In 2018, a drawing of Russian President Putin was released by the Wall Street Journal. In this image, President Putin was depicted wearing Mongolian-style garb and armor. Behind him rides a faceless Mongol horde. A caption in bold characters read: “RUSSIA RETURNS TO ITS ASIAN PAST”. What may appear to be an innocent political cartoon is actually connected to very deep anti-Asian roots.
The use of Asian caricatures, mixed with the “yellow peril” myth, or the idea of Asian peoples posing some sort of existential threat to the Western world, has been used as a dehumanization tactic by the West for many centuries. Due to the historically poor relationship between Western Europe and Russia, Western intellectuals have often disassociated Russia from Europe and portrayed Russia as an Asian country. This dehumanization tactic is often used to manufacture anti-Russian sentiment and justify military or political action.
In 1549, an Austrian noble named Sigismund von Herberstein visited Russia (Moscowvy at the time) and thoroughly described the political and cultural layout of Russia as non-European. Herberstein noted that the state organization — the concentration of power of the state, the submission of the religion to state authority, the clothing, and the military customs — were more Mongol or Chinese than European. When Herberstein placed Muscovy on the map, he located it — culturally as well as geographically — in Asia. This early Western record of Russia would have serious implications on the Western worldview toward the East for centuries to come.
The French leader Napoleon, who led a multinational coalition to invade Russia in 1812, was famously quoted as, “Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar” (Historically, the term Tatars was applied to anyone originating from the vast Northern and Central Asian landmass then known as Tartary). Another 19th-century Frenchman during this time, Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine stated that the Russian civilization was not European.
In 1839, the book “Russia in 1839” was published in France, written by a Marquis de Custine. In this book, Custine describes Russians as:
“semi-savages, Tartars, outwardly elegant parvenus, civilized bears.”
“ …the Russians are not yet civilized. They are enrolled and drilled Tartars, nothing more”
“[They] are disguised Chinese. . . . If they dared to brave the reproach of barbarism as the true Chinese do, access to Petersburg would be as difficult to us as is the access to Peking” (Gross)
It also is widely known that during the Second World War, Nazi intellectuals often referred to Russia as a subhuman “Asiatic Horde” due to be exterminated. Nazi propaganda and Nazi leaders repeatedly labeled the Soviet Union as an “Asiatic threat” and often equated the Russians with the Mongols. In 1942, Adolf Hitler spoke with Anton Mussert and stated that the “Asiatic waves were threatening to overrun Europe and exterminate the higher races” — Asiatic waves meaning the Russians. The Nazis devised “Generalplan Ost” as their ultimate goal: the vast ethnic cleansing and enslavement of the multiple races living in the Russian landmass.
This same prejudiced anti-Asian, anti-Russian sentiment was also prevalent among the American leadership. U.S. General George Patton wrote in his personal diary:
“The difficulty in understanding the Russian is that we do not take cognizance of the fact that he is not a European but an Asiatic and therefore thinks deviously. We can no more understand a Russian than a Chinaman or a Japanese and, from what I have seen of them, I have no desire to understand them except to ascertain how much lead or iron it takes to kill them. In addition to his other amiable characteristics, the Russian has no regard for human life and is an all-out son of a bitch, a barbarian, and a chronic drunk.”
In April 2022, Florence Gaub, the Deputy Director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies openly posted a social media post in which she declared that “Russians may look European, but they’re not European”.
So it is clear that the caricature of Russia playing the role of the “Asiatic horde” is profoundly embedded in the worldview of Westerners and carries on to this day.
This history clearly demonstrates that the West has never accepted “barbaric” and “Asiatic” Russia as part of the family of so-called “civilized nations”. If this is the case, then Russians have no need to even bother to pursue a path of reconciliation with the West. The arrogant and bigoted West has made its choice to snub the Russian civilization — as a result, Russia must look at and embrace the East.
Historically, Russia’s relationship with the East has been much more positive. Neither China nor India has ever forcibly imposed its values, political systems, or culture onto the Russians. Rather, most Asian intellectuals, like Sun Yat Sen, Ghandi, and Nerhu have always treated Russia with a strange mix of understanding, awe, curiosity, and respect. The conclusion is clear — that is Russia must break from the West and fully join the East, and make contributions to turning the next century, the Asian century.
Gross, Irena Grudzinska. The Scar of Revolution: Custine, Tocqueville, and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991 1991. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3b69n83q/