Human Rights: Russia vs. United States
US human rights ain't good
By Catherine Brown
(This is the second part of Understanding Russophobia series which originally appeared in Off Guardian. The first one can be read here).
And as with gay rights, so with human rights in general. Russia gets held to higher standards not only than countries such as Bahrain and China, but the United States. On the basis of Western media coverage one would think that Russia’s human rights situation was worse than that of the States, and at least as bad as that of China – both of which notions are preposterous.
Let us compare Russia to the United States (China being of course much worse than both). The US has around 730 to Russia’s 598 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. It uses the death penalty, executes minors, and empowers its President to authorise the kidnap, torture, and killing of domestic and foreign citizens without trial. Russia does none of these things. The US government has significantly curtailed Americans’ civil liberties under the Patriot Act, extensively spies on the media activities of its own and other countries’ citizens, and detains hundreds of people without trial in an international network of secret prisons. Russians’ civil liberates are now more strongly guaranteed by law than are Americans’; there is no evidence or suggestion that Russia kidnaps individuals abroad or outsources torture, nor that it runs a torture camp resembling Guantanamo Bay, nor that the FSB spies on Russian citizens to anything near the extent that the NSA spies on Americans, let alone on foreigners. In this respect – the extent of spying on their own citizens – Russia and the US have changed places since the end of the Soviet Union. Whereas the trend of US law over the last decade and a half has been to diminish civil liberties, in Russia the legal culture is becoming gradually more humane and liberal. Russia puts suspected Islamic terrorists whom it has captured on trial within a reasonable period, and does not deny them habeas corpus. America’s popular culture (including films such as Zero Dark Thirty) acknowledges that America has practised torture, and suggests that it may have been justified in doing so. Russia’s popular culture does not endorse the practice of torture. The contrast between Western treatments of Russia and of the US with regard to human rights was apparent when in 2012 Amnesty International ran a Priority Action campaign on behalf of Pussy Riot, whose members it had designated prisoners of conscience, whilst not running such a campaign on behalf of Bradley – now Chelsea – Manning, whom it had not (and has not) designated a prisoner of conscience. The members of Pussy Riot had been sentenced, as I mentioned, to two years in prison, according to the law, for a crime which they had committed. At the time, Bradley Manning was being subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment, prior to being tried for any crime. This gave an unfortunate appearance of political partiality to Amnesty’s decisions, implying that they considered the relatively humane and legal treatment of critics of Putin to be a more urgent and flagrant violation of human rights than the torture before trial of a whistleblower on American torture.
On the issue of double standards let us consider too the advice which America gives to Russia. During the protests on Maidan Square in Kiev you may remember John Kerry urging Yanukovich to demonstrate ‘restraint’ with regard to the protesters. He showed so much restraint that he left the city rather than ordering his police to defend his Presidency by force, as they would have been capable of doing. Can you imagine any American President being induced to flee by violent street protests in Washington? In Washington the Maidan protests wouldn’t have lasted a couple of days. If you draw a lethal weapon in the presence of a police officer you may legally be shot dead. In Kiev, around 20 policemen were killed. One can imagine the scornful and outraged response were Putin, for example, to urge that Obama show restraint in the face of violent protests, to the extent of allowing himself to be overthrown.
It goes without saying that the dictators with whom Russia has relatively good relations, in Syria, North Korea, and Cuba, are excoriated in a way in which not only does the West not excoriate the dictators in Saudia Arabia, Bahrain, Quatar, Uzbekistan, Honduras, Thailand, and Egypt – but a way in which Russia doesn’t excoriate them either. Overall not only does the West not practice what it preaches to Russia, it preaches where Russia does not – and although I have no general objection to preaching – I’m a Lawrencian for goodness sake – I do object to the preaching of hypocrites.
One thing that assists in our inconsistent application of standards is our use of language. Protesters on Maidan were protesters; in Slaviansk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol they were rebels. Putin’s government is frequently referred to as a regime, and therefore likened to a dictatorship, whereas not only does Russia, like the US, have an imperfect democracy, but Putin personally has a twenty percent higher approval rating than does Obama, and at least twenty-five percent higher than Cameron. But there is one word in particular which is misused in a Russian context – ‘liberal’. Now, this is a notoriously protean word, but there does seem to be agreement over its denotation in a Russian context, where it generally assumed to mean ‘promoting Western values with regard to individual liberty, equality, democracy and the rule of law’. However, when one considers the policies of those politicians and commentators described as liberal, one finds that what is in fact denoted is ‘promoting foreign and economic policies which are aligned with Western interests, whatever other (possibly illiberal) views are held’. For example, Aleksei Navalny, who was frequently described as a liberal opposition leader, holds views which most Western liberals would categorise as racist. Since most Russians do not want Russia to conform to NATO geopolitical or economic interests at its own expense, and since Western capitalism is damaged by association with the nineteen-nineties (a period which has never sufficiently been accepted in the West as having been a catastrophe), so-called ‘liberals’ account for a relatively small proportion of the popular vote. Yet Russophobic narrative conflates ‘liberal’ with ‘democratic’. The fact that Putin’s policies have vastly more appeal than so-called liberal ones does not make Putin an anti-democrat, and those who oppose the democratically elected Putin are not ‘pro-democratic’ by that virtue.
Russophobia, like Said’s account of Orientalism, therefore relies on and generates contradictions. On the one hand it constructs an enemy which is aggressive and to be feared, threatening its neighbours such as the Ukraine and Georgia. On the other hand it creates a risible enemy of which the economy is flimsily dependent on oil – a point far less often made about far more strongly oil-reliant allies such as Saudi Arabia.
Both Russia’s aggression and its weakness are overstated – that is, the desire (for reasons I’ll come on to) to construct an enemy produces an image (and to a small extent, a reality) which is then actually feared, the power of which needs to be understated. Since 1989, when it withdrew from Afghanistan, it has sent its troops only into Georgia, and that in support of the inhabitants of a semi-autonomous enclave which Georgian troops had entered in violation of international treaties. In fact it threatens no one.
But the understatement of its power is just as striking.
Speaking to businessmen working in Russia – Russian and foreign alike – it became clear to me that Russia is hugely and diversely economically productive, avoiding many of the pitfalls of indebtedness and a phony banking system which afflict our own economy. L’Oréal, Danône, Peugeot, and Renault are all making huge profits in Russia. Far from being entirely reliant on the export of oil, Russia makes a range of manufactured goods including steel, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, clothing, ship building, machine tools, aircraft, food processing, furniture, computers, tractors, optical devices, commercial vehicles, and mobile phones. It has a big construction industry, and in fields such as nuclear power engineering and space technology it is one of the world’s leaders. These are perhaps little thought of in the West perhaps because they tend to be heavy goods, not consumer goods, and are therefore not found in Western shops. Income tax is flat at 13%, in a way which at present encourages economic growth (though is, I assume, a temporary measure, before a more socialist graduated income tax one day replaces it). There is around 10% interest on current accounts. The sanctions have hurt, but have also led to more inward investment.
And the narrative of Russian weakness is also assisted by ignoring its relations with the rest of the world beyond the West. There are strengthening Russian-Chinese ties, and warm relations between Russia and most countries of Asia, Africa, and South America – including both China and Japan, both India and Pakistan, both Israel and Palestine.
When I attended a meeting of businessmen discussing responses to the sanctions in Moscow in April it was telling that the Ambassadors who decided to come – at least, those that I met – were from South Africa, Mexico, Peru, Benin, Indonesia and Malaysia. Not one from the ‘West’, and that is really a metaphor for the fact that the West does not witness, and does not want to see, the good relations which Russia has with the rest of the world.
But there are many factors which favour the construction and persistence of Russophobia.
One of the first and most obvious is limited contact with the country itself. From the sixteenth century, when West Europeans started travelling to Russia in any numbers, it’s been rightly observed that Russia is difficult to get to, travel in, and onerous in its passport requirements. Tit-for-tat visa policy means that it is not easy to pop to St Petersburg for a quick city break – indeed, there are very few direct flights between London, the world’s air-transport hub, and the second biggest city of the world’s biggest country – which, thinking of some of the other places you can get more frequent direct flights to from London, is extraordinary. Limited contact with Russia, and limited learning of its language, mean limited ability to test the validity of the media’s image of Russia. That image is itself partly the construction of journalists who themselves know very little about the country, and who echo each other. But it also the construction of local foreign correspondents such as The Guardian’s Luke Harding and The Economist’s Ed Lucas, who in my opinion fall into that category of people who can live in a country whilst loathing and misrepresenting it, just as people can live in a country, love it, and misrepresent it in a positive direction.
One feature favouring the re-echoing of opinions between journalists resident and otherwise is the obverse of a phenomenon I have discovered amongst people who disagree with them. In Moscow friends of mine who approve of Putin include
Russians, Americans, a Finn, and a Frenchman. They work in Russia as journalists, businessmen and lawyers. Their political views range from Conservative to nearly-Communist to green. But they have all, along their different paths and from their own perspectives, come to admire Putin, whose politics can’t easily be described in terms of traditional left-right analysis. The obverse of this is that he can be criticised from all perspectives, so what we have is a rare unity in British Russophobia between left wing and right wing media outlets, and indeed broadsheet and tabloid newspapers.
Another feature favouring Russophobia is that its image of Russia chimes with much older images that Russia has had in the West – chiefly, as autocratic. The main period of contact between West Europe and Russia has been characterised by increasing disparity between levels of democracy in the West and the East; this remained true until relatively recently. Assertions that Putin is autocratic fit into a primordialist narrative about Russia as unfitted to democracy: there are just two problems. One, primordialism is now largely as discredited in political science as is racism, and for similar reasons (pace the success of Martin Sixsmith’s 2011 Russia: A Thousand Years of the Wild East).
Second, Putin isn’t autocratic. The narrative of reversion to autocracy after the relatively democratic Yeltsin years is particularly absurd given that in 1993 Yeltsin closed down news outlets and sent tanks to the White House to disperse the Russian Parliament, which was opposing his deeply unpopular economic policies. Over the following few days it’s estimated that between 187 and 2000 people were killed. Putin has never done anything remotely similar, and it is of course possible to misinterpret someone whose policies are widely supported – inside of and beyond parliament – as a dictator who brooks no opposition.
It has to be said, though, that Russia itself has been a major home of primordialist thought, mainly about itself. What is the idea of the russkaia dusha, or Russian soul, but an argument that Russia is a) distinctive and b) unchanging, in its essence? The discourse of the Russian soul is complicated (please find my article about it here), but part of it fits with the idea that the Russian people are subservient and long-suffering. And this idea gets a lot of reinforcement from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. However, it was not the only primordialist account in town. Eurasianism competed with Slavophilism, and both with Westernism – Westernisers arguing, of course, that Russia could and should catch up with the West. Nonetheless, Russia of all countries has, in its literature and philosophy, given considerable encouragement to primordialist thought about itself.
I mentioned the homology of primordialism to racism – and I would argue that there is a racial dimension to Russophobia or what I might alternatively have called Russism. Here again it operates through contradiction. On the one hand Russians are othered as favouring autocracy and subservience. On the other hand they are expected to behave just like Western Europeans despite their vastly different historical circumstances, and I am sure that one reason for this is that European Russians look almost exactly like West Europeans, which the Chinese or the Turks, for example, don’t. In proportion as there is little difference of melanin pigmentation, eye colour, and facial structure, little difference of political behaviour is tolerated – and where it occurs, is then by reaction essentialised.
Putin himself has been very successfully demonised. His KGB past is frequently invoked in a way which overlooks the fact that the KGB was a standard career option for ambitious young Soviets when he was choosing his career. I might mention the fact that he cites Maxim Isayev as an influence on his desire to join the KGB. Isayev is the hero of the 1972 cult Soviet miniseries Seventeen Moments of Spring – the Soviet answer to James Bond. Isayev is a Russian agent pretending to be an Obergruppenführer in Berlin at the end of the Second World War. He is brave, cultured, intelligent, merciful, and of complete integrity – a Soviet hero, protecting Russia from Germany and Germany from itself, of a kind that young men such as Putin aspired to become. Of course as we know, spying is not as it is in the films. But in our post-Snowden-revelations era, it is most odd to continue to deplore someone for having spied on the citizens of another country, and to repeatedly use this as a lens of negative interpretation of all of their subsequent actions.
In his self-presentation as a macho man Putin does himself no favours in the West. But I think that Russians need pay no more attention to our generalised scorn for this image than the British need pay to Americans, whose generalised impression it is that all British men are gay. The reason is that normal male behaviour here is in various ways softer, and less literally and metaphorically muscular, than is the norm in North America. In Russia Putin’s performance of masculinity is far more acceptable than it is here – and all the more so in contrast to the series of gerontocrats who ruled the Soviet Union after Stalin, and the embarrassingly hard-drinking Yeltsin. It should also be noted that it is not only for his macho personal qualities that he is admired; he is also admired as clean-living, in contrast to Yeltsin and many of the country’s men during Yeltsin’s period in power, and as highly educated – speaking Russian without grammatical errors, again in contrast to Yeltsin.
But his self-projection is emphatically directed at the Russian people, rather than the rest of the world, and this fits with the fact that Putin does not try to woo the West – he plays them (to adopt an English metaphor) with an entirely straight bat. Something of a Communist contempt for advertising is apparent in his lack of interest in spin for either himself or his country, when it comes to the West. This was one reason why Georgia got the best of the coverage of the Georgia-Russia conflict, in a way which even Martin Sixsmith admits was biased on the part of the BBC. Columbia-educated Saakashvili was willing and able to do PR in a way in which Medvedev wasn’t. A different contrast to Russia here is provided by China, which responds very sharply, and indeed aggressively, to public criticism, and which if anything is a beneficiary of the opprobrium heaped on Russia, since it takes attention away from itself, the far more credible threat to Western interests. Russia, on the other hand, does next to nothing to tackle Russophobia head-on. Nobody sent me here tonight.
I will add one more reason for the traction of Russophobia. Distrust of the media goes back a long way in Russia, to the early nineteenth century – and with very good reason. The default attitude of Russians, still today, is scepticism and cynicism. They may vote for Putin because they like him or his policies, but this does not make them trustful of what they read, and there is still a lot of insecurity about the state of the country, about which they openly complain. Despite the voter disaffection in this country, I think that there is a far higher level of trust of what is said by The Guardian, The Economist, The Sun, the BBC, amongst the British than there is of equivalent channels in Russia. That is, one difference between us and the Russians is that we are less sceptical of what we are told.
Cuyu bono? What are the most obvious motivations for fostering Russophobia?
In brief (and the substantive reasons really are brief): Russia’s foreign policy does not follow that of the West. Western armaments manufacturers have an interest in stoking a new Cold War, because the War against Terror has not filled the gap in arms sales – especially of nuclear weapons – left by the end of the Cold War. And NATO desperately needs a raison d’être.
But the interests of arms companies and NATO are not those of the West as a whole. Russophobia acts in massively counter-productive ways. It restricts its potentially enormous economic cooperation and cultural and touristic interchange with Russia – one reason why businesspeople have been opposed to the sanctions – and it pushes Russia decisively towards economic, political, and military cooperation with China and indeed the rest of the world. The sanctions have had the effect of making Russia look at developing its own version of VISA. It has welcomed the repatriation of Russian wealth held abroad. And in the Ukraine, Western support for a coup against an elected president has had the country on the brink of civil war, and has increased the size of the territory of Russia. As a friend of mine has repeatedly commented to me, ‘wars start when politicians lie to journalists then believe what the read in the press.’ Putin’s popularity is at a high of 83% in the wake of the events in the Ukraine, and feeling against the US and EU on the part of ordinary Russians is beginning to increase. This makes life harder for Russians whose political agenda has support in the West. A good example is gay rights activists, who have found their aims much harder to achieve since a pro-gay attitude has effectually been aligned with an anti-Russian one. Russian gay activists are now arguably a more highly distrusted and isolated group than before they received Western backing.
Also, as is apparent to all Russians who are familiar with Russophobia, Russia is being criticised for the wrong things – and this is its most tragic irony. The country is far from perfect. Social security is miserably low; there is bullying in the army and prisons, and problems with racism, drugs, and domestic violence; health and education are under-funded; income tax is flat. But these are not the things for which Russia gets criticised, either by Westerners or their own so-called liberal parties, which are obsessively concerned with Putin himself.
The people who are suffering in Russia are not liberal opposition leaders with their abundant coverage in the Western press, but the poor.
And who apart from the Communists, and to some extent Putin, is talking about them?
Russophobia is composed of ignorance, a failure of scepticism and reasoning, pride, hypocrisy, condescension and churlishness, turned to the service of the military-industrial complex and NATO. It supports a one-sided Cold War against a country which is only just getting on its feet after collapse, is primarily focused on improving the living conditions of its people, wants war nowhere, and has no desire to be our enemy unless forced to defend itself.
I wish it well.
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