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 news 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 United States 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 whistle-blower provided all-but-incontrovertible evidence of illegal doping, was likewise dismissed as another outbreak of the West’s pathology.
Throughout, Mr. McCain was cast as the principal source of all of this supposed hatred.
That Mr. McCain was not a fan of President Putin and also a tireless supporter of his foes across the former Soviet Union, including the former Georgian president Mikheil 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 Mr. McCain at the top of a list of 10 prominent Kremlin critics and awarded him a “lifetime achievement award for services to Russophobia.”