10 July 2018

Russophobia as orientalism


Well, the Wall Street Journal cover story this week, with the artwork featured above, is something truly awful. But, even an awful picture can be worth a thousand words. As The People’s Lobby’s Tobita Chow put it in his Facebook comment on the story: ‘On the bright side, this saves me the trouble of having to make a bunch of careful arguments to show that Russia has been Orientalised.

I have indeed tried to make such careful arguments a few times before, though I have had to fight explicitly against the likes of the old racialist dreck of the Marquis de Custine being peddled about behind the convenient shield of Czesław Miłosz (and if I were feeling particularly uncharitable, I could link de Custine’s dreck explicitly to that of Arthur de Gobineau; they stand firmly in the same tradition). But this recent bit of overt old-school orientalism from the Wall Street Journal does indeed make my job significantly easier. News Corporation has grown significantly more bald-faced with such things of late. Even though cable-news ‘personality’ Tucker Carlson seems to have a soft spot for Russia, his tirades against China tap into some Gilded Age neuroses about the Yellow Peril, and Trofimov’s piece linking Putin’s Russia to Jıngghıs Khan links up with that neatly.

This line of discourse in Western thought goes back much further than Custine, of course. The orientalist dichotomy between a virtuous republican West and a decadent despotic East was central to the thinking of Machiavelli, Smith, Montesquieu and Mill, and it exerted a significant influence as well over Hegel, as well as Marx at certain stages of his career, though the Marx of die Grundrisse was noticeably more sympathetic to Asia in general than the Marx of das Kapital. The question of whether non-Western Europeans are capable of philosophy is one which has had a shamefully long life, spanning from Kant to Derrida (and Žižek).

But this question becomes much more complex (well, maybe not much more) where Russia is concerned, in part because ‘Russia’ – and here I include all of Kievan Rus’, the principalities of Rostov-Suzdal-Vladimir, Novgorod, Pskov, Tver, Polotsk, the Tsardom of Moscow, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union as well as the modern Russophone lands – is a contested space where civilisations collide; Russian thinkers and artists been both the authors and the self-aware objects of orientalist fantasy. There has long been a tension between those Russians who face ‘West’ and those who face ‘East’; the result is that some ‘Eurasian’ thinkers, such as the martyred Saint Il’ya (Fondaminsky-Bunakov), have approached the question of where Russia belongs in stunningly creative and multifaceted ways.

Sadly, this entire history of engagement, and its fruits, are sent into oblivion with a stereotype, wrapped in a cliché, inside a caricature. The Wall Street Journal plays into a long-standing genre in the Western press (and more broadly into the Custine-Gobineau tradition of polemical literature) portraying Russians as ‘barbarians from the East’: Tatars, Mongols and Turks bent on bloody conquest for reasons inscrutable to more civilised (Western) minds – and, in Trofimov’s breathless hyperbole, constitutes a threat to the ‘very concept of the West’ itself! (Of course Aleksandr Dugin gets name-dropped here, despite being a marginal figure at best in Russian public life.)

One has to understand that Trofimov is not arguing from a neutral perspective. He is a Ukrainian ‘liberal’ nationalist, and writes from a historiographical perspective indebted to Mikhail Hrushevsky. Hrushevsky was a far better ideologue than a historian; his aim was to create an ideological space for a Westward-looking Ukraine that could distinguish itself from Russia, and the existing orientalist mythos was a tool ready to hand. Though Hrushevsky himself may or may not have been an anti-Asian racist (as alleged by Sergei Samuilov among others), his assertion of a ‘rupture’ between a Kievan Rus’ belonging to Europe and a Rostov-Suzdal-Vladimir belonging to Asia absolutely did borrow heavily from Machiavellian orientalist fantasy, and certainly did set the stage for later racialist theorising about the Asiatic Mongol-Turkic-Ugric heritage of ‘Muscovy’ which renders it alien to that of Kievan Rus’. Actual history tends to be slightly more complicated. But here’s the real kicker. Trofimov spent much of his life outside the West, as a reporter on Middle East politics and current affairs. Familiar as he is with the ‘near East’ and its history, there is no way he is repeating these orientalist canards about Russia without an understanding of the ideology he is reproducing, which is what makes the Wall Street Journal piece more galling even than the laughably ign’ant screeds which make the rounds on Euromaidan Press.

Of course, as mentioned above, this entire discourse is made further complex by the fact that there exists a strong tendency within Russia and the diaspora to embrace the East, to override the ‘me/them’ dichotomy and replace it with something like a ‘we’. Dugin is far from the only, and far from the most interesting or sympathetic, of the thinkers representing this tendency. I mentioned Saint Il’ya (Fondaminsky) already; his compatriots Mother Maria (Skobtsova) and Nikolai Berdyaev were in some degree also influential here. The idea of an as-yet-incomplete creative synthesis of West and East held resonance with several thinkers in the Russian diaspora and within Russia itself. It remains influential, but it’s not a threat save to those to whom the radicalism of Christianity itself is already a threat.

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