Americans are suffering from a chronic disease. It's called Russophobia.
Ever wonder what's behind those documented reports about Russian trolls and bots sowing discord, spreading disinformation, and promoting fake news on social media? It's Russophobia, of course. How about those indictments of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for their role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee's servers? More Russophobia! And Maria Butina's arrest and conviction for working as an unregistered agent for the Russian government? Still more Russophobia.
At least, that is, according to the Kremlin.
The Russian Embassy in Washington has just released a 121-page report, "The Russiagate Hysteria: A Case of Severe Russophobia," which chronicles instances of alleged "anti-Russian hysteria" by U.S. journalists, pundits, politicians, law-enforcement officials, and policymakers. It refers to reports of Russian hacking, cyber-attacks, and social media trolling as "groundless accusations," accuses the U.S. media of "demonizing" the Russian Embassy, and U.S. officials of "persecuting of the Russian press."
And it's not just Americans being afflicted. Apparently, Russophobia is everywhere.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims that Russophobia in Ukraine has reached an "unprecedented scale." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blames a report by the British Parliament on Russian money laundering through London banks on a "wave of Russophobia." And Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova calls Lithuania breaking up an alleged Moscow spy ring a "Russophobic move."
The list goes on. References to Russophobia by the Russian media tripled between 2013 and 2015 and usage of the term by the Russian Foreign Ministry has also spiked in recent years.
Russophobia is not just a smear the Kremlin aims at anybody who has the temerity to criticize Vladimir Putin's autocratic regime. The use of the term is part of a carefully calculated disinformation strategy aimed at stigmatizing any and all critiques of the government as chauvinistic assaults on all Russians. It's effectively a systematic attempt to smear and discredit Kremlin critics as racists.
Indeed, in a 2013 article, the Russian historian Oleg Nemensky went so far as to compare Russophobia to anti-Semitism, arguing that it constituted a "complete ideology."
That's more than ironic. It is effectively the wolf crying wolf, since Russophobia is a word that is itself deeply racist in its origins. And this isn't the first time that apologists for Russian nationalism have deployed the term against their opponents.
The term Russophobia was coined by a 19th-century poet and court propagandist who initially deployed it against Roman Catholic Poles and their liberal Russian supporters. It was revived and popularized in the late 20th century by a Soviet-era dissident nationalist who used it as a slur against Jews.
The grandfather of the term was the 19th-century Slavophile poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev, who is most famous for the phrase "Russia cannot be understood only with the mind."
A pronounced nationalist, Tyutchev enjoyed considerable influence in the courts of Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II. He was obsessed with Slavic unity, stridently demanding that the Russian Empire uphold traditional Christian and monarchist values at a time of rapid political change in Europe.
He also dabbled in propaganda and agitprop. Tyutchev collaborated closely with the Third Department of the Tsar's Office, effectively the secret police of the time. He lobbied for the creation of a Russian counterpropaganda operation in Europe, and was named chairman of the Foreign Censorship Committee in 1858.
In a letter to a relative in September 1867—in French, interestingly enough—Tyutchev complained about a "modern phenomenon that is becoming increasingly pathological—the Russophobia of some Russian people."
The Russian people Tyutchev had in mind were those who supported Poland's struggle for independence from the Russian Empire, an aspiration that also led him to accuse the Poles of endemic Russophobia, and denouncing the Polish nation as "the Judas of the Slavs."
During the Soviet period, the term Russophobia largely disappeared from public discourse, although it did appear in some Stalin-era dictionaries.
But it resurfaced in the late 1980s with a vengeance. It took on a distinctive anti-Semitic character when the renowned mathematician and nationalist dissident Igor Shafarevich published a lengthy samizdat essay titled "Russophobia." Essentially a polemic against pro-Western dissidents, Shafarevich's essay accused Jewish intellectuals in the Soviet Union of being motivated by a hatred of Russia.
Shafarevich later turned the essay into a book that assailed "Jews who are conducting a policy of Russophobia." "Hatred for one nation," he wrote, "is usually associated with a heightened sense of one's belonging to another." Shafarevich's essay and book were highly controversial, prompting the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to ask for his resignation as a foreign associate.
But his writing also made Shafarevich, who died in February 2017, a hero to Russian nationalists. It also firmly embedded the term Russophobia in the modern Russian lexicon, where it has since remained.
The Kremlin's Russophobia weapon has proven very effective, with an increasing number of Western scholars, pundits, and journalists on both the left and the right amplifying the term, either out of guilt, ignorance, or affinity.
It's a regrettable tactic. In so doing, they aren't just whitewashing destructive Kremlin behavior. They're also giving new life to a term that has a long and nefarious history.
Brian Whitmore is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Russia Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington D.C.-based think tank
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.