Playing the Victim
Testimony to the United Nations Security Council on Russian hate speech
(This is the text of my briefing of The United Nations Security Council this morning, 14 March 2023, for a session called by the Russian Federation to discuss "russophobia." If you wish to quote me exactly as I spoke, you might wish to check against the video of the session, which for now is available here.)
Ladies and gentlemen, I come before you as a historian of the region, as a historian of eastern Europe, and specifically as a historian of mass killing and political atrocity. I am glad to be asked to brief you on the use of the term "russophobia" by Russian state actors. I believe that such a discussion can clarify something about the character of Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine and Russia's illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. I will speak briefly and confine myself to two points.
My first point is that harm to Russians, and harm to Russian culture, is primarily a result of the policies of the Russian Federation. If we are concerned about harm to Russians and Russian culture, then we should be concerned with the policies of the Russian state.
My second point will be that the term "russophobia," which we are discussing today, has been exploited during this war as a form of imperial propaganda in which the aggressor claims to be the victim. It has served this last year as a justification for Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Let me begin from the first point. The premise, when we discuss "russophobia," is that we are concerned about harm to Russians. That is a premise that I certainly share. I share the concern for Russians. I share the concern for Russian culture. Let us recall, then, the actions this last year which have caused the greatest harm to Russians and to Russian culture. I'll briefly name ten.
1. Forcing the most creative and productive Russians to emigrate. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused about 750,000 Russians to leave Russia, including some of the most creative and productive people. This is irreparable harm to Russian culture, and it is the result of Russian policy.
2. The destruction of independent Russian journalism so that Russians cannot know the world around them. This, too, is Russian policy, and causes irreparable harm to Russian culture.
3. General censorship and repression of freedom of speech in Russia. In Ukraine, you can say what you like in either Russian or Ukrainian. In Russia, you cannot.
If you stand in Russia with a sign saying "no to war," you will be arrested and very likely imprisoned. If you stand in Ukraine with a sign that says "no to war," regardless of what language it is in, nothing will happen to you. Russia is a country of one major language where you can say little. Ukraine is a country of two languages where you may say what you like.
When I visit Ukraine, people report to me about Russian war crimes using both languages, using Ukrainian or using Russian as they prefer.
4. The attack on Russian culture by way of censoring schoolbooks, weakening Russian cultural institutions at home, and the destruction of museums and non-governmental organizations devoted to Russian history. All of those things are Russian policy.
5. The perversion of the memory of the Great Fatherland war by fighting a war of aggression in 2014 and 2022, thereby depriving all future generations of Russians of that heritage. That is Russian policy. It has done great harm to Russian culture.
6. The downgrading of Russian culture around the world, and the end of what used to be called "russkiy mir," the Russian world abroad. It used to be the case that there were many people who felt friendly to Russia and the Russian culture in Ukraine. That has been brought to an end by two Russian invasions. Those invasions were Russian state policy.
7. The mass killing of Russian speakers in Ukraine. The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has killed more speakers of Russian than any other action by far.
8. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to the mass death of Russian citizens fighting as soldiers in its war of aggression. Some 200,000 Russians have are dead or maimed. This is, of course, simply Russian policy. It is Russian policy to send young Russians to die in Ukraine.
9. War crimes, trauma, and guilt. This war means that a generation of young Russians, those who survive, will be involved in war crimes, and will be wrapped up in trauma and guilt for the rest of their lives. That is great harm to Russian culture.
All of this harm to Russians and to Russian culture has been achieved by the Russian government itself, mostly in the course of the last year. So if we were sincerely concerned about harm to Russians, these are the some of the things that we would think about. But perhaps the worst Russian policy with respect to Russians is the last one.
10. The sustained training or education of Russians to believe that genocide is normal. We see this in the president of Russia's repeated claims that Ukraine does not exist. We see this in genocidal fantasies on Russian state media. We see this in a year of state television reaching millions or tens of millions Russian citizens every day. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as pigs. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as parasites. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as worms. We see this when Russian state television presents Ukrainians as Satanists or as ghouls. We see this when Russian state television proclaims that Ukrainian children should be drowned. We see this when Russian state television proclaims that Ukrainian houses should be burned with the people inside. We see this when people appear on Russian state television and say: "They should not exist at all. We should execute them by firing squad." We see this when someone appears on Russian state television and says "we will kill 1 million, we will kill 5 million, we can exterminate all of you," meaning all of the Ukrainians.
Now, if we were sincerely concerned about harms to Russians, we would be concerned about what Russian policy is doing to Russians. The claim that Ukrainians are "russophobes" is one more element of Russian hate speech in Russian state television. In Russian media, those other claims about Ukrainians are intermixed with the claim that Ukrainians are russophobes. So, for example, in the statement on Russian state television where the speaker proposed that all Ukrainians be exterminated, his reasoning was that they should all be exterminated because they exhibit "russophobia."
The claim that Ukrainians have to be killed because they have a mental illness known as "russophobia" is bad for Russians, because it educates them in genocide. But of course, such a claim is much worse for Ukrainians.
This brings me to my second point. The term "russophobia" is a rhetorical strategy that we know from the history of imperialism.
When an empire attacks, the empire claims that it is the victim. The rhetoric that Ukrainians are somehow "russophobes" is being used by the Russian state to justify a war of aggression. The language is very important. But it is the setting in which it is used that matters most. This is the setting: the Russian invasion of Ukraine itself, the destruction of whole Ukrainian cities, the execution of Ukrainian local leaders, the forced deportation of Ukrainian children, the displacement of almost half the Ukrainian population, the destruction of hundreds of hospitals and thousands of schools, the deliberate targeting of water and heat supplies during the winter. That is the setting. That is what is actually happening.
The term "russophobia" is being used in this setting to advance the claim that the imperial power is the victim, even as the imperial power, Russia, is carrying out a war of atrocity. This is historically typical behavior. The imperial power dehumanizes the actual victim, and claims to be the victim. When the victim (in this case Ukraine) opposes being attacked, being murdered, being colonized, the empire says that wanting to be left in peace is unreasonable, an illness. This is a "phobia."
This claim that the victims are irrational, that they are "phobic," that they have a "phobia," is meant to distract from the actual experience of the victims in the real world, which is an experience, of course, of aggression and war and atrocity. The term "russophobia" is imperial strategy designed to change the subject from an actual war of aggression to the feelings of the aggressors, thereby suppressing the existence and the experience of the people who are most harmed. The imperialist says: "We are the only people here. We are the real victims. And our hurt feelings count more than other people's lives."
Now, Russia's war crimes in Ukraine can be and will be evaluated by Ukrainian law, because they take place on Ukrainian territory, and by international law. To the naked eye, we can see that there is a war of aggression, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
The application of the word "russophobia" in this setting, the claim that Ukrainians are mentally ill rather than that they are experiencing an atrocity, is colonial rhetoric. It serves as part of a larger practice of hate speech. That is why this session is important: it helps us to see Russia's genocidal hate speech. The idea that Ukrainians have a disease called "russophobia" is used as an argument to destroy them, along with the arguments that they are vermin, parasites, Satanists and so on.
Claiming to be the victim when you are in fact the aggressor is not a defense. It is actually part of the crime. Hate speech directed against Ukrainians is not part of the defense of the Russian Federation or its citizens. It is an element of the crimes that Russian citizens are committing on Ukrainian territory. In this sense, in calling this session, the Russian state has found a new way to confess to war crimes. Thank you for your attention.
(I then spoke a second time, in response to a query by the Russian representative. Again, if you wish to quote me directly, you may wish to consult the video, which is here. Since the query was about sources, I have added a few links, for convenience. They were not an element of my presentation.)
Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's been a pleasure to be with you and among diplomats. The Russian representative saw fit to ask me for sources, and I am very happy to oblige.
If we are concerned about sources from statements of high officials of the Russian Federation, I refer the Russian representative to the website of the President of the Russian Federation. There he will find speeches by the President of the Russian Federation denying that Ukraine exists on the grounds that Ukraine was invented by Nazis, denying that Ukraine exists on the grounds that it was invented by communists, and denying that Ukraine exists on the grounds that a viking was baptized a thousand years ago. I do not comment here on the historical validity or the logic of these arguments. I simply point out that this is a matter of public record, that these are the statements of the President of the Russian Federation. Likewise, Dmitri Medvedev, a member of the Russian Security Council, on his telegram channel, repeatedly offers the kind genocidal language that has been discussed today.
With respect to sources on Russian state television. This is very simple. I was quoting Russian state television. Russian state television is an organ of the Russian state. As the President of the Russian Federation has himself said, Russian state television represents Russian national interests. The statements made on Russian state television and other state media, therefore, are significant, not only as expressions of Russian policy, but also as a mark of genocidal motivation for the Russian population. This is true to such an extent that the presenters on Russian television themselves have worried aloud about the possibility that they might be prosecuted for war crimes. So I refer the representative of the Russian Federation to the video archives of Russia's state television channels. For those of you who don't know Russian, I refer you to the excellent work of Julia Davis. Julia Davis has assembled an archive of relevant Russian video material.
If the sources in question are about the actual Russian atrocities in Ukraine, these are well known and have been abundantly documented. The simplest thing for the Russian state to do would be to allow Russian journalists to report freely from Ukraine. For everyone else, the simplest thing to do would be to visit Ukraine, a land which has a democratically elected bilingual president who represents a national minority, and ask the people of Ukraine about the war in either Ukrainian or Russian. Ukrainians speak both and can answer you in both.
The representative of the Russian Federation saw fit to attack my qualifications. I take this rebuke from the Russian state as a badge of pride, since it is a very minor element in a larger attack on Russian history and culture. My work has been devoted, among other things, to chronicling the mass murder of Russians, including at the Siege of Leningrad. I have been proud over the course of my career to learn from historians of Ukraine, Poland, Europe in general, and also from historians of Russia. It is unfortunate that leading historians of Russia and the leading scholars of Russia are not allowed to freely practice their own disciplines in their own country. It is unfortunate that organizations such as Memorial, which have done heroic work in Russian history, are now criminalized in Russia.
It is also unfortunate that memory laws in Russia prevent the open discussion of Russian history. It is unfortunate that the word Ukraine has been banned from Russian schoolbooks. As a historian of Russia, I look forward to the day when there can be free discussion of Russia's fascinating history.
Speaking of history, the Russian representative denied that there was such a thing as the history of Ukraine. I would refer the Russian representative to excellent surveys by historians who know both Ukrainian and Russian, such as the recent work by my colleague Serhii Plokhii at Harvard. I would refer people in general to my open class on Ukrainian history at Yale, which I hope shares the significance of Ukrainian history more eloquently than I can here.
More fundamentally, I would like to thank the Russian representative for helping me to make the point that I was trying to make in my briefing. What I have been trying to say is that it is not for the representative of a larger country to say that the smaller country has no history. What the Russian representative has just told us is that whenever Ukrainians, in the past or at present, claim that they exist as a society, that is "ideology" or "russophobia." The Russian representative has helped us by exemplifying the behavior I was trying to describe. As I have been trying to say, dismissing someone else's history, or calling it a disease, is a colonial attitude with genocidal implications. The empire does not have the right to say that a neighboring country has no history. The claim that a country has no past is genocidal hate speech. In helping us to make the connection between Russian words and deeds, this session has been useful. Thank you.
TS 14 March 2023
Thinking about... is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.