The West Should Take “Orientalist” Glasses Off to See the Clear Picture of Russia
3,658 views   /  17 May 2015
The article illustrates how Edward Said’s Orientalism created the Western perception of Russia as a distant, “backward” and “irrational” place. Consequently, these social constructs result in misunderstanding of Russia, its culture and people, and serve to form anti-Russian policies on the international level.
By Afanasiy Pervomaisky
The Western world doesn’t have a proper understanding of Russia, its politics, culture and people. Russia is seen as a wild place, where things are bizarre and the minds of people are inherently different from those of Westerners. This lack of insightful knowledge, in turn, results in biased views and prejudiced policies towards the country. A large part of anti-Russian policies are the result of the poor understanding of the world’s largest nation.
The poor understanding and distorted view of Russia has deep roots in Orientalism, a concept introduced by famous Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. Over the last three decades, Orientalism has been one of the most prominent and influential critical theories at Social Science faculties around the world. In this article I will discuss how the Western public sees Russia through the lenses of Orientalism and argue that Orientalism is one of the main reasons why the West has the fundamentally inaccurate view of Russia.
What is Orientalism and How It Shapes the Narrative of Russia
Orientalism is a concept used predominantly by Western intellectuals to pick and choose certain aspects of Eastern cultures and construct the stereotypical perception of all non-Western societies as the one uniform East, or the Orient. At the same time, the great variety of differences among various non-Western cultures is largely overlooked.
Professor Said originally described the Middle East and India to be the Orient; however, the term could be effectively extended and include almost any culture outside of North America and Western Europe. According to Orientalism, the West constructs the idea of the East. The narrative of the East is socially constructed from a prejudiced and one-dimensional point of view, which includes the over-exaggeration of differences between the two civilizations and the assumption that the West is superior to the East.
Although Russia is clearly different from the Orient, described by Professor Said, many of his arguments could be effectively applied to explain the Western perspective on Russia, its culture and people. The Russian civilization was seen as part of the East, especially during the Cold War. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, not much has changed. Due to its geographical location, unique history, differences in religion and culture, Russia is still seen as different and not quite “European” by its neighbors in the West.
Looking at Russia through the lenses of Orientalism, the West exaggerates differences that exist between itself and Russia. This false narrative started after World War II, when Western intellectuals and political leaders built the image of communism as something alien and incomprehensible to the minds of Westerners. To some extent, that was done to combat homegrown communists. Political leaders in the United States and Western Europe used the Orientalist narrative for their own benefit to portray the Soviet Union as something very different from the “normal” West. As a result, communists in the United States, for example, were portrayed as not only having a different political ideology, but also acting like the “Oriental” Soviets. The strategy proved successful, as communist parties never really succeeded in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon part of it.
The Construction of the “Other” to Describe Russian Identity
To describe the people of the Orient, Western intellectuals created the concept of the “Other,” an Oriental identity that is inherently different from a “normal” Western character. The “Other” is not only very different, but it is also considered inferior to the Western identity. Orientalism emphasizes this social division by creating and perpetuating the idea of “Us and Them,” or the West and the East. In this context, the “Others” are seen as exotic, intriguing, and even sexually appealing, but above all – barbaric and dangerous.
From the Western point of view, Russians are clearly seen as the “Others.” Orientalists are quick to point at “backwardness” of the so-called Russian national character. For the most part, Russians are seen as lazy, crazy, incompetent and drunk. In other words, Russians are “inferior” to Westerners. Western media and film industry perpetuates myths about Russians to the point that these stereotypes became almost “factual.”
Russia’s “inferiority” is demonstrated through the use of demeaning language. When writing about Russian politics, Western media used degrading epithets to describe the political circle of the Russian president as “Putin’s clan.” The use of such language preserves the sense of primitivism. Interestingly, while a group of non-kin related Russian statesmen are referred as a “clan,” the father and son Bush presidents were called as “The Bush Administrations.” It’s simply unthinkable to see the same use of demeaning language to describe the political circles of Western leaders.
The West sees the Orient as an intriguing place with exotic culture, but the key feature of the East is that its culture never changes. It always stays “old” and modern civilization does not affect the Orient and the “Others.” The notion holds true for Russia as well. Russia has a fascinating culture. That much is true. However, many Westerners find it hard to imagine that Russia has changed, as has the rest of the world. There are no bears roaming the streets of Moscow, people don’t wear valenki anymore, and most parts of Russia never get 10-month long winters. Instead, Russians use iPhones, share pictures on Instagram and buy clothes in malls, just like people in the West.
The Use of Gender Stereotypes to Create Differences Between the West and Russia
Orientalism depicts females and males in the Orient in very different ways. The female “Others” are seen as docile, submissive and very sexual, exotic beauties. This is one of the reasons why Western men travel to Russia and other parts of the Orient. They hope to find a “beautiful Russian bride,” who certainly wants to marry Western men because the Orientalist framework tells us that in addition to being sexual, docile and submissive, Russian women are “materialistic and shallow.”
On the other hand, Western men are seen as masculine, rich and civilized. The Western men and Russian women social dichotomy is akin to the narrative of the dominant West and the submissive East. Just as its men, the West is seen as strong, masculine, rational and civilized, whereas the East is depicted as weak, feminine, irrational and inferior, similar to the women of the Orient.
Alternatively, the Orientalist narrative represents Russian males as either drunken, incompetent and ugly, or as barbaric, vicious and irrational. Western media, for example, deliberately chooses to over-represent Russian men, who fit these stereotypes. Alexander Ovechkin, a star Russian hockey player, enjoys a huge popularity in North America and gets the lion’s share of media’s attention out of all the Russians playing in the NHL. He is certainly a great hockey player and deserves to be in the spotlight; however, part of the reason why he is a poster child of North American media is due to his personality and physical appearance. According to modern beauty standards, he is far from being considered good-looking. Coupled with his “crazy” antics both on the ice and off the ice, this makes Ovechkin the quintessential representation of a “true” Russian man.
Meanwhile, those who don’t fit the stereotype get significantly less media attention. For example, Ilya Kovalchuk, the former leader of the hockey team New Jersey Devils and current captain of the Russian national hockey team, never received the same media attention as Ovechkin. Despite being Russia’s national team captain and one of the most decorated Russian hockey players in the NHL, the Keanu Reeves look-alike was never really a Western media favorite, as much as Ovechkin.
The Role of Orientalism in Shaping Anti-Russian Policies
Finally, Orientalism is a key factor in misunderstanding Russian politics. Although in the early 1990s, Russia embraced the Western form of governance and the capitalist economy, the Western perception of Russia didn’t change. Russian politics are still seen as bizarre, unpredictable and utterly different from those of the West.
The Orientalist narrative depicts Russian politicians as “savages,” incapable of embracing Western values. And obviously, these “barbarians from the East” want to conquer the Western world, as did the Huns, Mongols and Ottomans before them. Remember, the East never changes, Orientalists argue.
Orientalism served to construct the negative image of Russia on the international level. Looking at Russia through the lenses of Orientalism won’t help the West to effectively work with Moscow on equal terms. If Western leaders and intellectuals keep falling back on the Orientalist narrative to understand Russia, its culture and people, constantly depicting the country’s politics as “backward” and “irrational” no good is going to come out of it.
The West does not have a moral right to get involved into politics of other countries, unless perhaps asked to do so in certain, limited cases. There is no need for Western leaders to educate “backward” Orientals, bring them “civilization” and Western values. The East does not need the West to properly govern itself or to manage its own natural resources. Politicians in Washington, London and Paris need to finally understand that we no longer live in the Age of Empires. Colonialism is over. Drop your “burden,” gentlemen, you no longer need to “carry it” around.
The views and opinions contained in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of ‘Russian Accent’.
POST A COMMENT
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Well, to speak in a very general terms, I would agree that the non-western world is perceived by the west as something wild and dangerous. However, such sort of Othering is made by both the west and the non-west… Much things you are talking about is about cultural stereotypes, which make a tiny component, if at all, of actual politics. As said, the non-west, in the given case Russia, also “created” a disgusting Other on behalf of the west e.g. “pindosi”, “immoral/soulless West”, “geyropa”, etc… A good Me vs. bad You is rather an old new story, and applies equally for the west and “the rest”.
Another quote: “Although in the early 1990s, Russia embraced the Western form of governance and the capitalist economy…” while you are portraying Russia as something distinct from Western values, which “entered” the Western world about 20 years ago, I would argue the opposite. Russia has always been a great civilizational part of the West, i.e. Europe. It was Peter The Great who made Russia a European Empire in civilizational terms (etiquette, french as language of royalty, etc). Since then, monarchical dynasties of Russia and Prussia/France/England got increasingly intertwined. The Russian monarchs married with European families…Katherine The Great was actually German…Russia become the part of “european concert” in political realm as well (coalitions, war/peace)… In fact, since Peter I the history of Russian political development has largely been shaped by the west! It was Lenin, who toppled the monarchy, and brought another european! idea of communism on to russian soil (Marx/Engels were Germans, and first mass labour demonstration of 1 May took place in Chicago, USA). Late 80s and early 90s it were Gorbachev and Yelzin respectively, who, again, promoted european! ideas of free speech and democracy… Thus, I would argue that the underlying antagonism between the West and Russia is not Orientalism of the west, but something which locates in the realm of power projecting…
Hi, thank you for your insightful comment. It’s always interesting to hear other people’s thoughts.
In terms of “Othering,” you’re right, pretty much every culture in the world tends to create their own “Other” usually to portray other nations/ethnic or religious groups, and most importantly to identify themselves as a group apart from “them.” Russia is no exception, we label different peoples as “Others” all the time. Orientalists can very well be Orientalized themselves. In fact, you can explore further works of Maria Todorova, a Bulgarian historian, who talked about the concept known as “Nesting Orientalism,” according to which, generally, a culture sees another culture that is south and/or east from it as a more primitive one. She explores the concept in details using the example of the former Yugoslavia.
The key thing to note is that the West and the rest of the world, whom Westerners Orientalize, are on different levels in terms of their power-dynamics. It is true that Russia or any other non-Western nation creates their own “Others” to represent those in the West, as well as other cultures; however, the main difference here is that the West, being economically and politically more powerful than any other region of the world, carries more weight and its word nowadays means a whole lot more than any “Othering” done by a non-Western culture. The West has more responsibility, because it’s in the position of power – most top universities in the world are Western, economic and political centers are in the West, largest movie and other entertainment industries are in the West, etc. In other words, the fact that Russia or say Brazil create their own “Others” to portray Westerners doesn’t carry as much impact globally, as when it does the West, especially the United States. Most academic studies in prestigious journals and articles in largest media agencies are created in the West. Since the West, due to its position of power has the global reach its message spreads across the world easier than any other message from any other non-Western part of the world. Simply compare how many people in the world are familiar with the terms “pindosi” and “Crazy Drunken Russians”, the chances are that the latter was heard a lot more often than the former.
And finally, yes, you’re absolutely right that the article touches upon a tiny part of cultural studies. The scope of this article and the need to keep it somewhat shorter and readable didn’t allow me to discuss the issue in further details. There is a lot more to discuss from a “pure” political science perspective, but I chose to focus on more of the cultural factor.
Again, thank you and have a nice day. If you have further comments, would love to discuss them with you.
Yes, power is key. You mentioned it in the comment, but did not in the article… Anyway, your paper gives food for thought.
I liked the example with Ovechkin and Kovalchuk very much!