Oh those Russians. When they’re not beating up English football fans, they’re cheating at the Olympics. They occupy other countries and shoot down civilian airliners, then pretend it wasn’t them. They’re helping Assad win the Syrian civil war. They’re even driving up London house prices. There’s no infamy, apparently, of which Russians are not guilty.
‘OK — we did do all those things,’ admits a Moscow broadcaster friend, a little sheepishly. ‘But everyone else does them too! We’re the only ones to get punished, because everyone hates us.’
Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russians have become the world’s official pariahs. Russian athletes have been kicked out of the Olympics for doping, their football team was threatened with expulsion from Euro 2016 over fan violence, and there have been calls to take Euro 2018 away from them over bribery. A swath of top Russian officials have been banned from travelling abroad and had their assets frozen by at least three sets of US and EU sanctions — over Crimea, support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, and the 2009 murder of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Russian companies can’t borrow money on international markets.
But there are two problems with demonising Russia and Russians. The obvious one is that the part doesn’t stand for the whole: Russia is a great civilisation currently run by cynical thieves. Almost everything for which the world hates Russia is the work of corrupt bureaucrats desperate to preserve their power and hide their money. The Crimea invasion and the Olympic doping scandal are really about the same thing — Russian officials deciding that they are above international rules, as well as Russian ones.
The second problem is that these guilty men use ‘Russophobia’ as a shield to hide their crimes. A report from the World Anti-Doping Agency saying that Russians had a ‘deeply rooted culture of cheating’ was ‘revenge for Russia’s independent foreign policy’, according to Aleksey Pushkov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee. Cronies of Putin who parked billions of dollars in Panama? ‘An organised information attack on Russia,’ says Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. A leaked report by Dutch investigators that Malaysian Airways flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft rocket? The work, in the words of a Kremlin-owned TV station, of ‘fervent Russophobes’.
Unfortunately, many Russians seem only too happy to be tarred with the same brush as their rulers. It’s a fundamental cultural difference between us and them: to outsiders, Russians tend to strongly identify themselves with their state, their president and their fellow citizens, even if they have private doubts. The word, and the concept, is nashy — ‘our people’. You hear it all the time in conversation and on TV — ‘Nashy smashed up Marseilles’; ‘Nashy bombed Isis’; ‘Nashy got banned from the Olympics.’
Collective identity has been fundamental to Russian culture for centuries — for instance sobor, literally ‘a gathering of people’, is also a synonym for ‘church’. And the idea that Russia is under attack is used on a daily basis by the Kremlin’s propagandists. The message is: Russia must unite to fight fascists in Ukraine and global hegemons in Washington who seek to humiliate us with their information warfare and constant lies. The practical result of this siege mentality is that apparently sensible, well-educated, well-travelled Russians start gravely explaining to foreign friends that ‘Krym nash’ — Crimea is ours — and their country is much misunderstood.
It doesn’t help that there’s also a tendency in the western press to ascribe every bad thing that Russians do to a dark conspiracy by Vladimir Putin. The Panama Papers in part chronicle massive money-laundering by Putin’s inner circle — but there’s even more evidence of stealing from Putin, or at least from the Russian state. The Observer last week ran a piece by its policy editor, Daniel Boffey, quoting a single unnamed Whitehall source who said that social media analysis has shown that many Russian football hooligans were members of their country’s ‘uniformed services’. This was evidence that there could have been official Kremlin involvement in the violence, and that Putin was using the thugs to wage ‘hybrid warfare’ (in the words of Boffey’s source) on Europe. That, in my view, is plainly wrong. These thugs, who call themselves ‘ultras’, may indeed be soldiers and policemen — but they are a massive threat to Putin, not his secret weapon. They’ve staged bloody riots in Moscow before, notoriously one in 2010 which left the brutal Omon riot police running like rabbits.
But in the echo chamber of Kremlin–controlled media, Daniel Boffey has overnight become the most famous foreign journalist in Russia — and his source’s conspiracy theory is presented as ‘the West’s’ official position.
‘The West says that the Kremlin sent the hooligans,’ chirped a TV producer as she invited me to answer for this nonsense on a Russian talk show — assuming, since I am myself a westerner, I would naturally agree with my people. A fellow guest was to be Igor Lebedev, a Russian national football official and MP who egged on the rioters. ‘Well done lads,’ he tweeted as Marseilles was trashed. ‘Keep it up!’
The Russian media is always looking for new affronts to national pride — any distraction will do to keep Russians from asking why inflation is 15 per cent, their currency has lost half its value and the economy is shrinking by 4 per cent a year.
We think they are obnoxious and glory in wickedness. But that’s wrong — Russians truly believe that they’re doing the decent thing.
Syria? A defence of beleaguered Syrian Christians against Isis terrorists, supported by the US’s allies. Crimea? Saving their countrymen from a fascist junta who mounted an armed putsch in Kiev. Panama Papers? Lies concocted by the USA to destabilise Russia. Football violence? Our brave boys, outnumbered by British thugs five to one, fighting their corner. Olympic doping? Every country does it, but only Russia gets punished.
In every case, Russians believe they’re taking a stand for justice and fairness. Deep down, their values are pretty much the same as ours. It’s just that they are deliberately and systematically misinformed by the liars and thieves who rule them. And by stereotyping Russians as vicious crooks, we only help the Kremlin peddle its distortions.
Owen Matthews is a former head of Newsweek's Moscow bureau, and now a contributing editor to that magazine. His books include Stalin's Children.