The West Has Found a New Scapegoat to Blame: Russia

I remember exactly the clear morning of 9/11 and the walk along Hillhouse Ave toward the hall where I was to give the first lecture on Russian culture. I wanted to discuss the Soviet fanatics who exploded the biggest cathedral in Moscow in order to erect the world’s tallest tower in its place. I had already heard about the first plane flying into the Twin Towers, but with few details available, I didn’t pursue it, concentrating on my lecture. A stranger, having parked his pickup truck, then addressed me: “Have you heard about the second plane? It is big, man. We are under attack!“ It took a while to digest; shaken, we silently looked at each other and our eyes met. Town and gown division was instantly obliterated. Construction worker in Timberland boots, and Ivy League professor speaking with a foreign accent –we got on the same wave length right away.

There was a pause in the air that made people feel like brothers. This sense was lost, of course, replaced by nationalistic hysteria and aggressive foreign policy involving wars, bombing, and lies. Business as usual, in other words, but the moment was there for people to feel and to share. And being on the phone during these days, I felt that the grief was shared by Americans, Russians, Israelis, and so on. Putin, by the way, was one of the first world leaders to call President Bush and offer Russia’s condolences for the tragedy.

Nothing like that happened when the Malaysian plane was shot down over Ukraine. 300 lives went up in smoke--the victims of a stupid war they have nothing to do with, but which the West has been fostering deliberately and methodically, refusing to force the Ukrainian government to negotiate and stop the bloodshed that is spreading across Ukraine like wild fire, devouring the south Ukrainian steppe. The plane’s innocent victims didn’t get this grievous pause. Shared camaraderie of suffering got dissolved before it had a chance to crystalize. The very next day, the Kiev regime resumed its bombardment and killing in Luhansk, while in the West, the affair became instantly politicized, as if the main point of this senseless tragedy was to expose and ostracize Russia. Is that what we’ve learned from the 9/11 experience: that tragedy can be politicized and exploited, that it is pertinent to create and impose a narrative and allocate the guilt before your shocked audience had a chance to think on its own?

I am sure that having witnessed the plane’s tragedy, people all over the world expected their leaders to do their utmost to stop the mayhem. “Bad peace is better than good war,” goes the Russian proverb. But I guess the West finds its meaning untranslatable, as it keeps on condoning Kiev’s brutal attacks on its own civilians in eastern Ukraine, attacks amply documented by Human Rights Watch and endless videos and pictures. Russians I talked to were quite shaken by the plane tragedy, but before they were given a chance to express their sympathy, they had to jump to self-defense against the barrage of the most vicious and reckless media attacks in years. Don’t we need a thorough investigation before calling for blood? And whatever the results prove to be, will they return the lost lives? If you leave a live wire exposed somebody will touch it. Why was such a live wire left exposed in Ukraine? In May, the newly elected president Poroshenko promised to stop the violence within hours, then within days. He obviously failed. Should he not be advised, indeed forced, to negotiate? Yet the Kiev authorities either deny that they have a civil war on their hands, or declare triumphantly that they don’t negotiate with terrorists. Denial is hardly a way to resolve the conflict. The monstrous death is let loose on Ukraine. It has to be contained, before it devours many more lives.

Instead of calls for the diffusion of the situation, instead of even-handedness and objectivity in discussing the plane’s tragedy, Western media offered a barrage of propaganda and malevolence. The news outlets slavishly accept “the facts” that the Kiev government present, and then amplify these “facts” with the degree of unanimity that would make the Stalinist press envious. The result is a perfect a capella song where the lower, solemn voices of the liberal publications merge with the higher and more shrill ones of Fox News and tabloids. But the melody is the same. When plenty of writers (including myself) stressed that the differences between the Eastern and Western Ukraine are real, the Western corporate media unanimously denied it. When the warning of unfolding civil war were sounded they were rejected, and when the corruption of the current regime and nearsightedness of its western backers were articulated, the press ignored it. According to the current media mantra, which is but the State Department’s position, there is nothing rotten in the Kingdom of Kiev, except the aggressive meddling of Putin. Without him everything will be fine. Fine to have a bankrupt country ran by the oligarchs with their own private armies. Fine to have a violent Ukrainian parliament (Rada), where the nuances of politics are resolved through fist-fighting. Fine to have the Prime Minister of the new government resigning after two months, unable to cope with the internal struggle and collapsing economy that fails to supply its army with food and protective gear. Fine to have the Ukrainian army decimated by rebels, defecting in droves, and resenting its assigned task of killing civilians and bombing their houses.

What should be treated as the tragedy in the heart of Europe is reduced by the press and politicians to another “day in the life of the Russian dictator.” It is all Putin’s fault. Shouldn’t this ubiquitous and malicious presence behind every world problem remind us of anything? Plot of the KGB Elders, maybe? Anyone with a vague sense of history will recognize that Russia has been assigned the role of a scapegoat: the role that in the Western imagination has been traditionally played by the Jews. The Jews were different (culturally, religiously, and socially), they combined the mixture of strength and weakness (small in numbers, but powerful in the knowledge, of say, medicine or finances) – and this uncanny mixture of unfamiliarity, fear, and disdain that the Jews generated turned them into perfect scapegoats, as the brilliant French theoretician, Rene Girard, argued in his study of scapegoating.

Well, Russians can congratulate themselves. They became the designated Jews of the modern world, and the pundits of the Western press, blinded by their neo-con agenda, don’t even notice that. These journalists, some of whom are Jewish, fail to register that they are pursuing Russia with the same zeal and recklessness as numerous anti-Semitic journalists have been pursuing Jews ever since anti-Semitic publications became a part of modern media.

In fact, after 9/11 it appeared that the Muslims were edging out Russians for the role of arch- scapegoats vacated by the Jews. But for reasons that are too complex to be engaged here the Muslims have lost it to Russians. Of course, if any competition should be banned, it is this one; if this hydra of national phobia is not decapitated, it will find its victims: be it Jews, Arabs, or any other group waiting in the wings. In fact, in the eyes of the fanatics that destroyed the Twin Towers, it was Americans who were the scapegoats. One, therefore, looks in dismay at various national groups, victims of persecution themselves, who try to demonize and attack others as a way of relieving their own inner tensions.

I find it revealing that the countries notorious for their virulent anti-Semitism during WWII, be it Poland, Ukraine or the Baltic States, are now at the forefront of current Russophobia, generating hysteria over “Russian aggression”, willingly echoed by the Western press. Never fully confronting their own anti-Semitism, never curing themselves of the disease of scapegoating (as opposed to the Germans, for example), they found a perfect “other” upon which they can project their frustrated selves without being challenged. They discovered even better “Jews” that real ones: “the Jews” that they can kill with impunity if not the encouragement from the West. The Russia-baiting became such irresistible activity (it is a clear sign of some profound crisis) that even some Jews have jumped on the bandwagon. Criticizing Arabs and Palestinians might raise eyebrows in the West and even in Israel, but it is perfectly fine to scream about the evils of autocratic Russia. This degree of Russophobia is so strong that I remember reading reports claiming that it is only Russians (meaning Russian Jews) that fly bombers into Gaza. Of course, who else?

According to Girard, this persecution of “the other,” of a scapegoat, becomes most pronounced at the time of crisis. Thus, Greeks turned against Oedipus at the time of the plague, thus Medieval pogroms in Europe coinciding with the time of the plagues, thus pogroms in Tsarist Russia that took place at the time of the strong economic upheavals and transformations. The list can go on.

The economic, political, and social cataclysms of Ukraine are obvious. Had such a process of destruction unfolded in previous centuries, the results would have been “the good old pogroms” that marred Ukrainian history since the time of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. I am sure that the Neo-Nazi supporters whose presence is far too obvious in the life of modern Ukraine and whose voices were heard loud and clear during the February coup would be more than happy to vent their frustrations upon the Jews. But knowing that they are backed by US, the country that would not tolerate traditional anti-Semitism, Neo-Nazis decided to be creative. New Jews were invented: Russians (Moskali). The May 2 massacre in Odessa, when at least fifty innocent civilians were locked up and burned in a building, was a major anti-Russian pogrom that met very little criticism in the West. Russophobia has graduated from words into action.

Western politics has long moved beyond traditional anti-Semitism. Parallel to this phenomenon, Western Jews have entered the mainstream. They are no longer “others.” But Russians are: they possess this deadly combination of strength and weakness, familiarity and strangeness that makes them perfect scapegoats. They are billionaires who buy London flats and ragamuffins who steal toys from dead bodies; they are dedicated scientists and corrupt drunkards; their country and population is shrinking, yet, it is bent on expanding; they insist on negotiation, legality, and diplomacy, and yet, they take over peninsulas. What a godsend nation for any frustrated and economically insecure thug! Kill the Russkies! Anyone who would try to “kill the Jews” will experience all the might of law, press, and the Israeli army--if nothing else works-- thrown into their face. But killing Russians is not a slogan any more, it is the everyday reality in Eastern Ukraine. But as we saw from the Odessa massacre, from thousands of refugees and hundreds of dead civilians, nothing happens to the perpetrators. The Russian army is silent, the Russian press is discredited in the West as “propaganda,” and Russian politicians protest in vain. The Russian speaking population of the Donbass region is left to their own devices to defend their lives against the onslaught of the Ukrainian army. Of course, this situation is so scandalous for Russians on the mainland that they pursue all possible ways to supply their brothers across the border with arms, food, and volunteers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it: it is a genuine mass movement and it will be politically dangerous on the part of Putin to tinker with it.

Those who have to fight for their lives, learn quickly. Israel, helped by American financial and military might, has become a force to be reckoned with. The Russian speaking population in Ukraine and the Russians themselves are equally quick studies. The war that Poroshenko promised to be over within a few hours has no sign of abiding. Without negotiations or a cease fire, it will end only when Kiev collapses. The Western press can try to outdo itself in its anti-Russian fervor, and continue to vilify Putin and his regime, but the current Ukrainian crisis has not been created by Putin. The country is torn apart by a real civil war, with the corrupt nationalistic regime on the one side, and with a Russian speaking population that feels increasingly under existential threat on the other. It was a Jewish tragedy that Jews were too decimated to support the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But as opposed to the Jews in Warsaw, people in the Donbass region have a very powerful neighbor in the east, the neighbor who in its turn begins to feel the need to fight for its survival. Traveling through diverse regions of Russia this summer, I’ve heard the same story all over again – we don’t want to be bullied any more, nor do we want to be pushed to the wall and dictated what to do. If Putin tries to stop this flow of sympathy that goes to the Russian speaking population in Eastern Ukraine, he risks being thrown out of office. It is hard to imagine him doing so.

One innocent life taken away by violence renders the world apart. How many more civilian planes will be taken down? How many innocent liveswill be sacrificed to this demon of scapegoating, before people learn to look at “the other” and recognize themselves, and not some vicious devils with horns?


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