The Rise of Russophobia (In Russian Media)

Feb 20, 2016 · 9 min read

It’s… weird.

The cartoon show, broadcasted by the radio of Komsomolskaya Pravda (one of the most popular tabloid in Russia) features a host and its guest, both depicted as… rolls of toilet paper. In the last episode, the guest is a toilet-paper version of Poroshenko disguised as a clown, in which he shows a shell in its back as a proof of the Russian invasion.

Other “guests” have included Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (thanks to her “hate of Russia”, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda), Vitali Klitschko (current mayor of Kyiv) or Mikhail Gorbatchev, who takes a bullet in the head when he starts explaining how he “destroyed” the USSR. The show is called “Evening Russophobia”, and it’s every bit as bad as you can imagine.

In Russia, the Maidan protests, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine has given a new life to the concept of Russophobia, this idea that criticism of Russia results not from its actions, but from a racist view of Russians as backward savages, as well as from an irrational fear of Moscow. State TV describes the troubles of ex-FIFA leader Sepp Blatter as “an attempt by russophobic America to invade FIFA”, websites discuss the most russophobic Russian movies (with the argument that “before looking at russophobia abroad, we should look at it in our own country”), and Russian official Alexey Pushkov says that “Yatseniuk’s time is over, he won’t be saved by Russophobia nor by Merkel’s support or its american masters” in a message retweeted more than 600 times.

The definition of Russophobia isn’t wholly clear. The Russian “Explanatory Dictionary” defines Russophobia as “the hostility towards all things russian as well as Russian people themselves, considered dangerous for other nations”. The Russian-language Wikipedia page goes along the same line, defining it as a “prejudiced, suspicious, unfriendly, hostile attitude towards Russia and Russians” as well as a “special case of xenophobia”. It then goes a little bit further however, saying that, “according to some experts”, Russophobia is different compare to other forms of national phobias because it has a “specific set of ideas and concepts” as well as a “history” that would make it closer to a “complete ideology”.

Some data on Russophobia

To see the extent to which the “Russophobia” rhetoric has become more prominent in the last years, one can take a look at printed media. Using Factiva, a database that store every article from hundreds of Russian newspapers, magazines and press agencies, it’s possible to check how many articles containing the word “Russophobia” were published since 2011. And the rise is pretty obvious:

Number of articles containing the word “Russophobia” (in russian) // Source:

The number of article mentioning Russophobia tripled between 2013 and 2015, going from 599 a year in 2011 to more than 1 800. But of course, this can change wildly depending on the publication: the more liberal-leaning Kommersant published only one piece in 2011 and six articles in 2015 using the term. The state-owned Rossisskaya Gazeta however went from 18 articles in 2011 to 63 in 2015, more than one article about russophobia every week. The tone of the articles also wasn’t the same: in 2011, one of the articles in Rossisskaya Gazeta mentioning Russophobia was called “What do I like about America and Americans?”, with the author claiming in it that if Americans suffer from Russophobia, Russians also suffer from “Americanophobia”, and both countries should just try to understand each other better. Ukraine was also notably absent from such considerations, accusations of Russophobia being directed more often towards Baltic and Nordic countries.

Russophobia is not a new concept. It was introduced by a XIXth century Russian diplomat, Fyodor Tyutchev, who used it against Poland at a time when the central European country was trying to stir away from Russia. Poland, said Tyutchev, is a russophobic country and its people “the Judas of the slavs”. Poland has kept this reputation of being the main “russophobic” country, tied with the Baltics states, until very recently. But with the start of the protests in Kyiv, that crown was taken by Ukraine and its government, routinely accused by Russian media and officials of trying to commit a genocide against the “Russian-speaking population”.

But it’s not just about foreign enemies. According to a report on the topic by the Warsaw Centre of Eastern Studies, Tyutchev understood the concept of russophobia in a domestic context as well, “where it [was] ascribed to ‘Occidentalists’, who criticise the tsarist regime for its repression, lawlessness and lack of freedom of expression”. And in a 2008 report on the “Vesti” TV channel (now Rossiya 24), the infamous TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov insisted on this domestic nature of Russophobia, noting that, “even after the abolition of serfdom, Tyutchev found a clear double-standard among the Russian intelligentsia when comparing their own country and Europe”, showing that, from the start, “Russophobia” was about politics rather than racism.

As for the domestic russophobia, similar criticism aimed at Russia’s contemporary liberal opposition have become quite usual: after the death of Boris Nemstov, a columnist for Komsomolskaya Pravda who described the killing as a provocation made to discredit Russia’s leadership also turned over the argument, popular at the time in opposition circles, that the murder was the result of an “atmosphere of hatred” : “Let’s remember”, he says, “that those who spread this hatred, and its inevitable companion, russophobia, through media and social websites are the representatives of the opposition community”.

More recently, the struggle between Chechen leader Ramazm Kadyrov and the non-systemic opposition became another opportunity to paint the liberals as “Russia haters”. A piece published in January on the news website “Russkaya Planeta” called for the closing of the radio station “Echo of Moscow” (one of the Kadyrov’s “enemies of the people”) and asked for the “containment of liberal point of views in information ghettos, on such a small scale that it won’t bother the healthy instincts of russian society”. “The state cannot and should not sponsor the poison of separatism and russophobic publicists, it cannot and should not cherish its own enemies” concluded the article.

Russophobia & Ukraine

Such rhetoric is really nothing new, but, along with the Ukrainian conflict, it gained a prominence in Russian media that it didn’t have before. For months, state TV spend the major part of their news shows dedicated to news from Ukraine, and the rhetoric reached an unseen-before level of aggressive patriotism. No wonder then that the “Russophobic” discourse became so popular at that time. Looking at the Russian press in 2014 and 2015, March 2014 was the month when the most articles containing the term “Russophobia” were published: 251, compare to only 43 in January of the same year.

Number of articles containing the word “Russophobia” between January 2014 and December 2015 // Source:

Taking a look at the volume of searches done on Google for the word “Russophobia” shows the same peak in March 2014 :

Direct link

It is not a coincidence that this is also the month of Crimea’s annexation: for example, the state-owned (which is the website of the news channel Rossiya24) published 15 articles mentioning russophobia during this month, including a transcript of a TV documentary titled “The course of history” which mentions a “russophobic version of the Ukrainian idea” that was supposedly born before World War One (the idea of Ukraine as a fake country created by outsides forces to counter Russia was developed in the following few months).

But even in the case of the Ukrainian conflict, “Russophobia” immediately became not just a tool aimed at showing the Russian population that international condemnation and sanctions were simply the result of an irrational hatred for Russia, but also a political weapon against internal opponents, whether real or suspected. “Russophobic” started being used alongside other words such as “traitor” or “fifth column”. When the director of Moscow’s Library of Ukrainian Literature was arrested on suspicion of extremism, the Investigative Committee’s spokesman said that the search of the library lead to the confiscation of materials which contained “anti-Russian propaganda”. The library, said a local deputy, had become a “hotbed of Russophobia”. And, when members of the PEN’s Russian branch (an international association of writers) tried to protest the arrest, the literary magazine Literaturnaya Gazeta published an incredibly virulent piece accusing them of “russophobia” as well as of trying to transform “a writer’s organisation into a political maidan for the liberal opposition”. Russophobia, added the author “is a fascism, just like the extermination of jews”.

There were more surprising examples. On March 2014, right in the patriotic frenzy surrounding the annexation of Crimea (this actually happened exactly four days before the peninsula officially joined Russia), a bill was submitted to the Duma to prohibit “Russophobic propaganda” in the country. The bill, withdrawn less than two weeks after having been submitted, defined this “Russophobic propaganda” as “the spread in the media and through public demonstrations, pickets, meetings, rallies of printed, video and audio of inaccurate and negative information aimed at the formation of a negative attitude to Russia or Russians, as well as Russian language, culture and statehood”. The bill would have basically outlawed saying anything negative about the Russian State. It seems that its purpose was not to prohibit russophobia however, but rather to embarrass an opposition MP.

The bill was allegedly submitted by Ilya Ponomarev, who was at the time a deputy in the Duma for the “Just Russia” party and a known opponent of Vladimir Putin’s regime. On its blog, Ponomarev firmly denied having submitted or participated in any way in the preparation of the bill, which he described as a “provocation”. A week later, Ponomarev became known as the only member of the parliament to oppose Crimea’s annexation. He now lives in exile in the United States, after the parliament stripped his immunity and Russia’s Investigative Committee accused him of embezzling 22 million rubles.

Mainstream Russophobia

In the end, it is difficult to accuratly assess the impact that this rise in the use of Russophobia has had on russian society. Data suggests that the consequence of two years of conflict with Ukraine is that Russophobia, whether aimed at Ukraine, Poland, the USA or liberal opponents, has entered the mainstream media vocabulary. But that does not say anything about how this rise is affecting the perception that russians can have of themselves and of other nationalities.

It also does not mean that racism against Slavic people is a made-up idea: one just needs to take a look at Nazi propaganda during World War 2 to see that the trope of the Russians as a reminiscence of Asiatic hordes was well alive. Later, German generals seeking to justify their actions in the war kept that myth going, painting in their memoirs the soviet army as a terribly bad fighting force whose sole tactic was the human wave. Their defeat, they said, was then only due to the soviet’s superior numbers and the almost animal “craziness” of their fighters, a perception of the conflict debunked many times by contemporary historians (but, unfortunaly, still quite popular among the general public).

But Russophobia is now so widely used that it, even if ones argues that the idea behind the word is not entirely wrong, it seems to have essentially lost all meaning, turning into the cartoonish equivalent of Americans accusing someone of “hating freedom”. This goes to the point where Komsomolskaya Pravda (yes, again) can create a quiz asking if quotes attributed to Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin are real or “russophobic fakes”. Because if it’s not one, it’s surely the other, right?

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