Theater of Cruelty

Russophobia and anti-Russian propaganda

ADVERTISING / Glenn Diesen has undertaken a comprehensive academic analysis of 'Russophobia' which we get a small glimpse into with this introductory chapter from his book Russiophobia: Propaganda in International Politics (2022). The West's relationship with this world's largest country is characterized by a mixture of fear and the teacher's superiority.


Anti-Russian propaganda has for the last 500 years been based on the stereotype of the civilizationally superior West being pitted against the inferior Russian. Russia paradoxically becomes a key representative of the eastern 'Other' due to its proximity – an Asian power in Europe.

Initially, the civilized European was paired with the Asian Russian barbarian, a stereotype that was gradually framed through ideology such as that of the liberal democratic West versus the authoritarian Russia.

Russophobia's remarkable persistence over the centuries can be explained by Russia's geopolitical challenges as well as the country's central role in defining the West's collective identity by being assigned the role of 'the Other'.

By Russia made more different and inferior, the West becomes more homogeneous, uniform and superior as the in-group that represents the self. Propaganda appeals to its own virtuous ideals such as humanity, freedom and reason and compares with the characteristics of 'the Other' as inferior and threatening.

Narratives are largely inoculated against facts and reason when all information is filtered through a Manichean lens of a morally righteous West versus a morally inferior Russia. Removing the discursive patterns of 'the Other's' inferiority would undermine identity and the superiority of the self.

The Subordinate 'Barbarian'

Over the centuries, relations with Russia have been portrayed as West versus East, European versus Asian, civilization versus barbarism, modern versus backward, developed versus underdeveloped, liberal versus despotic, enlightened versus superstitious, free versus slave, progressive versus stagnant, good versus evil, open society versus closed society and the free world versus the authoritarian world. The concept of a common West did not have a prominent role in European thinking until the end of the 1800th century, which was largely due to the entry of Russia on the European political map.

During the Cold War, this division into two was expressed ideologically in that the bipolar division of power became a rivalry between capitalism and communism. Democracy was pitted against totalitarianism, and Christianity against atheism. After the Cold War, the enduring dividing lines on the European continent have been re-ideologised as liberal democracy versus authoritarianism.

Kap Se Libex.Eu

West versus East, European versus Asian, civilization versus barbarism, modern versus backward, developed versus underdeveloped, liberal versus despotic, enlightened versus superstitious, free versus slave, progressive versus stagnant, good versus evil...

The inferior 'barbarian' is treated with contempt for his backward nature – and met with immense fear as a threat to civilization. Russia is constantly portrayed as both inferior and threatening, which often results in paradoxical representations. The barbaric stereotype implies that Russia is faced with a dilemma as it can only play one of two roles: Russia can adopt the role of the student who wants to be civilized by the West as teacher, or Russia can reject the subject-object or teacher-student relationship and remain uncivilized and thus still pose a threat that must be either controlled or defeated. Neither of these two roles allows Russia to claim political equality. In propaganda form, the West creates a civilized and generous role for itself as a socializing or civilizing actor, while Russia is assigned the role of the reluctant student and an anti-civilizing force.

'The barbaric Other' propaganda

In this text I first explore to what extent anti-Russian propaganda is controlled by 'the Other', of which Russia is diametrically opposed Vests. The stereotype as 'the Other' has its roots in Orientalism, where the inferior is portrayed as backward and, at the same time, as an existential threat. This threat requires a subject-object relationship between the civilized and the uncivilized where the student can either be civilized or controlled. Second, the text considers how classifying Russia as 'the Other' went from implying inferior ethnicity to signifying ideological differences in the 19th and 20th centuries. Thirdly, propaganda in the post-Cold War era has turned Russia into a civilizational apprentice under the West in a subject-object relationship where attempts to restore Russian political identity are tantamount to being perceived as a counter-civilizational force.

Finally, when Russia's rejection of the teacher-student and superior-subordinate relationships manifests itself as sovereignty inequality, it has resulted in conflict with the West. The subject-object relationship between the civilized 'us' and the 'barbaric Other' propaganda appeals to virtues such as reason, civilization and human freedom to define the in-groups and the diametric opposite to define Russia as the out-group.

Carlos Amorim. If Libex.I

Throughout history, the relationship between the West and Russia has been conceptualized as a relationship between political subjects who drive civilization forward on the one hand, and political objects that must be civilized on the other. The teacher-student relationship justifies a hierarchy and fundamental inequality – such as inferior ethnicity, morals, culture and values ​​with less status. Propaganda helps to legitimize special privileges for the West as teacher, while the uncivilized nature of the Russian student presents an ultimatum – accept the role of apprentice or be confronted in the form of subordination or defeat. Either way, the stereotype stops Russia from restoring its political subjectivity and sovereign equality. Russia's acceptance of the role of apprentice under the West is crucial for the West's own identity building as a friendly hegemon that contributes to socialization and civilization for the good of all.

Andrius Tub, who is a member of the European Parliament and former Prime Minister of Lithuania, rather argued that: "The new EU strategy towards Russia should involve three elements – deterrence, control and change" (Kubilius, 2021).

Propaganda helps to legitimize special privileges for the West as teacher.

The inferior Other often play the dual role of both a backward people and an existential threat (Linklater, 2005). For example, Hitler's propaganda against the Jews was defined by two distinct styles of language – either "scornful scorn" of the inferior race or "panic-stricken fear" of their threat to civilization (Klemere, 2006).

Russophobia has similarly produced two varieties of the language in the last 500 years – contempt for Russians as uncivilized and backward, and at the same time a huge threat. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was common to argue that, despite Russia's 'backwardness syndrome', the country represents a threat to international security (Snyder, 1994).

Consequently, propaganda can produce it Orwell referred to as doublethink, which means accepting to play conflicting roles at the same time. Russia is portrayed as hopelessly weak and on the way to collapse, and at the same time as an all-powerful threat that is responsible for almost all of the West's problems. US Senator John McCain claimed that "Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country", crippled by corruption and authoritarianism – although it is also a country that can have great conspiratorial power to influence almost every election and referendum across the West. 'Scornful scorn' is expressed against Russia's hopeless economy, which is only the size of Italy's economy, and with a military budget that is less than 10 percent of NATO's – but at the same time panicked fears are created that Russia will conquer Europe. The Western bloc will continuously increase its military budgets, end economic dependence on Russia and recreate solidarity against the Russian threat.

During the Russian Duma elections, some media reports claimed that Russia was not a democracy. At the same time, it was celebrated that Putin's United Russia party lost many seats in the Duma. During the 2021/22 Ukraine-Russia tensions, the Ukrainians were portrayed as brave, united and able to destroy the Russian invasion forces, while others reported that there were warnings that large hordes of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border could overpower the impoverished Ukrainians within a few days or hours.


The book excerpt has been translated by John Y. Jones.

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