Baba Yaga and the origins of the Russian Villain in the Western world
Michael Eric Lambert
  • Dr. Michael Eric Lambert
    Director of the French Black Sea Institute
  • Meeting Russia Alumnus Dr. Michael Lambert, director of the Black Sea Institute, offers a reflection on how the USSR became the Baba Yaga of the Euro-Atlantic Community, a position previously occupied by France after the French Revolution and Germany during the Second World War, and why Russia inherited this title after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the Euro-Atlantic Community, Russia is seen as the direct successor to the Soviet Union, sharing similarities in the field of international diplomacy and smart power practices in the near abroad (blijnéié zaroubiéjé – ближнее зарубежье).

On the one hand, Moscow is important to the West in areas such as the fight against terrorism, but on the other hand, it is seen as an autocratic regime that tries to weaken democracy and liberalism. This duality has led to anti-Russian sentiment and apprehension about what Russia is and where it belongs to - Europe or Asia - after the collapse of the USSR until nowadays.

In the late 1990s, the United States and most European countries came to the conclusion that the Russian Federation is neither European nor Asian, it remains a military superpower with macroeconomic weaknesses and is inconsistent in its geopolitical alliances. The European Union and the United States have failed to build mutual trust with Moscow, as highlighted by the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000 and lack of diplomatic and military cooperation during the Syrian civil war. The concept of 'normal power' promoted by Yevgeny Primakov gradually gave way to the idea of the necessary return of a Greater Russia to protect its national interests against the West.
In many aspects, the Euro-Atlantic Community considers Russia as a Baba Yaga in her hut: "Baba Yaga lives in a hut in the middle of the forest. The hut has a distinct personality and is built on chicken legs, so it can move, turn and shout." Russiapedia, 2020
Moscow looks like a superpower in the middle of the forest (between Europe and Asia), built on chicken legs (Russia's economy), towers and screams (Moscow diplomacy relying on hard power). This image of the Russian Baba Yaga is common in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, as well as in most Western media, and portrays the Soviet Union and Russia as troublemakers of the world order. Films such as "From Russia with Love (1963)", "Golden Eye (1995)", "Iron Man 2 (2010)", "John Wick (2014)", are a few examples of how Westerners view the Soviet Union and Russia in general.

This article offers a reflection on how the USSR became the Baba Yaga of the Euro-Atlantic Community, a position previously occupied by France after the French Revolution and Germany during the Second World War, and why Russia inherited this title after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The origins of the Russian Baba Yaga
"She is a very controversial character. Baba Yaga is not good, but is not entirely evil. She can't be portrayed as a good mixer or a very easy-going person. She needs a special approach. In most Slavic folk tales, she is portrayed as an antagonist." Russiapedia, 2020
The Great Schism (1054)

The Great Schism, also known as the East-West Schism (1054), was the culmination of the theological and political differences that had developed over the previous centuries between Eastern and Western Christianity, and the starting point of the opposition between Russia and the Western powers.

Before 1054, Russia was considered as a part of the Western world because it shared the same religious practices. After the separation, Russia seems to have turned to ungodliness (definition: lack of proper respect for something considered sacred) and became an enemy of the Western conception of Christianity (Catholicism).

In Northern Europe, the Teutonic Knights, after their success in the Northern Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, attempted to conquer the Eastern Orthodox Russian republics of Pskov and Novgorod, an enterprise endorsed by Gregory IX (Pope from 1227 to 1241). At that time, there were also conflicts between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia. These conflicts reinforced the schism between Russia and the rest of Europe.

Before the Thirty Years' War, the Orthodox religion was considered an old version of Christianity. Combined with the violent reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible, Иван Грозный) and Russia's rapid expansion into Siberia and the Far East, Moscow became an antagonist of Western culture. The Russian mentality – religion, language, ethnicity - looked European with a certain peculiarity. The strangeness of Russia made it the Baba Yaga of most Catholic states ('Baba Yaga is not good, but is not entirely evil')
The rise and fall of the French Baba Yaga (1789 - 1815)

Russia was not always the Baba Yaga, and France dethroned Russia after the French Revolution (1789), the execution of Louis XVI (1793) and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1804-1814/1815).

With the abolition of the French monarchy, France became a libertarian and atheistic society, antagonistic to autocratic and Christian societies in the rest of Europe, including Russia. Until the downfall and abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte (1815) and the restoration of the Bourbons (1815-1824), France was considered a political anomaly in the Western order, sharing similarities with the United States of America (American War of Independence 1783) and took the place of Baba Yaga, making Russia a normal country in the eyes of Western monarchs after more than 8 centuries of exclusion.

The reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870) transformed the image of the French Baba Yaga, making France a Western power again. First elected president of the Second French Republic in 1848, Napoleon III seized power in 1851, when he could not be constitutionally re-elected, making France an autocratic regime like the rest of the Western nations. In addition, Napoleon III re-established a more important role for the Catholic Church in the French education system, which was greatly appreciated by the monarchs. In the mid-19th century, France and Russia were no longer considered Baba Yagas anymore.
Soviet Baba Yaga (1917 - 1991)

Even before the Russian Revolution (1917), the alignment of the autocratic Russian Empire with France and the United-Kingdom in the context of the Triple Entente was controversial, and many Russian conservatives distrusted the secular French and recalled past British diplomatic manoeuvres to block Moscow's influence in the Middle East.

The Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik establishment of the Soviet Union pushed the Western countries back into the tradition of Baba Yagism. The communist ideology, state promoted atheism and social equality for all mankind in the USSR was unacceptable to the Western colonial empires relying on conversion to Catholicism and inequalities between settlers and colonists (eg. Code de l'indigénat in French Alegria. A set of laws creating, in practice, an inferior legal status for natives of French Colonies from 1887 until 1944–1947).

The image of the Soviet Baba Yaga was promoted in literature and films until the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the exception of World War II, when Nazi Germany became a more terrifying enemy (1933-1945) than the USSR to the Western Allies.
After the Second Word War

It was in the interest of Western countries to agree on a single Baba Yaga as the middle of the 20th century marked the beginning of Euro-Atlantic cooperation with growing relations between North America and Western Europe (e.g. Marshall Plan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization – NATO). The new political and military alliance on both sides of the Atlantic was to have the same strategic interests and a single enemy.

  • The United States of America implemented the image of the Soviet enemy after the end of the Second World War. Soviet society was seen as a threat to the American way of life based on capitalism. Moreover, the USSR was the only nuclear power capable of competing with the United States, which led to growing rivalry between the two superpowers and the demonization of communism (for example, McCarthyism and the trials of Communist Party leaders in America under the Smith Act).
  • Canada has been at the forefront of a nuclear conflict between Washington and Moscow. The fastest way for nuclear bombers to attack the USSR and the United States is through the Arctic cycle. NATO membership, diplomatic and linguistic proximity to the United States and France (Quebec), and the Soviet nuclear threat have made the USSR the main threat to national security.
  • France opposes the USSR and the decolonization of the French colonial empire supported by Moscow. The Soviet Union supported anti-colonial fighters (e.g. First Indochina War) and found itself in a political struggle with the Quai d'Orsay. In the 1945-1991 reports available at the Archives Nationales, France is presented as the only country capable of stopping the Red Army in the Maghreb and Africa.
  • The United Kingdom considered the Soviet Union as the main threat reinforced by the liberal policies of the British Government (e.g. Margaret Thatcher granted permission for American planes to use British bases for raids and allowed American cruise missiles and Pershing missiles to be housed on British soil in response to Soviet deployment of SS-20 nuclear missiles)
  • (Western) Germany remains strongly opposed to the division of the country and the Soviet occupation. In contrast to the USSR, US, British, French, Belgian and Luxembourg (from November 1945, Luxembourg was allocated a zone in the French sector) occupants were accepted by the German population because of the economic advantages of the Marshall Plan combined with a relevant communication strategy implemented on the ground by the US Army.
During the 2000s, Russia gradually became the anomaly of the European order, disrupting geopolitical ambitions to enlarge NATO and the EU in the Black Sea region. From the Western perspective, Russia's behaviour was inconsistent because Moscow had military power disproportionate to its economic capabilities.
Russia becomes the post-Soviet Baba Yaga (1991 - Nowadays)

After the collapse of the USSR, the Euro-Atlantic Community assumed that Russia would become a normal power (Primakov) because it seemed to be the only option available with regard to economic weaknesses.

The confrontation between Capitalism and Communism was over; the Kremlin, at least on paper, was not to conduct divergent diplomacy and had to agree to strengthen dialogue with the West to stimulate the economy and modernize the country.

In such a context, the 1990s brought Russia and the West closer together, and some states even assumed Moscow would accept NATO and EU enlargements in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements; and the Eastern Partnership) without any resistance.

Western disillusionment occurred when Moscow began to show diplomatic and military support for Transnistria (de jure Moldova), Abkhazia and South Ossetia (de juge Georgia until 2008 according to the Russian law) and refused to recognize Kosovo (de jure Serbia according to the Russian law). From the Western perspective, Moscow should have ceded the territories, or at least not to provide any military support, because confrontation with the Euro-Atlantic Community will go against Russia's economic interests.

Euro-Atlantic diplomats and intelligence experts found it difficult to understand the whole dynamic in the Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya, and the links between Chechen groups and Pakistan, Afghanistan (Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin) and Central Asia. Renouncing to protect Abkhazia in 1992 would have led to growing tensions with the Chechens involved in the conflict and possible escalation of tensions in the Russian Caucasus. Moreover, renouncing Transnistria would have been a major problem for arms smuggling via Odessa and possible consequences on Gagauzian people.

With regard to the Baltic Sea and the Arctic, Russia and the West had the same ambitions and could cooperate, but Euro-Atlantic knowledge of the Black Sea was fragmented and the complexity of such places as Nagorno-Karabakh had become an obstacle for cooperation between NATO member states (eg. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) research paper, Unrest in the Caucasus and the Challenge of Nationalist, 1988 (declassified in 1999) and the disagreement between the United States and Turkey).

Given the economic weakness of the Russian Federation in the 1990s, it was difficult to understand why Moscow refused to compromise with the Western diplomacy in exchange for economic investment. Unlike Western Europe after the Second World War with the Marshall Plan, Russia was not ready to give up its hard power and strategic interests in exchange for financial support. Against this background, Russia's opportunity to participate in Euro-Atlantic structures ended less than ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To some extent, the EU and NATO may have underestimated the Sino-Russian relationship, and Beijing's support to Moscow in the early 2000s provided a valid alternative to European and North American markets.

During the 2000s, Russia gradually became the anomaly of the European order, disrupting geopolitical ambitions to enlarge NATO and the EU in the Black Sea region. From the Western perspective, Russia's behaviour was inconsistent because Moscow had military power disproportionate to its economic capabilities. Moreover, the concept of Eurasianism, the specific relationship with the Asian world and projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union (since 2015) seemed to be similar to the European Union's institutions (EU) with a twist (e.g. European Commission versus Eurasian Economic Commission).

Russia became according the Baba Yaga definition '…a very controversial character. Baba Yaga (Russia) is not good, but is not entirely evil. She needs a special approach.'

Russian support for the de facto (Transnistria) and partially recognized states (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) limiting the possibility of further Euro-Atlantic enlargements in the Black Sea region explains why Russia was presented as a villain less than a decade after the end of the Cold War.

It is worth mentioning that Russia is not the only Baba Yaga, and that Washington applied the same process of Baba Yagism to the European allies when they refused to attack Iraq in 2003. Donald Rumsfeld stated that France, the United Kingdom and Germany were the 'Old Europe' (US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, January 2003) seen as a first step towards Baba Yagism (Baba Yaga is portrayed as an old woman).

In addition to Russia, the Euro-Atlantic community has other Baba Yagas in The People's Republic of China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Belarus and partially recognized states such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia are considered the antagonists of the Western world.

It should be pointed out that each country generally has a different Baba Yaga. In Armenia, the two Baba Yagas are Turkey and Azerbaijan because of history and the disagreement regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. India has Pakistan, Israel has Iran (and vice versa), the People's Republic of China and North Korea have the United States. In short, a Baba Yaga is constructed by states according to geopolitical and military circumstances.

In rare cases, some Western states have taken a more pragmatic view of Russia. Denmark – a NATO and EU Member State – does not consider Russia a threat, and advocates greater cooperation between the West and Moscow in the fight against international terrorism. Brazil, South Africa and Israel have also rejected the image of the Russian villain.

Israel is also an example of pragmatism when it comes to relations with the Euro-Atlantic Community and the Russian Federation. For many years, Israel was a sanctuary for many Russian Jews. This was especially the case during the Aliyah in the 1970s and the Aliyah in the 1990s. Israel and Russia were on opposing sides during the Cold War. However, the relationship between Israel and Russia began to improve significantly from the early 2000s onwards. In 2011, the Russian President Putin stated 'Israel is, in fact, a special state to us. It is practically a Russian-speaking country. Israel is one of the few foreign countries that can be called Russian-speaking.' In May 2018, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated the Israeli government had opposed sanctions on Russia despite foreign pressure to support them.

If Russia remains the Baba Yaga of the Western world, there is no doubt that this image is not universal. Thus, Moscow has a valuable reputation in Asia, Africa, as well as in Latin America and India. In the eyes of the international community, the West may have missed an opportunity by refusing to cooperate with Russia. The war in Iraq (2003), among many examples, could have been avoided through increased cooperation between the European Union and Russia.
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