Ivan the Terrible showing treasures to Englishman Jerome Horsey
Ivan the Terrible showing his treasures to English adventurer and unofficial ambassador Jerome Horsey in an 1875 painting.

Fearing and Ignoring Russia: A Recipe for Trouble

October 01, 2019
Paul Saunders


The Russia Anxiety and How History Can Resolve It
By Mark B. Smith
Oxford University Press, October 2019

While America’s Great National Russia Freak-Out has by late 2019 largely subsided, Washington’s political and media elites remain deeply anxious about Moscow’s capabilities and goals. So too do political and media elites in Europe, where Russia’s seizure of Crimea, military intervention in eastern Ukraine and Syria and interference in America’s 2016 election and domestic politics in other nations have prompted similar fears. In this environment, Cambridge historian Mark B. Smith’s book “The Russia Anxiety and How History Can Resolve It” is a valuable effort to assess the long history of the West’s Russia-related worries and to explain how history can help us “to look at Russia more calmly, reasonably and accurately.” It is likewise valuable in drawing attention not only to Russia’s history but also to the West’s; as Smith fairly states, “no country is honest about its past.”

The first part of “The Russia Anxiety” describes the curious combination of fear, contempt and disregard that has shaped Western attitudes toward Russia for centuries. Smith draws a winding line from a popular mid-19th century travelogue by the French aristocrat the Marquis de Custine, who asked his readers to “imagine a half-savage people who have been regimented, without being civilized,” through the McCarthy-era hysteria parodied in the film “Dr. Strangelove” to modern-day sentiments. At each stage, he argues, even as Westerners have feared violent aggression, their contempt for Russia’s society has fueled inattention to and disregard for Russia and its interests that make tension more likely.

While the analytical core of “The Russia Anxiety” is not always easy reading—it would be difficult for any writer unerringly to strike the right balance between generality and detail in reviewing more than a millennium of Russian history—the five chapters in part two are persuasive in addressing the historical and enduring sources of anxiety about Russia. Smith refers to these as “the dictatorship deception,” “the terror moment,” “the Europe question,” “the empire relationship” and “the invader obsession.” In brief, these chapters question whether Russia’s history is solely one of authoritarianism and violence, separate from Europe, and driven by expansionist DNA and Russia’s own memory of past invasions.

Smith makes a strong case that Russia’s history includes a meaningful basis for hope about the country’s political future, albeit on its own terms, and indeed that Russia’s past authoritarian path was not an inevitable one. He is similarly effective in setting the Russian empire’s internal violence and external expansion within the broader context of European history, where Moscow’s conduct does not seem too far out of line with internally bloody events like the French Revolution’s terror or the parallel external brutality of European colonialism across the Middle East, Africa, and south and southeast Asia. For his American readers, Smith also refers to the 19th-century U.S. expansion across North America and the violent suppression and resettlement of Native Americans in increasingly remote and decreasingly desirable territories.

Part three of Smith’s book assesses the Stalin era, how the post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia have grappled with its painful history and what lessons readers can take from history in thinking about Russia. The six lessons are appropriately broad and simply formulated; they are also quite relevant for anyone trying to understand Russia and how to confront the many challenges that Moscow poses in its foreign policy and domestic practices. The first may be the most important: “Be modest about the claims of history.”

Smith offers many brief but insightful observations in the book, such as his point that some of the 19th-century similarities between America and Russia—a contemporary sense that each had a “continental destiny,” a “messianic approach” and “an instinct for liberation” (in their nearly simultaneous efforts to end slavery and serfdom)—fed a problematic perspective in the United States that Russia “was a bit like America but could be much more so if only it tried harder.” This in turn contributed to the views that Russia was either “alien and malign” or “a disappointment and a poor learner.” Today, these views seem to dominate simultaneously in the United States; indeed, the sense that Russia and ethnic Russians appear European and thus “should” think and act differently than they do likely stokes both of the perspectives that Smith describes—as well as a deep frustration at the gap between American expectations and reality.

The framework combining fear, contempt and disregard that Smith places at the center of “The Russia Anxiety” is especially useful in assessing U.S. perspectives toward Russia—and its president, Vladimir Putin—today. America’s political and media elites seem to fear Russia’s political interference (and, as a result, to place surprisingly little confidence in the system that elevated them to positions of leadership) and its capability for so-called “hybrid warfare.” At the same time, they routinely express contempt for Russia’s political and economic systems as well as for its military capabilities relative to America’s. The latter view apparently includes contempt for the Russian leadership’s resolve; this attitude allows U.S. elites to ignore the potentially existential threat posed by Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal and the lesser dangers that could result from a long-term confrontation between Washington and Moscow. This contempt—including contempt for Putin’s political legitimacy and his representation of wider societal definitions of Russia’s national interests and views of U.S. conduct—in turn permits America’s elites to disregard most of what the Russian president says as meaningless bluster, while simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically using Putin’s sometimes theatrical announcements to justify U.S. fears and contempt.

This is no effort to defend or to justify Russian conduct either domestically or internationally—Moscow has systematically violated Western norms and Russia’s leaders had to know that and to know that the U.S. and Western governments would see this as hostile and dangerous. Yet whether or not Russia’s and Putin’s views and actions are justified, the United States and its European allies have to deal with both. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote when Russia was in the process of annexing Crimea, “for the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” Regrettably, more than five years later, the United States seems no closer to developing either a strategy or a policy to manage its relationship with Russia. Mark Smith’s provocative book won’t solve that problem alone, but it does offer some valuable guidance in thinking about solutions.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is the chairman and president of the Energy Innovation Reform Project and a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo in the public domain, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons; painting by Alexander Litovchenko.