Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Villain of the piece

Ivan Turgenev, Asya (1858)


In Western eyes, Russia is a third-rate, sloppy, inept nation. And we resent the distortion, says Alexander Anichkin

Villain of the piece

As soon as we heard the devastating news that a plane carrying 54 holidaying teenagers had crashed over Germany I had a familiar sinking feeling: there was a Russian plane involved, so whatever had happened it would be the Russians’ fault.

Sure enough, before the first tears had splashed the dust, blame for the midair collision in which 71 people died was being flung in our direction: “Russian pilot ‘ignored’ warnings” screamed the tabloid headlines; “Russian pilot failed to act”. Even after five years of living in Britain I still can’t get used to the ease with which Russia is blamed for any disaster to which we are remotely connected. In Russia there was, rightly, fury at the assumptions that either the Russian pilot or Russian plane must have been at fault.

When it appeared that the Russian pilot, far from failing to act, may have tried to warn Swiss air traffic control that he was on a collision course 90 seconds before the crash, and that vital security systems had been switched off by Swiss air traffic controllers, we felt vindicated but still angry.

The readiness with which the West assumed that it was a Russian fault shows that for all the talk by world leaders about Russia as a strategic partner of Europe or the US, a serious player on the world stage, deep down we are still seen as an international joke, a nation of drunks and incompetents.

It is, as a compatriot observed, a Hollywood view of Russia – but one which persists. Ever since the days of the Reds Under the Bed scares, Russia has been – certainly in tabloid and entertainment industry shorthand – the root of world evil, the eternal baddie.

Of course some of it is our own fault. Who could forget the notorious incident when a pilot let his young son take the controls of his plane which then plunged into the Siberian taiga? Or Chernobyl nuclear station going into meltdown when people there staged an unauthorised experiment?

And former President Boris Yeltsin didn’t help our image as a nation of drunks: despite his awesome achievements in overseeing the transition to democracy he is remembered as much for being too “tired” to get off the plane at Shannon airport to meet the Irish Prime Minister as for his famous tank-top resistance to the hardline coup attempt. We Russians laugh and cry with embarrassment over these incidents. But the scars left by them on our national psyche are deeper than most Westerners realise. Ever since Peter the Great started modernising Byzantine Russia in the 1700s we have been battling with the discrepancy between our image as a superpower, the birthplace of Pushkin and Tolstoy – and a country of Third World sloppiness.

The 19th century writer Ivan Turgenev summed it up when he observed: “I can tell a Russian from afar, mostly by the sudden changes on his face, one minute arrogant and full of grandeur, another all cautious and meek, checking to see if anyone is laughing at him.”

Stereotypes, as we know, are born of fear and ignorance, and to the majority of Westerners, despite the opening of our borders, Russia is still an unknown territory. But blaming everything bad on Russia is not just hurtful to individuals like me. The fury in Moscow at the way Russia was, again, guilty until proven innocent shows that Russians have had enough of old Cold War attitudes.

Many in Russia are beginning to blame the West for her post-Soviet difficulties. When it becomes clear that the West still sees Russia as a third-class citizen, it is difficult to convince them that they are being paranoid. But we clearly have a long way to go before we emerge from what I had believed were the bad old days of mutual suspicion and insult-throwing.

From The Times, 8 July 2002

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