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Russophobia and the dark art of anti-Russian magazine covers

by Dominic Basulto at Medium

Chances are, if a story about Russia appears on the cover of a major Western magazine, it’s not good news. Most likely, there’s been an international scandal, a breakout of geopolitical tensions, the resumption of Cold War hostilities, or some nefarious Russian plot to bring the entire free world to its knees.

Russophobia — or the unnatural fear of Russia — generally leads magazine editors to choose the most over-the-top images to convey Russia as a backwards, clumsy, non-Western and aggressively malevolent power. Unfortunately, that’s led to a few rules of thumb for anyone trying to create a magazine cover featuring Russia. You can think of these rules as the dark art of making an anti-Russian magazine cover:

OPTION 1: Go with the Russian bear

This is a no-brainer, actually, and pretty much the default option for any magazine editor. The symbol of the Russian bear is universally understood to be the symbol of Russia, so it’s an immediate attention-grabber that readers will grasp quickly. After all, for centuries, Western satirists have used the Russian bear as a symbol of imperial aggression.

Given the latest round of U.S.-Russian tensions over the Ukraine crisis, the key is to make the Russian bear look as scary as possible. Take the May/June 2016 cover from Foreign Affairs, for example:

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The cover title seems relatively harmless — “Putin’s Russia: Down But Not Out.” But check out the image of the bear — it’s bloodied and still relatively menacing, despite being bruised and battered — check out the red, bloodshot eyes and the sharp claws.

Definitely not someone you’d want to mess with, even after a few shots of vodka.

And Foreign Affairs is not the only magazine to go the full bear with the cover. Ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Bloomberg BusinessWeek went with what has to be the scariest, most menacing Russia bear that’s ever appeared on the cover of a magazine. The magazine shows a malevolent bear on a pair of skis wearing a Russian hockey jersey, armed to the teeth (literally), with the headline: “Is Russia Ready?”

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This Olympic cover immediately calls to mind a cover story TIME ran on Russia (then the Soviet Union) ahead of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics — “Olympic Turmoil: Why the Soviets Said Nyet.” Here you have a menacing (and slightly psychotic-looking) Russian bear chewing on the Olympic rings:

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There are other options, of course, if you don’t want to go with the anthropomorphic bear. In late 2014, The Economist pulled off a story about “Russia’s Wounded Economy” after Western sanctions and falling oil prices — it showed a bear stalking through the wintry, Siberian snow with bloody footprints:

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But you probably want to emphasize either the claws or teeth of the Russian bear, right? So here’s a terrifying image of a Russian bear “welcoming” U.S. President Barack Obama to Moscow:

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OPTION 2: Go with Vladimir Putin

The next best choice after using the Russian bear is the image of Vladimir Putin. After all, in the minds of most Western readers, Putin is Russia and Russia is Putin.

If you’re ready to head down this road, then an image of an evil James Bond villain, hatching a diabolical plot to take over the world, might work. This 2014 Newsweek cover of Putin, showing him and the menacing sunglasses, is a classic:

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To play up the Soviet spy background of Putin, you could try using an image of him wearing sunglasses in a grim-looking Red Square (Gray Square!):

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A variant of the James Bond villain look is the classic “moody Putin” look that’s been around for almost a decade. This image somehow captures the Western perception of Russia as a vast, unsmiling wasteland full of snow, ice and a vast moral void. Who better to run that country than an unsmiling dictator? What started it all was this TIME magazine cover naming Putin as “Person of the Year”:

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From there, the moody, unsmiling Putin image took off. Pull your camera angle back from the close-up of Putin’s face and you get this — “the unsmiling tsar”:

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Which, of course, led to the cover of this 2015 book by Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times:

Of course, the moody, unsmiling, sour-looking Putin can be updated to make him look like a gangster:

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Or a Mario Puzo-style mafia don:

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If you really want to grab the reader’s attention, though, go for the shirtless Putin. The shirtless Vladimir Putin is a classic Internet meme, of course. (Google: Shirtless Putin hummingbird hamster) The meme of a shirtless Putin doing manly things is so popular that “The Simpsons” even used the image of a completely naked Putin on horseback (bareback?) around the time of the Crimea crisis:

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Look long enough, and you start to see images of shirtless Vladimir Putins Photoshopped on top of everything. So it’s perhaps no big surprise that the shirtless Vladimir Putin has ended up on the cover of a few major magazines, including this classic Economist cover where he’s shirtless on top of a Russian tank:

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And shirtless while playing poker:

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But, if you want an image of Putin, and you also want to keep things classy, how about a mashup of Putin and a classic symbol of Russian culture, like ballet or ice skating? In 2014, The New Yorker pulled off a cover of Putin, pirouetting through the air during the Sochi Winter Olympics, while a bunch of Putin yes-man clones give him top marks for his performance:

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And, here’s another cover featuring Putin as an ice skater, this time from The Economist:

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But here’s the twist — note the fallen Russian figure skater on the ice and the suggestion that the Sochi Olympics were basically a giant personal ego project for Putin. (Also note the subtext of the imagery — whereas Putin usually opts for “macho” sports like hunting, swimming and hockey, this cover shows him as a slightly effeminate ice skater. Look at the hands!!!)

OPTION 3: Go with a classic image of Russia, slightly twisted

If you’re tired of using the Russian bear image and you’re concerned that putting Vladimir Putin on the cover of your magazine might create a few unsavory possibilities for your editorial team (Russian spies! Russian mafia! Russian hooligans!), there’s the old standby — the matryoshka image. This, of course, conveys the enigmatic nature of Russia — the old “riddle inside an enigma wrapped in a mystery” of Winston Churchill:

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But why stop there? To convey the threatening nature of all things Russia, maybe it’s just easier just to come out and show the Russian missiles, tanks, weapons and troops directly:

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What all these magazine covers have in common, of course, is their Russophobia. These magazine covers are not so much different from the images that appeared a hundred years ago, when Russia really was an enigma unknown to the West. In fact, the image of Russia as a big, clumsy and aggressive state dates all the way back to the 16th century, and not much seems to have changed since then.

There’s always been a sense in Western media circles that a giant power in the middle of the Eurasian landmass posed a threat to someone — and maybe to everyone:

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Although, in all fairness, the image of the Russian bear is probably preferable to the image of the Russian octopus:

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Which leads to the obvious question — Are these images of Russia from 100 years ago really so much different from the images appearing today in Western mass media?

At a time when the Kremlin has called on the Culture Ministry to investigate anti-Russian propaganda and Russophobia in the West, this question isn’t very hard to answer.


17 Comments

  1. chrisb says

    There are reasons why Russia bating works. The Russians are amongst the most successful imperialists of the second millenium. Their brutality in Eastern Europe is the reason why the former Soviet bloc countries were so eager to join NATO. Despite its economic problems, Russia maintained its massive arsenal of weapons, including nuclear weapons. If you think neither of these factors are relevant, ask yourself whether Bulgaria bating would be so successful.

    As for the topless Putin cartoons, this is a stereotype that Putin himself created by encouraging the publication of pictures of himself topless in various manly activities.

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    • Your comment is typical product of Russophobia maintained by the imperialistic Nazi West. The Central European Vatican terrorist Poland-Lithuania occupied Russian territories for 500 years including and Moscow in 1612. Then West Europe send Napoleon in 1812 to try once again and then Hitler in 1941. Now is turn for NATO with all Central European small garbage nations who joined it.

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  2. Yeah, the Western press has it all wrong. Putin clearly knows who the enemy is and how to fight it.

    Putin to US: Be more like Israel
    Russian leader slams US anti-terror strategies, holds up Israel as an example of how to fight terrorism.

    Speaking at an international forum last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Israel’s anti-terror efforts, suggesting the United States could learn much from the Jewish state.

    In an address to the Valdai International Discussion Club, the Russian leader offered a critique of American foreign policy, particularly with regards to the Middle East and the spread of global terror groups like ISIS.

    “We keep hearing Aleppo, Aleppo, Aleppo,” referring to concerns in the US over civilian casualties in the northern Syrian city. “But what is the issue here? Do we leave the nest of terrorists in place there, or do we squeeze them out, doing our best to minimize and avoid civilian casualties?”

    full: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/219689

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  3. BLAME SHIFTING.Bait and switch. Point fingers and take the eyes of the real threat to humanity. Change the narrative and sanctimoniously blame anybody but ur self for our present predicament.. They will continue their deception. Financial crash just around the corner. Industrial military complex needs an enemy and Russia fits the bill. when the real enemy is in our own backyards.
    YESTERDAYS NEWS GETS WRAPPED IN TODAYS FISH

    Liked by 1 person

  4. archie1954 says

    I don’t understand why today’s Russia isn’t considered an integral part of the West? After all it is a nascent democracy, has a capitalist economy and is Christian as well. Where is the adverse ideology that makes it a pariah? Why can’t the US accept it as a partner or perhaps just an economic competitor rather than an enemy? What possible benefit is it for the American people to have yet another enemy to contend with? Honestly I wonder sometimes if American leaders are not Manchurian candidates, attempting to destroy the nation through treachery!

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is no need for an ideology that would justify treating Russia as a pariah. The Powers That (Shouldn’t) Be are repeating all the tired old stereotypes said in the past, in the hope that some of it sticks through constant and monotonous repetition, about Russia being a dictatorship or being ruled by authoritarian government. The aim is to replace the current government in Moscow with one more amenable to the interests of corporations, especially energy corporations, and their large shareholders (corporate or individual), who stuff Hillary Clinton’s election campaign war chests – such as the previous Yeltsin-headed government in the 1990s. The goal is to seize as much of Russia’s natural resources, especially its energy resources, and privatise them.

      Overthrowing a legitimately elected (if incompetent and corrupt) government in Ukraine in February 2014 and replacing it with a more extreme and militant government with links to Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with Nazi Germany in torturing and killing people (Poles, Russians, Jews, gypsies among others) that would accept NATO missiles on Ukrainian soil, is just one step towards encircling Russia and presenting Moscow with several potential war fronts.

      Liked by 1 person

    • US ruling class members are not normal humans. They are self-modified. Where you had human impulses and sanity, you now have a love of violence and inequality. Hence neoliberalism, which is both violence (of a sort) and inequality (shredded safety nets and austerity that makes safety nets more needed than ever) and neoconservitism (violence and deceit). It was self-modified people who envisioned a world divided into regions where the powerful leaders in some regions decided that they had to conquer other regions, both powerful and weak. And powerful world leaders especially targetted other powerful leaders who they thought could potentially gain enough power to rule the world. Russian, Chinese and American ruling classes are not different in character. No doubt, Russian and Chinese leaders would like to rule the world the way the US does at present. They are different in degrees of power, but not in character. And by now, The American ruling class has a much worse record than the other two giants. (It has more power, more freedom – which being lawless has a lot do with – and therefore commits more crimes. Russia has made overtures to the US to integrate fully into the global economic system, and the military alliance, namely NATO, that underpins it, repeatedly. The US said “No thanks.” Find ‘that’ history in major media.)

      Each ruling class has no doubt committed different kinds of atrocities. The Chinese ruling class has snuffed out freedom of expression in China to an extraordinary degree. It has made it’s citizens into idiots. Whereas, as Chomsky (who’s attacked by Left and Right for obvious reasons) has noted, Despite it’s crimes, which continue, the US is a remarkably freer society than others. For which reason Americans have a responsibility to pressure their leaders to do the right thing. There’s much to say about that, of course. Chomsky does point out that precisely because of that freedom, the US ruling class depends more on it’s sophisticated propaganda system than ruling classes like China’s does. In China, They don’t have to bother with feeding you mush on tv and in other ways, although they no doubt do (I don’t know). They just demand obedience, which, if it isn’t forthcoming, may see you working for free someplace that is a combination factory and jail.

      With these godless ruling classes, it’s about domination. There’s no doubt about that in the case of the United States. The US wants to (and does) dominate the world and it dresses that up often, calling it ‘leadership’ and explaining it’s role as ‘indispensable’. It would have the unwary believe that it is the world’s foremost champion of democracy. (That is why the Christian Bible refers to the American component of the wild beast as a “false prophet.”) That stands in for a ‘vision’ once you’ve self-modified. The great game (which was once only Great Britain vs the Soviet Union but has now become the US and it’s allies against China and, mainly, Russia) comes from minds of individuals in power who have self-modified and is simply a way for the ruling classes and weapons makers to organize their violence. The imperialism and warmaking would go down whether there was a vision like Halford Mackinder’s (father of geopolitics) or not. And if it wasn’t the US ruling class dominating and destroying, then it would be some other godless, dark-minded ruling class.

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    • This is not about ideology, it is about resources.

      The question is who is going to control the enormous territory of Russia and its resources — an independent Russian elite, or a puppet elite installed and controlled by the West.

      The prize is huge.

      All the ideology talk and the babble about democracy, human rights, and other stuff of the sort is just a smokescreen. In reality, the USA is just as much a capitalist oligarchy that pays zero attention to human rights as Russia is, it’s just that the Russians are less hypocritical about it.

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  5. It’s difficult to top the ‘Rooskies’ as the main event. When they took over Russia in 1917, the media commanded people to admire them, until too many reports of millions of Russians getting starved to death or murdered by the Bolsheviks came out, then it was hate time..Until WWII, then they were out bestest buddies, even Hollywood put our pro-Commie Russia movies.
    At the end of WW II, Russia again became our enemy, just in time for the ‘Cold War.’

    When the USSR imploded, Russia again were our friends, so to help them out, we sent over some Wall Street financial sharpies to help some Russian oligarchs clean out hundreds of billions in money and resources.

    After the 9/11 False Flag, they joined us in fighting terror by stomping on oil-rich Chechnya…

    Now we’re supposed to hate and fear them again? Guess the ‘al CIA Duh’ franchises must be getting worn-out and not able to generate that paralyzing fear our government likes to dump on Americans.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Boo Radley says

      If I remember correctly the ‘stomping of Chechnya’ was Russia stopping the Empire from seizing control of an oil / gas transportation region using the usual Al Qaeda proxy force.

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    • Yonatan says

      Russians didn’t take over. The Bolsheviks took over. The destroyed a key part of Russian culture binding Russians together, namely the Orthodox Church. The descendents of the Bolsheviks are running similar schemes to destroy the fabric of other western countries even today.

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      • I don’t think so. I think the Orthodox Church (which others have noted Putin is using [and vice versa] in an exercise of soft power – http://bit.ly/2fJWLOk) is a nationalistic force, a negative thing. Russian doesn’t need nationalism. Or, if you like, It needs to not imitate the nationalistic forces such as you see in places like Ukraine, where nationalism means promoting racial purity and a hatred of the other. This is how the macho global 1% is playing it, and the rise of fascism (and nationalism) globally may indeed divide the peoples of the world and create an instability and fear within each fascist country that ruling classes can exploit, but it’s dangerous and I can see it getting out of control. Professor Kovacevic may not see harm in Putin’s use of the Orthodox Church to wield soft power, but I personally have zero use for Churches or any religious organizations who fear man more than God and who act as though God’s Kingdom will be something that imperfect humans create. It isn’t for nothing that the Christian Bible refers to global false religion (all denominations) as a harlot. This isn’t just a harlot. She’s married (in a relationship with God, which requires her to be loyal and obedient to him) and her husband, God, doesn’t approve of her acts of fornication with the godless, secular ‘Kings’ of the earth, who he has warned us, will one day, in a short period of time, turn on this harlot, Babylon The Great, and destroy her.

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