Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Bear? Russophobia in Cambridge

Varria Vassilieva 2 March 2019
Image Credit: Varria Vassilieva

Since coming to Cambridge, I have grown certain of one thing, and it’s not how to write a good essay. I have realised that I invariably despise the question “where do you come from?”, for when I give a truthful answer, I will be perceived as one with the politics and history of my country. My identity becomes a synonym for the Soviet Union, Crimea, Donbas, the 2016 US election, Syria, Nuclear Weapons, the Skripals and of course, Putin. As I assume you have gathered, I come from Russia. Now,  I am not writing to mislead you into thinking that Russian politics are pristine. Like the politics of any other country, they are far from it. I am writing to direct your attention to a topic so frequently ignored, that it could easily be dismissed as non-existent. That topic is Russophobia.

As a Russian raised in the West, I am bombarded with Russophobia in the form of anti-Russian sentiment day in, day out. It is as if I myself orchestrated Trump’s election, the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe, to name a few. This Russophobia is unsurprising. Cold War anti-Soviet sentiment seamlessly metamorphized into anti-Russian sentiment after the fall of the USSR, and inertia largely propels this sentiment through Western society. What is surprising, however, is the sustained popularity of Russophobia in Cambridge.

A plethora of plausible explanations may explain why Russophobia remains a recurrent phenomenon in Cambridge. Yet most of these explanations may be reduced to a mischaracterisation of Russia in the West. In Cambridge specifically, there is very limited exposure to real, modern Russia. Most Russians in Cambridge, myself included, have long divorced the Motherland and have been raised or educated in the West. Though we may visit Russia often, this doesn’t necessarily mean we have an entirely accurate representation of Russia. It is one thing to visit Russia, it is an entirely different thing to live there. This lack of representation is coupled with an aggressively anti-Russian Cambridge curriculum, particularly in the humanities. As critically minded as we Cambridge students may consider ourselves to be, we are nevertheless moulded and manipulated by the media. The media portrays a particularly demonic image of Russia. In fact, various news channels in Australia have mistranslated Russian interviews to ensure the views articulated by interviewees align with Western interests. Thereby, Russia becomes entirely reduced to Russian politics, as if there is nothing more to this country.

Real, modern Russia is far removed from Western expectations. First and foremost, Russia is not the reincarnation of the Soviet Union. Agreed, Russia was undoubtedly the ‘favourite child’ of her Soviet father, and accordingly became its natural heir. Yet this child has long rebelled against her father’s ideals. The phrase, ‘It’s not a phase Mum, it’s the real me’ has never seen more pertinent. Russia today is a land of contrasts. Haunting apartment blocks, an exquisite Moscow metro, street names and a certain mentality are constant reminders of the collective Soviet memory. Yet they are juxtaposed against a backdrop of Starbucks, McDonalds, Zara, and city centres that seem more reminiscent of modern day Europe than of a Soviet city. This entwinement of past and present, socialism and capitalism, seems embedded in every street and boulevard. Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities epitomise a developed and forward-looking metropolis, which can offer a life of comfort to rival that offered by the West. Much like the West, Russia is plagued by vast social inequalities, especially in wealth. Enormous estates housing the Russian elite stand across from deteriorating wooden homes, hand-built by our great-grandparents during the early years of the Soviet state.  Finally, the mentality of the Russian person is also rapidly changing. The values of community and hard work that were held so dearly by our Soviet grandparents now seem foreign and out of place, and are in the process of replacement by a capitalist mindset. In fact, Russia today seems much more akin to a Western, capitalist state than to a linear continuation of the Soviet Union. In the words of Maya Angelou, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike”.

We need to rethink our approach to Russia, and to Russian people. Russian people are not Russian politics nor are they the Soviet man reborn. It is about time that we not only demarcate Russian people from Russian politics, but also that we become acquainted with Russia in a non-political way. We need to embrace the richness of culture and the beauty of nature offered by Mother Russia, alongside the sheer kindness and hospitality of Russian people. To manipulate the words of Martin Luther King Jr: I have a dream that we will one day live in a society where people are judged not by the politics of their country, but by the content of their character.

Varria Vassilieva