“The spectre of a scary Russia is a part of Western culture” – interview with Cambridge Prof. Mark B. Smith

Mark B. Smith is Professor of History at Cambridge, and specializes in the history of the Soviet Union. He runs the blog beyondthekremlin.com.

His most recent book is called The Russia Anxiety: And History Can Resolve It and was published by Allen Lane/Penguin in 2019. You can find the book on Amazon here.

East & West: It looks like ages ago now, but it was only 2012 when the then US presidential candidate Mitt Romney was ridiculed by much of the media (the same media that today does not miss a single opportunity to portray Russia as Mordor-Land) for saying that “Russia is the number one geopolitical foe of the US”. Over the last couple of years we have seen a resurgence of the spectre of a scary Russia. How did that happen?

Mark B. Smith: I have to admit it: I’m a historian, and don’t claim to be able to explain current events with any expertise. After all, it was only when Henry Kissinger swapped Harvard for the White House that he began to understand foreign relations. But I can say that relations between Russia and the West follow some kind of historical cycle, and that ‘the spectre of a scary Russia’, as you put it, is a part of Western culture that is sometimes on display, prompted by acts and omissions in Russian and American politics alike.

East & West: What led you to write this book and have you encountered difficulties in the process of publication? Most publications on Russia over the last couple of years have not exactly had a sympathetic tone.

Mark B. Smith: Back in 2016 and 2017 I was worried that we were losing control of how we talk about Russia. For a time it seemed that the media were full of the same phrases: Russia was threatening to take over the world, the civilized world was at war with Russia, the Russians were taking on the West and winning, and so on and so forth. As an observer, I thought that it might be prudent to dial down the rhetoric — but that was just an opinion. As a historian, what I really noticed was that false lessons were being drawn from history in order to support extreme claims about Russian ambitions and policies. My book offers an interpretation of Russian history that seeks to ‘normalize’ the country’s past enough to put some of our modern-day claims about Russia in reasonable perspective. My publisher agreed that this was a fresh and exciting concept for a book, and that it was a reasonable historical position to take. Some reviewers have disagreed — but we expected that!

East & West: Why is the Russia Anxiety so powerful? Why many Western Europeans and Americans seem to have such a deep fear and suspicion of all things Russian? Many of the things otherwise perfectly respectful and educated people say about Russia and the Russians would be considered deeply offensive and even unforgivably racist if said about other countries. Do people enjoy or need scare stories?

Mark B. Smith: Russia’s size and proximity give it a unique status in the imagination of ‘the West’, or at least of some Western people. Over centuries, perceptions of Russia have historically followed a cycle between feelings of fear, contempt and disregard. In those periods when Russia has been held in contempt, for instance around the time of the Crimean War and in the very recent past, there was a kind of freedom to say what one liked about Russia. Some of this really is deeply offensive. I saw an American cartoon recently where ‘Russians’ in general, depicted as an ugly, overweight man, were equated with other groups, including ‘Nazis’ and ‘Racists’, as a threat to the United States. All this understandably causes long-lasting grudges among ordinary Russians. After all, as you suggest, we’re not used to seeing this kind of imagery used about other national or ethnic groups most of the time. But it’s important to remember that throughout history there have also been long spells of harmony and alliance in which Russia naturally forms a part of the international system and outsiders describe Russians with more respect. Presumably that will return sooner or later. And while the Russia Anxiety is a phenomenon associated with the United States and Western Europe, it doesn’t seem to have much purchase in Asia, Africa or Latin America. Meanwhile, Russia’s neighbours have rational or historical reasons to be cautious and fearful about Russian intentions. So the Russia Anxiety sometimes seems blunt, but it’s variable and complex.

East & West: Was Russian history really more terrible and terrifying than the history of other European, “more civilized” countries?

Mark B. Smith: In an important sense, no. True, there are terrible things in Russian history. No one can doubt this, and it’s my job as a historian to analyse and discuss them. But Russia was only really an outlier in the first half of the twentieth century, a time of war, terrorism, revolution, agricultural collectivization, forced famine, mass industrialization, state terror, and war again. It’s impossible to exaggerate the terrible consequences of these times for Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet peoples, or to diminish the violence built into revolution, and the devastation of one of its outcomes, Stalinism. But I don’t believe that this is part of a pattern in Russian history as such. Most of the other dark aspects of the Russian past over the centuries are best explained in a wider framework, in which comparisons with other great powers and empires are essential for our understanding.

East & West: To what extent do you think the Russia Anxiety is a real fear among experts, analysts, politicians and common citizens and to what extent is it an exaggerated threat more or less intentionally hyped by the much of the media and some politicians, even when they might not necessarily believe Russia is so terrifying, only waiting for the next opportunity to destroy the West?

Mark B. Smith: Good question. I’m not really interested in conspiracy theories. But of course sectional political, economic and military groups have vested interests in maintaining a certain view of Russia. Some government bureaucracies seem lazily never to have moved on from Cold-War mentalities. And some politicians either make electoral capital out of demonizing Russia or use Russia to account for their own electoral failures. So no doubt the rhetoric of the Russia Anxiety is not always what it seems at face value.

East & West: Do you think relations between Russia and the West can be improved after Ukraine and Syria? Many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, from the Baltic states to Ukraine and Poland clearly have no interest in seeking to normalise relations with Russia. Take Ukraine, for example: on the one hand they see themselves at war with Russia and they want to cut all ties with her. On the other hand, they are trying to sabotage the construction of the North Stream 2 pipeline fearing that that would deprive them of gas transit from Russia. Quite a paradox.

Mark B. Smith: In the long run relations will always change for the better and worse; it’s the task of statesmen to speed things up so that the change comes quickly and for everyone’s benefit. None of these problems remotely resemble, say, the historical disputes over Ireland or Palestine in their intractability. They are really about great-power relations, resources, spheres of interest, national respect and security, not to mention personal politics and business. As such, there are always going to be pragmatic solutions, even though, as you say, these are certainly challenging paradoxes. Mercifully historians don’t have to resolve them.

East & West: Is the Russia Anxiety a perennial problem relating also to the NATO-Russia “security dilemma” or is there the possibility than a pro Western liberal Russian leader can help create a long-standing reset? Would it be possible for the West to back away from its purported universal values and treat the Russian Federation as an equal? Or is suspicion of Russia profoundly engrained in Western supernational institutions?

Mark B. Smith: You’re right that key leaders and charismatic policymakers can make a difference when they act decisively or make a really compelling intellectual case. I hope the next generation does a better job than my generation and the previous generation. But I actually think that one of the true lessons of history is that Russian and Western values need not be very different, either because they spring from similar European sources, or because these values have been incubated by small communities and intelligentsias independently in all European countries, including in Russia. My historical work increasingly sees differences between people and their governments in the way that they look at the world. Even if our governments are locked in confrontation, ordinary people across the continent can still recognize their shared Europeanness.

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