Aimar Ventsel: Who is a Russophobe?

Aimar Ventsel.
Aimar Ventsel. Source: Ken Mürk

An accusation of "Russophobia" renders the world neatly black and white, works to legitimize Russian policy for the masses, supports the vertical of power and helps the opinion leaders of the "bottom floors" of society sort things out in the heads of their followers, Aimar Ventsel writes.

A few years ago, quite a few people in Estonia became Russophobes. The certificate complete with an entry ban came directly from the Russian Embassy. Generally speaking, words that end in "phobia" and start with an ethnonym are ethnocentric.

Russophobia should stand for, if not outright hatred, then at least a negative attitude toward ethnic Russians, their language and culture. Just as words ending in "philia" should mark positive attitudes based on ethnicity, where Russophilia would constitute a positive attitude toward ethnic Russians, the Russian language and culture. However, the concept officially in use in Russia is different. It is a politicized expression the meaning of which has changed and has nothing to do with its original form.

I was first dubbed a Russophobe at an international conference in Vilnius in 2015. A lot of the participants were colleagues from Russia, and I developed a fierce dispute over Crimea with an old acquaintance.

They had become Kremlin loyalists and found what happened in Crimea to have been entirely legal and not hurt anyone. I represented the opposite position. Such were the times, emotions were running high and scientific circles were tense for political reasons. And then it happened: "Aivar, I had no idea you were a Russophobe!" my colleague told me.

I was left somewhat at a loss in terms of what to do with this newfound information. We were speaking Russian, with the conference about joint research in the Arctic, whereas none of the participants had refused to speak Russian or deal with Russians. Rather, Russian is the second working language of our guild, next to English.

The second time I was called a Russophobe was in a pro-Kremlin Facebook group of Estonian Russians. The accusation was let fly by a group moderator, former journalist and a proud freelance contributor of Russian propaganda network Sputnik.

The topic of the day was how Russia's Sputnik was the best coronavirus vaccine in the world. I said something along the lines of "they cannot even make cheese in Russia, not to mention vaccines".

(Incidentally, it makes for a separate interesting story. When the import of food products from "hostile" countries was banned in Russia in 2014, the quality of food suffered. Dairy products were made using palm oil. Such surrogate products taste rather disgusting. But for some reason, it is Russian cheese in particular that sparks a painful reaction in the Kremlin's patriots. Including those who live in Estonia.)

Anyway, I was dubbed a Russophobe for the second time and by a person who is familiar with modern Russian political terminology.

To sum it up briefly, Russophobia now stands for all manner of critical attitudes toward policy, leaders and the way of life of Russia as a country. It has nothing to do with the Russian language and culture and rather exists as a vague political term that can be used in every situation. In my personal case, ranging from the annexation of Crimea to the quality of Russian cheese.

My friend from university Andrei Hvostov explained how Russians understand the world "fascist" in his book "Sillamäe passioon." He wrote that it has nothing whatsoever to do with hostility toward parliamentary democracy. A fascist is someone who hates Russians, Russia, the Soviet Union and everything that can be associated with these things.

The Russophobe is the new fascist of Kremlin loyalists, with its "functions" broadened. Whereas the terminological shift has also made it among the masses. If as recently as in 2014, the word fascist was still used as a derogatory term in social media forums and groups – including Estonian ones, it rather comes off as a worn-out retro expression these days.

In the Google Scholar academic search engine, entering the keywords "Russophobe" and "Russophobia" returns a solid number of publications, including distinguished scientific journals. In other words, Russia's use of accusations of Russophobia following political reasons has become an official object of academic studies.

An accusation of "Russophobia" serves multiple goals.

First, it renders the world neatly black and white, creates the us-them dichotomy. A Russophobe has already lost all semblance of humanity. One cannot expect anything good from such a person (or government, state, group etc.). Because a Russophobe will never even consider sporting a positive attitude toward the Russian state and its leaders.

Secondly, it legitimates Russian policy for the masses. Russophobes need to be resisted.

Thirdly, it supports the vertical of power and helps the opinion leaders of the "bottom floors" of society sort things out in the heads of their followers. The aforementioned cheese conflict serves as a good example. The enemy has been identified, everything is a-okay with cheese in Russia!

Political semiotics is interesting. If only because the terminology keeps changing and developing, crossing state borders and adapting to local circumstances. As of today, the words "Russophobe" and "Russophobia" are alive and well. They are so universal that I cannot imagine which expressions could replace them. However, there is currently also no need.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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