Dana E. Abizaid
August 3, 2016
Presented at the "Language. Law. Society." Conference, Penza University, October 12, 2016.


The US and British press has been waging a war of words against Russia that is rooted in historic fears and mistrust of the Russian and Soviet empires. The biased nature of this reporting on Russian domestic and foreign policy is embodied in an irrational and exaggerated portrayal of Vladimir Putin as Hitler or Stalin. A more objective, professional, and rational approach must be taken by western journalists in order to fully understand Russia’s intentions in Ukraine and Syria.

Key Terms: Putin, Hitler, Stalin, Bias

Napoleon supposedly quipped, “Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar” (Harvard Crimson, 1922). This inherently racist and biased view of Russia has dominated the western imagination for centuries. It is perpetuated by western governments and media today and manifests itself in the fear mongering that passes as critical analysis of Putin’s intentions in Eastern Europe and Syria.

This paper examines the language that the Western press uses in reporting on current Russian domestic and foreign policy. It argues that this biased and racist language is rooted in a historic hatred and mistrust of a Russia that the West can only see as a challenge to its economic and military hegemony in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Although the US and British media are full of daily disparaging remarks and anti-Russian propaganda encompassing any number of social, economic or political issues, American and British media will be analyzed here in the context of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the civil wars in Ukraine and Syria.

Historical Context

The burgeoning western fear of Russia was made worse with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. It was Russia that dealt Napoleon a lethal blow upon in 1812. Wellington and the British finished him off at Waterloo in 1815 making England and Russia the most powerful and influential empires in Europe. Alexander I and his successor Nicholas I represented strong absolute monarchy in the face of the British “enlightened” variety. But the real struggle was for influence in the lands that Napoleon had dominated. During this “Great Game” western press and governments portrayed the Russians as dangerous Slavs bent on forcing their culture on subjects that would be much better off under British rule. This fear of Russia was exacerbated by the Tsars desire to protect “Slavic” brothers from Ottoman Turks as that empire, known as “The Sick Man of Europe”, limped into the 20th century. The concept of pan-Slavism, or the spreading of Russian culture throughout Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Central Asia, frightened the British and threatened their economic control of nearly 25% of the earth’s surface (Ferguson, 2003).

By the turn of the 20th century Russia had been relatively successful in developing its industry and reforming its economy and military after the Crimean War (1853-1856) and Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) exposed the weaknesses of Russian technology. Though technically a victory for Russia, the Russo-Turkish war was described by a Russian officer as “Our march of victory, achieved by troops that are now in rags, without shoes, almost without ammunition, charges, and artillery” (Yanov, 2013).

Tsar Alexander II and Alexander III, though taking different approaches to modernization, had bequeathed a much more efficient military and economy to Nicholas II in 1894. Nicholas’s failings as a political and military leader are well documented, as are the disasters that befell Russia in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. That said, the combination of burgeoning Russian industrial and economic power and the social and political reforms enacted in the late 19th century paved the way for opposition groups that promised to transform Russian society and make it a 20th century industrial power. The most famous and successful of these groups was Lenin’s Bolsheviks, a political force that Churchill warned should be “strangled in the cradle” (White, 2012).

Churchill’s sentiment has never fully been erased. Nearly 70 years of Soviet rule fostered an entire field of Sovietology in the West designed to demonize the Soviet Union and its leaders. That spirit of demonization is alive and well today in the Western press’s infatuation with comparing Putin to Stalin or Hitler. For example, even when trying to claim that he doesn’t want to draw direct parallels between Stalin and Putin, New York Times Opinion write Maxim Trudolyubov can’t help himself: “My point is not to draw a direct comparison between Stalin and Mr. Putin: They are very different leaders living in very different times. I just cannot help noticing that they seem to follow the same playbook for being a successful autocrat” (Trudolyubov, 2016). The Daily Mail takes it further by comparing Putin to Hitler at Munich: “Then, as now, a ruthless and vain megalomaniac, with grandiose territorial ambitions, sought to test the European powers’ resolve to confront him” (Daily Mail, 2015).

Comparisons like these are commonplace in the western press as are adjectives like “barbaric”, “reckless”, and “delusional” to describe Putin. Such language is a Western weapon to try to obfuscate or delegitimize any rational reasons Putin and Russia may have for their actions. Western media is engaging in dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric that can most clearly be seen through its coverage of the Russo-Georgian War and the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Western Press Coverage of Russo-Georgian War

The western press meticulously covered Russia ’s reaction to a civil conflict within Georgian territory in the summer of 2008. From eyewitness accounts of battered and dazed Georgians to graphic pictures of dead civilians and soldiers, the press succeeded in exposing the brutality of war.

Nonetheless, as the war intensified and images of charred tanks and bodies were broadcast around the world, a question about the nature of war and war coverage in the post Cold War world emerged: how and why did the media turn Russia ’s response to an act of Georgian aggression against a minority enclave into an overwhelmingly anti-Russian crusade?

When one sheds the temptation to skewer the West’s former Cold War foe on the grill of self-righteousness, a few objective and rational facts become clear. First, western journalists covering this conflict were neither embedded with troops nor restricted by grainy images with muffled voice-overs, making the grimaces of this war’s victims personal and disturbing. Furthermore, Russian air raids were not covered from the vantage point of fighter pilots, but from the ground, where exploding bombs ripped apart lives and property. The cries of the wounded and the blood of the dead depicted the realities of war which are too often lost in the euphoria that accompanies US and British “shock and awe” campaigns shot from a safe and distorted distance.

Second, around the clock scenes of devastation seem to have proved that Russia was an unpredictable evil menace and bully. The fact that Georgia is a US backed ally whose democracy, according to then Georgian president Mikehil Saakashivli, was under attack from Russia could only elicit the worst fears of Slavic hordes overrunning civilization (a variation of the Red Army destroying Europe). Some reports went as far as to portray Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev as modern day Stalins, a comparison that betrayed little understanding of the region or the history of the Soviet Union. For example, neo-conservative columnist Robert Kagan (2008) penned a piece in the Washington Post laying blame for the war squarely on Putin, asking, “Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany's invasion of Czechoslovakia?” He states the details are not important. What is important is that Putin “has reestablished a virtual czarist rule in Russia and is trying to restore the country to its once-dominant role in Eurasia and the world (2008).” The insinuation is that just like Hitler in Czechoslovakia, Putin had planned for this war for quite some time and that the spark in August 2008 – Georgian aggression against ethnic Russians – was simply a pretense.

Much western media attention during the short war was fixated on the Georgian city of Gori, which sustained heavy Russian bombing. Gori is the birthplace of Stalin, a rather unapologetic Georgian who spoke Russian with an accent. The fact that Stalin is much more revered in contemporary Georgia than in Russia received little press and would have been an embarrassing fact to feed a western audience who had a limited knowledge of Georgia, but certainly possessed a universal disgust for Stalin. In fact, in a BBC report from Gori, the British went as far as to crop out the head of the Stalin statue looming ominously behind the British reporter in the city’s center. This writer sent letters to the BBC asking why this was the case but never heard back.

Finally, one realizes that it is not so much the reality of war but how the press spins it that has the greatest impact. For example, the American invasion of Iraq, planned over many months and justified on false evidence, did not receive the same type of authentic, intense scrutiny this comparatively small conflict generated. The opening American salvo over Baghdad claimed more lives and destabilized a vital region of the world to a far greater degree than Russia ’s incursion into Georgia could have ever hoped. Rather than react with disgust over the fact the US had invaded a sovereign nation or beam images of maimed and dead Iraqis across the airwaves, however, the US press celebrated grotesque images of fire and smoke billowing over Baghdad under headlines of “Shock and Awe.”

Granted, Iraq was ruled by a brutal dictator and Georgia was led by an American educated president. Nevertheless, the Iraqis did not mount a military campaign on America ’s borders nor kill or drive out American citizens from their homeland. Conversely, Russia should not be faulted for being alarmed by Georgian aggression against Russian citizens on the Russian border. But media reports monitoring their “disproportionate” reaction held Russia to a different standard than America has been held to in Iraq and Afghanistan where the overwhelming force used by the US has been constantly justified by September 11th.

Undoubtedly, much of the West’s negative reaction was connected to Russia’s economic, cultural, and military reemergence, personified in its devastatingly effective response to Georgia ’s misadventure. Such a move signified Russia ’s will and capacity to challenge western backed states in the former Soviet world. The consequences this had for US oil and gas interests in the Caspian and Black Sea regions were far and wide and held much greater significance than hollow rhetoric about the sovereignty of the Georgian nation.

The Georgian War showed that Russia was no longer the weak nation ruled by an inebriated “democrat” that the US courted after the fall of the Soviet Union. As much as Americans may have hated to admit it, it was time to rationally and diplomatically work with Russia as a legitimate power on the world stage. This would have included abandoning the practice of equating Russia’s objectives with those of Hitler and Stalin. But the US government and media did not do this despite the Obama Administration’s awkward attempt to “reset” relations in 2009. This failure to adapt a new strategy and instead opt for worn out Cold War stereotypes was highlighted by the Western press’s response to conflict in Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine: Unabashed Western Media Bias

Over the past two years much has been written about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to build a post-Soviet Empire, starting with Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and then annexing northern Kazakhstan. As during the Georgian crisis many journalists and politicians compared Putin’s response to the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych to Hitler’s moves in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. Noted critic of Russia Hillary Clinton stated, “Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s… All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous” (Rucker, 2014).

Others dusted off the racist belief, perpetuated by George Kennan in 1946 and the basis of US Cold War policy, that Russians only understand force. Accordingly, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote in a piece titled Cold Man in the Kremlin that “the language Putin understands is force and power” (2014). These comparisons betray little understanding of Russian History or Russia’s current crisis in the face of NATO expansion in its former sphere of influence. Hysteria has often taken the place of rational analysis as western journalists repeat hackneyed Cold War era stereotypes to explain Russia’s actions. Such reporting sells papers and confirms western biases but does not provide readers with much insight into why Putin has taken the actions he has, or how the US and European Union might be able to reach agreement with Russia to avoid wider conflict over Ukraine.

Governments act to further their self-interests, and Putin’s Russia is no different. Just as Stalin needed Poland after WWII as a buffer state against potential German invasion (it happened twice in under 30 years) and growing US expansion in Western and Central Europe, Putin needs Ukraine to stifle NATO’s desire to expand to Russia’s doorstep. Putin also considers US plans for missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland not as a defense against a potential Iranian weapon, but as a missile delivery system to be used against Russia. The US media may present this as extreme Russian xenophobia or the deranged imaginations of a Russian dictator bent on destroying civil society in Russia and neighboring states. But to many Russians who recall the tens of millions lost in WWI and WWII and the aggressive US posture in Berlin and Central Europe during the Cold War, Putin’s distrust of the West appears rationale.

Contrary to the view of many experts, Putin is not starting a new Cold War. The Cold War was only put on hold when Russia was weakened to the point of collapse and near civil war in the early 1990s. As long as Russia was ruled by a weak and ineffectual leader like Boris Yeltsin and bullied into accepting western reforms and business deals, the US and its client states were pleased. However, with Yeltsin’s ignominious resignation in 1999 and the rise of a leader like Putin who vowed to instill pride in Russia by building up its military forces and improving its economy, Russia again became a threat to US interests in the region. As an instructor at Moscow State University in 2002, I remember my students telling me that their studies were aimed “at lifting Russia off her knees.” For those with even a rudimentary understanding of Russian history this statement recalls the Russian reaction to the “time of troubles” in the 17th century, Lenin’s promises in 1917, or Stalin’s successful plan to industrialize the Soviet Union in 10 years to prepare for war with Nazi Germany. In short, Russia has always had the capacity of rising when it appears weakest. Traveling through Kazakhstan in 2014 I spoke with many people who viewed Russia’s moves in Ukraine as justified. Although Kazakhstan, a nation with a large Russian minority and land where many Kazakhs consider Russian their first language, is often cited as Putin’s next target in his rapacious desire for expansion, there is little evidence that indicates an invasion of Kazakhstan would be needed. On the contrary, it is much more likely that Kazakhstan would voluntarily join in union with Russia. As a former nomadic land modernized by the Bolsheviks, Kazakhstan did not have civil and political institutions in place before the October Revolution. Though incorporation of Kazakhstan into the Soviet state was brutal – estimates claim that two million in a population of four million perished during the collectivization famines of the 1930s – many Kazakhs still consider the Soviet era as one of progress. Today, Russian media dominates in Kazakhstan as does a feeling of brotherhood with its great neighbor to the north. President Nazarbayev, who as General Secretary of the Kazakh Soviet State in 1991 begged Gorbachev to hold the USSR together, understands that Russia is Kazakhstan’s greatest ally.

Consequently, it is important for western media and governments to consider the contemporary and historic motives behinds Putin’s actions rather than reverting to Cold War stereotypes that will produce nothing but misunderstanding and conflict. This would require a critical look at western intentions in Ukraine and Putin’s need to secure Russia’s western borders and business interests in Europe as well as the support Putin receives amongst the citizens of former Soviet states like Kazakhstan. If this approach is taken, Putin’s actions may seem less the irrational moves of a madman and more the measures that any leader interested in his nation’s self-interest and survival would take. Defusing conflict demands that this approach is taken. Unfortunately, western media coverage of Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War portends more animosity between the two powers that could lead to catastrophic results.

Syria: Western Media Lambasts Russia for Supporting Assad

The Western press has portrayed Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War as another attempt by Putin to assert Russian dominance on the world stage. Russian bombing campaigns have been scrutinized to an extent one would hope US and British bombing would be analyzed. Civilian casualties have been counted and the press has reported that it is clearly the Russian intention to spread terror amongst civilians in support of Bashir Assad. Lost here of course is any nuanced understanding of Russia’s interest in Syria. Battling its own domestic Islamic resistance in the Caucasus since the 1990s, Russia intends to support its main Middle Eastern ally against a serious threat that left unchallenged would certainly destabilize the region as well as southern Russia.

Given the Historic fear of Russia and the Soviet Union, the press’s narrative that Russia’s goal is to sew mayhem and destruction is rarely challenged. For example, the New York Times includes in news stories strong but baseless opinions that would be better left for the Editorial page. Consider these statements by reporter Neil MacFarquhar regarding Russian intentions in Syria: “restore Russian influence as a global power,” “force an end to the diplomatic and financial isolation the West imposed after Moscow seized Crimea,” “maintain control over Russia’s naval station at Tartus, in Syria,” and “draw attention away from the Ukraine conflict and the troubles it has caused” (Marshall, 2015).”

Whereas the US and Britain wage war for national interests that appear rational and sane, the Russians supposedly wage war to satisfy some type of innate bloodlust. Western audiences are constantly reminded that human rights mean nothing to the Russians and that they are willing to bomb indiscriminately. Furthermore, it is often reported that the Russians are targeting “US backed” rebels in attempts to not only prop up Assad but to challenge US influence in Syria.

An objective third party observer might conclude that the US and Russia should join forces in support of Assad, destroy ISIS and help create a political reconciliation that would end the five year long war. But the US press especially cannot seem to fathom supporting a tyrant like Assad though it has penned very little criticism of US support for brutal rule in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of Israel and its illegal occupation of the West Bank. In fact, the US continues to support Saudi bombing in Yemen that in many ways resembles Russian bombing in Syria.

The bottom line is that the US government and media do not want peaceful relations with Russia. The language that is used to criticize Russia is indicative of this. It is aggressive and racist language that has the potential to further destabilize US – Russian relations with disastrous results. That this language is accepted with little or no reflection by western audiences speaks volumes about the power of anti-Russian indoctrination prevalent in the West.

1) Cohen, Roger. Cold Man in the Kremlin, New York Times, 2014.
2) Ferguson, Niall. Why We Ruled the World, Niall Ferguson, 2003.
3) Hitler, Putin and the First Lesson of History, Daily Mail, 10 February 2015.
4) Kagan, Robert. Putin Makes His Move, Washington Post, 2008.
5) Marshall, Jonathan. More Anti-Russian Bias at NYT, Consortium News, 2015.
6) Scratch a Russian, Harvard Crimson, 1922.
7) Rucker, Philip. Hillary Clinton Says Putin’s Actions “Are like what Hitler did back in 30s.” 2014.
8) Trudolyubov, Maxim. Three Rules of Kremlin Power, New York Times, 2016.
9) White, Philip. A Leadership Legacy: Happy 138th, Winston, National Churchill Museum, 2012.
10) Yanov, Alexander. Pan-Slavism in Action, Institute of Modern Russia, 2013.