Decolonialism and the invasion of Ukraine

22 03 2022

Placing the Russian invasion of Ukraine into the context of postcolonial and decolonial theory can be a tricky business. This post takes a few recent articles as its starting point to explore some of its ambiguities.

Decolonization, take 1: Ukraine and Russia

Writing in e-Flux journal (and reprinted in left-wing German magazine Taz), Oleksiy Radynski, filmmaker and cofounder of Kyïv’s Visual Culture Research Center, astutely untangles the deeply colonialist underpinnings of Putin’s war on Ukraine and Ukrainians. In “The Case Against the Russian Federation,” Radynski briefly pursues two fascinating lines of argument. (Each of them has been developed in greater depth by others, but not to my knowledge combined in such a concise and currently relevant way, thus my focus on it here.)

The first argues that Putin’s, and many Russians’, anti-Ukrainianism — the “deep ethnic and political hatred towards Ukrainians” evident in his recent speeches — is a disavowal of that which threatens them internally. Ukraine today represents “a radically different Russia,” with the disavowal working in both directions.

What Putin calls the “historical unity” of both nations refers to centuries of imperial domination by Russia…. We [Ukrainians] share with Russians a history of serfdom (a form of de facto slavery in the Russian Empire), worker movements, revolution, industrialization, and war. Generations of our families have mixed with each other. But any relationship between metropole and colony—like any master-slave relationship—is dialectical and reciprocal. […]

By colonizing Ukraine, the Russian metropole had unwittingly swallowed a political culture based on horizontal forms of democracy—even if they seem brutal, like the Cossacks’ councils, the anarchist armies of Nestor Makhno, or the Maidan uprisings. And this alien presence will disintegrate the metropole from within. In a way, the Putinist fear of a “Russian Maidan” uprising in Moscow is totally justified—but not because, as Russian propaganda suggests, it will be organized by NATO-trained Ukrainian terrorists. The fear is justified because, if Russians are a little bit Ukrainian, they might also be able to topple an authoritarian government…. It is this “historical unity” that today’s autocratic Russia is trying by all means to exorcize from within itself by turning Russia into a police state and preempting the popular uprising.

In other words, Ukraine threatens to topple the “historical unity” of Russian imperialism — so (for Putin) it must be vanquished.

Radynski’s second line of argument is that the latter, Russian imperialism, is at root a Slavic and eastward variation on the European settler colonialism that expanded across the Americas and beyond. Far from simply expanding to peacefully settle the lands to the east of their Kyïvan Rus’ “homeland,” as it is often imagined, expansion to the east, north, and south involved “the genocide of indigenous populations” (Finno-Ugric and Turkic speaking peoples, among others), “the extraction of resources, and the emergence of autocratic governance.”

As mentioned, Radynski’s arguments are not original (nor are they intended as that), and there are others who have developed them in more detailed and refined form. For instance, on Russian colonization of the Siberian Far East, see Forsyth 1994; Stephan 1994; Wood 2011; Pesterev 2015. On Russian imperial coloniality more generally, including self-exculpatory discourses of “self-colonization,” see Sunderland 2000; Morrison 2012; Tlostanova 2012; Etkind 2013 and 2015; Eskanian 2015; and this beautifully illustrated 2020 article by Engelhardt; and in relation to Ukraine, Chernetsky 2003; Velychenko 2004; Sakwa 2015; this 2020 panel; and Badior 2022. And that’s just a smattering.

Radynski concludes, provocatively, by advocating that

Kyiv accept its thousand-year-old historical responsibility towards the colonized nations oppressed in today’s Russian Federation by belatedly acknowledging itself as the unfortunate origin of a despotic, colonialist Russian state—a state that oppresses every people with the misfortune of being within its territory, including the Russian people. For the sake of all these peoples—and the rest of humankind—the Russian state in its current form should cease to exist.

In this intentionally provocative version of decolonization, Kyïv, the Ukrainian capital, would reclaim its (colonial/postcolonial) mantle of “mother of Russian cities” to play a leading role in the decolonization of this entire part of the world, which has hitherto been largely neglected by decolonial theory elsewhere. Decolonialism as a liberatory process would thus proceed through Kyïv, with this thousand year old capital now an “obligatory passage point” for it (as actor-network theory might call it).

Decolonization, take 2: Russia and the world

Here’s where things get trickier. Arguments about decolonization rest upon an understanding of the identity of the colonizer. A nuanced historical analysis can critically distinguish between British, French, Spanish, Russian, and other forms of colonial, as well as imperial, power. A less nuanced, but more globally palatable, understanding typically takes aim instead at the broad and loose category of “the West,” while placing itself ostensibly in the service of the non-West, that is, “the rest.” Each of these approaches has its virtues (Europe, speaking generically, did indeed colonize the world), but each also carries risks. (See here for an example of a poorly informed “decolonial” analysis of the invasion of Ukraine.)

Let’s put this in the context of the “war for hearts and minds” being played out in global media. As Carl Miller’s Twitter analysis has shown, Russian information warfare may not be doing so well in the West during the present invasion — it’s mainly succeeded in fragmentary pockets of the far right (and far left). But it appears to be doing much better in the non-West, especially the BRICS countries (Brazil, India, China, South Africa) and other parts of Africa and Asia, where it may in fact be strategically aimed. Mother Jones‘ Ali Breland makes the same argument, and notes that the U.S. right wing has just started getting in on the pro-Putin action. Another take on Russian social media strategy is that it is focusing on being feared rather than being loved, and that it is succeeding better with that.

As I argued in my recent piece on Noam Chomsky, one of the lessons of this invasion is that we live in an unstable and multipolar world, and if our analytical lenses remain fixated on Europe and the Atlantic world, we will fail to recognize what’s happening.

A thinker who has argued this for a long time, but who has also weaponized it on behalf of Russian neo-imperialism, is Alexander Dugin (who’s been covered on this blog numerous times). Like decolonial thinkers who emphasize the need to rebalance “the West versus the rest,” taking the side of the latter, Dugin sets himself up as the geopolitical theorist for “the rest.”

Like a specific (but not dominant) strand of decolonial thinkers, he maps this “West versus rest” duality onto the opposition of tradition versus progress, where the West is corrupting the fabric of traditional society, which was “organic,” “holistic,” “rooted,” and so on. “With the Enlightenment,” Dugin writes,

“the West entered a totally artificial civilization based on wrong ideas – such as progress, materialism, technology, capitalism, selfishness and atheism. That was the Enlightenment – Luciferian pride, the war against the Heaven. That coincides with Western colonial expansion. Colonialism was a kind of projection of the same disease on the global scale. No civilization concentrated so much effort on the material aspect of life as the West. The Chinese discovered the powder long ago but used it in order to make beautiful fireworks. It was a kind of cultural and artist phenomena. When Europeans discovered the same gunpowder, they started immediately to kill each other and all other peoples. Western hegemony is based on disease so we should recognize the Western civilization of modernity as the pathology.”

The argument would strike historians as facile, but its resonance in the non-West is easy to grasp. Here’s Dugin appealing to Latin Americans in 2019:

“Latin America is once more the territory of geopolitical dialectic of colonization/decolonization. Everywhere – Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay and so on the same pattern: pro-USA liberals (+ liberal far right) vs decolonization forces, mostly leftist.”

And again, interviewed in the Turko-Chinese journal Belt and Road Initiative Quarterly (BRIQ), where he argues on behalf of a Russia-China alliance as the leading edge of the struggle against the hegemony of the “liberal-globalist” West:

We need to liberate ourselves, all the peoples, Turkish people, Russian people, Chinese people, European people, American peoples, from this international liberal swamp. We need to liberate ourselves from the totalitarian discourse constructed on the ‘self-evident’ dogma that only liberalism can be accepted as a universal ideology, that only Western values should be assimilated as something universal. With the growth of China and Putin’s insistence on defending and strengthening Russian sovereignty, [China’s] Belt & Road Initiative was transformed into something new in the last two years. It now represents a strategy to secure Chinese and Russian independence, working together, in alliance. Now, we can speak about the Russian-Chinese alliance as a geopolitical alliance opposed to the Atlanticist world order.

“Nation-states cannot independently establish, secure and keep real sovereignty. We need to oppose this global pressure together. Above all, on the present stage, we need to establish a multipolar alliance between all the powers, all the states, all the countries and civilizations fighting for their independence. That is the logical continuation of decolonization. Decolonization is not finished; it has just started.” [emphasis and paragraphing added]

The problems in Dugin’s argumentation are manifold. His target — the West — is articulated in ways that would resonate with Latin America’s leftist decolonial thinkers (some of whom I have great respect for, and make use of in my teaching and writing), with but a difference in emphasis: Dugin replaces their anti-capitalism with anti-liberalism, and their celebration of Indigenous thought with the vague notion of “tradition.” But Dugin’s great-power strategy — which aims to build an alliance of global powers that would first vanquish “Western liberal globalism” and then deal with their own differences — has little decolonial value for those who are left out of the loops of power.

His formulations invoke a litany of far-right causes:

“But it is evident that the Rest, all non-Western civilizations, reject this pathological Western liberalism along with LGBT+ norms, the pretended optionality of the genders, this techno-centric, highly anti-humanist or post-humanist ways of developing technology and industry, this intolerant and totalitarian “cancel culture”.”

This “deep decolonization,” as Jason Stanley and Eliyahu Stern argue, takes cosmopolitan liberal democracy as its enemy, which threatens “modernizers everywhere, perhaps especially the Jewish ones.” It is, as they suggest, racist to the core.

As Dugin sees it, it is only once the “pathological Western liberalism” is defeated that relations between the remaining imperial formations — the Russian, the Chinese, the Islamic, the Indian, and so on — will have to be worked out, either militarily or in some other way. As for sub-imperial peoples and places, they will of course be subjected to whatever hierarchies the new imperialists deem enforceable. “Decolonization,” in this rendition, will turn out to be a “multipolar recolonization” by other powers.

There are other points at which Dugin’s pronouncements sound eerily akin to those of postcolonials (like Dipesh Chakrabarty, who advocates Provincializing Europe), post-liberals, and post-humanists (like Bruno Latour and others). For instance:

“We need to reduce the West to its organic borders. It is just one of the many regions of humanity – nothing but a Province.”

This would be applied by posthumanists not just to the West, but to all expressions of imperial humanity. But finding such resonances distracts from the features that make up the fascist core of Dugin’s thinking: his hatred of the West, the totalitarian vehemence of his anti-liberalism, and the descriptions of the messianic role to be played by Russia in enabling the birth of a new world order.

In the polycentric and anarchic global mediascape — which we in the West haven’t quite come to terms with — the play of such ideas is multivectoral. Dugin’s anti-liberalism seeks and finds lines of affiliation with other neo- and quasi-fascist, national and “civilizational” imperialists, like the Steve Bannons of the world, but also intellectuals in China (even on the left), Iran, South Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere. Together, they build a narrative of ostensible “decolonization” that is itself a new form of imperialism.

Close-up image of Steve Bannon smiling slightly.

Conclusion

A key question, then, for anything claiming to be “decolonial,” or for that matter “anti-imperialist,” is to ask which colonialism and which imperialism it is opposing: is it the West’s (solely), or all forms?

If it is the latter, then it would have to recognize that each form of imperialism may have its own military networks (the West has its NATO, Moscow has its Russian-Belarusian-Chechen-Syrian-et al set of alliances), its extractive-capitalist geopolitical formations (most of them still largely based on oil and gas), its entertainment-propaganda industries (of which some are, crucially, more pluralistic and open than others), and its cultural specificities (from Great Russian chauvinism to Han chauvinism, Hindu nationalism, and the like).

What makes any such imperial formations potentially non-imperialistic is whether they are responsive to bottom-up democratic impulses. State-based efforts can sometimes aid in undoing colonialism: affirmative action programs, for instance, or policies favoring a state language (as in Ukrainian-favoring policies in Ukraine today, official bilingualism policies in Canada, Gaelic language programs in Ireland, and so on). But for decolonization to succeed, it must be bottom up.

Decoloniality is by definition not just an anti-imperialism, but an anti- all imperialisms. That makes every place in the world an “obligatory passage point” for decolonialism.


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6 responses

27 03 2022
Mostapha Boulbayem

Ukraine’s conflict is perhaps the beginning and end of an era of colonialism and imperialism of the Western elites. It is perhaps the end of some times coercive and on other times subtle process of conversion. It may take some time of incubation before it becomes reality, but the unipolarity of Western civilisation may gradually become to an end. It is, in fact, Alexander Dugin’s idea that Russia will play a “messianic role…in enabling the birth of a new world order”. If this so, it may not only be interesting to others civilisations to decolonise around the globe but also for European and American themselves if they learn from the catastrophic errors of the past and come forward with healthier alternatives to coexist in harmony and peace, nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, the scenario at the present time seems unlikely given the fact that capitalism is deeply rooted in peoples’ veins. People around globe today don’t know other way to have status in society other than material possessions. There must be a shift in people’s desires, but the machinery of any form of state today is not interested in this; states are interested in profit and self-aggrandizement—what a delusion!!!

If one compares the suffering inflected on humanity by empires, Western civilisation is further beyond any other and the most destructive, as Michael Foucault once analysed. At the metropole it purged everything and everyone that didn’t suit the elite’s ideals and, on the peripheries, on the colonies, it brought horror and destruction for natives, physically and psychologically. It disintegrated and displaced the whole traditions of civilisations (in fact, the Wester’s intention in encroaching to the Eastern Europe is nothing but an attempt to disintegrate and displace Slavic tradition). Its effects are still felt in the peripheries, on one hand, where ex-colonized countries had not obtained their independence until they had assimilated the values of the European elites, and in the metropole, on the other hand, where there is a huge number of immigrants of ex-colonies who find it nearly impossible to lead a normal life. Decolonisation has not been fulfilled yet.

From my modest point of view, the word “(de)colonialism” is not suitable to grasp or infer what is happening now in Ukraine. It is different experience. It is not what Aimé Césaire, Franz Fanon, Edward Said, and others pretended when used the word. The experience of the Russian and Ukraine people undoubtedly shared the same misery. The suffered from by the ruling class. It not the experience of colonizer and colonized.

To conclude my comment to this interesting article, I would like to add that there are many Ukraine’s who wants their voice to be heard around the world right now. There is a struggle going on, of course, military and intellectually. There is, nevertheless, a fact that should be taken seriously because that the whole world is caught a binary contestation in this conflict. While some people are denouncing vociferously the imperial Russian, they are, by implication, aligning with another empire. They are demonising imperial Russia while assuring self-sanctification to the Western imperial, which history has shown to be the most destructive one. In my view, it is absolutely wrong.

30 03 2022
Jay Moore

It is nice to be reminded about anti-authoritarians in the Ukranian tradition like Makhno. However, I find it inexplicable – and unconscionable – for anybody to write about Ukraine’s history and culture without mentioning at all the collaboration with the Nazis during WWII which led to the deaths of so many Jews and Communists, plus the role of the vile neo-Nazi followers of Stefan Bandera in Ukraine’s military and state apparatus today. If Russia can root them out, I say fine!

30 03 2022
Adrian J Ivakhiv

Jay – The idea that it is “unconscionable” for a short blog post to not include mention of the collaboration of some Ukrainians with the Nazis, and the existence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine today, as if these are centrally definitive of Ukrainian history, is exactly the spin that Russian state propaganda has been giving anything Ukraine-related for years. (As Putin has more or less said, ‘Ukrainians have no history of their own, and anyone who says they do is a Nazi.’)

What’s the relationship to the topic of colonialism? If it’s not direct, then it’s not relevant here. If this were a book on the topic, then of course it would mention those things. (But it would also mention the rather larger and more powerful far right in Russia today, including among the ranks of the Donbas ‘separatists,’ where it’s quite a strong tendency, and as an obvious influence shaping Putin’s own thinking.) I’ve written about these things before, including on this blog.

To anyone who knows the history, glorifying Bandera is indefensible (even if his relationship with the Nazis was mixed: he was arrested by the Gestapo, spent months in Sachsenhausen labor camp, but later allied with them against the Soviets). He views were fascist and his followers committed crimes against humanity; that, to me, is enough. That said, 70% of Russians surveyed in 2019 approved of Stalin, thanks in no small part to Putinist rehabilitation of him. Stalin committed larger crimes against humanity (in terms of numbers, i.e., in the millions). Is that defensible? Should that not also be mentioned in any history of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia? I didn’t, because some things are known well enough and are simply part of the background.

Your closing line “If Russia can root them out, I say fine!” shows that your goal is to justify the invasion, which I find unconscionable and grotesque. There’s an awful lot of blood being spilled on behalf of your justification. I could respond the same way and argue that Ukrainians, or perhaps NATO armies, should go into Russia to root out the neo-Nazis who are clearly there, and, in the process, to decimate a few cities. Is that what you’d like to see?

1 04 2022
Adrian J Ivakhiv

Just for the record, Jay: The people you are supporting (let’s just stick with the “separatist” forces in Donbas and leave the rest of the Russian army aside) include fascist, neo-nazi, neo-tsarist, and far-right groups like RNE (Russian National Unity), NOD (the National Liberation Movement), the Russian Orthodox Army, the Consolidated Orthodox Battalion “Voshod,” Orthodox Dawn, the Legion of St. Stephen, the (pagan-Nazi) Rusich, Svarozich, and Ratibor companies, the (white-supremacist) Russian Imperial Movement, the Chetnik-led Jovan Šević Detachment, the Sparta Battalion, the National-Bolshevik Interbrigades, and the Eurasian Youth Movement. It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to find any of this out; even Wikipedia is enough: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_separatist_forces_in_Donbas.

So why exactly do you support nazis?

3 04 2022
Wayne Price

What is “unconscionable” is to write of the Ukrainian’ hostility to the USSR (sometimes in fascist forms) without mentioning their previous experience with the USSR. This was the war against the peasants, the seizure of the peasants’ wheat for foreign export–caiusing an artificial famine of millions, and the forced collectivization which destroyed Ukrainian and Russian agriculture for generations. Naturally the people hated the Russians and looked for saviors, even–at first–in the Germans. Until German atrocities turned the Ukrainians against them.

25 04 2022
Ksenia Maryniak

Yes, the USSR — and the preceding Russian Empire too, and even Muscovy before that.

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