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Pussy Riot: In Defence of ‘Whataboutism’

Pussy Riot: In Defence of 'Whataboutism'

My last post on Pussy Riot received a thought-provoking comment from a reader.

John was disgusted at the ‘perennial “whataboutism” that pervades [my] Russophilic interpretation of the Pussy Riot action’.
But what about whataboutism? And what is it, really?  According to the FT, it was
the Communist-era tactic of deflecting foreign criticism of, say, human rights abuses, by pointing, often disingenuously, at something allegedly similar in the critic’s own country: “Ah,but what about…?”
As the Economist, a notorious enthusiast of the label, elaborates:
Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a “What about…” (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).
The Russian government loves whataboutism. Sometimes, it can be very effective, as when Putin replied to Bush’s criticism of Russian democracy with this famous zinger: ‘I’ll be honest with you: we, of course, would not want to have a democracy like in Iraq.’
More often than not, though, the effect is pretty pathetic, mostly because the retort bears only a tenuous or false relationship to the original criticism (see Peskov, Dmitry).
But all this is really about whataboutism the propaganda tactic, designed to bludgeon an argument. Used for other purposes, a certain kind of whataboutism can actually be a good thing, as even the Economist itself acknowledged: ‘Every criticism needs to be put in a historical and geographical context’.
Metaphors and analogies should not be taken literally, but they can be important tools for comprehending new concepts. Equally, a bit of whataboutism can reduce our temptation to condemn or orientalise societies and practices that seem alien to us. In fact, the faintly racist conclusion our reader John reached was that Russia is not civilised enough to be considered a European country.
On the face of it, it is hard to imagine why anyone should object to Pussy Riot’s actions, particularly with such disproportionate force as a public show trial. But placing the event on a continuum of intolerance that also includes the reaction of the American south to the Dixie Chicks helps us see Russian behaviour not as that of a a sinister ‘other’, but rather as an extreme case of something that could easily happen in our own backyard.


Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs