The exchanges between New York University (NYU) academic Eliot Borenstein and his University of Aberdeen peer Thomas Weber, relate to my Strategic Culture Foundation commentary on the state of Russian studies in the US. At the NYU Jordan Center blog, Borenstein takes a very limited issue with Weber’s flawed piece in The Washington Post (WaPo).
By belittling the extent of anti-Russian propaganda, Borenstein is essentially complementing Weber’s essay. Borenstein partly does this by playing up the stereotypes of Russia/Russians being anti-Jewish and anti-LGBT – never minding the past and present realities elsewhere, as well as the counter realities (to his suggestion) in Russia. Simply put, everything isn’t always so cookie cutter clear.
I happen to be of Jewish and Russian Orthodox Christian backgrounds. Over the course of time, I’ve run into others like that. In my exchanges with these individuals, all of them have shared my general take of Russia as a successful melting pot, albeit with some problems, as is true elsewhere.
Anti-Russian bigotry is a reality which Borenstein can’t legitimately deny. He and some others can ignore instances like the treatment accorded to James Clapper, the bigoted legacy of the National Captive Nations Committee and how the subject of Russian sports doping has been reviewed in high profile Western circles. It’s certainly not delusional to note the PC hypocrisy of being considerably more sensitive to the concerns of some others, while being at ease with the heavy handed anti-Russian propaganda.
In an un-academic manner, Weber’s WaPo article, inaccurately cherry picks some past instances and spins them as proof of an inherently negative mindset permeating Russia/Russians. He notes that a descendant of the Romanov family in Germany had met with Hitler, with another Romanov supporting the German dictator.
Wow! Hitler at one point wasn’t only popular in Germany, but in other parts of the world. There was a noticeable (though by no means overwhelming) German-American pro-Nazi sentiment in the US, shared by some other Americans. Before Anwar Sadat became more agreeable with the US and Israel, an Israeli UN ambassador (during a UN Security Council session) noted Sadat’s open admiration of Hitler. Sadat would later say that he was impressed with how Germany rebuilt itself after WW I, while acknowledging that his enthusiasm lessened in later years, upon having a greater knowledge of Nazism’s crimes.
Between the two world wars and thereafter, the White Russian community (whether absolute monarchist, constitutional monarchist or republican) has been far from monolithic. This matter extends to the issues of who is the most legitimate heir to the Romanov throne and the importance of that particular. Ivan Ilyin (a favorite of Russian President Vladimir Putin) lived in Nazi Germany without being a Nazi supporter. In the US, White Russians like the Kiev born Igor Sikorsky, have led successful careers as loyal American citizens.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is Weber’s other WaPo talking point to depict Russia as ruthlessly pursuing its aims. This simplicity ignores several realities that are familiar to relatively objective and knowledgeable observers of that agreement. The USSR had previously sought an alliance against the Nazi encroachment on Czecho-Slovakia. This desire was rebuffed. Instead, the Western powers appeased Hitler at Munich with the USSR not present. Meantime, some in the West were hoping for a Nazi-Soviet war that would weaken the two. BTW, following the Nazi advance on Czecho-Slovakia, the Hungarians and Poles each took parts of that country.
Stalin most likely had a sense that the USSR in the late 1930s wasn’t ready for a successful military confrontation with Nazi Germany. Very early in WW I, the Russian army moved into Germany, when the former (in retrospection) wasn’t so well prepared to succeed. The Nazi-Soviet agreement gave Germany a good portion of what had been Russian Empire era territory – likely influenced by an understanding of the power position at the time between Berlin and Moscow.
Towards the end of his WaPo article, Weber piously states: “Russia’s many apologists in Europe and the U.S. should wake up to the common denominator visible here in Russian conduct past and present: a geopolitical pursuit of Russia’s national interests, marked by a disregard for human life and dignity.”
A counter observation notes that Russia’s detractors in the West engage in propagandistic commentary, propped within mass media and some influential academic circles. Throughout much of history, Russia has been a major power, periodically involved in wars that have killed people, as what happens in wars without that nation. In a number of conflicts with other entities, Russia can’t be objectively labeled as the heavy negative.
Upon further review, I came across University of Ottawa academic Paul Robinson’s reply to Weber’s piece. Robinson offers a different perspective from Weber and Borenstein, that’s more in line with my own – an overview that’s often underrepresented in high profile North American media, academic and political settings. In the discussion section below Robinson’s online piece, Weber makes an appearance, where he (at least in my opinion and that of some others) unconvincingly defends his WaPo essay. What Weber said in that article is crystal clear, in terms of what he said and didn’t say.
Ideally, history should be studied to avoid previous mistakes. In his WaPo article, Weber chose to repeat the past mantra of inaccurately unfair generalizations against Russia/Russians. That approach differs from commentary like mine (self serving for me to say notwithstanding) on how Poland didn’t save the world from Russia, as presented otherwise in a National Interest article.