In a world of political correctness one form of ethnic stereotyping in the West remains not merely tolerated but even fashionable. This is the ethnic stereotyping of Russians.
Russians are nowadays regularly represented in the West in certain characteristic ways.
Russian men are brutish, sullen, slovenly, often drunk, and always cruel. They speak in thick heavy accents. They dress badly, are dishonest, violent and greedy. They treat women oafishly. Their taste is comically terrible. If they are rich they are corrupt; “Russia” and “corruption” being two words which Westerners have conflated with each other. Typical Russian men are thieves, hitmen or crooks, an honest Russian businessman (an “oligarch”) being a contradiction in terms.
During the Cold War the Western stereotype image of Russian women was that they were fat, masculine and ugly. It came with a measure of condescension. Russian women typically were represented as peasants, street cleaners or tractor drivers.
Today the Western stereotypical image of Russian women is that they are beautiful. However this is not something to be celebrated. On the contrary it is something to be feared or at least to be on one’s guard against.
Where Russian women during the Cold War were thought of as plain and dull but ultimately honest, today they are represented as materialistic, money-focused, tacky, manipulative, promiscuous, under-dressed and amoral. They are femmes fatales out to gull unsuspecting innocent Westerners of their secrets, their morals, and (of course) their money. Typically they are spies, prostitutes or gangsters’ molls.
Russians, both male and female, are according to these stereotypes axiomatically dishonest. The ease with which the Western public accepted the entirely unproven claims of Russian cheating during the recent Olympic doping scandal without giving the Russians the slightest benefit of the doubt is a good example of this.
The supporters of the demand for a blanket ban on Russian athletes competing in the Rio Olympics did not feel the need to justify their claim that the Russians should be denied the presumption of innocence. Since the Western stereotype of Russians is that they are axiomatically dishonest there was no pressure on them to do this.
Russians are also at one and the same time – and despite the obvious contradiction – both diabolically cunning and rather stupid. They are also completely incompetent and inefficient. Nonetheless they are scary because they are so aggressive and so violent.
The one quality Westerns do typically allow Russians is bravery. Russia’s record of victory in war makes it impossible to do otherwise. However this Russian bravery is not thought of as being the same as Western courage. Rather it is the product of Russians’ underlying stupidity and aggressiveness and their supposedly characteristically Russian obsession with money and power.
As might be expected of such people Russians in the Western imagination spend their ill-gotten gains in the most dreadfully hedonistic way: on yachts, luxuries, partying and promiscuous sex. If Moscow today unlike during the Cold War is famous for its nightlife this is not something to be celebrated – as it is for example in the case of Berlin – but is all of a piece with the supposedly gross appetites of Russians, making it somehow sinister.
Russia itself is of course all that might be expected of a country which produces such terrible people.
It is violent, corrupt and brutal, ruled over by a government as violent, corrupt and brutal as the people over whom it rules. Like the people it is scarily aggressive, diabolically cunning but also somehow stupid and inefficient. As a result, though it is threatening and dangerous, it is also overweening and in the end somehow absurd.
Needless to say the leader of such a country must be a macho thug, who typically poses topless on a horse. “Ruthless” is perhaps the most common word used to describe him. He is a gangster – violent, amoral, corrupt, cunning and ruthless – like the people he leads.
That this Western stereotype of Russia and Russians is so far detached from reality that I find it impossible to relate any part of it to the truth should not need to be said.
For the record, Russia – or at least those parts of Russia which I have visited – has impressed me as extremely law-abiding and orderly, with Russians coming across as family-centred, tolerant, law abiding, well educated and very cultured – the latter to an often touchingly self-conscious degree. Standards of personal and public honesty are in my experience actually very high, in the case of the straightforward directness of some Russians, unsettlingly high.
As for Putin himself, on the only two occasions I have seen him in person, what struck me most about him other than his very highly developed sense of humour and his obvious intelligence was his old fashioned courtesy – a quality mentioned even by Obama in the gargantuan interview he recently gave to The Atlantic. This largely unreported but obviously deeply ingrained habit of courtesy is something which immediately distances Putin from the stereotypical image most Westerners have of him.
In saying all this I of course do not deny Russia’s many problems. Nor have I any wish to present Russians as better than they are. However since this is an article about the negative stereotyping of Russia and of Russians it is the positive about them I have chosen to dwell on.
Negative stereotypes about various ethnicities of the kind that now circulate about Russia and about Russians have of course a long history in European and Western culture. As recently as the 1970s stereotypical representations of various ethnicities such as Germans, people from the Caribbean, Indians and Pakistanis from the subcontinent, Irish and even Jews, were a stock feature of British comedy.
They have now thankfully completely disappeared, having come to be seen – quite rightly – as racist and deeply offensive of the people they stereotype. British comedy is far the better for their absence.
One glaring exception however remains.
Negative stereotyping of Russia and of Russians has not only not disappeared; it has grown far more common and become much worse. Indeed it is now pervasive, repeated endlessly in Western films, on television, in the media, and in endless numbers of thrillers, graphic novels and pulp fiction stories. It is so pervasive that no Westerner can avoid it, and very few can resist its influence.
What makes it much worse is that there is no objection to it. Where at a time of Jihadist terrorism and violence negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims in the West is rightly and strongly condemned as Islamophobia, negative stereotyping of Russians goes by entirely unremarked.
This is the situation which clearly lies behind the strong reaction in Russia to the recent video release “Party like a Russian” by the British singer Robbie Williams.
The video is in fact capable of more than one interpretation. In my opinion it is not intended to be a mockery of Russians in general. Rather it looks to me like a dig at a specific type of Russian: the corrupt Russian oligarch who has fled to Britain after stealing money from Russia.
That this is the sort of Russian the video is intended to reference is in my opinion shown by the fact that the video is filmed in what is visibly a large English country house – one of the Tudor or Jacobean era – exactly the sort of opulent country residence favoured by a certain type of fugitive Russian oligarch who has fled to Britain to escape the Russian authorities and has found refuge here.
In my opinion the lyrics of the song also bear out this interpretation. They too seem to refer to someone who has fled Russia with his ill-gotten gains to enjoy the high life in the West under the West’s protection.
“It takes a certain type of man with a certain reputation
To alleviate the cash from a whole nation
I put a bank inside a car, inside a plane, inside a boat
It takes half the western world just to keep my ship afloat”
(bold italics added)
If that is right then the video is actually intended – despite the unfortunate misuse of some Russian themes eg. the references to Rasputin, Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights, the 1917 Revolution, and the clothes obviously copied from the Russian ballet – to be sympathetic to the Russian people rather than hostile to them.
However given the massive negative stereotyping of Russia and of Russians – and the obvious overlap between the character depicted in the video and some of the stereotypical characteristics so often attributed in the West to Russians – I can completely understand why many people in Russia do not see the video that way, and have taken strong offence to it.
Indeed the overlap is so strong that there are many people in the West who actually agree with them, and who approve of the video precisely because they see it as hostile to Russians and to President Putin in particular.
Which brings me to something else. What the episode of the video shows is that when people in Russia – for completely understandable reasons – complain that they are being stereotyped, there is no rush in the West to reassure or support them, just as there is never any outcry when other more clearly negative stereotypical representations of Russians appear.
The tidal wave of condemnation which reliably takes place whenever ugly stereotypical representations of (say) Jews, Muslims or Irish appear, in the case of Russians never happens.
Consider the response of the British newspaper The Guardian – that stalwart liberal defender of political correctness and anti-racism – to Russian protests about the Robbie Williams video.
The Guardian’s response was neither to condemn the video, nor to discuss it in any meaningful way, nor to acknowledge why Russians might see it as offensive – as it surely would have done in the case of any other popular music video about any other ethnicity. Instead it commissioned a single shortish article from the Russian journalist Natalia Antonova. This it must be said starts promisingly enough
“Tired of political correctness, debates on cultural appropriation and being shamed over racist jokes on Twitter? Don’t worry. There is still an entire country you can safely stereotype – and it’s Russia, of course.
Although it has resulted in some controversy, Robbie Williams’s Party Like a Russian is not likely to negatively impact his career, spark a protest, or cause Robbie to be no-platformed should he suddenly feel the burning need to speak at an academic conference. It’s just a song about those crazy Russians, with their vodka-soaked escapades and curious penchant for putting dolls inside other dolls. Everybody knows that stereotyping Russians is a harmless bit of fun – and if you have a problem with it, you’re an oversensitive loser who can’t take a joke.
The idea that there are “good” and “bad” stereotypes is not new and, as Yale University professor Marijeta Bozovic has noted, there is something odd about the way in which tired cultural cliches are “smilingly tolerated by cosmopolitan elites when directed at Slavs in the 21st century”.”
The force of these entirely proper words is then however completely lost when Antonova claims that the video is actually correct after all. Russians do party wildly – why Antonova has done it herself! So really there is nothing to complain about!
Racial stereotyping is always something to complain about. It is dehumanising, intolerant and ugly. It is racist and profoundly offensive of its target. This is so whenever it is used to mock or label any ethnicity or national or cultural group. Russians are not an exception.
A society that indulges in it, and which tolerates those who do, forfeits its claim to anti-racism and interracial tolerance. The fact that it is treating just one ethnic group – Russians – in this way, denying them the moral and legal protection which it accords others, in no way diminishes its racism and intolerance. It emphasises it.
At a time of heightened international tension between the West and Russia the dehumanisation of Russians inherent in this sort of stereotyping also has multiple other negative consequences.
Firstly, it can only work against achieving understanding. What understanding can there be between the West and those the West chooses to see as gangsters and savages?
In the process it lowers the threshold where violence against Russians becomes acceptable. This has been the invariable pattern of Western racism in the past against any group or ethnicity which it targets. There is no reason to think that against Russians it will be any different.
In doing so however it increases the danger of war. Unlike other groups targeted by Western racism in the past, Russians have the capacity to resist and hit back, and their history shows that like all other peoples if pushed to extremes they will do so.
It is in the West’s own interests therefore to bring this ugly habit of stereotyping Russians to a stop. This is one example – by no means the only one but certainly one of the more pressing – where the principles the West likes to proclaim – in this case of anti-racism – and its own interests fully coincide.
For that to happen however the stereotyping of Russians – like the stereotyping of all other cultures and ethnicities – must be condemned and identified as the straightforward racism that it of course is.