Are ‘the Russians’ just not like ‘us’?

Russians are not like us, Russia expert Hans van Koningsbrugge recently said in an interview with UKrant. But succumbing to stereotypes will not help us understand Russia, argue Adrian Rogstad, David Cadier and Marek Neuman.

On 5 December, UKrant published an interview with the title ‘Russians are fundamentally different’. Others, including commenters on the original article and members of the international expert community on Russia, have already pointed out several issues with the interview (see here and here). 

What we want to address, as scholars who have been working on Russia, are some of the simplifying, essentialist stereotypes advanced in the interview about Russia and Russians, and why they are problematic. Our aim is to contribute to nuanced and informed debate, and as UG scholars to call for higher standards of collective inquiry and reflection in the university community.

Essentialising difference

The basic thesis put forward in the interview is that ‘Russians’ are ‘different’ – from ‘us’ – and very unlikely to change. The reason for this is that they supposedly developed ‘completely independently from the West’ and all the things that define it, like the French Revolution, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. 

The basic thesis put forward in the interview is that ‘Russians’ are ‘different’ – from ‘us’

What Russia had instead were a series of lost wars, a bloody history—including the carnage of the Russian Civil War, Stalinism and the Second World War—and the economic hardship of the 1990s. All of which has supposedly made Russians immune to the loss of human life, ‘hard as nails’ and sceptical of democracy.

There are at least three problems with these kinds of essentialist claims: historical inaccuracy, collective incrimination and the flawed analysis that flows from them.

Intertwined histories

First, countries and societies do not develop in isolation. Russia is no exception. Since at least the time of Peter the Great, Russia’s history has been deeply intertwined with the rest of Europe’s, for good and bad. Indeed, it even took part in the Enlightenment (not to mention the Counter-Enlightenment).

Does that mean that Russia’s ‘enlightened’ leaders were all wonderful people? No, because the Enlightenment itself was not all sunshine and roses. Catherine the Great corresponded with Voltaire while partitioning Poland and colonising Ukraine, just like Enlightenment philosophy would go on to justify the racist hierarchies underpinning 19th century Western colonialism.

In general, violent histories do not doom entire populations to be immune to violence or disrespectful of human life. Plenty of countries around the world have bloody histories. Yet, an article with titles like ‘Americans are not like us’ or ‘the Chinese are fundamentally different’ is unlikely to be published in a reputable university newspaper. 

The point here is not to engage in relativism. Rather, it is to warn against classic orientalist logics elevating the civilised ‘us’ against a barbaric ‘other’, based on a selective reading of history. Putin’s corruption and war-making over the past twenty years has been greatly enabled by Western actors more than willing to launder his money and buy his gas and oil – ‘we’ are not always so civilised.

Russians as a collective Putin?

Second, essentialisation comes with an indiscriminate accusation. It suggests that all ‘Russians’ are complicit in such horrific policies as the recruitment of convicted murderers to fight in the war on Ukraine. Should we assume this also applies to our Russian colleagues or students at the university? Are they also ‘fundamentally different’, ‘not like us’ and ‘hard as nails’?

Violent histories do not doom entire populations to be immune to violence

Of course, in the context of Russia’s brutal war and the government’s increasingly repressive policies, it is tempting to ask: how could the Russian population allow this? Why don’t they protest? How can they tolerate or even support the Putin regime? 

However, Russian society is complex – just like any other national society. Many Russians support the government and its war, for a variety of reasons. But many don’t. For the latter group, expressing any kind of opposition comes with a very high personal risk in the face of the state’s brutal repression of dissent. Still, 19,747 people have been detained at anti-war protests since 2022, and others are finding new ways to protest. These are also ‘Russians’.

Why this matters

Third, essentialisation leads to flawed analysis, bad policies, and makes us useful idiots to Putin’s narrative. Understanding the root causes and dire consequences of this war is a major task for academic research. But situating explanations in wholesale generalisations about perennial and unchangeable traits of a national community will not cut it. It tells us nothing about why things happened when they did, how they did, or how they are likely to develop in future.

Recent research has shown how imperialist stereotypes of Ukraine and Ukrainians have underpinned not only Russian but also Western policy towards the country, with disastrous consequences. Let’s not fall into the trap of resorting to similar stereotypes about Russians. Aside from producing flawed analysis, it feeds into Putin’s narrative that the West has an intrinsic problem with Russians in general rather than with the regime, its war and its repression.

We still need to understand Russia, both to have a better sense of how the war might evolve and of what might come after Putin. We will not do that by succumbing to essentialist stereotypes. In fact, as Russia expert Sam Greene argues, if we want to understand Russia, we ‘really need to stop making arguments about “the Russians”’.

Adrian Rogstad, David Cadier and Marek Neuman are associate professors at International Relations and International Organisation (IRIO).

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