Russia and the West’s tense relationship explained

Journalist and historian James Pearce explores some of the myths surrounding Russia. Is it true that Russians don’t like Westerners? If not, where does this idea come from?


Why is our relationship with Russia so tense?

The communist flag. Russia was once under the rule of Communism

Communism; all are equal…ish

Russia was once a country under the banner of Communism.

Communism is a political system where (in theory at least) all means of production are owned by the community rather than by individuals.

Russia was known to the world as ‘the Soviet Union’ or ‘USSR’ (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The revolution of October 1917 created a new kind of system which strived to create a communist state (by implementing the ideas of philosopher Karl Marx) in Russia. Before this point Russia was ruled for centuries as an autocracy by a ruling class called the Tsars.

The West (e.g. America, Britain and the rest of Europe) had adopted a system called Capitalism. This means trade, industry and the means of production are mostly privately owned and operated for profit.

Map showing the various sides and alliances in the cold war between Russia and the West

Cold War; in the red corner – Russia, vs. the West, in the blue corner

Because of these two different political ideas, Russia’s relationship with Western countries became strained. The West saw the Soviet Union as the true enemy to Western capitalism and civilisation.

As well as this initial reaction to the appearance of the Soviet Union, the post WWII world witnessed a nuclear arms race between America and Russia as a way of showing ideological superiority. The consequence of this was the staunch anti-Soviet rhetoric on one side in the West, and the anti-American policy complemented by strict censorship in the Soviet Union.

However, in Soviet times, the citizens would turn off the sound when images of America were shown on television. Ordinary people knew little about America and wanted the story beyond the anti-American propaganda of the Soviet government. Particularly in the 1980s when the incumbent leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began to allow more freedoms in the media with his policy of glasnost (openness).

Today, this situation has changed dramatically. A recent survey by Levada found that around 70% of Russians have a negative opinion of Americans. Many will recall a laser image on the U.S Embassy of president, Barack Obama, eating a banana. Such actions come about as a result of the bad press abroad, particularly in the U.S. With the continued negativity throughout the media is it any wonder? This is not to defend these actions, but this combined with the geopolitical tone towards Russia has sparked a new feeling of anti-Westernism in Russia.


What is the Western media saying about Russia?

Screenshot of the Guardian asking "Is Western media biased towards Russia?"

Is Western media biased towards Russia?

There is no Soviet Union anymore, but Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis has witnessed the return of negative stories about Russia in the Western press. However, the Russian press also produces negative stories about the West and these two prejudices play off one another.

EXPLORE: the Ukraine crisis, and how Russia is involved?

It’s an easy task to find headlines which adhere to the anti-Russian style, and doing so is also essential. As well as slamming Russia’s democratic record, the Western press has largely been focussing on Russia’s military capability, especially since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

For example, there was a copy of Time magazine which depicted Russian President Putin and the remains of flight MH17 in his shadow. MH17 was shot down in Ukraine, and there was speculation that Russia was involved. This has not been proved. That didn’t stop The Sun newspaper referring to downing of flight MH17 as ‘Putin’s Missile’ on its front page.

EXPLORE: the “annexation” of Crimea – did Russia steal a country

Obscene titles such as ‘Putin has Asperger’s’ or ‘Russians need to suffer to survive’ provide no real information about the situation, but do reveal the growing obsession with condemning Russia.

It is the belief of some, such as former CNN producer Danny Schechter, that the majority of Americans ‘completely trust’ their news channels. He told Russia Today “they don’t speak Russian and there is no background or context. As a result, they are willing to believe the worst”.


War Games

Russian military forces stand in front of a tank

War games; Russia’s military presence worries the West

Moscow has repeatedly denied claims of Russian troops being present in Ukraine and recently started developing new nuclear missiles and tanks.

According to Test Tube News, Russia has around 8,500 nuclear warheads, of which 1,800 are operational, and around 845,000 active troops. These missiles are only a deterrent, meaning any launch would result in the same amount of destruction in return. The troop size is actually one of their stronger points. Military funding in 2015 is expected to be at around $81 billion compared to the U.S’s $831 billion. Much of Russia’s army is also ill equipped with modern technology, yet they operate more tanks than the U.S.

President Obama has described Russia as only a ‘regional power’, something which still plays into the hands of the press. In an article for Russia! magazine, Mark Galeotti wrote that Russia’s military is ‘good enough to chew through Ukraine and Georgia, but not for more advanced purposes’.

This was enough justification for the West to send extra troops to the Russian border in Estonia and Latvia (also Poland). Stories about Crimea and Russian ‘volunteers’ fighting in Eastern Ukraine create the impression of an imminent Russian invasion.

Russia and the West; President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin sit awkwardly in silence

Tension, what tension?

In another example, the visit of former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras to Moscow caused panic. An article by Timothy Heritage for Reuters highlighted how realistic it would be for Greece to link up with Russia. Ties of culture and religion keep them closely acquainted and sympathisers to each other’s situation.

For months after the visit the press talked of Greece leaving the Eurozone and becoming a prospective member of BRICS (the countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, all deemed to be at a similar stage of new economic development). If this happened it could open a space for Russian business and military bases on the European continent.

By the press focusing on a fear of what Russia might do as opposed to why such a move may have suited Greece, it in turn showed Russia as a real threat to the national security of Western nations.

Regardless of Russia’s military capability, the belief of a dangerous Eastern neighbour exists. There is a clear anxiety shown in reports of Russian planes entering NATO member airspace or submarines just off shore. A visitor to my university, Chuck Snodgrass who worked in the U.S military and closely with the CIA, told us of the ‘Pearl Harbour Syndrome’ America has. The Western press echoes the American fears of being caught out again with their planes on the ground like in 1941.

This paranoia coupled with Russian planes entering UK airspace and their large nuclear arsenal creates a very tense situation with the potential to worsen. The nuclear of Russia arsenal leads the West in to thinking a war would be disastrous. This is an area where they cannot compete.


What do the Russians think?

LGBT activists were attacked during an action "Day of Kisses" against a homophobic bill that would prevent "non-traditional sexual relations propaganda among minors", aka the "gay propaganda ban" in front of the State Duma in Moscow, Russia. Москва. Акция активистов ЛГБТ сообщества "День Поцелуев" против приниятия гомофобного закона у ГосДумы в Москве закончилась избиениями активистов и задержаниями.

Russia has been criticised as being homophobic –  LGBT activists under attack in Moscow

On my first visit to Russia in 2013, I stayed with friends in their apartment in Southwest Moscow. As is the ‘done thing’ here, we started drinking in the kitchen and discussing politics. When America came up in conversation, my friend Svetlana said something I had never considered, yet perpetually do now. Specifically discussing Russia’s gay propaganda laws, she exclaimed:

“How can America lecture us on what to do and how to live, then justify going to war with everybody?!”

This viewpoint is similar to that of Russian film maker, Andron Konchalovskiy. Whilst discussing Russo-Western relations with Russia’s most famous journalist he said:

“It’s too bad we’re not blue, green or purple, because if we were, then the world would treat us differently […] The West expects us to act like they act. They go after us all the time. Do you know why? It’s because we look like them. If we looked different they’d get off our backs. Take the Chinese. Does the west ever go after them for not being democratic, for not living up to Western standards? No. And why not? Because the Chinese look different. I tell you, the problem is that we look like westerners, but in fact we’re not, we’re different”.

The feeling in Russia, by at large, is one of mistreatment. The population feel that their situation is not entirely understood, especially concerning Ukraine, a crisis with local roots. Despite Russia not being considered a part of the ‘civilised world since the time of the Mongol occupation, there is still a huge expectation among Western nations for Russia to play along. They look like westerners, but they are not. When Communism fell, the expectation was that Russia would change overnight and jump on the free market economics band wagon; it did not.

It is also possible that Russia does not understand America’s situation since both have little in common as nations; their histories have been completely different.

With regards to the UK, the reaction is mixed. 62% of Russians have a negative attitude towards to EU, although this merely scratches the surface. Since the Iraq War, many Russians see the Brits as the flag carrier of U.S foreign policy, which may explain the claim that the UK is becoming a ‘diplomatic irrelevance’.

The editor of The Moscow Times (Moscow’s English language newspaper), Nabi Abdullaev, wrote in The Guardian that the West’s bias ‘robs it of its moral authority’:

Russia's president Putin at an international summit

Enigma; the West wonder what Putin’s end game is

“Most western media cover the crisis in Ukraine mainly by concentrating on the Russian President’s cynicism and imperial ambitions. There is excellent field reporting from Ukraine in the western media, but they make only a modest part of the general message”

He also went on to say that covering key issues like the U.S’s intentions with Ukraine, Ukraine’s future government and Putin’s paranoia regarding NATO are rarely, if at all covered. For instance, most Crimeans welcomed their reincorporation to Russia, but the West focused on how illegal it was.

Indeed, the NATO paranoia is evident from the president to the people; to be portrayed as a threat and then encircled (and sanctioned) is something Russians view as unacceptable. Not least because Gorbachev was promised NATO would stay put after Germany’s reunification. Now NATO sits on Russia’s border. Having a president who stands up to the West and asserts Russia’s authority is the anecdote.  

Unlike Americans however, Russians do not appear to be fearful of a military conflict. Levada’s report this August showed Russians fear poverty more than a new war. Moreover, it revealed greater numbers of people feel stability inside the country compared with 2013.


Bias? If not, what’s happening?

Russia will always be a country which provokes a wide spectrum of views. Evidence usually makes people change their minds, although the line between facts and fiction appears to be blurred. Both sides claim a different truth with a lot of it left unsaid at either end. Without question, the West routinely downplays the Russian side of the story, but 90% of Russians receive their news from state run channels, and therefore also receive biased information.

After the Soviet Union became the new Russian Federation. Russia will not become a new, different kind of country until those who were born in the Russian Federation come to power and start controlling things. However, closing itself off to the West will also not improve the situation at home.


James is a Moscow based journalist and historian who also writes for The News Hub and Russia! magazine. Follow him on twitter @JamesPearce_101

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Is Russia really racist, homophobic and extremist?

The news tells us: Russia is racist and homophobic. Is this true – or is the Western media portraying Russia in a certain way?





Is Russia racist?

Racism is prejudice and/or discrimination against someone of a different race. It’s the belief that your own race is superior to others. A study by the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia found that around 70% of Russians hold negative feelings about people of another ethnicity.

Back in 2009 research by the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis found that the number of victims of racist attacks had actually dropped for the first time in six years. However, the centre stated that “xenophobic violence remains alarming in its scope and extends over most of the Russian regions, affecting hundreds of people.”

In recent years many articles in the media have expressed concern about an increase in racist activity in Russia. The most recent example gaining a lot of media attention related to a football game. Emmanuel Frimpong is a footballer from Ghana in Africa, who plays for Arsenal. Frimpong claims he heard racist chants and monkey noises when playing against the Russian team Spartak Moscow. Not cool.

This isn’t just an isolated incident. Anti-discrimination group the Fare Network released a report on racist activity in Russian football. They list 99 racist displays in Russian football from 2012 to 2014, and 21 incidents of violence linked to racism. The Fare Network say these figures are “far from exhaustive”. It adds that they can “only be indicative of a wider problem”. Meaning that in reality things are probably a lot worse.

Many people believe Russia should not be allowed to host the football World Cup in 2018 due to this recent racist behaviour. The obvious question: why are things so bad?


Russia is all “united” now, but against who?

Russia - Extremist, Homophobic and Racist. President Vladimir Putin with a gun

Russian nationalism: President Putin’s “macho” image is all about portraying a strong Russia

Russia’s President Putin leads the United Russia political party. When he came into power in 2000, the country was not in the best of places. It had suffered a financial crisis in 1998 when the Russian stock market collapsed. The Washington Post describes how Putin, facing opposition from other parties, needed “an ideology of power” to inspire the country.

This new ideology included the values of nationalism and patriotism. Basically: Russia is the best, and we are becoming stronger.

Patriot Park is a good example of this “pro-Russia” approach. It’s a “military Disney-land” where families can explore military vehicles and weapons. Yes, a theme park for Russian military strength. You can’t make this stuff up.

Extreme nationalism is sometimes described as a far-right ideology. Extreme racist views are also described this way. The Fare Network believes that the rise in racism can be linked to the spread of a new far-right ideology, found in Russian football supporters in the late 1990s. It’s worth saying that not all far-right ideas lead to racist activity.

According to the Fare Network “the situation inside [football] stadiums reflects societal developments coinciding in certain periods with rise in nationalist rhetoric of the government.”

What this means: racist behaviour is on the rise and this could have a link to increases in patriotic and nationalist language used by the government.

Putin’s nationalist language seems to be working. The Pew Research Centre reports that the percentage of Russians with a very favourable image of their own country has risen from 29% in 2013 to 63% today.

However, Putin’s nationalism may not be to blame for an intolerance of diversity. Historian and journalist James Pearce believes racist attacks across Russia could simply be a response to what Russians see as a failure to integrate into their society. “Russians are also still ‘adjusting’ to foreigners, many have never even met one.”



Is Russia homophobic?

LGBT activists were attacked during an action "Day of Kisses" against a homophobic bill that would prevent "non-traditional sexual relations propaganda among minors", aka the "gay propaganda ban" in front of the State Duma in Moscow, Russia.   Москва. Акция активистов ЛГБТ сообщества "День Поцелуев" против приниятия гомофобного закона у ГосДумы в Москве закончилась избиениями активистов и задержаниями.

Is Russia homophobic? LGBT activists under attack in Moscow

Homophobia is the hatred or fear of homosexuals.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia, yet many gay Russians hide their true sexuality. They fear what might happen if they’re discovered.

Polling company Levada Center discovered 37% percent of Russians think homosexuality is a disease which needs to be cured.

An article in GQ is just one of many which details violent attacks on members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. Gay pride rallies are often hijacked by extreme homophobic groups. It has also been reported that homophobic groups trick gay men into meeting for a date then film the torture of their victim and post the footage online.

When many people celebrated the legalisation of gay marriage in America by changing their online profile pictures to a rainbow flag, many Russian users changed their picture to the Russian national flag. The Russian version of SIRI, the iPhone personal assistant, got caught making homophobic comments. The “system error” which led to this was corrected.

The Fare Network report points out that “although the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community are not the primary target of discriminatory abuse inside [football] stadiums, these spaces remain ‘no-go’ areas for them.”

Again, this isn’t just about football. This video seems to make a point in evidencing that even basic public displays of affection between a gay couple could be problematic;


Further evidence

New laws are making it more and more difficult for Russians to express their sexuality.

Is Russia homophobic? Gay activist Kirill Kalugin has been arrested several times for protesting for gay rights

Is Russia homophobic? Gay activist Kirill Kalugin has been arrested several times

In 2012 the city of Moscow banned gay pride events. Was this ban for the year? No, it was for the next ONE HUNDRED years. The government said Pride events would spread disorder and that people living in the city didn’t want it. It’s not clear what they plan to do when the 100 year ban expires.

Then a 2014 law banned educational material about homosexuality for under 18s. The exact wording of the new law was:

“Propaganda is the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.”

Educating kids about homosexuality would mean you are guilty of breaking the law. Russians who break the law face a 5,000 rouble fine (£50). The penalty is even worse for schools at 500,000 roubles (£5000). Foreigners can also face a fine, jail time for up to 15 days, and even get kicked out of the country. Way to kill the mood, Russia.


Religious Values?

Is Russia Homophobic? Group shot of the band Pussy Riot

Feminist punk rock band “Pussy Riot” were arrested after protesting against President Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church

The Russian Orthodox Church is Russia’s largest religion. 90% of Russians say they are Orthodox (though 75% admit only attending church only once a year, or not at all).

Writer Andrew Kornbluth comments that Russian homophobia is “a psychological coping strategy”. It’s a response to “a distinct trauma: the long-ago disintegration of the same ‘traditional values’ that the homophobes profess to be defending.”

As we mentioned above, President Putin is attempting to revive traditional values of nationalism across Russia. Forbes Magazine describes how Putin noticed how the Russian Orthodox Church played a “useful role in boosting nationalism and the fact that it shared his view of Russia’s role in the world”.

Putin strengthened the Church’s role in Russian society. The Church now teaches religion in Russian schools and is able to review legislation going before the Russian parliament. So, what are they teaching?

Is Russia homophobic? Protesters from the Russian Orthodox Church at a Gay Pride event in Moscow, 2010

Protesters from the Russian Orthodox Church at a Gay Pride event in Moscow, 2010

Recently Putin praised the Russian Orthodox Church for inspiring a “spirit of patriotism” in young Russians and for preserving Russia’s “rich cultural and historical heritage and in reviving eternal moral values”.

These moral values don’t seem to include homosexuality. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church says that gay marriage is “a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom” and that every effort should be taken to make sure “sin is never sanctioned in Russia by state law.”

President Putin’s push for a patriotic Russia isn’t to blame for Russian homophobia, but the power of the Russian Orthodox Church over Russia probably isn’t helping matters. As for the church, they believe they are protecting traditional moral values.

Speaking out against Putin and the Church will get you into trouble. Feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot often incorporate LGBT themes into their work. In 2012 they performed a song “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” This act of protest against President Putin was performed in a Russian Orthodox cathedral.  Members of the band were arrested; the head of the Church said they were doing the work of the devil. Not exactly constructive criticism.


2) The flip side: Does Russia have a problem, or is the media wrong?


Whose side are you on?

Screenshot of the Guardian asking "Is Western media biased towards Russia?"

Is Western media biased towards Russia?

Western media has got a little fixated with Russia. But is the media biased against Russia? This year the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies launched a “mass media hostility index”. Sounds ominous; it’s actually quite clever. It measures the anti-Russia bias in the media, and aims to identify which countries are bad-mouthing Russia.

According to the study, throughout 2014 Western media increased its “anti-Russian propaganda”. The brains behind the study called this the start of an “information war” against Russia.

Of course, 2014 was the year Russia nicked a patch of land called the Crimea from Ukraine. Western countries especially, were not impressed by this. So, it might be no surprise that our media started bashing Russia for what it considers an illegal takeover. But, there are always two sides to every story.


Extreme Russia?

This year the British presenter and DJ Reggie Yates traveled to Russia to film a documentary series: Extreme Russia. It covered the rise in Russian nationalism, homophobia and the modelling industry.


The documentary was praised for exploring the rise of extremism in Russia. Not everyone was a fan, though. Journalist and historian James Pearce wrote an article claiming that the documentary series only showed one side of the story.

Pearce wrote, “in simple terms, what Reggie Yates has done, is play on an existing prejudice and told a British audience ‘this is Russia’; a country full of neo-Nazi’s, homophobes and child models.”

According to Pearce the documentary showed off “the worst sides of some extremist groups” and did not explore why these groups have grown in popularity.

We asked him where he thinks the current racist and homophobic stereotypes come from. He believes it stems from small truths being blown out of proportion. “In Russia, it is not a crime to be homosexual – in India it is and seven African nations have the death penalty for it, yet people don’t seem to be discussing this… Moscow has gay clubs, as does St Petersburg. This isn’t to say homophobia is non-existent but by and large, Russia remains a conservative society.”

According to Forbes Magazine, Russia sees itself as “neither Western nor Asian, but rather a unique society representing a unique set of values which are believed to be divinely inspired.”

Pearce quotes Russian filmmaker Andron Konchalovskiy who said “It’s too bad we’re not blue, green or purple. That way they’d [the West] get off our backs… The West expects us to act like they act. They go after us all the time. Do you know why? It’s because we look like them. If we looked different they’d get off our backs.”

Pearce also argues that countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Qatar do not receive as much criticism for being undemocratic or living up to western standards. Do we think Russia should act like a Western country, because the Russians look like us? “Many Russians believe this is the problem too. Russians look like Westerners but in fact they’re not. They’re different.”

So, what we see in the media could be biased against Russia. It just confirms stereotypes we already have. If we’re hating on Russia for being “backwards” what about all the other countries that could be accused of the same thing?


What’s next for Russia?

We contacted the Russian embassy to find out their views on the report into racist activity; but so far haven’t heard back.

Yuri Boychenko (chief of anti-discrimination at the United Nations) believes that to stop racist behaviour the Russian government must understand how bad the problem is. “First comes recognition; that authorities here should recognise that there is a problem and I believe that the recognition is coming.”

But for the moment it seems Russia needs some positive press, to allow people to move past the stereotypes.



Is Russia racist and homophobic? Extreme Russia with Reggie Yates can be viewed on the BBC iPlayer.


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