Thousands of Russians who have fled to Georgia in the wake of Putin’s crackdown are receiving a poor welcome. ‘F*** Russia’ and ‘Russians go home’ are scrawled on the walls, and there are campaigns to boycott Russian goods. A Russian girl asked in a local chat about the best way to transfer money, and received several responses of roughly the same content: ‘Get out, lousy occupants, no one wants you here.’
In the US, owners of Russian restaurants (even if they are non-Russians) have received bomb threats or seen their premises vandalised. Even the pianist Alexander Malofeev, who took to social media just after the invasion to declare that ‘every Russian will feel guilty for decades’ for this ‘terrible and bloody decision’, has been cancelled by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for the crime of his nationality.
All this, one should point out, suits the Kremlin very well. When internationally condemned for some crime, be it the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury or Litvinenko in London, Russian officials have put the accusations down to ‘Russophobia’, insolently equating the Russian government with the Russian people. Now, as this blanket dehumanisation sinks to new depths, it will only be natural for Russians to coalesce around Putin like children around an abusive father: ‘You see, no one in the world cares about you but me.’
This is not to say you can’t understand – even if you don’t condone it – this new and acceptable form of racism, especially coming from Ukraine. The Ukrainians, under relentless, brutal attack from Russia, can hardly be blamed for feeling this way, no matter how many ethnic Russians, citizens of Ukraine, are clearly fighting in places like Kharkiv and Mariupol against Putin’s invasion. With Georgia too, the strength of feeling isn’t hard to decipher: the closer a country is to Russia and the more under threat it feels, the likelier such feelings are to flourish.
A pro-Putin rally in Moscow (Getty images)
But elsewhere? Western newspapers are fond of quoting the 70 per cent support figure to prove this is Russia’s, not just Putin’s war. It’s true that support for Putin is, on the surface of it, massive at the moment, and growing since the war began. Yet this should come as no surprise: in times of danger people tend to cower behind whatever leadership they’re given, with many doubtless doing so because it’s the safest thing to say or think right now.
But the support is hardly active. There has not been a single spontaneous pro-Putin rally since the beginning of the war. Events like the stadium event last Friday have required huge logistical efforts, with buses laid on for the participants. ‘Putin supporters’, such as they are, seem prepared to expend hardly any time or energy to express their loyalty. The opposition meanwhile are ready to protest in their thousands, even sacrificing their freedom if need be.
There has always been what might be termed ‘low-level’ Russophobia, often coming from those who declare themselves ardent Russophiles (the two things, it turns out, are not always so different). Russians, they said, were ‘not like us’, the country ‘could not be judged by normal rules’, and it required a ‘strong hand’ to keep it in order. It assumes the standards of the free world – transparent elections, divisions of powers, an independent judiciary, a media free from state control – are simply something the Russians aren’t equal to. It is a case of the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’
At the same time, it is sheer stupidity to claim that all nations are the same. So what traits do Russians have that have made the modern Russian state possible? Passivity? Obedience? Fatalism? All of these, certainly – but other qualities too.
In the 1990s a BBC correspondent visited a plant in Russia that used to make rockets, but whose workers, following the end of the Cold War, hadn’t been paid for months. Eventually the plant shifted to kitchenware, with quite a good salary for that time: $200 (£150), paid promptly at the end of each month. How did the workers feel about their new job, the correspondent asked.
To her surprise, the majority of them detested it: it was ‘humiliating’, they said, to be producing crockery and cutlery after years of making rockets that could destroy ‘half the world.’ This readiness to put up with poverty – as rocket-makers they had been paid far less – in return for illusions of grandeur is something that has not gone away, and Putin has exploited it. Whether they can be blamed or not is another question. When you have little, you tend to look for your power in others.
Those who can certainly be blamed – those, one could say, fully deserving of ‘Russophobia’ – are the people involved in criminal decisions about waging war, in assassinations, poisonings, forging election-results and so on. So are all those who executed and supported these decisions. Unfortunately, they are not few in number.
It’s a shame the state in Russia is so massive that it often hides the Russians themselves, but I hope the West can now at least answer the question: ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’ He is the ‘murderous dictator and a clear thug’, as Biden described him. But he was a thug as early as 2003, when he confiscated the oil company Yukos from Mikhail Khodorkovsky – a potential political rival – and sent him to jail. He was murderous as early as 2006 when Litvinenko, a former colleague, was poisoned by Putin’s agents in London.
Nobody can claim they didn’t know something was amiss with Putin, though even after the Crimea annexation in 2014, sanctions were negligible. He and his well-heeled colleagues were even given a welcome in the West. Had this not been the case – had he been stopped back then – the picture might be very different now, and many Ukrainians who have perished in the past month might be waking up this morning, making breakfast, making plans, and getting on with their lives.
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