What is said by Westerners about Russia reveals much about the so-called divide between these regions. Ever since winning the bid for the 2014 Olympics seven years ago Sochi has become a magnet for xenophobia against Russia. Given the massive media attention on Russia at present, I thought I'd take a few moments to write some reflections on the perception of modern Russia.
For starters, Russia is incredibly misunderstood by virtually the whole world. Europeans and North Americans are especially naive of the country's rich history and culture. Rather than understand the complexities of Russia, most have instead turned to either fear or prejudice. Winston Churchill remarked of the nation as an "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". During the Cold War the Soviet Union was conceptualised by the West as both a very real threat and a backward society. These two ideas were held in tension until the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago. In the modern global geopolitical arena Russia largely seen as inconsequential. Internet memes have highlighted the irrelevance of Russia, including famously "In Soviet Russia".
Russia seems not to have emerged from its communist past, according to most Westerners. Gone are the days of the Soviet Union and of the planned economy, welfare programmes, and relative equality. Few seem to see the deeply troubling neoliberal context in which Russia exists. It's a hypercapitalist, deeply unequal society with many of the markings of fascism. The list of serious social, political, and economic problems in Russia is significant and growing. While it is right to focus attention on Russia, there are broadly two problems. The first is that the focus is horrificly hypocritical. The second is that the focus seems to be on othering Russia as a backward place.
The case that I will select for the question of hypocrisy is the so-called "anti-gay propoganda" laws that have been enacted in recent years. International attention on Russia's homophobic policies has been constant and many who have been on the attack are forgetting about the terrible transgressions against queer citizens of other Western industrialised countries. Certainly oppression and marginalisation are more pronounced in Russia than in most other democracies, but national media have put the focus on Russia to deflect from many serious domestic problems.
This leads into the second case. I mentioned that Russia is constantly presented as backward and of course media attention recently has served to highlight that reality quite effectively. The #SochiProblems hashtag on Twitter has in fact surpassed the official Sochi page in terms of followers. People seem to be hooked on gawking at Russia, most famously with the unfinished hotel rooms. This article from the satire journal DailyCurrant has already spread across social media. While it is a work of satire, it plays on popularly-held beliefs about Russia that have been constructed by Westerners about Russia.
For all intents and purposes, Russia has had a difficult ride since taking on the Olympics. The same, however, was true when Chian hosted the games six years ago. It's striking how similar these experiences were - lots of selective focus on human rights, high levels of pollution, and on the use of improper English for tourists.