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"Russophobia: What Is It?"

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    In the past decade, the use of the term “Russophobia” has skyrocketed in Russian mass media. All but unknown in Soviet times, “Russophobia” first entered mainstream discourse with the publication of mathematician Igor Shafarevich’s short book of the same name in 1989. The moment could not have been more favorable for its reception. With the discrediting of Marxism-Leninism and the shame occasioned by the revelation of Soviet crimes, what it meant to be Russian had become a pressing issue. If not Communism, then what was “the Russian idea,” and what was Russia’s purpose in the world? Such questions might seem odd to Americans, but for the past two centuries, Russians have never ceased asking them.

    Inside Russia, proponents of different national ideas could agree that, whatever it might be, criticism of Russia was not only unfounded but entirely irrational. Russia is a force for good in the world—that is the central conviction of Russian nationalism. If we move forward to 2023, we see how that is playing out in a conflict that to us is morally lopsided in one direction, but to Russians in the other.

    Thus, accusations of Russian war crimes in Ukraine are dismissed as Russophobic propaganda. So are charges that Russia wants to reconstitute its empire or dominate its neighbors. Calling Russia “authoritarian” is Russophobic. Blaming Russians for Stalin’s crimes is Russophobic. And mentioning Russian anti-Semitism, corruption, backwardness, or rejection of the rule of law—these are all Russophobic. Because people in the West judge Russian motives by their own, goes the thinking, they detect naked self-interest at work when Russia is at its most noble. And it has ever been thus. “They …are incapable of understanding the self-abnegation of our Emperor, who wants nothing for himself but desires everything for the good of the world,” Anna Pavlovna Scherer fervently proclaims at the beginning of War and Peace, which was published in 1865 and set (in that first scene) in 1805. Today, Anna Pavlovna would attribute the mean-spirited criticism of Russia to Russophobia. As the word “imperialism” was for the Soviets, now “Russophobia” is the get-out-of-jail-free card, the excuse that never stops excusing.

    In Soviet days, the enemy was capitalism; today it is “liberalism.” Criticism of anything Russian—except criticism of Russia’s own liberals—serves the enemy and therefore can result only from irrational Russophobia. Those adept at diagnosing and detecting this disease—let us call them “Russophobists”—argue that Russia is penetrated not only by a “fifth column” of foreign agents but also by a “sixth column” of liberals who hate their homeland.

    Shafarevich’s Russophobia solved the problem of how to secure some semblance of Russian national honor when the ideology that had justified everything Russia had done over the previous 70 years had collapsed ignominiously. The more Russia turned to an expansionist foreign policy upon Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000, the more Russophobia was detected by Russian nationalists. Criticism of Russia’s aggressive tendencies was depicted not as the reaction to that policy but its cause. Any such criticism simply proved once again that the world, especially the Western world, wanted to weaken, if not destroy, Russia—and that Russia had no choice but to defend itself.

    Since 2012, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a government think tank, has investigated this supposed Russophobia. It has launched a campaign to purge it from textbooks and organized conferences devoted to it. Its leading researcher, Oleg Nemensky, published a substantial study entitled Russophobia as an Ideology, which endeavors to give the concept a firm scholarly basis.

    But what exactly is Russophobia? Russians trace the word to the 19th-century poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev. In a letter to his sister, Tyutchev complained:

    It would be possible to give an analysis of a modern phenomenon, which is acquiring an increasingly pathological character. This is the Russophobia of some Russian people…. They used to tell us, and they really thought so, that in Russia they hate the lack of rights, the lack of freedom of the press, and so on, and so on—and that it is precisely the presence of all these things that they like in Europe.

    Tyutchev’s proof that these Russia-haters were really motivated by Russophobia was that even Alexander II’s extensive reforms ensuring rights already enjoyed in Europe—from freeing the serfs to looser laws governing speech and publication—made no difference in their attitude. Neither did most egregious Western violations of justice and morality, which should have, in Tyutchev’s view, caused a greater degree of self-examination on the part of those who would judge Russia. “In the phenomenon that I am talking about,” Tyutchev wrote, “there can be no principles as such, only instincts.”

    Though the usual charge today is that foreigners are being unfair to Russia, the first substantive allegation of Russophobia was directed not against Europeans but their Russian admirers, known as “Westernizers.” At the time Tyutchev was complaining to his sister, Russian Westernizers were indeed pointing out the ways Russia was backward, corrupt, and “uncivilized” by European standards. They did seem to revel in fault-finding and portrayed themselves as engaged in a key historical task—to complete the job begun two centuries earlier by Peter the Great.

    That czar made no secret of his contempt for anything Russian. He revolutionized the life of the Russian nobility by forcing wholesale Europeanizing change on everything from education and dress to manners and the status of women. The czars who followed Peter after his death in 1735 made the 18th century an era of Russian apprenticeship to European knowledge, customs, and manners. By 1800, aristocrats no longer spoke Russian to one another. Tolstoy’s Anna Pavlovna delivers her fervently patriotic speeches in French, the language that, as Tolstoy remarks, “our grandfathers not only spoke but thought.” Even Tyutchev’s letter about Russophobes was written in French! Russian had become a language suitable only for speaking with peasants. Prince Andrei, the hero of War and Peace, shows contempt for his interlocutors by using Russian, as he would with a peasant, intoned in a French accent—indicating that such speech is unnatural to him. It is hardly surprising that such disdain for everything native to Russia would eventually provoke a reaction.

    The catalyst for that reaction, and the conventional starting point for courses on modern Russian thought, was Pyotr Chaadaev’s “First Philosophical Letter” (published in 1836). If there was ever a Russophobe, it was Chaadaev. His country, he explained, was culturally worthless. Russians “have not advanced along with other people …we have not been affected by the universal education of mankind.” Cut off from the West for centuries by the Mongol conquest, Russia experienced no Middle Ages, no Age of Chivalry, no Renaissance, no Age of Reason. When Peter finally dragged Russians into Western culture, they became mere copycats.

    As a result, Chaadaev asserted, Russians would always remain incapable of originality: “Not one useful idea has germinated in the sterile soul of our fatherland.” If Russians had never existed, civilization would have been none the worse. In their very souls, Russians were isolated not only from European historical achievements, but also from history itself. While European consciousness is shaped by past ages, Russians “live only in the most narrow kind of present without a past and without a future.” Unlike “civilized peoples,” Russians spent their years in “immobile brutishness” and never developed “the ideas of duty, justice, law, and order.”

    And that’s just the beginning. As Chaadaev describes them, Russians are people of “slothful audacity” who are “indifferent to good and evil, to truth and falsehood.” Their very physiognomies reflect their vacuousness: “Even in our glances I find that there is something strange, vague, cold, uncertain.” If Russia had not expanded from the Oder River to the Bering Sea or served as the land through which “the barbarian hordes …passed …before precipitating themselves upon the West, we would scarcely have furnished a chapter in world history.”

    For two centuries, self-hating Russians have argued in this way, and Russophobists cite them with indignation. Despisers of Russia appear often enough in literature, too. In Ivan Turgenev’s 1867 novel Smoke, the witty Potugin recalls attending London’s Crystal Palace exhibition of inventions and thinking that “our mother, Orthodox Russia, might sink into the nethermost pit, the dear creature, without disturbing a single nail or pin at the exhibition.” Russians, he observes, didn’t even invent the samovar. All that foreigners buy from Russia is raw materials, he laments—a line that stings all the more today. Apart from food in East European grocery stores, what does anyone ever buy that’s made in Russia? When, in 2014, John McCain called Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country,” his comment must have struck a nerve precisely because it seemed to channel an opinion Russians were trying to suppress in themselves.

    Still more offensively, Turgenev’s Potugin describes Russians as constitutionally slavish. While the government has abolished serfdom, he explains, “the habits of slavery are too deeply ingrained in us…in all things we want a master,” usually a person but sometimes a “tendency” (by which he means an ideology). “Why we should enslave ourselves is a mystery,” he continues, “but evidently that is our nature.” Russophobists vehemently object when Westerners cite centuries of authoritarianism as proof that Russians do not value individual liberty, but, once again, this is an argument they seem to be having with themselves.

    And yet, Potugin concludes, matters are not hopeless: “All that’s needed is to be truly humble …and borrow from our elder brothers what they have invented before us and better than us.” It is not a recommendation to flatter national self-esteem. Such thinking, with which Turgenev agreed, deeply irritated Fyodor Dostoevsky (who was deeply irritated by Turgenev in any case). A particularly repulsive character in The Brothers Karamazov wishes that Napoleon had vanquished Russia: “A clever nation would have conquered a very stupid one and annexed it. We should have had very different institutions.” This is how today’s anti-Putin liberals sound to many Russians.

    Vasily Grossman’s novel Forever Flowing (published in Russia in 1989) outdoes Potugin’s description of serfdom’s role in shaping Russian mentality. In Russian history, Grossman asserts, progress almost always came when a cruel leader, such as Peter or Lenin, imposed it on a slavish people who consequently learned to become even more slavish: “Western development was based on a growth in freedom, while Russia’s was based on the intensification of slavery.” The celebrated “Russian soul” actually reflects a “thousand years of slavery.” For a brief period, between the liberation of the serfs in 1861 and the 1917 revolution, ideas of freedom spread, and “in February 1917 the path of freedom lay straight ahead.” Instead, “Russia chose Lenin.” When will Russia be free? “Perhaps never.”

    Some Russophobists attribute these judgments to Grossman’s Jewishness, but the think-tanker Oleg Nemensky cites even more insulting ones voiced by non-Jewish Russians. He quotes the journalist Valery Panyushkin’s observation that “it would be a good thing for everyone in the world if the Russian nation ceased,” and the music critic Artemy Troitsky’s comment that “Russian men [are] for the most part animals…. When I see them, from cops to deputies, I think that they, in principle, should die out. Which, fortunately, they are now doing.”

    Even at the height of the Cold War, I never heard anything similar said about Russia or the Russians in the United States or indeed anywhere in the West. People who regarded the Soviet government as evil expressed sympathy with the trials of the Russian people and great admiration for the courage of the dissidents who risked everything to speak out. Nemensky does manage to find Nazis to quote, Nazis who did call for exterminating Russians, but that makes his failure to find American Russophobes offering similar views all the more striking. After all, the Nazis regarded Russians as only one of several peoples to be exterminated, so their plans hardly constitute evidence of special animus.


    Chaadaev’s first philosophical letter struck a nerve. In response, early Slavophiles—those who passionately made the case for Russia’s uniqueness as a cultural and moral force in the world—responded by identifying special virtues in the Russian character. Moderate Westernizers, including Turgenev, argued that Russians needed to set aside their love of sheepskin coats, bast shoes, and the fermented bread drink called kvass and learn from Frenchmen. The much more numerous radical Westernizers sought to fuse their attraction for Western ideologies with their Russian patriotism. They discovered in Russia’s very “belatedness” the promise that, because it was culturally and politically “young,” Russia would someday supplant doddering “old” Europe.

    The Bolsheviks transformed the messianic Russian Orthodox faith into the promise that Russia would initiate a worldwide Communist paradise. If some early Bolsheviks proposed destroying all monuments of Russia’s cultural past, Stalin eventually revived old-fashioned chauvinism and xenophobia. That was when the world learned that Russians had invented just about everything. Its enemies were identified as “rootless cosmopolitans,” the most rootless of whom were, of course, Jews. As many have noticed, when all else fails, one can usually unite Russians against Jewish influence, which is what Shafarevich tried to do in Russophobia.

    Shafarevich quotes several Russian writers, mostly Jews, expressing what he deems irrational hatred for everything Russian. In his summary, they accuse Russians of “a servile mentality, the lack of a sense of self-worth, intolerance toward foreign views, and a lackeyish mixture of feelings of malice, envy, and admiration toward foreign power.” Russians allegedly cannot imagine themselves without an empire and display a tendency to messianism, despotism, and even anti-Semitism!

    Today’s Russophobes favor Western-style democracy, Shafarevich continues, whereas “by all indications, the Western multiparty system …is on its way out.” They share “annoyance at the thought that Russia might seek some sort of path of its own in history,” and they do everything possible “to prevent the people from taking a path that it works out and chooses for itself (of course, not with the help of the secret ballot, but through historical experience).” Shafarevich does not explain how, without a secret ballot, one could know a given path was chosen rather than imposed.

    Russophobes, Shafarevich adds, dream of turning Russia into “a robot” following “a program that has been developed on the other side of the earth…. And democracy plays the role of such a ‘program’ …that has no organic connection whatsoever with the country.” He develops Augustin Cochin’s theory of how elite groups—a “small people” within a “greater people”—can destroy all traditional values, as happened during the French Revolution. In the Russian case, Shafarevich explains, the “little people” really are a people: the Jews.

    Although liberal dissidents of course include many non-Jews, Shafarevich allows, Jewish predominance explains why liberals place such emphasis on “the cult of emigration.” “If we …ask, just whose national feelings are manifesting themselves here …there can be no doubt as to the answer…. The ‘Jewish question’ has assumed incomprehensible power over minds…. And apparently the existence of a ‘Russian question’ is not recognized at all.”

    The goal of Russophobes, whether Jewish or Russian, is “the final destruction of the religious and national foundations” of the Russian people. Shafarevich shares the common Russian assumption that individual lives can be meaningful only if lived for an ideal, which he identifies with nationality: “Individual people need peoples. Belonging to his people makes a person a participant in History and privy to the mysteries of the past and future. He can feel …the significance and lofty meaning of humanity’s earthly existence and his own role in it.”

    The Jews instead extol “universal” (actually Western) values the better to isolate Russians from their historical memory and so reduce them to easily manipulated human material—“a new and final disaster, after which there will probably be nothing left of our people.” Shafarevich fears that Russians will become as vacuous as Chaadaev maintained they already were.

    Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, the schizophrenic hero of Dostoevsky’s novel The Double, begets another Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, who causes him excruciating psychic pain by voicing exactly what the real Golyadkin most fears to hear. In much the same way, when Russians accuse Westerners of Russophobia, they often quote them saying just what has caused the most shame when voiced at home.


    It is easy enough to find Western quotations denouncing Russia, just as one can readily discover hostile characterizations of many nations. Whenever one people clashes with another, they say terrible things. As the Kingston trio used to sing:

    The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
    The French hate the Germans. The Germans hate the Poles.
    Italians hate Yugoslavs. South Africans hate the Dutch.
    And I don’t like anybody very much!

    Yet one does not speak of Francophobia or Flemophobia. That is why Nemensky argues that, if Russophobia is to be more than a “completely banal phenomenon,” it must be “a phenomenon of a different order,” analogous to anti-Semitism. To prove that it is, Nemensky describes Russophobia as a whole “ideology.” Westerners sympathetic to accusations of Russophobia have followed suit.

    Like anti-Semitism, Russophobists argue, irrational hatred of Russia developed over centuries. In Creating Russophobia: From the Great Religious Schism to Anti-Putin Hysteria, Swiss journalist and parliamentarian Guy Mettan traces Russophobia to the competition between Rome and Byzantium, a time long before Russia existed. It is routine to mention Western Christianity’s disdain for Orthodoxy and Western travelers’ shocking descriptions of Russia since the 16th century. Russophobists never seem to ask whether those descriptions might have some rational basis.

    And what, according to Russophobists, are the main accusations against Russia? Curiously, several repeat the very characterizations that Russians praise! From the Slavophiles to today’s Eurasianists (adherents to a “semi-official” ideology led by Alexander Dugin), defenders of Russianness have insisted that Russia is not European. Russia and Europe, they maintain, uphold opposite values. Europeans favor liberalism and regard the nation as a collection of individuals, while Russians prefer central authority and give primacy to the nation. It is therefore curious to find Nemensky accusing Russophobes of mendaciously inventing a fundamental clash of “two cultures.” Namely, “the European culture of freedom and another culture—the culture of absolute national sovereignty.”

    Westerners, we are told, insist that Russians are not Europeans but “uncivilized” barbarians who absorbed a Mongol mentality. But that has been the position of Eurasianism since its inception a century ago. As its founder Nikolai Trubetskoy maintained, Russians must therefore uphold “the legacy of Genghis Khan.” Eurasianism’s most influential thinker, Lev Gumilev, rejected all criticism of the Mongols as a “black legend” devised by Catholic Westerners to divide Russians from other steppe peoples. Russophobists repeat that Westerners disparage Russians as “Asiatic,” while Gumilev and Dugin exalt Russia’s Asianism. Where is the absurdity in taking Russian thinkers at their word?

    Russian Russophobists react with ire, and Western ones with ridicule, at the suggestion that Russians favor simplistic Manichean and apocalyptic thinking, in which good is all on one side and evil on the other. So argues Dugin, who nevertheless repeatedly warns that, in confronting the West, “we are dealing with a system of illegitimate liberal terror; a political system created by the cannibalistic junta of international maniacs …leading humanity to suicide.” America, liberalism’s leader today, is “a country of absolute evil” and the world order it has created “is the worst order that has ever existed and should be totally destroyed.”

    Russophobes slander Russians as content to live without rights and the rule of law. But as early as 1811, Russia’s first great historian, Nikolai Karamzin, advised Czar Alexander I against just those dangerous political concepts or any others limiting autocratic power. “Autocracy,” he cautioned the czar, “has founded and resuscitated Russia. Any change in her political constitution has led in the past and must lead in the future to her perdition.” If the czar ever followed the European model, the people would rise up and proclaim that he had “exceeded his authority.” His advice: “You may do everything, but you may not limit your authority by law!” Why is Nemensky incensed that Russophobes describe Russians as slavish enough to refuse legal rights even if thrust upon them?

    Nemensky, Shafarevich, and other Russophobists are well aware of Stalin’s crimes, including the mass deportation of several ethnic groups. They also know about the deliberate starvation of several million Ukrainian peasants. But they do not allow that Lithuanians, Chechens, Poles, and Ukrainians might have some rational basis to fear Russians. No, such fear is what Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky called “Russophobic paranoia” because Russians were themselves the victims of Marxism, a Western ideology that, it is sometimes added, was imposed mostly by Jews. As for Stalin, he was not a Russian but a Georgian. By that logic, we should give the Germans a pass since Hitler, after all, was an Austrian.

    As the liberal jurist Bogdan Kistyakovsky observed in 1909, if there is one thing on which Russian conservatives and radicals agree, it is contempt for limited power and the rule of law. Conservatives detect the legalistic Catholic spirit, while radicals discern a mystification serving illegitimate power. Kistyakovsky quoted radical populist Nikolai Mikhailovsky’s famous comment that “freedom is a great and tempting thing, but we do not want freedom if, as in Europe, it only increases our debt to the people [peasants].” Lenin’s contempt for legalism was unbounded. In his article “A Contribution to the History of the Question of the Dictatorship [of the Proletariat],” he insisted, “The scientific term ‘dictatorship’ means nothing more nor less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force.” He instructed that Russia’s new law code inscribe the Party’s use of extralegal force as permanent. Terror “should be substantiated and legalized in principle, without evasion or embellishment.”

    Mettan, Pat Buchanan, and other Western defenders of Russia discover Russophobia in the assumption that Russia is incorrigibly imperialistic. They do not mention that Dugin forthrightly expressed the received view that “Russia is unthinkable without empire.”

    How can we be so confident that if Russia absorbs Ukraine, it will gobble up Moldova next? Well, if we start with Ivan the Terrible’s conquest of Kazan in 1552, the conventional beginning of Russian expansion, and trace the boundaries of the USSR 400 years later, we find that Russia has on average added to itself territory larger than Belgium every year. Is it any wonder that bordering countries fear conquest? Russophobists agree that Poland is the most Russophobic country of all, but Poland did, after all, disappear for more than a century after Russian-led partitions. No sooner did it gain its independence after World War I than it was invaded, unsuccessfully, by Lenin’s Red Army. The Hitler-Stalin Pact partitioned it again. Though nominally independent, postwar Poland was entirely Sovietized. The Hitler-Stalin pact also gave the Baltic states to the USSR, which not only invaded and Sovietized them, but also deported enough people, who were replaced with Russians, to alter significantly the demographic balance. When the Russian Federation claims to be solicitous about the welfare of Baltic Russians, it does not mention how they got there.

    Russophobists and their Western sympathizers have a point that Russia was bound to feel threatened by NATO’s expansion. But to speak of “NATO expansion” is misleading because, after all, it was the East European states that urgently demanded membership for much the same reason that Sweden and Finland recently asked to join. What country near Russia would not want powerful allies?


    Granted the term is abused, but does Russophobia exist? After the invasion of Ukraine, Tchaikovsky concerts, translations of Russian literature, exhibitions of Russian art, lectures on Dostoevsky—anything Russian—were canceled in Western Europe and North America. The Dutch prime minister had to caution citizens not to beat up local Russians. Proponents of “decolonizing” the American university curriculum demand we cease teaching Pushkin, Tolstoy, and other Russian classics as they are somehow tainted by what is happening today. Should we also stop studying Chinese because of the Uyghurs, along with anything Japanese, French, German, and American? Refusing to read Anna Karenina certainly sounds Russophobic. And yet, I am not sure. Perhaps we are just witnessing the extension of cancel culture to a new and convenient target?

    I cannot help wondering whether indignation over Russophobia exemplifies where identity politics leads. Both thrive on victimology, and for a victim, as Dostoevsky observed, “all is permitted.” Violence becomes delayed justice.

    Nemensky recognizes that Russians have internalized Russophobic arguments so profoundly that they know them “much better than the reverse ones.” As a result, he concedes, “the modern Russian self-consciousness is characterized by a strong sense of persecution.” If he understood Dostoevsky, Nemensky would recognize how attractive, if not addictive, that sense can be. “It is sometimes very pleasant to take offense,” Father Zossima observes in The Brothers Karamazov to the loathsome Fyodor Pavlovich. A person may know that he “has caught at a word and is making a mountain out of a molehill …yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass on to genuine vindictiveness.” Fyodor Pavlovich adds that it can also be “distinguished…to be insulted.” Victims occupy the moral high ground, and sacrificing integrity is a small price to pay for moral superiority and an unchallengeable preemptive excuse for anything. Perhaps Putin’s Russia holds a magnifying mirror to ourselves.

    Photo: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretare

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