The blind spot of the West
The Russian invasion of Ukraine involves more than fighting on the front line. If we are to truly break free from the norms that brought about this conflict, we must interrogate long-established western perceptions concerning Russia’s reality.
The full-scale phase of the Russo-Ukrainian War has been unfolding for over 16 months. This prolonged conflict has compelled us to confront the blind spot that seems to have overshadowed the western perspective on the Russian Federation. It has become increasingly evident that a comprehensive understanding of the situation demands a critical examination of this blind spot. By shedding light on the reasons for these logical flaws and biases, we aim to challenge assumptions, foster a deeper understanding, and pave the way for a more informed approach to the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Here are a few examples:
- It is not a secret that the Russian Federation’s actions pose significant global ecological risks through exploitative practices and negligence, particularly in Siberia, the Arctic, the Caspian Sea and other regions. The country is consistently rated as highly/critically insufficient in its policies and actions by the Climate Action Tracker. Yet the environmental forums seem to avoid this topic. The recent destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam has led to an environmental catastrophe with incalculable consequences both for the region and the global ecosystem. The Russian army has also effectively taken Ukraine’s largest nuclear power plant hostage, which poses a greater potential threat to global nuclear safety.
- Feminist movements in the Russian Federation encounter various forms of oppression and restrictions, stifling their ability to advocate for gender equality. The rate of domestic violence against women in the Russian Federation has reached alarming levels (ranking 81st out of 156 countries in The Global Gender Gap Index 2021). These issues underscore the urgent need for greater attention and action to protect women’s rights and address the pervasive gender-based violence that persists within Russian society.
- Indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation continuously suffer from oppression, constant cultural and linguistic deprivation, and a denial of their rights to self-determination. Non-Russian populations are disproportionately conscripted and sent to war, resulting in enormous casualties among poorer ethnic minorities.
These are just a few examples of key topics that are absent from western discourse, where crucial aspects of postmodern studies and activism remain largely unaddressed. The prevalence of Russian narratives in academia worldwide stems from its dominance over Eastern European and Slavic studies, resulting in the systemic underrepresentation of research focused on the struggles for independence of other nations colonised by the Russian Federation. This has resulted in a systemic tendency to avoid addressing crucial topics within postmodern studies and activism. Such avoidance not only limits the depth of understanding and analysis in these areas but it also leaves important aspects unexplored.
- Postcolonial studies exist to understand the lasting impacts of colonialism and imperialism on societies worldwide. However, western and global scholars focus their studies on western discourses or global attitudes, while the Russian Federation’s practices are mainly left unaddressed as Russian scholars largely do not reconsider Russia’s own colonial practices. This approach limits our body of knowledge with regards to historical and present power dynamics happening in and around the imperialist actions of the decaying Russian Empire.
- Critical race theory exists to examine how race and ethnicity shape daily life experiences globally, highlighting systemic inequalities and discrimination. Yet, within the Russian context, this perspective receives little attention, hindering efforts to address and dismantle racial disparities and racist practices similar to those that appeared during the attempt to build a new mosque in Moscow.
- International feminist movements, which aim to empower women and protect their rights, face challenges in gaining visibility or substantial influence in the Russian Federation. The Russian government continues to silence women’s voices.
- Ecological movements globally strive to safeguard nature and the environment from the detrimental consequences of human activity. Activists abroad seem to leave local Russian activists to do the work when it comes to the country. However, the focus on environmental protection in Russia appears limited and marginal, impeding global efforts to address ecological challenges.
- The movements for the rights of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples play crucial roles worldwide. Yet, their presence and impact within the Russian Federation seem left out of the local discourse, and numerous indigenous peoples of the country almost never appear in the discussions of the international community. Even the very question of multiculturalism in the Russian Federation is rejected.
This list can be extended, but hopefully, these points are enough to understand the overarching idea. The world perceived the Russian Federation to be a part of global processes and expected local movements to align with global practices. But the real picture which is different to expectations eludes attention.
This pattern of persistently overlooking postmodern studies, activism and movements reveals one common blind spot. This is the conspicuous blind spot within the realms of postmodern studies and activism that has somehow left out 11.5 per cent of the Earth’s land area and (arguably) 140 million people.
How did this situation come to pass? The reasons are numerous.
1. Ideological and colonial templates
The impact of ideological and colonial templates becomes apparent when we explore perceptions of the Soviet era. The USSR strategically supported anticolonial movements worldwide, directing resources and attention to African, Asian and Latin American contexts and gaining recognition as an anti-colonial leader.
Indeed, the USSR did this to weaken the West while reinforcing colonial oppression in its own captive nations, despite projecting an image of opposition to such practices. Nevertheless, many anti-colonialist and anti-racist researchers and activists tend to associate colonialism solely with the West, overlooking Russia’s imperial narratives and actions.
Similarly, for decades the USSR propagated the notion of achieving complete gender equality, despite the reality being far from it. Nevertheless, many individuals still unreasonably believe that Russia has inherited the legacy of the “gender equality” promoted by the USSR. The West, by inertia, simply evaluates gender equality in Russia based on indicators such as the high level of participation of women in the workforce.
Overall, it is important to recognise that the current regime leans far right and deviates from the ideals of internationalism and equality associated with its predecessor, which attracted the sympathy of the global left. Rather, the current focus seems to prioritise chauvinistic tendencies and elements of fascism. Acknowledging these deviations can lead to a more nuanced understanding of the political landscape in the Russian Federation. These outdated ideological frameworks contribute to inherited misconceptions and prevent a comprehensive understanding of the current reality in Russia.
Anti-Americanism often influences global scholars and activists who hold unfavourable views of the US, attributing imperialism, racism and other issues to the country. From this perspective, American allies are seen as imperialists and racists. At the same time, opponents of the US (such as Russia) are assumed to be anti-imperialists, anti-colonialists and anti-racists.
However, this viewpoint is flawed, as it fails to consider Russia’s actual actions and policies. The widespread narrative of “Russia fighting against American imperialism” in some western media leads to a forgiving attitude towards Moscow. This is primarily because there is no understanding of local policies and interventions, with talk of the “mysterious” Russian soul concealing the country’s faults and shortcomings.
3. Russian studies
Many think tank and NGO scholars have built their careers focusing on what is commonly referred to as “Russian studies”, a term often used inaccurately to encompass Eastern Europe and Northern Asia, neglecting the diversity of cultures and peoples in these regions. It mirrors the systematic and institutionalised imperialism found even in university structures.
Many of these scholars specialising in Russian studies have received education or conducted research in the USSR or the Russian Federation, resulting in strong personal sentiments (reminding them of their romanticised youth) and biases.
At the same time, if a scholar for decades promoted narratives on a strengthening Russian democracy, the country’s gender equality, the homogeneity of the Russian population, etc., it is tough to disprove their conclusions, dissertations, books, conference speeches, research grants, and grounds for appointment as a tenured professor. However, a more objective and nuanced understanding of the goals and methods of “Russification” requires the consideration of a broader range of voices and perspectives, free from undue sentimentality or favouritism.
4. Russian money
Many think tanks and NGOs received funding from the USSR and later from the Russian Federation for a considerable time. This financial support was driven by the belief of Soviet and Russian leaders that these organisations would undermine the West. However, it is crucial to recognise that this agenda, rather than weakening the West, has actually contributed to more compassionate, reflective and caring western societies, including their attitude towards Russia itself.
Nevertheless, the longstanding practice of accepting Russian funding has inadvertently created a blind spot, potentially influencing the objectivity and independence of these institutions. It is crucial to critically examine these funding sources to ensure an unbiased and comprehensive understanding of global issues.
5. Russian propaganda
Despite repeated warnings from national intelligence services, it is astonishing how influential the Russian propaganda campaign has been over time.
Russian ideologists embedded pro-Moscow narratives in millions of brains, including the belief in a “civil war in Ukraine” (while being unable to state two opposing Ukrainian civil groups), “Ukrainian Nazis”, or the idea that there is “no difference between Ukrainians and Russians as this is one people” (however odd the thoughtful reader may find this juxtaposition).
These narratives, carefully constructed and disseminated, have shaped public opinion and solidified certain beliefs. It is crucial to recognise the potency of such propaganda and remain vigilant in critically examining information to prevent the manipulation of mass consciousness.
6. Russian culture
It is common for many in the West to admire Russian culture, often forgetting that the richness of great Russian novels, classical music, ballet and other art forms was available only to the tiny social stratum of the privileged within a sea of barbarism and a peculiarly Russian form of slavery. Additionally, many artists from colonised nations are still known throughout the world as Russians.
Add to this the idea of cultural approximation and there is yet another distorted lens. With their own royal court cultures, Europeans recognise and interpret Russian imperial culture according to their own templates of Romanticism and Barocco novels and paintings. Yet, the romanticised lifestyle depicted in the works of Lev Tolstoy, for instance, was representative of a mere 500 families.
However, while persecuting and executing artists, Stalin successfully manipulated this culture to construct an image of Russia as a leading global power.
While billions of people appreciate European cultures, they do not invoke these cultural sentiments to justify colonialism, racism, violence or Nazism. Therefore, it begs the question: Why should Russian crimes be pardoned merely due to sentimental attachments to their culture?
Perhaps, fear is a primary factor contributing to the reluctance of certain people to critically look at Russia. As a nuclear state, many individuals believe that any condemnation of Russia’s violence, human rights violations (particularly concerning women, indigenous peoples, and other minorities), colonialism, racism and ecological crimes could potentially escalate tensions and bring the world closer to a global nuclear conflict. Any discussions highlighting the multicultural and multi-ethnic nature of the Russian Federation, or advocating for the rights of captive nations and the re-introduction of federalism, are often seen as a threat to the unity of Russia and therefore deemed unacceptable.
However, we firmly believe that these approaches are flawed. Ignoring crimes does not contribute to global peace and stability. Instead, it unwittingly brings the world closer to global war and the systemic collapse of Russia. Maintaining silence in the face of wrongdoing only emboldens offenders, perpetuating a cycle of injustice and suffering. Speaking out against these crimes and holding offenders accountable is imperative to fostering a safer and more just world.
In our quest for a deeper understanding of what Russia really is, it is crucial to address our own blind spot that persists in global discourse. From continuously neglected areas of study to flawed and biased ideological templates, this blind spot hinders a realistic understanding of Russia’s complexities. By addressing this blind spot and holding Russia accountable for its actions, we contribute to a more just and equitable global society.
Revealing the blind spot surrounding Russian reality requires critically examining historical narratives, biases and power dynamics. Through open dialogue and collaborative efforts, global networks can foster a more nuanced perspective that acknowledges both the country’s cultural heritage and its need for progress and change. This will ultimately help us take a step towards discovering and empowering real agents of change.
The authors wish to thank Tamara Zlobina, Kateryna Kravchuk, Liliya Luts and Oleksii Panych for their valuable advice.
Valerii Pekar is the co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, the author of four books, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, and a former member of the National Reform Council.
Yuliya Shtaltovna is a Doctor of Philosophy, an adjunct faculty member and lecturer at several business schools, and an advisor at The GiLE Journal of Skills Development.
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