MOSCOW — He was long reviled by Russia’s state-controlled media as a deranged warmonger. President Vladimir Putin said he had “lost his roof” — in other words, gone crazy — during his time in captivity in Vietnam. Despite or rather because of all the abuse, however, Sen. John McCain will be sorely missed in Moscow.
The Arizona senator’s death Saturday from a brain tumor has deprived the Kremlin and its propaganda machine of not only a cherished punching bag but the central protagonist in their favorite conspiracy theory — the view that Western sanctions against Russia and President Donald Trump’s inability to lift them have nothing to do with anything Russia has done but are the result of “Russophobia.”
In a report on McCain’s death, Rossiya 1, a state television channel, called him “the chief symbol of Russophobia” and as such the main reason Moscow’s relations with the West are so bad. Life News, an outlet close to the Russian security services, declared him the West’s “chief Russophobe.”
The beauty of “Russophobia” from Russia’s perspective is that it absolves Moscow of any responsibility for the consequences of its own actions — the annexation of Crimea, its military incursions into Georgia and eastern Ukraine, the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger jet and its repeated meddling in Western elections — and has turned the country into an innocent victim of, well, John McCain.
But what to do now that, as Oleg Morozov, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Duma, Russia’s upper house of Parliament, declared this week, “The enemy is dead”?
Alexander Domrin, a Moscow academic and administrator of a Facebook page called “Russians for Donald Trump,” said he was “not sorry” that McCain had died, “because he was an enemy of my country,” but conceded that finding a replacement hate figure will not be easy.
He mentioned Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and other critics of Putin in Washington as possible substitutes, but said: “None of them is as charismatic as John McCain. It will be hard to find somebody who can replace him as the main Russophobe.”
Apparently calculating that kicking a dead man looks bad, and unsure about how to make sense of the world now that the man supposedly responsible for so many of Russia’s troubles has gone, Russia’s state news media has in recent days somewhat muted its previously splenetic attacks on McCain and even given voice to what pass for tributes.
“Give him credit for his honest enmity, his honest hatred and intransigence,” said Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-funded RT news network. “Others play a double game. He said what he thought.”
The idea that Russia is besieged by irrational haters who, no matter what the country does, will always seek to kill off Russia and its people, has flitted on the fringe of Russian thinking since the 19th century. That’s when a Slavophile poet and diplomat, Fyodor Tyutchev, coined the term Russophobia — which he said had infected some prominent Russians and acquired a “pathological character” — in an 1867 letter, written in French, which he knew better than Russian, to his daughter.
Soviet ideologues and propagandists mostly stayed away from the idea, preferring to blame the machinations of class enemies, foreign capitalists and imperialists for their country’s problems. But as faith in Marxism withered in the 1980s and Russian nationalism re-emerged as a potent force, interest in “Russophobia” resurfaced.
The true flowering of “Russophobia” as a concept embraced not only by fringe nationalists but by the Russian state did not take place until the 2014 crisis in Ukraine. Russian officials and the state-controlled media started using the term daily to explain why the West was protesting so loudly over the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election gave the concept even more traction, with Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov denouncing them as a “Russophobic instrument.” Russia’s 2017 sports doping scandal, which erupted after a whistleblower provided all-but-incontrovertible evidence of illegal doping, was likewise dismissed as another outbreak of the West’s pathology.
Throughout, McCain was cast as the principal source of all of this supposed hatred.
That McCain was not a fan of Putin and also a tireless supporter of his foes across the former Soviet Union, including former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, is beyond dispute.
But his place at the center of Russian demonology stems not only from his long record of resisting what he saw as Russian aggression, but also from the Kremlin’s need to find a self-exculpatory explanation for why its relations with the West have soured so badly.
RT, the English-language news outlet formerly known as Russia Today, last year put McCain at the top of a list of 10 prominent Kremlin critics and awarded him a “lifetime achievement award for services to Russophobia.”
The list, however, highlights how difficult it will be for Russia to find a substitute hate figure for McCain. The other “Russophobes” on the list — Hillary Clinton, actor Morgan Freeman, a handful of journalists and a few other, mostly obscure, figures — are either has-beens or carry too little weight to step into McCain’s shoes as the plausible ringleader of what is supposed to be a global conspiracy.
Molly McKew, an American consultant who worked in the past for Saakashvili and who appeared at the bottom of RT’s top-10 Russophobes list, said she “would be happy to take John McCain’s spot.” But, she said, “If I am all they’ve got, they’ve got a problem.”
She added: “I think they are missing him already.”