“Better than in Ukraine” – Russia boosts itself by denigrating others

Putin's United Russia party campaigning in a Russian village: the horse-drawn cart reusing the cabin from a dismantled tractor prominently displays its flag wherever it goes (Image: rufabula.ru)

Putin's United Russia party campaigning in a Russian village: the horse-drawn cart reusing the cabin from a dismantled tractor prominently displays its flag wherever it goes (Image: rufabula.ru) 

2016/06/30 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Russian economist and blogger

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Russian economist

Most great powers celebrate their status by pointing to their own achievements; Russia in contrast seeks to boost itself not by doing that – there are too few to mention – but by denigrating other countries, an approach Vladislav Inozemtsev suggests is summed up in the phrase that however bad things are in Russia, they’re “better than in Ukraine.”

Russian officials “and above all” Vladimir Putin increasingly like to talk about Russia being a great power, the Moscow commentator says; but they do so in a way that raises doubts that “Russian politicians “really believe in the myths they have created” in that regard.

Putin inside Kremlin's gilded walls (Image: kremlin.ru)

Putin inside Kremlin’s gilded walls
(Image: kremlin.ru)

If Russia’s powers that be really “consider their country to be strong, it would be logical for them to suggest that it occupies leading positions in the world on many if not the majority of measures,” as the leaders of other major powers like those of the United States, Germany and China do, Inozemtsev says.

But “in Russia for a long time already hasRemove featured image been put in place a different kind of discourse, based not so much on the analysis of one’s own achievements as on a comparison of them with what others have been able to achieve.” Such an approach, he says, began in the 1930s and reached its apogee with Khrushchev’s “catch up and surpass America” slogan.

A search for survivors at a site hit in December 2015 by Russian airstrikes in Idlib, Syria. “Some Russian airstrikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program. Syrian rebels say most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where ISIS does not have a strong presence. (Image: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

A search for survivors at a site hit in December 2015 by Russian airstrikes in Idlib, Syria. “Some Russian airstrikes appear to have directly attacked civilians or civilian objects by striking residential areas with no evident military target and even medical facilities, resulting in deaths and injuries to civilians. Such attacks may amount to war crimes.” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa program. Syrian rebels say most of the strikes have focused on central and northern Syria, where ISIS does not have a strong presence. (Image: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters)

Unfortunately, subsequent events “showed the illusory quality of hopes for the realization of this beautiful slogan in practice.” The Soviet Union was simply too far “behind” and was falling ever further “behind” as well. After 1991, Russians had to face up to that lag, even though it made many of them uncomfortable.

But in 2000, with the rise of Vladimir Putin, there was a return to the pattern of boosting oneself by denigrating others. A day before entering the Kremlin, the new leader talked about how Russia could catch up with Portugal, even though at that point it was far behind that European country in terms of per capita GDP.

Some of the five to seven million Russian children are living on the streets as “besprizorniki,” who seldom go to school and often turn to drugs and crime. They too are the collateral damage of Russia’s wars. (Image: imrussia.org)

Some of the five to seven million Russian children are living on the streets as “besprizorniki,” who seldom go to school and often turn to drugs and crime. They too are the collateral damage of Russia’s wars. (Image: imrussia.org)

Russia came close to doing so in 2013, Inozemtsev says, but then “the rhetoric [offered by the Kremlin] changed again and this time much more radically.” Already with the onset of the economic crisis, it became “fashionable” to talk about the fact that life in Russia “all the same was not as bad as in neighboring countries.”

But Moscow made comparisons with them because it had fallen even further behind from the major powers of the world in terms of these economic measures. And with the crisis in Ukraine, the Kremlin focused on that country above all, suggesting that the measure of Russia’s greatness was the weakness of Ukraine.

Devastation in the Donbas - the product of Putin's military aggression into peaceful Ukraine. (Image: Slavyansk Delovoy)

Devastation in the Donbas – the product of Putin’s military aggression into peaceful Ukraine. (Image: Slavyansk Delovoy)

Such an ideological trope, Inozemtsev continues, raises questions about just how confident Russia’s rulers are about what they are saying and inevitably focuses attention on how unrealistic and unrealizable its “great power” aspirations really are, given the way in which this highlights Russia’s weaknesses rather than any strengths.

“Can one imagine that the leader of a country who was really confident in himself and in it would use such a line of argument? That Obama in a message to Congress would tell Americans that they should be glad because already now they live much better than their neighbors, the Mexicans?”

"Putin means war and poverty!" Meeting of Russian truck drivers in February 2016 (Image: social media)

“Putin means war and poverty!” Meeting of Russian truck drivers in February 2016 (Image: social media)

Or that Germany’s Angela Merkel would tell her countrymen that they should be pleased because Germans live better than Czechs or Hungarians? Inozemtsev says he has “never heard anything like that and thinks that he will not in the future.” But such efforts to hide one’s own shortcomings by pointing to others indicate that those who make them don’t see their country as they encourage others to see it.

 

“Of course,” he concludes, “one can continue to talk about Russia ‘rising from its knees,’ about Russian society being informed by ‘traditional moral values,’ and about ‘[its] weight in world politics constantly growing.’” But suggesting that Russia is already a world power because on some measures Ukraine is doing worse than Russia undercuts all such claims.


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Edited by: A. N.

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  • Dalton

    Not for long. Ukraine is now free from Putin’s grip that controlled its future and prevented it from progressing. Those days are over. Now if Russians could learn that greatness isn’t defined by how strong your military is, but by the character of your people, the Russian people would be better served.

  • Dirk Smith

    This sums it up. Rome wasn’t built in a day…..stay on course Ukraine.

  • zorbatheturk

    Russia is a pathetic country. It seeks to incite trouble worldwide and to intimidate, monster, repress, and belittle its neighbors. No good nation acts like that.

    But then, Russia is not a nation. It is a geopolitical ink stain.