Seeing Red: Russian Stereotypes in the U.S. Media

3 years ago ccwa 0

a-16-year-veteran-of-the-kgb-putin-knows-his-way-around-a-gun-after-his-retirement-in-1991-he-rapidly-rose-through-russian-politics-to-become-top-dog-in-the-worlds-largest-nationUS media coverage of Russia over the past few months has been largely disappointing. It’s relied on stereotypes and lacked historical context, revealing a shameful ignorance of both Russia and Vladimir Putin. This inaccurate coverage has created several common misconceptions about current Russian politics.

Journalists (and readers) have begun to assume that Putin is an idiot simply because they disagree with Putin’s policies and actions. However, Putin, just like most other world leaders, is calculating and meticulous—he knows exactly what he is doing, even if Western onlookers don’t like it. A foreign leader could not veto critical UN Security Council resolutions, ban significant imports, and annex part of a sovereign nation without weighing the costs and benefits carefully.

Through these actions, Putin seems to be appealing to nationalist sentiments in order to increase his popularity among Russians. His actions come at a time when the Russian economy is stagnating, so he must find other ways to garner domestic support. On the international stage, Putin certainly has acted unwisely, but he has been strategic on the domestic front. Ultimately, what matters most to Putin is not the international community, but Russia.

The portrayal of Putin as seeking to recreate the Soviet Union has reverberated throughout Western media. This statement lacks both nuance and historical accuracy. To begin with, Putin would never seek to recreate the economic system of the Soviet Union. History has shown that the Soviet economic system does not work – imagine trying to regulate an entire economy using an input-output matrix. In fact, because Russia makes money off its “nation champions” (state-owned gas and oil companies), Russia is able to maintain a flat 13% income tax. Keep in mind that most Americans pay about a 25% income tax.

Putin does not wish “to recreate the USSR” in an economic or a political sense; instead, he seeks to exert Russian influence over former members of the Soviet Union, but has failed spectacularly thus far. Both Belarus and Kazakhstan have stated they will simply leave the Eurasian Union if Russia ever tries to interfere in their political affairs—which is a mark of Russia’s weakness, not strength. Furthermore, the annexation of Crimea seems to have come from Putin’s desire to increase Russian nationalism in order to garner domestic political support, and perhaps to create the appearance of Russia’s strength, not to recreate the Soviet Union.

Labeling Putin’s desire to exert Russian influence as his desire to “recreate the Soviet Union” is not only a problem of semantics; it is inaccurate in its simplicity and laziness.

Few articles discuss Russia’s historical relationship with Ukraine in depth, yet understanding the historical context of this relationship is critical to understanding Russia’s behavior today. Putin’s decision interfere in a sovereign nation was not made on a whim. Ukraine and Russia have been linked since the late 800’s CE – in fact, many Russians consider Kiev the first capital of Russia. For hundreds of years, however, Western Europe and Russia have played tug-of-war with Ukraine as the coveted prize.

Many Ukrainians, especially those in the western half of the country who have been historically closer to Europe, associate Russia with imperial and later Soviet repression. In the eastern half of the country, tied more closely with Russia, a different attitude prevails. Many Ukrainians in that region (who typically speak Russian) see Russia as a cultural brother and more importantly, as an economic protector.  In other words, as the Ukrainian-Canadian historian Serhy Yekelchyk puts it, what it comes down to is historical national identity in these two regions. For Ukrainians in the west “a strong national identity and independent state has historically been connected with the European choice” while in the east, “it is not that the Ukrainian identity is weak, but that the pro-Western and democratic choice associated with it does not receive the kind of financial and logistical support from the West that Russia offers to its proponents.”

Yes, entering a sovereign nation’s borders is a flagrant violation of international law, and although the historical relationship between Russia and Ukraine is no excuse for this violation, it certainly provides context and partial explanation for Russia’s interference in the region.

In order to understand Vladimir Putin’s actions, both journalists and readers must attempt to understand current events through a culturally sensitive and historically nuanced lens. By underestimating Putin and generalizing Russia, we only perpetuate ignorance – and move further away from the answers we seek.


by Robin Smith

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