Russophobia 138

I am in Africa.  Edward Snowden seems to be doing a super job without me, so I have been working on my book and not burdening you with superfluous comment.

I have written this today which is too much of a digression and almost certainly will get cut out of the book, and is in any case a first draft.  But I thought it was quite interesting – and does bear tangentially on Mr Snowden.

We need at this stage to step back and take a look at the wider context in which Burnes was operating, and particularly the question of how British and Russian Imperial expansion threatened to drive the two powers into conflict to the north of the Indian sub-continent.

British people, myself included, have to concentrate their intellectual resources to get a clear conceptualisation of the Russian Empire, which can be obscured from our view by a number of factors.

Firstly, from our own history and geography, we think of colonies as something reached exclusively by ship.  The idea that colonies can be a contiguous land mass with the metropolitan, yet still in effect colonies, is not a pre-received idea for us. Russia’s absorption of the entirely alien cultures of the vast Centre, Siberian belt, North and North-west of Asia was undoubtedly a massive colonial expansion.  Working in Central Asia today, for example, political societal and economic developments could only be understood as a post-colonial situation.  Crucially, the broad mass of people were themselves entirely of the view that they were former colonised1, returned to independence.  But I found a great many western and particularly British officials had much trouble with the concept. 

Secondly, the transmutation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union confused the issue, in bringing a spurious equality to the different Soviet Socialist Republics.  In particular, this brought members of the political elite from the Asian areas within reach of holding political power at the centre. But that is not at all unusual for the history of Empires in general, particular as they mature.  The economic relationships within the Soviet Union, with the Asian regions very much operating as primarily exporters of raw commodity or goods with little value added, followed a well-worn colonial pattern even if operated by central planning rather than overt capitalism.  But many, looking at the Soviet Union itself (not including the occupied states of the Eastern bloc) did not realise the Soviet Union in itself was an Empire incorporating colonial structures.

Thirdly, particularly for those brought up like myself during the Cold War, the Russians were distant and feared figures and not perceived as altogether European.  In fact, the Russian conquest of the whole of the North and heart of Asia was a simultaneous part of an almost complete encirclement of Asia by Europeans from the late eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century, which included of course the occupation of United States Europeans of the American Pacific Rim, and of Australia, New Zealand, East Africa, much of South East Asia and India by the British and occasionally others.  Russian and British expansion into Asia were part of the exact same process, except the British often did not see it:

A long liberal tradition took a sceptical view of Russia’s European credentials, seeing Tsarist Russia as as “Asiatic despotism” too crude and too poor to be “one of us”…A more realistic view would see Russia, like Spain or the Hapsburg Empire, as one of the frontier states that played a vanguard role in Europe’s expansion…behind Russia’s expansion was in fact its European identity…the economic energy that flowed from Russia’s integration into the European economy; and the intellectual access that Russians enjoyed, from the sixteenth century onward, to the general pool of European ideas and culture.  Russians, like other Europeans, claimed their conquests as a “civilizing mission.”2

Britain’s claim that Russia was excluded from the “civilizing mission” of Empire because it was a despotism, when British officials were arbitrarily blowing resisting Indians into many pieces from the muzzles of cannon while practising unabashed despotism in India, is something those of my age and older were educated not to question.  The notion that the culture of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tchaikovsky is not European is self-evidently wrong.  I found that walking around the 19th century Russian cantonments of Margilan in the Ferghana Valley, with its beautiful little theatre for amateur dramatics, its racecourse and mess hall, the architecture could have been a British hill station. It even has its Freemasons’ Lodge.

So Russia and Britain were indeed expanding their colonial possessions in Asia, and their boundaries were pushing ever closer towards each other.  They were both part of the same historical process, and as a non-determinist I find it difficult to explain why in each case the expansion very often went ahead against the express wishes of the metropolitan authorities, but that takes us too far away from Alexander. 

The Russophobes therefore were not talking absolute nonsense.  Nobody knew how far North-west the British might push and how far South-east the Russians.  Nor was it physically impossible for a Russian army to invade India through Afghanistan and/or Persia.  Babur, Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah had all done that. The logistics were difficult, but not impossible.

Where the Russophobes got it seriously wrong was their political analysis.  A successful Russian invasion of India would have taken enormous resources and been a massive strain on the Russian state, and would certainly have precipitated a major European war.  Russia’s economy was still recovering from Napoleonic devastation.  Her foreign policy priorities were focused on the richer and more central lands of the Mediterranean and Caspian. Russia’s desire to divest Persia and Ottoman Turkey of vast provinces and to become a Mediterranean power was the consuming passion of the Tsar’s ministers, and Nesselrode in particular.  Bringing Central Asia into play may occasionally be a useful bargaining chip with Britain, but was never more than that. 

It is a peculiar fact that for two hundred years, fear of an attack by Russia has been a major factor in British foreign and above all defence policy, and was for much of my lifetime the factor that outweighed all others.  Vast sums of the nation’s money have been squandered on guarding against this illusory threat, and that is still the unacknowledged purpose of the ruinously expensive and entirely redundant Trident missile system today.  Yet on any rational analysis, Russia has never had any incentive to attack the United Kingdom, and never has remotely intended to attack the United Kingdom.  However an awful lot of arms manufacturers and salesmen have become exceedingly wealthy, as have an awful lot of politicians, while the military have had pleasant careers. 

British Russophobia is an enduring historical fact.  Navigating his path around it was now a key problem for Alexander Burnes in 1833

1 Olivier Roy, The Creation of Nations, pp87-9

2 John Darwin, After Tamerlane, p.21

138 thoughts on “Russophobia

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  • Suhayl Saadi

    All true, Craig. Good post.

    I find it sad, though, that modern Russia is a gangster state, efficient only in the instruments of oppression and deeply corrupt to, and beyond, the point of national debility. It is a state run, really, by very clever ex-KGB hoods epitomised by Putin, who appointed them to key positions. It didn’t have to be that way.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    And of course, the bloody irony is that it is Russia that has been invaded, repeatedly so, from all sides. This (for Russia, historically rational) fear of invasion was and is a major plank in Soviet/Russian foreign policy. I think that during the course of the C20th and C21st (especially US) policymakers repeatedly have failed to comprehend this basic fact.

  • guano

    It seems as though the former Soviet threat can still used to justify unjustifeied war in Syria. Israel cannot grab Syria without demolishing its peace. UKUSIS are selling this destruction in the name of pushing back the evil forces of Russia and building an economic highway from London to Pakistan. There is no need for this highway because the Middle East can buy everything it wants from China etc. The only purpose of the Syrian civil war is for Israel to expand its reach.

  • John Goss

    My knowledge of Anglo-Russian and Anglo-Soviet relations cover periods either too early or too late though broadly I agree. I especially think that the perceived Soviet threat was “illusory” and the Russian empire was fortified on the strength of British arms-trade prior to and at the turn of the 19th century. Charles Gascoigne was given shares in Carron, a Scottish company, by his father-in-law, Samuel Garbett, a Birmingham businessman and advisor to Matthew Boulton (though Garbett was declared bankrupt in 1782 and remained so until his death in 1802). The British government supplied Catherine the Great with cannons, Carronades, as they were called, and Gascoigne (Карл Гаскойн to the Russians) built munitions factories in the Russian empire. Gascoigne died in 1806 having lived in Russia for 20 years and the Carron factory continued to supply weapons at home and abroad, including to America. It became the largest iron-works in Europe and its metaphorical transition from swords into ploughshares came after Anthony Trollope introduced the postal pillar box. So in part we were responsible for supporting the Russian Empire.

    For further reading on Garbett and Gascoigne see John M. Norris, ‘The Struggle for Carron, Samuel Garbett and Charles Gascoigne‘, in The Scottish Historical Review, 37 (1958), 136-145.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Guano, the purposes (they are not singular) of the Syrian (and Libyan, and Iraqi) wars are firstly, to establish/extend NATO/Western military hegemony over the key geopolitical source of fossil fuels. Secondly, to limit Chinese/Russian power in Eurasia. Thirdly, this creation of new realities also is being driven by the Saudi-UAE axis of simple, totalitarian ‘chamcha’ greed and underlying geostrategic and ideological hatred of Iran. The varrying success of these goals, which while driving against a common foe (basically, local totalitarian nationalism), sometimes compete with one another, is the result of the unpredictability of war (eg. Iraq’s relationship with Iran, Iran’s power in Iraq, etc.).

  • Cryptonym

    I sense a rapprochement with the idea of Europeanised Russia, or with Rusified Europe, compared with that alarmist anti-Russian tone apparent when discussing in another article by yourself some time ago, an alarmist look at Russia’s stranglehold on gas supplies and our increasing dependence on that fuel source.

    I had always felt that the creation of Pakistan, apart from the people there’s desire for it was facilitated so easily by the retrenching British Empire, for exactly that lingering Russophobic fear, as Pakistan’s people would fight and give their lives if necessary to protect their Pakistan from any encroachment by Russia from Afghanistan, and in the process protect, provide a buffer for India proper. This did not account fully for the links of kith and kin, history and trade between what became north Pakistan and parts of southern Afghanistan. Point being that Afghanistan was always seen as entirely sacrificial, far less than Pakistan, and India not at all, and thus Afghanistan was in effect ceded to Russian influence, with a shrug and most were content, until the US began meddling, cluelessly, militarising the region by the late seventies, forcing overt Russian miltary intervention, where previously Russian involvement had mainly been of the civilising, educating, ‘good’ imperialism the British are so good at claiming as their own sole interest in Empire.

    This book will be an interesting read, particularly if it looks from a modern day perspective – after the straight history from contemporary and empirical evidence – at how events then had lasting consequences, with the imperial mindset of the day lingering long after Burnes’ heyday and short eventful life. I think the nearest a Russian invasion ever came, in physical distance of Britain itself, than some outpost of empire, was in the period after Stalingrad and before, even slightly beyond D-day, when the Soviet Union’s armies could have left Germany festering and made a dash for the channel. A fear that must have exercised the minds of Britain and the US, and was almost a certainty if the Normandy landings went too badly wrong.

  • Anon

    Aeroflot flight AFL150 just about to enter US airspace in next 15 mins near Cleveland, Ohio. Then a sight-seeing tour over the USA on the way to Havana it seems. RT Moscow still suggesting he might b hidden on board. They would love to report on the US forcing it to land of course!

  • Tournesol

    Craig do you think that William Russell’s dispatches from the Crimean War were also Russophobe in nature?

  • Anon

    Aeroflot flight now in US airspace at 34,000 feet. Oh to know if he is on-board or not.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Cryptonym, in 1944/45, the USSR was in no position to mount an invasion and occupation of western Europe. Their hold on eastern Europe at that time was fragile and partial and it only intensified into solid police/army state control in the years following the end of WW2. The leaders of the USSR really feared an invasion by Japan in cahoots with the Western powers (one theory of why the atom bombs were dropped at that point is that the USA wanted to send the USSR a strong signal to watch out or else and to indicate that they would have no part in a post-war Japan; Stalin thought he would have a part to play in Japan, with occupying Allied troops, etc. as in central Europe – like Austria, say) and in fact the USSR had fought against Japan in Manchuria several years earlier.

    The USSR had been laid waste by WW2 with 20 million dead and the scorched earth policy leaving vast areas barren. China was in turmoil, with no single dominant force until 1949. The West – esp. the USA – had a very inflated idea of Soviet power, both then and subsequently and of course Stalin and his successors were happy to pander to that by inflating their own image. But really, at the point when the USA assumed global dominance with the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, the USSR was wrecked and exhausted and needed rebuilt. The Red Army at that point was a resistance army.

  • The CE

    Given Russia’s history, Russophobia seems an entirely healthy state of mind Craig.

    And one which is correctly present throughout democratic Eastern Europe.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    The other thing is, unlike on the early 2000s, Russia no longer a gas monopoly on Europe. Gas comes on tankers from anywhere and the new methods of extracting it have lessened energy reliance on Russia.

    Now, to get really paranoid and Smiley-esque, what do people think about the sleeper agents which Russia sends to the West? They no longer need to assume false identities, the IDs of dead babies from long ago, they can simply be themselves (and still engage in spying). of course, everybody spies on everybody. But it’s far easier for Russia to send people the West and for them to meld with what is already a polyglot society than it might be, the other way round.

    Also, the KGB and its successor bodies have had many decades of expertise in these fields. Do not be fooled by the tales of incompetance of the 12 spies caught in the US spy scandal in 2010. Chapman was not of high espionage calibre, but some of the others were much better, eg. ‘Donald Heathfield’. It is in the interests of the West to try to portray them as having been numpties, but we do not know really what information they managed to pass on thorugh the long years of being ‘illegals’.

    Maybe, though, spies fulfill a necessary function in relation to the distribution of power.

    Now, let me get my blonde wig…

  • Suhayl Saadi

    “Aeroflot flight now in US airspace at 34,000 feet. Oh to know if he is on-board or not.” Anon.

    Anon, here you sound a little like a female protagonist from a Jane Austen novel.


  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Think you will have to revise your opinion of Palmerston, the biggest promoter of hating the Russians.

    In my biography of Lord Brougham over the merits of the Austrian empire, especially the introduction of Russian troops to stabilize it during the revolutions of 1848, seems Pam was all for recognizing Louis Napoleon, and supporting the revolutionaries everywhere but in France.

    Pam won the most inconsistent arguments, getting the new French emperor to join in giving the Czar a bloody nose in the Crimea.

    The Brits never got over how hard it was, given their own incompetence in handling the war.

  • Anon

    Suhayl Saadi

    I’ve been called worse 🙂

    That Russian plane is just about to overfly CNN headquarters in Atlanta. If CNN point the cameras on the roof straight up they should get a good view. Wacky flight plan.

  • Richard

    A very interesting piece of writing. I am given to understand that the Kievan Rus were (or eventually became) far more integrated into Western Europe than later, post Mongol, versions of Russia. Perhaps sometime you could comment on the truth or otherwise of that and how it was that Muscovy came to be seen as so “other” – as not quite European. But I remember even before the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union (the ’70s or ’80s, I think) Enoch Powell opining that Russia was Britain’s natural ally and that the U.S.A. wasn’t. I have no idea what he meant by that, or why “we” should have “natural allies” (to me it implies the existence of natural enemies, which sounds absurd). But you are a trained diplomat. If you could ever find time to enlighten a naïve ignoramus like me, I would certainly appreciate it.

  • Habbabkuk (La vita è bella!)

    Well said, The CE.

    I would offer a thought (well, a mini-thoughtand surely not original) : the dividing line in terms of mentality, political and social tolerance and the spread of democratic ideas should perhaps not to be seen in purely geographical terms (“East”-“West” etc) but rather in terms of where the Enlightenment and its ideas took root in the body politic (rulers and the ruled)and where not or only to a slight extent.
    And perhaps the Orthodox Church (and certain other religions) had their part to play in this.
    I speak, of course, as a good Catholic boy (or girl).

  • Ed Davies

    OT but sort-of relevant to the circumstances: just starting on BBC 4, Storyville program on Ghana oil.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    And you are totally wrong, Suhaly Saadi, in claiming that the Russians are constantly sending sleeper agents to the West, as the Manhattan 11 demonstrated.

    They were a creation of the Russian-hating Agency, as we will apparently see in the Snowden case since he, like Gareth Williams, became an even more helpful spy to Moscow because of the wild plots that Washington’s so-called counter terrorists were cooking up at Moscow’s expense.

    NSA and Britain’s GCHQ have never gotten over how Putin frustrated their planned non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War at Palme’s expense.

  • roger

    “The notion that the culture of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tchaikovsky is not European is self-evidently wrong. ”
    However, it was a different kind of Europeanism, especially among the pan-Slavs like Dostoevsky, who thought that “Slavs” ought to recognise the sttributes they shared with Russia, welcome Russification and be Russified whether they welcomed it or not. After WWII the U.S.S.R. took a similar attitude to Eastern Europe. In these circumstances there wasn’t much difference between “the occupied states of the Eastern bloc” and colonial territories.

  • Foostory

    Does your study of Anglo / Russian relations in Asia involve any consideration of Tibet, or did Tibet only come into focus and form part of the Great Game later on? I only ask as I would like to read more about Anglo / Russian involvement in Tibet prior to the husband expedition.

  • Flaming June

    Brilliant piece. Thanks Craig. I grew up in an atmosphere where a fear of Russian nuclear bombs was being thrust down our throats. Luckily we had a father who thought for himself and informed us accordingly.

    Craig’s paragraph before the final sentence says it all.


    Hope that the foot is much improved.

    Someone else is experiencing trouble with one of his. Our Minister for Immigration has been having fun in Soho until it all went wrong. Mustn’t laugh.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    “I speak, of course, as a good Catholic boy (or girl).” Habbabkuk, 10:06pm, 24.6.13.

    Cue high heels, leather whip, dog collar and blond(e) wig? Or perhaps, as a kid, I watched too much Dave Allen.

    Trowbridge (11:10pm, 24.6.13). Well, maybe. But the KGB and later, the SVR (the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service), seem quite happy to boast of their exploits and honour their spies with medals, cushy jobs and so on. It’s not as though they’re accusing the CIA, the SIS et al of maligning them wrt sleepers. The ex-sleepers themselves sometimes also boast of their own exploits. Sure, ‘The Russians are Coming!’ threat was ramped-up and continues to be. But sleepers existed, and continue to do so, and reperesent a very interesting are of study, it seems to me.

  • Iain Orr


    Thank you for a post which resonated particularly strongly because I had just been reading a Spectator review by Peter Conradi of “The Dostoevsky Archive” by Peter Skirin which included the following passage (note the third sentence):

    “Dostoevsky’s life was even weirder than his fiction. He was born in 1821, the son of a surgeon whom he believed to have been killed by his own serfs. He was often poor, and so he is the only great Russian writer of his generation whose first language was Russian rather than French: there was no money for the requisite governess. After writing the sentimental Poor Folk (1845), he joined the socialist Petrashevsky’s circle, was arrested and spent six months in solitary. On 22 December 1849 he and others were given long peasant blouses as shrouds and condemned to death by firing squad.”

    There is another, strangely contrasting, example of continental Eurasian imperialism in East Asia. There, the pattern was often of the coloniser – Mongol or Manchu – being absorbed by Chinese Confucian culture; or of the culture’s soft power radiating, without political hegemony, to Japan, Korea and Annam. Tibet cuts both ways; and it is insufficiently appreciated how much Mao’s China became set against the Tibetans by the problems the Red Army met on its Long March through hostile Tibetan borderlands.

    Navies supported British, French, Spanish and Portuguese imperialism; armies and surveyors were the backbone of Russian, Chinese, Ottoman, Mughal (and continental French)empire-building.

    Guano will, I hope concur that a distinctive element of USA imperialism has been bird-shit. See Jimmy M. Skaggs “The Great Guano Rush – Entrepreneurs and American Overseas Expansion” Macmillan, 1994

  • The CE

    Try asking people from Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Poland or many other countries a little bit closer to the old Iron Curtain than the UK is about the imaginary Russian threat.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Yes, that’s right, CE (11:44pm). I mean to some extent, it’s simply a geopolitical and historical reality. To recognise this is not ‘Russophobic’ and more than recognising British/French/US, etc. imperialism is phobic in relation to those countries/empires.

    My father-in-law, who died in 2010, was in the ‘Communist Camp’ (as it was known in those days), specifically, the ‘Chinese Camp’ and as a poet and poliical activsit, he socialised with lots of diplomats from the Warsaw Pact Eastern Bloc and China, as a physician, looked after their children and so on. People are people. His best pal, the port and journalist, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was awarded the Star of Lenin. I’m not Russophobic. But reality is reality is reality.

  • OldMark

    Excellent post. Russia’s ruthless expansion eastwards, with Cossacks often in the vanguard, mirrors in many respects America’s ruthless expansion westwards (an idea floated in several of Philip Longworth’s scholarly but accessible books).

    The Russophobia we were routinely exposed to during the cold war may have been encouraged by the western elites, but the savagery displayed by the victorious Red Army against the retreating German citizenry from East Prussia onwards,the wasteland that was built by the USSR on these ruins in what became the Kaliningrad oblast, and the looting of Poland’s heavy industries in ’45-46, are all reminders of a poisonous legacy that Putin still refuses to repudiate. Given these events, the persistence of Russophobia in all the non orthodox territories of eastern Europe is hardly surprising. Radio Free Europe may have been a crass propaganda outlet, but it was beamed into receptive ears, thanks to the actions of Stalin and his successors.

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