The claim of russophobia and what’s actually funny about #SochiProblems

February 13, 2014


With the intense Twitter activity of Western journalists, the gaffes at the Sochi Olympics have reached all of us. And people are certainly not happy about it in Russia, where it is common to denounce criticism coming from the West as russophobia. It is of course widely so elsewhere in the world, too: authoritarian-leaning governments tend to present attacks on them as attacks against the nation or any other common value. Yet it is always worth challenging this narrative, and especially so with regard to this particular event, of interest to many around the globe.


Russophobia, in their encyclopaedia, stands for a hostile image of Russia stemming from the Cold War and from cultural misunderstandings, constituting a bias. According to them, it is motivated by the (geo)political objectives of Western governments, whom their media obsequiously obey. 


See, the truth is that in the minds of today’s Western journalists, perhaps especially those in Sochi - check out their Twitter accounts, they’re virtually all under 40 - there is no Cold War image of Russia. If there is a general aversion to it, it surely originates from after what Russians call the ‘reckless’ 90s.


The ‘cultural misunderstanding’ happens in fact in Russian heads — when they talk about Western media conducting a broadside against Russia and the Russians. The mediums that they accuse of such — notably, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist — are of course independent papers of global stature. Sure, they all have a (liberal democratic) set of values, but they are certainly not working toward any political ends, let alone for political actors. Such publications are rare birds in Russia; no wonder that for many, this is hard to comprehend. 


Without a doubt, a big chunk of the Russian media has, shamelessly acting exactly the way  they say Western media do, planted these suspicions in the heads of the populace. Beyond that, if Western media focuses on the negative upshots of the Sochi 2014 project for reasons detailed below, Russian media is characterised by a near-complete ignorance of these. Much of it publishes unadulterated (unbalanced) praise.


That’s the big picture. But why are people laughing at the mess in Sochi?


To a degree, it is a product of Russian policies. Illiberal, authoritarian governance saddens and activates those who reflect, and makes laugh those who don’t. The former quite understandably consider liberal democratic values universal - hence the recent talk about the vaguely formulated Russian law on gay ‘propaganda’, Pussy Riot, Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky and the rest across Western media.


The latter - it’s true - show little sympathy. But they communicate more on a symbolic level. What they see is a coarsely macho and highly extravagant, therefore repugnant but also interesting leader, Putin. Sochi is his show: a temple to Russia’s, thus his greatness.


A show that, as Liliya Shevtsova rightly said, was a scandal much before it started. With an initial budget Russia cannot afford, a corruption cost no country in the world can, and some of those who won on it already hiding out in Britain, it was always a product of irreflexive megalomania. And, as it happens, a lot of the work on the sidelines has been rather poorly done. 


You cannot say the pictures at #SochiProblems are all down to a ‘cultural shock’ experienced by spoilt and ignorant Westerners. You cannot say all hotels in Russia are unfinished or that the direct vicinity of big national construction projects are full of trash. 


You can ask why Westerners are so happy about it. Well, they are gloating. But not over Russians or the the way live. Over the fact that President Putin has carried out this project at the price of a major sacrifice for his people, designated to prove his and their glory — often defined against the backdrop of a supposed ‘decline of the West’ —, yet it is proving an embarrassment. 


It’s him whose pity they’re laughing at. If it’s the Russians, it’s still him.


Follow me on Twitter @radnotiandras

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