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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  • Komodo

    “Maybe if we hadn’t been so busy keeping our eye on those other three hundred million people, we would have noticed that this one guy who was working right under our noses was up to something totally fishy,”


    Update on Snowden’s position -he’s

    (1) Safely in Cuba, having been the pilot on the Aeroflot flight taking the world’s thirstiest journalists on a 12-hour alcohol-free trip to a subtropical airport where they only speak Spanish, and, presumably, back.
    (2) On his way to Iceland in a submarine.
    (3) Still in Hong Kong. Or maybe Beijing.
    (4) Still a guest of the FSB, who are very interested in what he has to say.
    (5) Merely one character in Obama’s worst nightmare to date.

  • Flaming June

    This from one of the dregs of humanity who pushed for B.Liar’s war on Iraq so we know the provenance here.

    Edward Snowden shouldn’t play the coward

    Nick Cohen 24 June 2013 13:17

    ‘If you run, you look like a coward. It may be that you have good reason to be cowardly. It may be that anyone else in your position would run as far and fast as you do. There is nothing wrong with taking the cowardly course, unless like Edward Snowden, you claim to be engaged in civil disobedience.’


  • Flaming June

    The comments are nearly all anti what Cohen said. I approve of this one.

    Toffer99 • a day ago −

    Why didn’t Snowden hand himself in? Because the United States tortures whistleblowers before their trial.
    At least that’s what the UN Special Rapporteur on torture thinks. Knowing that, would you hand yourself in, Mr Cohen. And you have the gall to call it “playing the coward”. Go and join David Gregory. You’ll get on well with the likes of him.

  • OldMark

    ‘now probably the worlds biggest mafia state run by as Alexi Navalny describes them the party of crooks and thieves.’

    A statement equally valid in the mid 90s, when the oligarchs were gunning each other down with such regularity that Al Capone’s Chicago looked like a Mothers Union jumble sale in comparison. They were also buying Yeltsin’s re-election for a second term, in a corrupt charade that was probably worse than the one that saw Putin re-elected in 2012. Stangely, the NGOs and western diplomats were rather muted in their criticisms of these shenanigans back then- certainly when compared with the volume of obluquy that Putin has attracted recently. I wonder why ?

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Let’s face it, Snowden is probably in North Korea.

    A most easy, common flight from HK.

    Would certainly make its alleged bad boy, a most helpful ally of China and Russia now.

    Makes Washington look like the total idiot it is.

  • Habbabkuk (La vita è bella!)

    @ The CE

    They do a natty line of specs in North Korea though. So perhaps Trowbridge is right for once?

  • Chris2

    “In these circumstances there wasn’t much difference between “the occupied states of the Eastern bloc” and colonial territories.”

    Except, of course, that most of the East European countries enjoyed higher living standards than the Soviet metropole. I contrast the Latin American nations effectively ‘occupied’ by the USA conformed to the traditional pattern in which the periphery of empire is bled copiously by the metropole.

    One of the more fascinating aspects of the encirclement of Asia was the way in which Russia and the USA were both racing to the Pacific, pushing aside older polities, and expanding their empires at the same time. They met, briefly in Alaska and California.

    An interesting counterfactual game is to imagine US Russian relations absent the October Revolution: it is very likely that the rivalry between two great continental powers would have been no less intense than the long “cold” war from 1917 onwards. Indeed the current propaganda against Putin suggests that the question of communism made little difference, Marx after all hated Russia (‘that power whose head is in Moscow and whose hand is in every Cabinet in Europe’). Substitute Washington for Moscow and you’ve got NATO in 2013.

  • Mark Golding - Children of Conflict

    “..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.”

    Powerful words from Craig thank-you. I am reminded of a story by a family member, a Russian interpreter, in the crew of HMS Orpheus and a suggestion by research professor Ola Tunander in his book on the Baltic Cold War, that Mrs Thatcher ordered the Royal Navy to land Special Boat Service(SBS) frogmen on the coast of Sweden from British submarines pretending to be Soviet vessels.

    The deception involved numerous incursions by British forces into Swedish territorial waters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, designed to heighten the impression around the world of the Soviet Union as an aggressive superpower.

    If anyone here would like further information please contact me.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Sorry, Mark Golding, but you left out when the most dangerous ones occurred – i. e., right after the Palme assassination to give substance to the claim that the Soviets did it, and were talking advantage of it.

    Tunander has always been quite careful about implicating Thatcher and Reagan’s Iran-Contra plotters – especially Oliver North who helped get Major David Walker’s KMS, Ltd. to find the hitman to do it, and Navy Secretary John Lehman, Jr.’s attack submarines sinking the Soviet boomers when they went on station to contend with the surprise in Stockholm – for fear that he might be killed too.

    The AngloAmerican plotters had taken advantage in spades of all the paranoia that they had helped create in Sweden about Soviet motives, and it was only thanks to the spying and counter measures that Putin had taken from Dresden that almost everyone living then wasn’t incinerated in a surprise nuclear war.

    Only about a dozen double agents, a few more Norwegian engineers, and several suspects and informants, along with the stats minister, died in the utter fiasco.

  • Anon


    Of course buffer over-runs don’t simply result in privilege escalation. The team spent many hours trashing things (mainly the radio) as they experimented. However they eventually found numerous exploits which they reliably “weaponised” (there words).

    As to gaining control of the car they did not need physical access to the electronics. Blue tooth pairing could be brute forced by an Android phone near or in the car in a few hours. The pairing was done in such a way it would not be displayed by the car to the driver. Once the pairing had been achieved once you could instantly re-pair with the already known key any time the car was within about 100 metres in the open. They also demonstrated how they could dial into the car remotely over the cellphone network and compromise the fall back 2G modem in such a way that they could upload code of their choice to the Telematics control unit.

    Then there was the undocumented ability of the car hi-fi unit to reflash the Telematics firmware with no user intervention simply by inserting a doctored CD. That was topped when they found vulnerabilities in the MP3 player. They could create an audio file which played normally on a PC but reprogrammd the Telematics unit when played in the car.

    Bottom line is that the car control systems were a mass. It wasn’t just the odd vulnerability they found – they were everywhere they looked.

    At the Q&A at the end someone asked if they could post the code to slam the brakes on a car tailgating behind you. That was possible but you’d have to code it yourself they said.

    There was never any need to connect a separate radio receiver to the bus as they could compromise the cellular and bluetooth stacks built into the car and gain root access to the operating system by multiple methods.

  • Anon

    exploits which they reliably “weaponised” (there words).

    “(their words)” obviously I meant.

  • Anon

    The particular OS the car was running?

    QNX (/ˌkjuː ˌɛn ˈɛks/ or /ˈkjuːnɨks/) is a commercial Unix-like real-time operating system, aimed primarily at the embedded systems market. The product was originally developed by Canadian company QNX Software Systems, which was later acquired by BlackBerry.

  • Abe Rene

    Very odd. Why should Putin do that? I would have thought he was too high up to be a party to a disinformation campaign, to say tomorrow, when Snowden’s safely ensconced in a South American hammock, ‘Sorry, that was my advice at the time :)’ (KGB trained smile)

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Suhayl Saadi

    You said
    “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.”


    I think you misunderstand notion of expanding communism outside of soviet border that drove Stalin (and Lenin before him). There are number of documents that were made public during Yeltsin’s presidency supporting the fact of planned Soviet invasion to Europe in mid of 1940th. There are some documents that confirm that Nazi invasion to USSR was poorly planned and rushed and was preventive as not to allow soviets to build up military power. Nazi fear was confirmed as for USSR (under occupation) it took only 1.5 years to suppress Germany in military power (tanks, airplanes etc) and further Soviet losses were due to Stalin’s purges that left Red Army without capable officers. Even with officers rushed through military academies Red Army was able to stand grounds and not let Nazi further after mid of 1943. By the end of the WWII Red Army was the most militarily equipped army in the world (excluding Nuclear) which Stalin and his gang worked hard to steal from the US.

    So I do not share your opinion of calling Red Army resistance army especially considering that this army was under command of Joseph Stalin. The man who dreamed of empire and of expansion of his power well beyond borders of Russian Empire.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Trowbridge H. Ford

    It is very naive to blame Gorbachev in collapse of USSR. Like many other empires it collapsed of mostly economic reasons and of decades of neglect and mismanagements under Brezhnev. Reforms Gorbachev introduced and his leadership helped for this collapse to take place comparatively peacefully, although some bloody conflicts broke out all over USSR. It might be argued that if Andropov was Soviet leader in the end of 1980th USSR might have lasted for few more years but its break up would have been much bloodier.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Don’s think that it was naive of Gorbachev to preside over the collapse as Part Chairman until the very end

    Just made sure that some hardliner, like former KGB chairman Kryuchkov, could not stop it, and had to resort to a failed coup in the end.

    Why don’t you do something useful instead, like helping get rid of your country’s butcher? You sound more like one of his convenient servants in the UK.

    See that Putin continues to manage Snowden’s escape well. Now he can go on to Pyongyang without leaving a clue. Much better than going there directly from HK.

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Mark Golding

    Deception was on both sides. Although Soviets were more into carefully collecting important information thanks to (comparatively) liberal western societies. KGB penetration of number of research institutes in Europe and US and ability to collect information was (after the end of Cold war) admired by CIA and MI6. Where KGB failed was ability to analyse the information which in turn prevented Soviet leadership from making right decisions (invasion to Afghanistan one example of clear miscalculation).

    And then add here this. By 1989 USSR had the most powerful army in the world (land forces excluding Navy). In Germany alone Soviets had over 250.000 strong force equipped enough to sustain at least 20 days of heavy fighting and this is not to mention that Soviets had more nuclear that all other nuclear nations combined (including US).

    How is that for weaker party?

  • Uzbek in the UK

    Trowbridge H. Ford

    Please do not give me lessons about life. Especially as you are not aware of conditions that keep me here (in the UK).

    As said earlier no hardliner could extend USSR for more than few years (2-5). But the collapse in 1993-1996 would have been much bloodier and more economically disastrous. Although Yeltsin seems for many as a guys who played his cards right on the Soviet coffin, but he managed to keep Russia in the Russian Soviet Federation borders something that would not have been possible if USSR collapsed later.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Will give you whatever lesson I see fit, especially since you are trying to get Mark Golding away from how the UK-USA would have gotten us all incinerated, if they had had their way, after the assassination in Stockholm.

    The Brits were flying blind into the confrontation, not knowing that the Soviets had 82 SS-23 nuclear-armed missiles under the command of hawk Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, and if Putin had ever blown the whistle, we all would have beeb toast!

  • Flaming June

    They (and you know who they are) didn’t like Leviev being mentioned on the following post about Mandela although as I see it, the connections to the ANC’s activities in the CAR propping up the extraction of gold and diamonds with its high cost in miners’ lives is obvious.

    Leviev is a leading producer and retailer of diamonds amongst the activities of his company, Africa Israel Industries. He comes from Uzbekistan. This article suggests that Israel is looking eastwards to the Central Asian region for new connections.

    ‘Laruelle also suggests that Tel Aviv’s “leading means of influence” would be person-to-person contacts, including those already established through Central Asian/Israeli oligarchs that apparently have the ear of the political elite in the region.

    The so-called “king of diamonds” in Israel, Lev Leviev, is a native of Uzbekistan and is president of the World Congress of the Community of Bukharan Jews. He is personally acquainted with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and is an indispensable ally for anyone wanting to establish themselves in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has at its disposal several significant connections to the Israeli business and public affairs communities via the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs and the founder and leader of the radical right party Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, who has been campaigning for stronger ties to Central Asia, particularly to Tashkent, since the 1990s.#

    Israel and the Great Game
    By Jeremy Druker + July 25th, 2012

  • Suhayl Saadi

    “By 1989 USSR had the most powerful army in the world (land forces excluding Navy).” Uzbek-in-the-UK.

    It was huge, certainly.

    Yet by 1989, it had been roundly defeated and demoralised in Afghanistan, its ordnance consistently had been exaggerated by both its own state and those of its opponents and the USSR was economically, ideologically and politically non-viable. The country could no longer support such a large defence infrastructure. Numbers on paper are not everything.

    Stalin may have dreamed of this or that but was it not he, above all, who decided to implement and follow-through on ‘socialism in one country’, as opposed to global revolution?

    Did the USSR not fear re-invasion above all else and was most of their foreign policy not directed primarily at preventing that. They would support communist parties in the West only to the extent that those parties would not, and could not, actually take power. None of this was because the USSR was good or bad and it really had nothing to do with ideology. Apart from the usual desire of all elites to maintain themselves in power, it was because the over-arching strategic goal of successive leaders of the USSR was to prevent another invasion of its territory. Its policy towards eastern Europe was driven by that imperative.

    And yes, Macky, a ‘resistance army’ (or whatever term one wants to use for forces scattered by, and falling back from, the rapid German advance across thousands of miles of Soviet territory) can bounce back and achieve many things. The natural, geographical and human reserves of the USSR were enormous and once Stalin finally, belatedly, allowed his generals to do what they thought would be effective, the whole course of the war began to turn. The Eastern Front was the bloodiest of WW2 and was its key determinant. The Manchuria campaigns were fought in the 1920s and 1930s. And the USSR’s last invasion of Manchuria occurred in the very last weeks of WW2; Japan was unable to hold the line, its war was imploding. This was Stalin trying to get in on the act/trying, as I suggested, to leverage post-war Soviet presence in Japan. He failed in that aim.

  • Habbabkuk (La vita è bella!)

    @ Trowbridge Ford

    “Why don’t you do something useful instead, like helping get rid of your country’s butcher? You sound more like one of his convenient servants in the UK”


    Well, I for one feel that he is doing something useful here.

    Certainly a damn sight more useful that what you are doing, which is boring us to tears with your delusional and self-centered consporacy theories.

    For God’s sake go and infest another blog with your lunacy. You’re out of time on this one.

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