Is the media tainting perceptions of Russian society?

Dehumanization is a subtle beast. It weaves itself into the fabric of society by way of cunning remarks and sinister associations repeated over a period of time to eventually form a version of truth. 

At the height of the Salisbury spy attack last month Theresa May announced that her onslaught of allegations were aimed not at the Russian people but the state government. The British media, however, saw little regard in the public’s representation as they carelessly toted Cold War stereotypes that have become an almost better alternative to fact.

And why wouldn’t they – they’ve done it for a long time.

Last summer I spent ten weeks travelling around Southeast Asia. When searching around travel forums or scanning hotel reviews, it’s not uncommon to come across a wily remark aimed at warding off visitors due to the level of ‘Russians’ exceeding the comfortability threshold of some European travelers.

One day me and my partner were enquiring about a certain location from a group of west European backpackers when a young woman told me there were “too many Russians” there. After waiting a moment for her to elaborate, it appeared that she would make no effort to explain her point—expecting the comment alone to be self-sufficient.

I returned with a quip about “us” not being that bad – a startling revelation that made the woman instantly embarrassed.

Having lived most of my life in Ireland, I have inherent characteristics that make my heritage unidentifiable to most people, which often makes me an entrusted (but not a willing) listener of anti-Russian sentiments among the more ‘European’ populations.

However, the enjoyment of watching people get redfaced over senseless comments gets overshadowed by a loss of tolerance for this fabricated prejudice (fabricated considering most people I talked to with such views had almost zero interaction with Russian people).

To find the source of these prejudices we need not look further than our own news media.

Indeed, the kind of coverage seen in most western publications usually takes one of two narratives. The first is the view of ultra-conservative Russia that rejects any notion of liberal values; where nationalism reigns supreme and is fed by state-sponsored propaganda and widespread jingoism.

The second is a view of the staunch authoritarianist state; where the population is depicted as hapless victims of dire economic circumstances that ensure people remain underinformed and continue voting against their interests (or not voting at all).

More importantly, labels like ‘brutal’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘backward’ have become almost exclusively associated with Russian society in western media reports, stripping away human elements to depict an image of a menace feeding on European fears.

When I interviewed a group of students in UCD’s Russian Society two years ago, the majority cited the inherent bias of western media in the reporting of Russian affairs. Reluctant to make any strong political statements, they somewhat agreed that the majority of English-speaking media tend to create false depictions of the general Russian population.

A wide litany of news events have now made Russia the chief villain among the western world. But behind every political chessplay there are real people, who often bear the brunt of political prejudices.

As a child born into the dawn of a newly-capitalist Russian state, I’d had a first-hand experience of seeing a vast cultural transition and the widespread attitudes that accompanied this change.

Though I was much too young to grasp its magnitude, I had often seen and experienced the public frustration that was associated with political failings of that era. Before long, me and my parents left and sought to pursue better economic opportunities elsewhere.

Though it forced a bitter departure from their home, my parents always held a sense of pride for their country. They were grateful to have been born into a culture of vast idiosyncrasies and a community filled with cordiality and values.

After gallivanting around the world many years later, I saw this trait present in people of many different nations—from western Europe to America, Asia and the Middle East. It is what bonds people through a strong sense of community; what makes them wave their flag or cheer for their national football squad.

Through the years, my parents were forced to conceal their pride due to social prejudices that have exhibited themselves passively but effectively. Since then, I have come to know many more people like them.

We are told that pride relating to Russian—indeed, all East European—origin is associated with toxicity and nationalism. We are told that pride relating to Russia belongs to that of the enemy.

Our media carries a strong political bias. Let’s not indulge in it. We can’t allow for redundant stereotypes to become entrenched in our contemporary world view. In this highly globalised age we must attempt to understand diverse political thought. Our society demands it.

Arthur Velker

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