East & West: You have written a book called “Russophobia” on how Western media uses Russia to create the picture of an enemy (you can find the book here). How do you explain this phenomenon in a few sentences? Because these people, journalists and other media experts, generally are not exactly the picture of modesty and regard themselves as lights of truth fighting against fake news and propaganda, guided only by objectivity. How could they possible be … stretching the bounds of reality, to put it mildly?
Dominic Basulto: Russophobia is best understood as a combination of biases, stereotypes and prejudices that can then be used as part of powerful media narratives. The Western mainstream media can then use these media narratives to achieve specific aims and goals. If, for example, you would like to support the idea of a military build-up or intervention in a certain region, what could possibly be more useful than the image of a menacing, aggressive nation that poses an existential risk to the West? Or, better yet, if you would like to discredit a politician, what better way to do this than to suggest a shadowy relationship with a corrupt, authoritarian and untrustworthy geopolitical rival?
E&W: Professional Russia experts, like, I don’t know, Julia Ioffe or Edward Lucas, would probably already be saying that Russophobia is an invention by Russian propaganda, that Russophobia does not exist at all, and that if the West reacts in a certain way or talks about Russia in a certain way, it is only because Russia broke all norms of “respectable” international behaviour.
DB: I think that Russophobia is so ingrained in people that we may not even realize that it exists. Russophobia extends beyond the media, to include politics, entertainment and academia. Pop culture is perhaps the easiest place to see this bias at work – in Hollywood films, Russians are typically villains, gangsters, mafia bosses, corrupt oligarchs or prostitutes. So how can anyone say that Russian propaganda created Russophobia? You could just as easily say that Hollywood helped to create Russophobia.
Moreover, what is even more striking is that Russophobia is not just a result of the current Putin regime. And it is more than just a relic or legacy of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the West were ideological enemies. It extends back much further, even as far back as the 1830’s, when a French aristocrat travelled to Russia and wrote a searing critique of Russian society and life. So, we have nearly 200 years of this phenomenon. Surely, something much deeper and more fundamental is at work here.
E&W: And still this Russophobia seems to be pretty much all across the spectrum of political affiliation. With the exception of very few lonely voices, the tone in the media when talking about Russia or reporting on Russia is often condemning, outrage, sometimes dismissive or even Schadenfreude. Do you think there is a concerted effort or is it because of some pressure to say the “right” things?
DB: This might be oversimplifying things, but I think that beating up on Russia is easy. It is the path of least resistance. Say, for example, you are a journalist or blogger trying to get your views aired in the mainstream media. What are your chances of success if you are suggesting a pro-Russia narrative? Or, let’s say you are a politician. What are your chances of success if you decide to support a pro-Russia policy or even dare to raise the prospect of better relations with Putin’s Russia? What if you are an academic trying to gain tenure at a university or get your scholarly articles published? The path of least resistance is following the status quo – not because it is necessarily right, but because it is easy.
What I think is so important about the rise of alternative or independent media is the ability to establish different narratives – or at least, to have a constructive discussion based on facts without relying on biases, stereotypes and prejudices. The mainstream media tends to silence those voices – or, even worse, ridicules those voices. I love it that you can go to YouTube right now and find content creators saying positive things about Russia, and even positive things about Vladimir Putin. They are bypassing the mainstream media and making decisions for themselves. When it comes to the Middle East, for example, I think that many well-informed people would say that Russia has a much better policy approach to the situation than the West.
E&W: A favourite Western media trope has become to trash channels like RT calling them Kremlin propaganda. Nobody would ever think of calling Radio Svoboda American propaganda though. What is the difference?
DB: I agree – I don’t think there is a real difference. The message that we hear in the West is that “RT is funded by the Kremlin” and, therefore, must be propaganda. But doesn’t the British government fund the BBC? So is the BBC propaganda? My view is that RT was developed as a soft power tool, not as a propaganda tool. If people around the world can tune into CNN and hear America’s view of the world, why shouldn’t people also be able to tune into RT and hear Russia’s view of the world? The idea that people in the West will be brainwashed the moment they watch a minute of RT on TV is, quite frankly, laughable.
E&W: Maybe Western media are not telling the whole side of the story, but their message seem to be received well by the public, because the messages they send about Russia are so overwhelming in that the public ends up accepting everything uncritically. After all, our world cannot be so corrupt, can it? If these journalists are saying these things, it would be absurd to doubt the authority of some respected professionals doing their job, would it not?
DB: It does strain the bounds of credulity that, if we listen to the mainstream media, everything that Russia does in the world is wrong. It almost seems cartoonish and comical, in fact. There is almost a competition in the media to come up with outlandish stories about how bad things are in Russia and how sinister all of Russia’s intentions are.
For example, take the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 – if you compare the image of the Olympics that the media tried to create to the actual reality, it was completely different. I saw this firsthand myself.
So why, then, would the media go to so much trouble to discredit Russia? I think it has to do with the rise of Russia on the world stage, both geopolitically and economically. Discrediting Russia helps to preserve the global pecking order, with America and Europe on top.
Ultimately, the only way anyone can truly understand how warped the media narratives about Russia are is to spend time in Russia. For example, my eyes about Russia were opened after travelling there for the first time in the mid-1990’s, in that chaotic period when Russia was emerging from Communism. What I found was that most of what I had been told about Russia in the media and during my studies at the university was just plain wrong. At the very least, it was uninformed.
E&W: Does the West need an enemy? And if so why?
DB: The West does need an enemy, or at least, an “Other” that it can compare itself to. When the Cold War ended, there was no longer an “enemy.” There was even talk, in fact, of adding Russia to NATO and making it a full partner of the West. So the search went on for an enemy – and many thought that China would become that enemy. China would be an “economic enemy” for the new millennium. And, immediately, the media went to work on its China narratives. (“China is an authoritarian country.” “China does not respect human rights.” “China is Communist.” “China cheats on trade deals.” “China is putting American workers out of work.” The list goes on and on. Does this not sound a lot like the Russia narratives?)
And then in September 2001, one decade after the end of the Cold War, that’s when we discovered radical Islam and the shadowy world of Islamic terrorism. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was clear: the new enemy of the West was radical Islam. It gave America a new reason to extend its geopolitical influence around the world, to affirm its role as the world’s policeman, and to build up its military. Moreover, America had a new moral right to “punish” nations around the world (including Russia).
And when one enemy is not enough, there is always the option to combine several enemies into one “super-enemy.” The Axis of Evil, for example, was the term that the Bush administration used to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Even today, it is still possible to come across articles describing how North Korea is secretly funding nuclear programs in Iran, or how oil money from Iran is making its way to North Korea.
So, yes, I do think that the West is continually looking for an enemy. In that context, Russia plays a very important role. Vladimir Putin is portrayed as almost like a James Bond super-villain orchestrating plots around the world.
E&W: What can independent media do against Russophobia?
DB: I think that Russophobia tends to move in cycles, so I’m not sure what can be done immediately. Social media helped to decentralize some of the power of the mainstream media, but it will still take time to build enough momentum to counteract Russophobia.
Regarding the cyclical nature of Russophobia, when Russia is strong, that is when we typically see flare-ups in Russophobia. During the Cold War, for example, America experienced an unprecedented wave of Russophobia known as McCarthyism. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union was weak, Russophobia weakened as well. And now that Russia is strong again and continues to be led by Vladimir Putin, it’s hard not to see Russophobia persisting for the next few years. Especially since the Western mainstream media is completely losing it over the Trump-Russia story. As long as both Trump and Putin are both in power, it’s hard to see a significant change in Russophobia.
But if I were tasked with putting an action plan into place today to combat Russophobia, I would start with areas where the West and Russia seem to have shared interests and develop positive narratives around them. For example, my colleagues in Russia have always told me that space exploration was one area that could never be completely spoiled by Russophobia. Russian rockets are sending American astronauts to the International Space Station, right? In outer space, Russia and the U.S. are working together. Those are the sorts of “positive narratives” that can help to balance out some of the negative narratives.
At one time, I thought international sport was a similar type of area of cooperation. But after seeing the Western reaction to the Sochi Olympics and now the 2018 World Cup in Russia, I’m not as optimistic about that. Boycotts, sanctions and negative PR seem to be the norm here.
Economics could be another area of cooperation. The independent media needs to do a better job of emphasizing Western-Russian business ties and the rise of new Russian companies that are entering the global marketplace. From my perspective, companies are going to Russia because they see a vast, profitable market. They don’t care about ideology. There are a lot of very smart Russian tech entrepreneurs who, I think, could help to change the way people think about Russia because technology and science is also one area where Russia has excelled.
And, finally, I think that more effort has to be made to engage the Russian diaspora around the world. This is something that most people don’t talk about. In America, for example, why aren’t more Russian-Americans speaking up and having their voices heard? Why aren’t they protesting what they see to be unrealistic images of Russia in the media? My comparison here would be with Islamophobia. How did the Islamic population in America deal with what it perceived to be as unfair views of Islam? They spoke up! They rallied in the streets and told political leaders that they would vote for candidates who helped them. And what’s more irresistible to a politician than a vote? When Hillary Clinton was running for President, for example, she specifically celebrated the types of Muslims who she said she would help. In contrast, Russians tend to be much less willing to get involved in politics and less trusting of options to influence the political debate. So that has to change.
E&W: Thank you, Mr Basulto for this very interesting talk.
DB: Thank you.
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Dominic Basulto is the former U.S. Executive Editor of Russia Direct, which published news, analysis and reports about Russia. He is the author of the first-ever iPad travel guide to Sochi, Russia and in 2014, he was a member of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics media and press operations team. He has an MBA from Yale School of Management and an undergraduate degree in Politics and Russian Studies from Princeton.