Russia Complained About Western Double Standards During the Last Crimean War Too

How It Works
March 21 2014 4:53 PM

The Long History of Russian Whataboutism

nicholas
Proto-Putin: Czar Nicholas I.

Wikipedia

I like to imagine that British historian Orlando Figes is having a good time this month remembering all the people back in 2012 who questioned why he had decided to write a 600-page history of the Crimean War.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Like a lot of people, I would guess, I’m only now reading his very well-written account of a conflict that’s little remembered today except for Florence Nightingale and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Advertisement

One particularly interesting aspect is that what we think of today as the “Cold War” mindset among some Western leaders predates the Soviet Union, and has its roots in British fears of Russian expansion during the 19th century. (Remember, Britain’s disastrous forays into Afghanistan were premised on the far-fetched notion that Russia could threaten British holdings in India.) The language of the Russia hawks in parliament in the run-up to Crimea wouldn’t have sounded all that out of place during the Cold War or today.

On the other side, Russian nationalists of Czar Nicholas I’s day, shared with their modern descendants a distinct belief that as their country’s influence grew, it was being cynically judged by different standards than western powers. (Western reporters have referred to this tendency as “whataboutism”—deflecting any criticism of Russia by saying “what about” a different abuse committed in the West.)

Figes quotes a long passage from Mikhail Pogodin, a professor at Moscow University and one of the leading exponents of “pan-Slavism”—the belief that all the Slavic peoples of Europe should be united in one state. It comes from an 1853 memorandum to Nicholas, which the tsar underlined enthusiastically in several places:

France takes Algeria from Turkey, and almost every year England annexes another Indian principality: none of this disturbs the balance of power; but when Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia, albeit only temporarily, that disturbs the balance of power. France occupies Rome and stays there several years during peacetime: that is nothing; but Russia only thinks of occupying Constantinople, and the peace of Europe is threatened. The English declare war on the Chinese, who have, it seems, offended them: no one has the right to intervene; but Russia is obliged to ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with its neighbor. England threatens Greece to support the false claims of a miserable Jew and burns its fleet: that is a lawful action; but Russia demands a treaty to protect millions of Christians, and that is deemed to strengthen its position in the East at the expense of the balance of power. We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice, which does not understand and does not want to under stand.

Nicholas approvingly commented in the margin of the page, “That is the whole point.”

It doesn’t feel like much of a stretch to hear echoes of Pogodin’s point of view in Vladimir Putin’s statement on Crimea on Tuesday, which listed a litany of complaints about Western intervention in Kosovo, Libya, the “color revolutions,” and the Arab Spring—actions that the president said demonstrated the hypocrisy of the U.S. and European position on Crimea.

“This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism,” Putin said. “One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.”

The basic sentiment of Putin’s speech is a lot older than his presidency, and seemingly a lot older than the Cold War as well.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Alabama’s Insane New Abortion Law Gives Fetuses Lawyers and Puts Teenage Girls on Trial

Tattoo Parlors Have Become a Great Investment

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

Big Problems With the Secret Service Were Reported Last Year. Nobody Cared.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 2 2014 11:01 AM It Wasn’t a Secret A 2013 inspector general report detailed all of the Secret Service’s problems. Nobody cared.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 12:10 PM Women of America, Here Are the Cities Where You Can Find Marriageable Men
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 2 2014 11:07 AM Mapping 1890 Manhattan's Crazy-Quilt of Immigrant Neighborhoods
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 2 2014 12:37 PM St. Louis Study Confirms That IUDs Are the Key to Lowering Teen Pregnancy Rates
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 12:04 PM The Audio Book Club Debates Gone Girl, the Novel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 2 2014 11:41 AM Dropbox Recruiting Video Features Puppets and Data Privacy
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 2 2014 9:49 AM In Medicine We Trust Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?