia runs even deeper, into 19th century with its almost pathological and racist fear of Russia’s rising power. That fear, by the way, has already resulted in the Crimea War of 19th century. (David Fromkin’s 1989 prize winning study, A Peace to End all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East offers a superb analysis of the power and geopolitical legacy of this fear).
But this combination of opportunism with self-induced blindness, clearly obscures the reality of the situation. Most importantly, Russians feel humiliated as a result of the collapse of their empire. And everyone knows you don’t taunt or mock your defeated enemy. Western leaders, however, are forever ready to do so and while engaging in this morally dubious enterprise, they keep congratulating themselves for their moral uprightness.
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“Pussy Riot”, “gay propaganda law”, Olympics and everything else in between are the subject of endless moralizing, while Western scandals and abuses are dismissed as the sign of the healthy democratic process.
The situation in Ukraine reminds of Moliere’s famous play Tartuffe in which the main character is a selfish and manipulative person, who pursues his materialist interests under the guise of piety. Russia falls into its role of Moliere’s gullible Orgon, while the west plays a convincing Tartuffe.
Dealing with such an exotic country as Russia, separated from the West by its unique geography, history, religion, and political system, the West has fully internalised utterly undemocratic and hypocritical attitude captured by the maxim: “quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi” (What is allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to an ox). Furthermore, as late comers to the Western civilisation, Russians themselves seem to accept this unhealthy attitude without challenging it.
This situation has persisted after the collapse of the Soviet Union Despite its self-congratulations on the triumphant power of democratic values and its demands that Russia treats its citizens and neighbours with equanimity, the West continues to lecture it on its inadequacies. Consequently, Western militaristic adventures be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, or Kosovo are disguised as some sort of noble and moral endeavours.
Russia’s assertions of its country national interests are presented, however, as an act of blatant aggression. One would expect that the endless amount of economic, political, social, and military abuses that we witness around us would make modern day Tartuffes more modest in their pious claims, but it doesn’t.
Furthermore, if the West preaches equality but treats other countries as second best, why can’t Russia do that too? Why can’t it treat Ukraine in the same way it has been treated by the West? And if Russia is the subject of double standards, was the West lying to the Russians all along, convincing them that there’s nothing to fear and can peacefully disarm and withdraw, while at the same time secretly expanding NATO towards its borders? To push the analogy with Moliere’s play even further, Tartuffe is not just a sanctimonious hypocrite; he eventually tries to repossess the house of Orgon, whose gullibility he uses precisely for that purpose.
I suspect that the collapse of Ukraine has brought this fact to the surface, and Russians – in the manner of Orgon – suddenly realised that they’ve been taken advantage of, that Tartuffe wants to re-possess their house, that all these assurances that Russia is an equal member of G8 were empty talk. It can see nuclear arms at its border, which the West will surely place there after it buys Ukraine out of its economic crisis. Western response? Blame Russian aggression again. It is a classic case of blaming the victim. Now the West will surely surround Russia with nuclear arms.
I hope that the West will come back to its senses, sit at the table and negotiate with Russia a solution to the Ukrainian crisis and create a military neutral space there. Because if it doesn’t, the next Russian political leader might be less accommodating than Putin, whose foreign policy was to give the West everything it wanted while getting very little in return.
Like the US, the UK, and France, Russia has its legitimate national interests that have to be defended. Why should Russia tolerate NATO at its borders and the potential loss of the Sevastopol navy base to the modern-day Tartuffes?
Vladimir Golstein teaches Russian literature and film at Brown University. He was the 2013-2014 Pembroke Center Faculty Fellow. He is the author of Lermontov’s Narratives of Heroism(1999) and numerous articles on all major Russian authors. He was born in Moscow, went to the US in 1979, and studied at Columbia and Yale Universities.