Multicultural vs. Stereotypical:
Russia and the European Media
International Conference Russia and Europe: Topical Issues of Contemporary International Journalism, Paris, November 24, 2011M
ost West European media professionals tend to subscribe, consciously or not, to a neoliberal world outlook in general and to the tenets of multiculturalism in particular. In other words, they tend to accept the principle that recognition and positive accommodation of demands and special political and moral claims of various ethno-racial, religious, or sexual minorities are obligatory through “group-differentiated rights.” The result is an obsessive favoritism of allegedly disadvantaged groups, such as Third World societies in general, Third World immigrants in particular, and most notably Muslims in Western Europe. The BBC and other media outlets thus routinely described the rioters in French banlieus six years ago – who were overwhelmingly of Arab-Muslim origin – as “angry French youths.” The term was technically correct, of course, assuming that most of them were indeed French citizens, but it was journalistically misleading to the point of dishonesty.
These assumptions have become culturally, psychologically and institutionally internalized in the West European mainstream media. Behind the veneer of all-embracing diversity, however, we find a carefully calibrated scale of acceptance or rejection of “the Other” depending on the cultural and political preferences of the media professionals themselves. Their insistence that there are many self-validating, closed systems of perception, feeling, thought, and evaluation – each associated with a racially, ethnically, religiously or sexually defined group – effectively rejects the legacy of the Western civilization, and specifically its insistence on the standards of reason, evidence, and objectivity, and principles of justice and freedom that apply to human beings as such. The result is a moral and intellectual relativism, which enables the media elite to pick and choose which group or nation will be approved for the status of sanctified victimhood, and which will be denied the benefit of the doubt, let alone sympathy, in the reporting and analysis of its foreign and domestic policies or its cultural and social developments.
Any serious discussion of the image of Russia in the Western media in general, and in those of Western Europe in particular, has to start with the recognition that Russia has been firmly and decisively relegated to the latter category by the Western elite class in general and the European media elite in particular. “It sounds paradoxical,” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, referring to the Western attitude toward Russia, “but there was more mutual trust and respect during the Cold War.” His correct hint is that the regimes in Brussels and Washington detest a post-Soviet Russia – the state that no longer is subservient, as it had been in the 1990s, but reviving its patriotic and Christian roots – more than the Cod War leaders of the West hated the USSR.
THE CASE OF BESLAN – Let me focus briefly on a specific, well documented example which is seven years old. It is hardly possible to envisage an orgy of terrorist savagery more deprived than that staged by Chechen jihadists and their foreign cohorts in Beslan in September 2004 – at the end of a week in which two Russian passenger planes were blown up in mid-air and a lethal bomb exploded outside a Moscow metro station. All these attacks were terrorist in character and, in the case of Beslan, Islamic in the method of execution; yet the reaction of the European media was characterized by (1) blaming the victim, (2) ridiculing Russia’s claim to be battling terrorism, and (3) advising “dialogue” with the Chechen terrorists and effective Russian capitulation to their demands.
On the nominal Right, the overall tone replicated the atmosphere, imagery, and language of the Cold War:
- “Given the deep-seated corruption of the Russian security forces and bureaucracy,” London’s Daily Telegraph wrote, “this is unlikely to be the last incident of its kind.”
- In France, Catholic La Croix also found the cause of Beslan in Russia’s shortcomings, declaring Putin responsible “for the perpetuation of the war.”
- Le Figaro fumed at Putin’s claim that Russia is a victim of the same terrorism that has hit the West, “as if the dirty war the Russian army is waging had nothing to do with the determination of terrorists.”
- In Stockholm Svenska Dagbladet condemned Russia’s attempt “to disguise the war in Chechnya as one part of the war against terrorism.” It would be immoral “to shut one’s eyes to Russian atrocities,” it said, and called for “a tougher approach from the U.S. and the EU” to pressure Putin to seek a “peaceful solution.”
- Financial Times Deutschland lambasted Russia’s threat to attack terrorist bases abroad as “an attack on the sovereignty of other countries.” “Even a mature democracy like the U.S. has its problems with such a war,” it wrote, and concluded that “an autocratic country like Russia” must not be allowed to embark on a similar path.
- Frankfurter Allgemeine advocated “dialogue” and blamed “Putin’s policy of oppression” for the attack.
At the other end of the spectrum, the organs of the Left for once abandoned their usual penchant for “compassion.” Headlines such as “Grief turns to anger” and “Criticism mounting against Putin” suggested that the victims and their families blamed Moscow as much as the terrorists:
- Numerous editorials urged readers to understand – to quote The Sunday Times – the “underlying causes” of Chechen attacks, such as Russian oppression;
- The widespread use of the word “rebels” to describe people who shoot children displayed a surprising indulgence in the face of extreme brutality.
- The Guardian insisted that Russia had to “seek political dialogue that promises some slender hope beyond the bloodshed.”
- Le Monde wondered “why Western leaders “give so much support to Vladimir Putin”;
- Liberation accused him of having “excluded every option and reverted exclusively to repression… in the famous Russian tradition.”
- In the same paper Antoine de Gaudemar lamented “Europe’s blindness” that caused “the solitude of the Chechen people in face of Russia’s imperialism” and accused Putin’s “regime” of showing a “cruel and brutal face.”
- Chief editor of Belgium’s Le Soir accused Putin of acting “in a Stalinist, and therefore frightening manner.”
- Die Tageszeitung of Berlin went even further, accusing the Kremlin of “acting as a gravedigger” in the Caucasus because Putin “does not see any link between the hostage-taking in Beslan and the barbarian war Moscow has been waging in Chechnya.” The paper ridiculed the Russians’ claim to be “victims of international terrorism.”
The problem of such visceral bias, stereotypical quasi-reporting and quasi-analysis is by no means new. The collapse of Russia’s institutions and social infrastructure under Yeltsin was accompanied by hyperinflation that wiped out savings and reduced the middle class and pensioners to penury. Its leading lights – Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov – were nevertheless hailed in the European media as “pro-Western reformers” sans peur et sans reproche. Their political factions, lionized by the Western media, were duly supported by the quasi-NGO network funded in part by the Western taxpayers.
The parallel wholesale robbery of Russian resources by the oligarchs and fire-sale of drilling concessions to their Western cohorts such as the BP, became a contentious issue in Russia’s relations with the West only a decade later, with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Media allegations of “Putin’s revenge” against the Yukos boss may have been worthy of serious investigation (which was lacking) but they disregarded the fact that – quite apart from his political ambitions – Khodorkovsky was guilty of fraud and tax evasion on a massive scale.
The West European media commentary brought to mind the manner in which Brezhnev’s propaganda had built Rudi Dutschke and Angela Davis into political martyrs. And while last month’s court proceedings in Kiev against Yulia Tymoshenko may have left a lot to be desired, the Western media disregard for her proven record of corruption and venality was equally predictable. Her transgressions are irrelevant in the context of the ideological usefulness of her constructed victimhood with clear anti-Russian implications and connotations.
There is absolutely no evidence, by contrast, that Anna Politkovskaya was killed on Putin’s orders, as claimed or suggested in dozens of West European mainstream media outlets With no evidence whatsoever, that assumption was immediately made when she was shot in November 2006, and gravely presented as near-certainty by the usual “experts.” But when a leading opposition politician was shot in May 2007 in Georgia, the event was barely mentioned in Europe: just try a Google search for “Guram Sharadze.”
Talking of Georgia, the anti-Russian stereotypes most notably prevailed over common sense and journalistic integrity at the time of Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia in August 2008, with the British media leading the pack in their attacks on Russia’s “aggression” and Western “passivity.” I am not going to bore you any longer with detailed quotes, we all remember it well.
While never missing an opportunity to hector Russia on democracy and criticize her human rights record, the West European media have been notably silent on the discriminatory treatment of large Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics. In Latvia and Estonia the Russians are subjected to arguably the worst treatment of any minority group by any member of the European Union, or (with the exception of Turkey) of NATO. Latvia and Estonia have been allowed by the West flagrantly to break promises made before independence.
All along, the mainstream media verdict on both sides of the Atlantic depends on an actors’ status on the ideological pecking order of the media elite itself, not on his words and actions as such – in line with the Leninist dictum that the moral value of any act by anyone is determined by that act’s contribution to the march of history. Putin’s current approval rating of 60 percent is thus cited as further evidence of his manipulative populist demagoguery and yet another “proof” that democracy remains underdeveloped in Russia.
Parallel with the denial of legitimate Russian interests in the “near abroad,” the Western media elite views Russia as a state with limited sovereignty even within her post-Soviet borders. No aspect of its domestic policies, from education (“ethnocentric”), immigration (“restrictive”), or religion (“discriminatory to the non-Orthodox”) to corruption (“rampant”), homosexual rights (“appalling”) and the legal system (“inefficient and corrupt”) has escaped scathing media criticism. That a “truly democratic” Russia can be only the one that is subservient both domestically and externally to the demands and ideas of the Western media elite is accepted on both sides of the European political spectrum as an axiomatic fact.
The notion of Russia’s fundamental illegitimacy and limited sovereignty was explicit in April 2007, when Moscow rejected Great Britain’s demand for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, suspected by British officials of murdering his fellow ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. “Time for a row with Russia,” pontificated The Guardian: “Russia has to learn that it cannot act with impunity. We need to make our condemnation of Russia’s appalling human rights record clear… We need to complain vigorously about… the mayor of Moscow’s banning of this weekend’s gay pride march… [W]e should not be afraid of ruffling Putin’s feathers.” A similar article was published in most major dailies all over Europe. Hardly any had mentioned that the issue of extradition between Britain and Russia was in some way linked to London’s point-blank refusal to extradite to Russia Boris Berezovsky, a corrupt arch-oligarch, or Akhmed Zakayev, accused of a host of horrendous terrorist crimes in Russia. That a British court blithely accepted Zakayev’s claim that he would not get a fair trial, and could even face torture in Russia, went unreported. If Russia, on the other hand, dares reject a Western extradition order for a Russian citizen, then it’s time for another paroxysm of rage that transcends the political divide.
In recent weeks, and particularly following the September 23 announcement that V.V. Putin would again run for presidency next March, we have witnessed yet another campaign of facile media stereotyping. The tone was set as early as September 25 by The Daily Telegraph, which expressed “fears that Vladimir Putin was railroading Russia into an outright dictatorship … as he set course to be the country’s longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin.” Boris Nemtsov’s absurd claim that “Putin will provoke a mutiny among the Russian people” was widely circulated as a serious prediction, reflecting a hint of wishful thinking.
The similarity of reactions to Russia on the right and left ends of Europe’s media spectrum reflects the perception that Russia belongs to a tradition that is both alien and unworthy of multiculturalist tolerance. This is an unreasoning phobia that goes beyond mere rhetoric. Its cause is not in a misunderstanding of the Russian mindset and tradition but, quite the contrary, it is due to the accurate assessment by the media class that Russia as such is an obstacle to the realization of their political, economic, and ideological preferences in the modern world.
The unforgivable sin of the Russians, in the eyes of the Western media elite, is that they are still defined by their ethnic, cultural and religious identity. In spite of almost a century of horrendous ordeals and tribulations, Russia is still a recognizable nation, rooted in the continuity of its culture, faith, and collective memories – perhaps the last major European nation which is still recognizably itself.
By contrast the Western postmodern multiculturalism has numerous secondary manifestations (one-worldism, inclusivism, antidiscriminationism) that demand engagement abroad and wide-open immigration doors at home. In either case the impulse is neurotic and its justification is gnostic. It reflects the collective loss of nerve, faith, and identity. It produces cultural and demographic consequences unprecedented in history. It is built on the arrogant conviction that neoliberal ideology contains the blueprint for the solution to the dilemmas and challenges of human existence, that certain enlightened abstractions – democracy, human rights, secular humanism etc. – can and should be spread across the world, and are capable of transforming it.
Both these forms of insanity have a “left,” variant (one-world, post-national, compassionate, multilateralist, Gramscian, therapeutic, Euro-integralist) and a “right,” neoconservative one (democracy-exporting, interventionist, self-aggrandizing). While often differing in their practical manifestations, both paradigms are utopian. Their roots are in the legacy of the Enlightenment. Both maintain that Man is inherently virtuous and capable of betterment. These are two sects of the same Western heresy. Its fruits are in the Christophobic “liberal democracy” of our own time.
The cultural roots of the Western media elite are no longer discernible in what they cherish but in what they reject: they hate European societies founded on national and cultural commonalities, with stable elites and constitutions and independent economies. They regard all permanent values and institutions with open animosity, which is why they support the amorphous fluidity of the European Union. They oppose democracy in post-communist Eastern Europe because it may produce governments that will base the recovery of those ravaged societies on the revival of the family, sovereign nationhood, and the Christian faith. They therefore support political parties and NGOs all over Eastern Europe that promote the entire spectrum of postmodern isms that have atomized the West for the past four decades: the embrace of deviancy, perversion, and morbidity as the litmus test of “Western” credentials. At the same time, “democracy” in America and Western Europe alike is a corrupt process run by an elite class that conspires to make secondary issues important and to treat important issues as either irrelevant or a priori illegitimate.
It is futile to expect the Western media elite to stop treating Russia as “the Other,” and to stop wishing for its disintegration, all by itself. As Russia’s ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin has wondered, “The NATO gamekeepers invite the Russian bear to go hunting rabbits together. The bear doesn’t understand: why do they have bear-hunting rifles?” Well, because they’d like to kill the bear and carve him up, or else make him pliant and obedient to their whims, a tame dancer in the global circus.
There are some who might dismiss my concerns, saying “ah, but Russia is a powerful country, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” This is extremely short-sighted. The overall tenor of Western media reporting on Russia helps lock policy into concrete undesirable forms, notably on the issue of visas (in the case of Europe) and WTO (in the case of the U.S.). This is a phenomenon Russia ignores at its peril. The fact that both the European Union and the U.S. are bankrupt and their global power is objectively declining, is not cause for immediate comfort. The circumstances, where the authors of policy maintain ambitions far beyond the resources objectively available to them are those that can give rise to miscalculation, with disastrous results. It is all the more reason that Russia cannot afford to be complacent about policy formation in either Brussels or Washington and why, for its own self-interest, Moscow should actively seek to affect it with lobbying and soft influence.
TO CONCLUDE: For the past two decades Russia has been trying to rearticulate her goals and define her policies in terms of traditional national interests. The old Soviet dual-track policy of having “normal” relations with the West, on the one hand, while seeking to subvert it, on the other, gave way to naïve attempts in the 1990’s to forge a “partnership.” By contrast, the early 1990’s witnessed the blossoming of America’s attempt to assert her global hegemony. This ambition created an ironic role-reversal; it precluded any suggestion that Russia has legitimate interests, externally or internally. The justification for the project was as ideological, and the implications as revolutionary, as anything concocted by Zinoviev or Trotsky in their heyday.
That a “truly democratic” Russia must be subservient to the propositional matrix is still axiomatic on both sides of the Atlantic. “Democracy” is thus defined in the spirit of Lenin: it depends on one’s status in the ideological pecking order and on one’s contribution to the march of history. In this progression the reshaping of Russia’s soul is the final stop. In that respect any gap between the Sorosite “Left” and neo-Cold-War “Right” is a matter of degree rather than kind. In this context, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, stated something remarkable three years ago, in an interview with Russia Today (November 18, 2008): “There is a new civilization emerging in the Third World that thinks that the white, northern hemisphere has always oppressed it and must therefore fall at its feet now… If the northern civilization wants to protect itself, it must be united: America, the European Union, and Russia. If they are not together, they will be defeated one by one.” Rogozin’s statement reflects an understanding of the commonalities shared by Europeans and their overseas descendants – an understanding as accurate as it is odious to the Western elite class. It indicates that, in some important ways, Russia is freer than the West: No American or EU diplomat of his rank would dare make such a statement (even if he shared the sentiment), or hope to remain in his post after making it.
Western multiculturalists in the media and academia oppose any notion of “our” physical or cultural space that does not belong to everyone. They deny that we should have a special affinity for any particular country, nation, or culture, but demand the imposition of their preferences upon the whole world. They celebrate any random mélange of mutually disconnected multitudes as somehow uniquely “diverse” and therefore virtuous.
Ideologues will deny it, but in the decades to come Europe, Russia, and America will be in similar mortal peril. In the end there will be no grand synthesis, no cross-fertilization, and certainly no peaceful coexistence, between the North and the Third World. There will be kto kogo. The short-term prospects for fostering a sense of unity among Europeans—Eastern, Western, and American—are dim and will remain so for as long as the regimes of all the major states of the West are controlled by an elite class hostile to its own roots and cultural fruits.
We need a paradigm shift in the West that would pave the way for a genuine Northern Alliance of Russia, Western Europe and North America, as all three face similar existential geopolitical and demographic threats in the decades ahead. I don’t know if this alliance will materialize. I do know that, if it doesn’t, our civilization will be in peril. To prevent that outcome, it is essential to (re)affirm the principle of “preserve and augment,” to be inspired by the constant creative renewal of society without stagnation or revolution, and to rely on the commonalities of the spiritual traditions, history and culture of the extended European family, from Anchorage via Berlin to Vladivostok.
Dr. Trifkovic is the associate editor and U.S. correspondent of the Serbian monthly Geopolitika (www.geopolitika.rs). He is also Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (www.chroniclesmagazine.org)