Radynski: on Russia’s protracted collapse

16 05 2023

Oleksiy Radynski’s new article in E-Flux Notes (“The Case Against the Russian Federation: One Year Later“) almost reads like a response to the thoughts I posted yesterday. (No doubt because of the parallels in our thinking.)

Radynski writes:

In fact, since its emergence as a sovereign state in 1991, the Russian Federation had been mired in brutal internal strife, a series of civil and ethnic conflicts that have taken various forms over time (from open civil war in the streets of Moscow in October 1993, to the brutal suppression of Ichkeria during the “Chechen wars,” to the abolition of self-governance in the Federation’s “republics” since the early 2000s). But to prevent this internal strife from consuming the colonized territories still subjugated by the Russian Federation, the Russian government has continuously exported this suppressed violence beyond its own borders: to the territories of its former colonies, first Georgia and then Ukraine.

The protracted collapse of the Russian Federation is actually the reality we’ve been living in for decades now, and the invasion of Ukraine is just one of the symptoms of this ongoing cataclysm. In a botched Oedipal logic, the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine because it assumed that this was the last chance to preempt its own demise. Instead, it’s been caught in the quagmire of a self-fulfilling prophecy. [paragraphing added]

Far from merely blaming Russia, however, Radynski astutely links the fate of the post-1991 Russian state with the “market fundamentalism” encouraged by western elites (some would say “imposed” — whether it was “encouraged” or “imposed” is worth a book-length study in itself). This, he writes, “swiftly led to monopolistic capitalism coupled with right-wing authoritarianism, then to outright militarized fascism.”

Historians would want to parse that “swiftly led” bit into the various twists and turns, “forks in the road” and “roads not taken,” that would help account for why things turned out as horrifically as they have. But Radynski’s overall argument — that the trajectory of Russian history leads to something like this, and that it requires a reckoning that neither Russians themselves nor the western experts who’ve studied it all these years have given it — is an important one.

The article ends hopefully:

“The demise of the Russian Federation will prefigure the demise of other extractivist empires, and the liberation of their subalterns.”

Russia, decolonization, & the capitalism/democracy muddle

15 05 2023

A slightly modified version of this article (with footnotes) can be read at E-Flux Notes.

The ideas of decolonizing Ukraine, and of decolonizing Russia, are both “in the air.” They are also two entirely different things.

Like many postcolonial scholars, Ukrainian intellectuals have a pretty good idea of what “decolonizing Ukraine” means: it means national self-determination on a political level, accompanied by some measure of cultural revitalization. The details of the latter are debated, but some measure of “Ukrainization” in education, language laws, and the like — echoing that which took place in the 1920s (and was subsequently and violently negated in the 1930s) — is part of the picture, if only because cultural change helps to consolidate political change. (For a sense of this, see these articles in Krytyka, the writing of Timothy Snyder, and the long list of sources on the Ukrainian Institute’s Decolonization page.)

That’s not to say that Ukrainian intellectuals are united in acknowledging Ukraine’s colonial status. Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak argued in 2015 that “Within the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, Ukraine was more core than colony,” and that the postcolonial paradigm was “of little relevance” in explaining the events of 2014’s Maidan revolution and what led up to it. Still, the cultural dimension of decolonization has been prominent in the years since 2014, and it concurs with a view we’d get from any number of sub-state or neo-national peoples — think of the Québecois, the Catalans, the long-established (statified) Irish, et al. — that culture and language matter. By the same token, looking to India should suffice to remind us that culture, in a multi-ethnic state (no matter how successfully postcolonial), will always remain tricky and challenging; and given Ukraine’s historical as well as contemporary multi-ethnicity, may always remain so. (On Ukraine’s historical complexities, see, e.g., Brown, Abramson, and Durand.)

But what might “decolonizing Russia” mean? (Similarly, what could decolonizing the world’s other massive, historically imperial state — China — mean? Here’s a curious depiction of what this suggestion might entail.) And what forms could global solidarity with such a decolonial project take?

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Matviyenko & the war’s ‘colonial-imperial vector’

15 03 2023

Critical media theorist Svitlana Matviyenko’s recent Marshall McLuhan Lecture, delivered at Berlin’s Transmediale conference, has now been turned into an online article in E-Flux. Titled “Speeds and Vectors of Energy Terrorism,” the article provides both a deeply personal perspective (from one who has been in Ukraine during much of Russia’s full-scale invasion) and a rigorously theorized one covering the continuities and discontinuities between the Russian-Ukrainian war and previous wars going back to world wars one and two.

As has been the case with her “Dispatches from the Place of Imminence” (written for the Institute of Network Cultures), and familiar to previous readers of her writing, Matviyenko focuses especially on the more innovative fronts of this particular war, including cyberwar and disinformation; the role of nuclear power plants, including the occupation of the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia complexes; the “irreversible militarization of life” with its “epidemic” proliferation of “martial assemblages”; the mythical nature of the concept of “victory”; and the production of “terror environments” centering around “necropolitical data-subjects.” Regarding the latter, Matviyenko notes how the Russian government’s justification for the full-scale invasion, and its refusal to call it a “war,” fully marks it as a “state of exception”:

In this regard, the Russian state’s description of its war as a “special operation” is accurate: it declares its intention to transgress the laws of war by opening space for unregulated war crimes, for creating multiple terror environments marked by extreme suppression and violence.

Her reference to the “necropolitical ‘death-worlds'” produced by the use of pollution as a weapon of war — a form of “vertical occupation” that is different from the “horizontal occupation” of territory — is especially sobering:

In war, however, pollution spreads—and violence occurs—at various speeds. In addition to the fast, or extremely fast, violence of rocket strikes, bombs, and other explosions that also release toxic chemicals, other forms of pollution spread “gradually and out of sight,” whether as a consequence of these faster forms, or independently. [. . .] This war will stay with us as a sequence of heavy losses for the entire earthly community.

This is a topic I intend to come back to in future posts. But I want to focus a little more here on a line of thinking connected to the colonial/decolonial question.

Matviyenko identifies two “vectors” of the “ongoing, complex, asymmetrical warfare.” The first is “interimperial,” and it “unfolds according to the logic of deterrence.” While this vector “is extremely aggressive,” it is a “communicative exchange” that largely follows the transactional pursuit of national interests. In this case, Russia’s “extreme extractivism and exploitation” has served “the fossil-fuelled capitalist interests of the so-called West and its simultaneously ‘oil-soaked and coal-dusted’ democracy,” as Cara Daggett has called it. Alongside the global South’s similar reliance on Russian fossil fuels (which Matviyenko doesn’t get into, but in which India is a key actor), this means that “the list of countries that retain economic relations with Russia after a year of genocidal war remains long” and that “fossil-fuel fascism” is sustained, not fundamentally challenged.

The second vector Matviyenko identifies is “colonial-imperial,” which follows “a trajectory of noncommunication.” This is a vector that “sets the direction for relations of suppression, subsumption, annihilation, and erasure,” such that “[a]ll negotiations are suspended indefinitely”: “‘Ukraine does not exist’ for the Russian state as a party in negotiations, except as an imagined subaltern who must submit to the invader’s will.” Matviyenko continues:

The Russian Federation claimed that they “had no choice” but to invade Ukraine and kill its people, which constitutes a complex and contradictory epistemological landscape that could probably only be deciphered through psychoanalysis. This urge, ever embittered by an extreme resentment that will only grow in the future, is particularly strong in those citizens of the Russian Federation who already feel—or will feel very soon—that whatever future they thought they had in Russia has been stolen from them. This mass vision of a stolen future will remain one of the many dangerous consequences of this war, no matter what awaits the Russian Federation in the years to come. It will also serve as a resource for future fascist mobilizations.

This same noncommunication sustains colonial relations between the Russian state and underdeveloped communities in its jurisdiction. This noncommunication also extends to peoples who self-identify as Indigenous, but remain unrecognized. Russian legislation only acknowledges forty-seven peoples across the vast landmass. According to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, after the annexation of Crimea the list of unrecognized but self-identified Indigenous peoples grew to include the Crimean Tatars, the Krymchaks, and the Karaim. The empire only acknowledges the existence of a form of life when it is deemed useful, when the empire sees its potential for resourcification.

The coloniality of the latter is especially evident in Russia’s “reliance on an unrestricted supply of cheap, disposable human resources drawn from colonized first-nation communities and many strategically underdeveloped ethnic and social groups within the Russian Federation.”

It’s worth pointing out here that there are multiple imperial-colonial vectors at play in today’s situation. In a recent piece in New Eastern Europe, Milosz Cordes notes this colonial disparity writ large across Russia — where “[r]evenues from oil and gas from the non-ethnic Russian Nenets, Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrugs [provinces] fuel investments in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and prevent regions like Novgorod, Bryansk or Pskov from economic collapse. This is a typical model of economic exploitation,” he writes, “known from the Congo, Egypt or Latin America,” which qualifies the Russian regions east of the Urals as “part of the Global South.”

This “colonial-imperial vector” works differently in relation to the Buryats, Dagestanis, Tatars, or South Ossetians who have been among the primary “cannon fodder” for the Russian military, than to Ukraine or Belarus, the “brotherly peoples” of the “Great Russian race.” In imperial thinking, the latter have been more valued as the “backbone” of Great Russia, but are (as is clear today) also to be punished more vehemently when they reject their fate as “inner colonies.”

Ukraine’s long dance in relation to Russia and away from it has been going on for over a century and a half (and in some places since the 17th century state-building of Bohdan Khmelnytsky), with even leaders of Ukraine’s first independence movement — among them Mykhailo Hrushevsky, pivotal historian and first president of the Central Council of the 1917-20 Ukrainian People’s Republic — uncertain of whether Ukraine’s future lay with Russia or apart from it. If Stalin could destroy an entire generation to crush Ukraine’s independentist aspirations, however, Putin cannot. And so today we find Ukrainians in their culminating national-liberationist moment.

What this means for Ukraine is pretty clear: political self-determination accompanied by some measure of civic and cultural revitalization (the details of which have become clearer over time, but which still remain to be determined in post-war Ukraine). What it may mean for Russia — especially as Russia risks imploding from the neo-imperialist overextension of its capacities, and as calls for Russia to decolonize increase — is something I will explore in upcoming posts.

Please stay tuned for more on this topic.

Decolonialism divided against itself…

1 03 2023

Ukrainian anti-colonialists can continue to be disappointed by the leading postcolonial/decolonial intellectuals from the Global South whose views on the Russian invasion have reiterated Russia’s main propaganda narratives.

Writing in the French-language Lundi Matin, Pierre Madelin, in “Des pensés décoloniales à l’épreuve de la guerre en Ukraine” (“Decolonial Thinking Put to the Test by the War in Ukraine”), finds such views being spread not only by politicians like Lula and Evo Morales (respectively, the president of Brazil and former president of Bolivia) and France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but also decolonialist intellectuals par excellence Walter Mignolo, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, and Ramon Grosfoguel.

Madelin writes (in Google’s English translation, which I’ve modified for readability and meaning),

Suffice to say that I was surprised when I discovered these [Grosfoguel’s] speeches, which reproduced the Kremlin’s discourse down to its most delirious aspects, as it seemed obvious to me that the war of annexation waged by Russia, an old imperial and colonial power, should have oriented the solidarity of these authors towards Ukraine. The logic of anti-colonialism or anti-imperialism would in fact require the countries or peoples who suffer from it to show solidarity with those who suffer from it elsewhere, even if it is under the boot of a rival power to the one that oppresses them. 

The problem, as Madelin points out, is a lack of reflection in the Latin American decolonialists’ view on behalf of a “dialectical vision of Europe” that is characterized by its own internal tensions and contradictions. Europe is, instead, “presented as a unity, as a malignant substance spreading throughout the world” (quoting Daniel Inclan).

Yet this framework, within which the analysis of concrete situations seems to give way to a metaphysics of history where an all-powerful hyper-subject holds the quasi-monopoly of evil in the world, is obviously ineffective for grasping the specificity and complexity of the war in Ukraine, just as it was hardly conclusive to understand the revolution and civil war in Syria.

Critics from the Global South have latched onto the legitimate critique of Europeans’ “double standard” in welcoming Ukrainians but not darker-skinned refugees from the South, to seemingly, and less legitimately, justify their “absence of unfailing support for the resistance and the massive mobilization of Ukrainian society.”

Madelin cites the analyses of Pierre Gaussens and Gaya Makaran, who critique the Latin American Modernity/Coloniality scholars for “historiographical oversimplification,” “permanent Manichaeism,” “cultural essentialism,” “Latin American provincialism,” and an “apparent criticism of Eurocentrism that in reality hides a tenacious Westernism.” He continues,

The paradox indeed is that the thought of these authors, one of whose first vocations, perfectly legitimate, was to criticize “Eurocentrism” and to “provincialize Europe,” is often deeply Eurocentric and Western-centric when it sets out to understand the present, the blissful celebration of the West and its “civilizing mission” having given way to the endless denunciation of its misdeeds but without ever losing its centrality, even when it no longer fully corresponds to developments in the contemporary world. There is something like an unthought-out political theology in there: a primary cause (in this case the United States/the West) and secondary causes which are always its derived and reactive product, or even its passive object. (emphases added)

The result is an “inverted occidentalocentrism” that, in the author’s view, is little better than the “campism” that sees no difference between Ukrainians today fighting for their national self-determination and U.S. militaries squashing third world liberation movements of the past. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then Putin, for all his faults, must be a friend to these thinkers. The contradictions of such “anti-imperialism” are profound:

If the long history of American interventions in the world, from the coup d’etat in Guatemala in 1954 to the war in Iraq in 2003, passing through the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961, the war in Vietnam, Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s and the Nicaraguan Contras of the 1980s, is relatively well known and constantly recalled, a strange amnesia seems to surround the equally long history of Soviet interventions in many of its peripheries: in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968 or Warsaw in 1980, without even mentioning, in the specific case of Ukraine, the Holodomor or the deportation of Crimean Tatars, even though these different events are the subject of a large number of works by historians. […]

Certainly, unlike the Spanish, British or French colonial empires, which essentially developed “overseas”, Russian colonialism was […] less easily discernible, since the territories conquered from the 17th century until the end of the Second World War were conquered, in successive layers, on the immediate periphery of the initial core territory. And if some of these territories were emancipated from Soviet tutelage after the fall of the Union, the consequences of this long colonial history remain strong, especially in the Caucasus and in Central Asia, where the populations suffer from persistent racism. To that should be added that in the first months of the war, it was the ethnic minorities of the Russian Federation, in particular Buryats or Yakuts, who paid the heaviest price on the Ukrainian battlefield, while the white middle classes of Moscow or Saint-Petersburg were relatively spared.

The risk the cited authors take is that they end up supporting the quasi-multilateralism that Indian feminist Kavita Krishnan calls “the mantra of authoritarianism.” This “multipolarity” is, in Madelin’s words, “a rallying cry for the despots” — in Krishnan’s analysis, it is authoritarians like Putin, Modi, Xi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, and Trump, leading “far-right, white-supremacist, racist, anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic political movements” — “which serves to disguise their war against democracy as a war against imperialism.”

In contrast, Madelin points for inspiration to Mexico’s Zapatistas: “Long engaged in a struggle with decolonial overtones against capitalism and the Mexican state,” he writes, “they gave in nothing to campism, and on March 13, 2022, they marched by the thousands in the cities of Chiapas in support of the Ukrainian resistance with cries of ‘Putin get out!'” 

For all those reasons, Madelin calls for a “polycentric decolonialism,” or, as I’ve referred to it (which he cites in his conclusion), an anti-imperialism that is against all imperialisms — an anti-all-imperialisms.

The entire article by Madelin can be read in the original here.

Economics vs. culture: Ishchenko & his critics

6 02 2023

This is intended as the first in a series of more in-depth posts discussing scholarly perspectives on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It reflects thinking-in-progress, shared for the sake of open discussion and not for scholarly exactitude. (I practice the latter elsewhere.) Responses and corrections are welcome.

Volodymyr Ishchenko has carved out a unique niche as one of the western Left’s go-to voices on all things Ukrainian. His list of articles and interviews in popular venues like Jacobin, New Left Review, Democracy Now, The Guardian, Open Democracy, Socialist Project, PONARS Eurasia, and The Dig runs into the dozens. These appearances in the popular press aren’t undeserved, as his longstanding scholarship on Ukrainian social movements (see this and this) has made him a perceptive and nuanced observer of Ukraine. His perspective has been consistent, and his generous engagement with critics has been noteworthy.

The mixed response to Ishchenko’s recent New Left Review article “Ukrainian Voices?” caps what appears to be a growing rift between Ishchenko and some others on the Ukrainian academic Left, which I attempt to make sense of in this post, as I see important issues at stake in it. (For a few examples of that rift, see here, here, here, and here.)

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“Russophobia” & decolonization

14 12 2022

What does it tell us that even the supposedly “best” Russians — the Pushkins and Joseph Brodskys, for instance — were capable of such brutishly colonialist, Russo-chauvinist writing as the pieces referred to in this article, from earlier this year (“The Ally of Executioners: Pushkin, Brodsky, and the Deep Roots of Russian Chauvinism“)?

Reading Nobel Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate Brodsky’s 1992 poem “On Ukrainian independence” is, I think (if I’m a sufficient sample), repulsive to a Ukrainian. Listening to him read it in his agonized, incantatory style, complete with Russian-Orthodox cantorial tonal ascent toward a kind of epic climax, is all the more so. For Russians with a conscience, I suspect it may be squirm-inducing. I can only imagine Brodsky wrote it to express some deeply hurting chip-on-his-shoulder whose source he couldn’t quite identify, and instead projected an imagined betrayal onto an entire nation.

It took the wind out of me when I first watched the video. It also confirmed that accusations of Ukrainian “Russophobia” are a little bit misdirected at this point. (Is it Russophobic to fear, or even to hate, people who are invading, bombing, shelling, murdering, and raping your co-citizens? This may be “Putin’s war,” but it happens to be supported by a majority of Russian citizens, with only a few thousand out of 144 million ever showing any inclination to protest it, and many proud of it in a smirky, alt-right kind of way.) 

The lesson in it, I think, is that colonialism and imperialism can get so deeply rooted in the colonizer, and in any person who identifies with that colonizer (as both Brodsky and Pushkin did), as to be almost impossible to even notice, let alone begin to uproot. If this is the case with Russians vis-à-vis their ostensibly lesser Ukrainian “brethren,” then no wonder Europeans and Euro-Americans are still struggling with their own racism against the non-white, non-European world.

Decolonization is hard work, especially for those who don’t realize how infected they are by the disease. It’s also a shared task, with so many colonial legacies still at large in the world. The best result of the Russian invasion is if, once it manifestly fails, it leads to a process of self-decolonization within Russia. But I suspect the complexes run deep — superiority vis-à-vis one’s neighbors, inferiority vis-à-vis the West, resentful obeisance before czar and/or church, et al. — that even that will take a deeper therapy than will be on offer. (And it does make one wonder if all of that is part of the reason communism failed so miserably in Russia.)

Russia’s eliminationist rhetoric

21 11 2022

New York University’s Reiss Center on Law and Security based Just Security web site has been maintaining an exhaustive (and regularly updated) list of quotes demonstrating the “eliminationist” intent of some in Russia’s political elite against Ukrainians. Entitled Russia’s Eliminationist Rhetoric Against Ukraine: A Collection, it can be read here. A Ukrainian version is available here.

While the quotes lack appropriate context, all include links to sources.

Taken collectively, they make for depressing, indeed exhausting, reading. These are the kinds of quotes you can often hear on some of Russia’s talk shows, which The Atlantic‘s Tom Nichols today aptly described as “a hallucinatory experience, a kind of febrile nightmare shot on sets that look like a dark mash-up of a manic game show, Fox News, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But the creepy star-chamber vibe and the vertigo-inducing camera work are perfectly suited to the deranged rantings of the hosts and guests.”

Open Letter to Chomsky

20 05 2022

Since my response to Noam Chomsky elicited quite a flurry of feedback, both pro and con (and occasionally in between), I suspect readers will also be interested in the Open Letter to Noam Chomsky published yesterday by four Ukrainian academic economists.

The authors challenge Chomsky on several premises underlying his arguments concerning Ukraine and Russia. These include his denial of Ukraine’s sovereign territorial integrity (violated by Russia in contravention of several international agreements to which Russia was a signatory), his treatment of Ukraine as a pawn on a geo-political chessboard, the misplaced causality of his argumentation about NATO, and his utter incomprehension of the genocidal and frankly fascist motivations underlying Russia’s invasion. All of these premises are rooted in a selective anti-imperialism that, as I have argued , ignores the multiple forms imperialism can take in order to fight a single imperialism, equated with the U.S.-led West. The risk with such selectivity is that it chooses “strange bedfellows” (since it actually aligns with some fascistic anti-westerners like Dugin and now Putin).

As I argued in my E-Flux piece, the only kind of anti-imperialism that makes ethical and political sense today is a decolonial anti-imperialism, and “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.” Ukraine today is a site for decolonial, anti-imperialist struggle against a force whose cutting edge is the neo-imperial Putin regime, but whose fellow travelers are found around the world (especially, but not exclusively, on the political right).

Read the complete Open Letter here.

Khromeychuk: Decolonizing western knowledge of Ukraine

27 04 2022

Olesya Khromeychuk‘s recent University of Cambridge BASEES keynote lecture “Where is Ukraine on the mental map of the academic community?” provides a searing and necessary analysis of the colonial/imperial lenses clouding western knowledge of Ukraine.

A snippet: when asked by a journalist, one time too many, “What exactly is the difference between Ukraine and Russia?” Khromeychuk says,

“Weary of giving a proper answer, starting with Volodymyr the Great and ending with Volodymyr Zelensky, for the umpteenth time, I asked the journalist in return: ‘What exactly is the difference between Ireland and England?’ Instead of an answer, I heard a nervous giggle. We have mostly figured out the inappropriateness of asking such questions related to western empires. But we are not yet as skilled of seeing the same inappropriateness when it comes to other empires.”

The full talk, which is highly recommended, details the results of this imperial blindness among western commentators and scholars. It can be viewed here:

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.

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