The Russia Debate: Schools of thought; glossary

Many people view the Russia Debate as being divided into two camps: Russophobes/anti-Russian on one side and Russophiles/pro-Russian on the other. However, I’ve always conceived it as more of a spectrum, stretching out in multiple directions, encompassing many groups and schools of thought.

On this long, poorly organized, perpetually WIP page, I will compile information about the core positions of said groups, as well as a glossary of other terms related to the Russia Debate.

Feel free to fill in information holes by leaving a comment below. I’ll then delete your comment and credit you in the new entry.

#1 (name?)

The real Russia is, and will be, the oriental despotism described by German-American historian Karl Witfogel, a profoundly reactionary society, hopelessly mired in anti-Western and anti-modern values. These entrenched values explain Putin’s enduring popularity and the need for the West to contain and deter Russia to prevent its expansion.

#2 (name?)

For this school, Russia is a “normal” country that is responding rationally to the challenges of transition from an autarkic and ideologically-driven Soviet system to a contemporary national democracy integrated into the global economy.

Transitionology

Transitionology is the 1990s-era successor to Sovietology (Cold War). According to the totalitarianism school, the defining feature of the Soviet Union was a monolithic state. In contrast, transitionologists put forward a less state-centric view of power politics. They believed the end state of post-Soviet transition was the civil society. If Sovietology oversimplified policy-making in the Soviet period, transitionology was equally guilty of examining Russia without adequate consideration of the degree to which centuries of Russian tradition, culture, and history affected any assumed linear progression toward Western-style economics, politics, and society.

“Putinology”

Current prevailing school of thought. Putinologists believe that the Russian state imposed its will over civil society. This “model” also suffers from the absence of nuanced understanding of Russian history and culture and the complex evolutionary pains experienced by the Russian populace. This school of thought is ill-informed about what actually happened a hundred years ago, twenty years ago, or even ten years ago.

Authoritarian expansionism theory

Russia’s authoritarian culture and political system require the Kremlin to depend on the “Western threat” image at home and engage in revisionist behavior abroad. AET assumes that Russia “by definition” is an expansionist and oppressive nation that always looks for opportunities to challenge the West. It stands to conclude that Western nations are better off trying to contain or transform Putin’s Russia, rather than engaging it as an equal contributor to shaping the global system.

Russia’s eternal sameness

This refers to the continuity of Russia’s identical essence during all (or at least several) historical periods and forms of Russian statehood. Eternal sameness is usually expressed in this simple chain of succession:

Russian Federation = USSR = Russian Empire = Tsardom of Russia = Muscovy = Golden Horde

This model strips Russia of Russia of any real change, let alone progress: Russia remains its “barbaric”, “backward”, “totalitarian” self, while outside, the West shifts and shakes, develops and evolves. According to this approach, changes in Russia happen only at the surface. The corresponding attitude gives a sense of civilizational superiority over the ‘backward’ country.

Centrists

Consciously strive for objectivity, or at least fairness, in their Russia writing.

Russophobes

The dictionary describes a russophobe as “a person who feels an intense dislike or fear towards Russia and things Russian, especially the political system or customs of the former Soviet Union.” In the Russia debate, they do all they can to condemn Russia and those who defend it from within their own specific frame of reference. Said frame of reference is usually that Western liberalism is the end-all-be-all of value systems and universally applicable. Russophobes’ perceptions of Russia’s “Otherness” from Western ideals leads them to express regret and sadness for the “plight” of the Russian people – interestingly enough, taking little interest in actual Russians’ subjective perceptions of their own situation.

Associated belief: Russian political life is simplified to a battle of “good” non-systemic pro-Western opposition (and a few “exiled” oligarchs) versus “evil” Putin “regime”.

Russophiles

Russophile has a double definition – political and cultural. I’ll tackle the political definition first.

In the Russia Debate, russophiles believe that civilizational commonalities between Russia and the West are strong. Russia is more-or-less becoming “like us” politically and economically under the present government, and U.S.-Russian cooperation is not only possible but rational and desirable. Such shared goals include: the war against terror, the struggle against radical Islam, common goals in economic development and democratic governance (russophiles acknowledge a separate Russian path to democracy independent of “the West”), space exploration, and political transition in Syria.

Russophobes criticize their russophile counterparts mainly for what they see as an unsound, highly contradictory position. But this is based very much on russophobes’ own flawed belief that the “real” Russia and the “real” West are incompatible (a divide that cannot be bridged). A more valid objection to russophilia is that russophiles have a rather warped perspective on the “real Russia”. Russophiles do all they can to understand Russia on its own terms, and since understanding is forgiveness, this leads to an infatuation with the country and even a little whitewashing. They have a tendency to “gloss over” Russia’s defects (at least those from the Western perspective – corruption, abuse of administrative resources, etc.). That’s probably because russophiles are still Westerners, trying to cater to Western expectations of what Russia should be while at the same time trying to persuade Western politicians to seek cooperation and understanding of Russia.

A russophile can also just be a person who is friendly towards or fond of Russia and Russians. Someone who enjoys Russian history, Russian culture, or learning the Russian language. This is the more apolitical definition of Russophile.

It should also be noted that ‘russophile’ has taken on negative connotation in one way or another over the years:

  • “pro-Russian Western traitor”
  • “person who loves the country’s mysticism and the delightful Russian people but hates that oppressive government”
  • “person who uncritically praises the Russian government”

This I know from personal experience. *sigh*

Crussialism

Crussialism is the eternal idea of Russia as a country in a terminal state. Russia’s serious social and economic problems serve as the realistic base for the mythology of “imminent Russian collapse”. Russia is always falling, yet it it’s always reinventing itself and returning to normal like some roly-poly toy…

PDS

The abbreviation for Putin Derangement Syndrome – a tendency for the mainstream media to obsess about Russian president Vladimir Putin, ascribing to him the powers of omnipotence and omnipresence. Its recent counterpart is TDS – Trump Derangement Syndrome. Combine the two and you get PTDS, not to be confused with the PTSD I’ve developed after exposure to hundreds of horrible Russia articles.

Review terms

DNF – Did Not Finish. A book that I quit, for one reason or another.

OSRLI – Obligatory Sexy Russian Love Interest. A staple of cliched spy thrillers [dealing with Russia] is the sexy Russian seductress-spy, who will inevitably get with the dashing lead and defect to the West at the end of the story. Usually can’t be mentioned in-text without bringing up how gorgeous she is. Every. Single. Paragraph.

DTF – Direct to Film. A book that seems to have been written with the intention of being optioned for screen adaptation. Almost reads like a movie script, with choppy writing, bland or undeveloped characters, and melodrama and/or gratuitous action. Another problem that seems endemic to spy thrillers.

HOSF – Head-of-State Fiction. Any novel revolving around a real or imagined politician/world leader and their relationship with power. Thematically varied, usually taps into the historical fiction, satire, literary, or biography genres.

RFTH – Ripped From the Headlines. A thriller which bases its plot on a real-life event – or at least something reported on by the media. For example, after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a spate of novels have appeared in which characters must thwart Russian plans to invade the former Soviet states.

PAYOR – Proceed At Your Own Risk.

tl;dr – Too Long; Don’t Read. Sometimes substituted with tt;dr (too trite; don’t read).

TBD – To Be Determined.

MOTS! – More of the Same.

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