As anti-corruption protests swept across Russia over the weekend, I could think of no better time to reflect on my recent experience at the Oxford Union for a debate about Russia. The Oxford Union itself has been going strong for nearly 200 years and is a champion of free speech, tradition - and white male privilege. The motion “This House believes The West treats Russia unfairly” was freely discussed by six members of this white male elite, in keeping with tradition, and the house came to vote strongly against the motion. If anything, it concluded, Russia is treated far too leniently.
Debates at the Oxford Union are full of pomp and circumstance: Yeas, Nays, bow ties and ceremony. On this occasion the speakers included knights of the realm, former ambassadors to Russia and one of Russia’s ‘friendly oligarchs’. Rather than allow myself to be distracted by the careers and reputation of these men, I listened closely to every word.
Disappointingly, the debate was doomed from the start. Not only were those speaking in favour of the motion outspoken critics of Putin; but two thirds of their team actively spoke for the opposing side. If only for upholding the art of debating - a sacred pastime within the walls of this chamber - I would have expected the motion to be defended with some semblance of effort and linguistic skill. Sir Tony Brenton did give a half-hearted defence of Russia, but was unable to compete with the might of five speakers in opposition, as well as with the tangible anti-Russian sentiment in the room.
It was only an audience commenter who posed any staunch defence of Russia and he was roundly jeered and booed. The audience, much like the debating panelists, were penned in by their own dogmatism. The whole debate was coated with a layer of arrogance that we have come to expect from those who represent ‘The West’ in such discussions.
Of course, there are arguments for both sides. Some argue that Russia’s annexation of foreign territories and military actions in Syria are deserving of West-imposed sanctions, while others counter that these self-imposed international law enforcers have no leg to stand on when it comes to abiding by international law. Furthermore, these sanctions have very little effect on those in government, as this weekend’s protests served to demonstrate.
Whatever the arguments, this debate exposed two fundamental flaws in our treatment of Russia. The first is that it is too Putin-focused. The motion concerned Russia, the speeches targeted Putin. Although Putin may have a seemingly inexorable grip on the country, he is not Russia and we would do well to remember that. The second flaw is our embarrassing self-righteousness. The unshakeable confidence in our opinions and inability to compromise is arguably the main reason our relations with Russia are so shaky.
From this debate, two things have stayed with me: a refusal on the part of the participants to outline alternative ways of thinking and a boisterous rejection of those ideas on the one occasion they were voiced. Even in one of the most intellectual institutions in the country, we still perpetuate a Russophobic rhetoric. It is time for a different approach. We need to be more delicate. As Sir Tony Brenton said, we would do far better to ‘coax the claws back in from this caged, threatened animal, than continue to poke the bear.’