Decolonizing Russia?

Thoughts and warnings from Russia’s first imperial collapse

The ‘decolonizing’ turn in historiography emphasises culture over politics, overlooking anti-imperialism’s frequent descent into authoritarian nationalism. So how can critical histories of the Russian empire account for nationalist deformations?

‘Decolonisation’ has become the word of the year in our corner of the academic world. I will admit to some selfishly complicated feelings about this development. I had made decolonisation the central explanatory and structural feature of my 2014 book, Imperial Apocalypse, and no other aspect of that book was as criticised as my decision to use that term and that concept for a study of Russian imperial collapse. Indeed, Oxford University Press was wary of putting decolonisation in the title, preferring instead ‘destruction’. Ironically, the publisher of the Russian translation was fine with ‘decolonisation’.

I would give talks at universities in the run-up to publication and in the period afterward, and historians of Africa and Asia would promptly raise their hands to insist that the term ‘decolonisation’ belonged properly only to the period after World War II. Historians of Russia and Eastern Europe, including prominent specialists on Ukraine, complained that in the absence of self-conscious settler colonialism, decolonisation was the wrong term to use, at least in the European territories of the Russian Empire. Others observed that since the Soviet Union incorporated many of the Russian Empire’s borderlands over the course of the Russian Civil War, no real decolonisation could have occurred since it was so quickly reversed. Finally, the most common criticism was that I had not taken the opportunity to embark on a lengthy historiographical and theoretical engagement with histories of decolonisation and had failed to define the term.

Pyatigorsk, 1964. Image: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Source: University of Virginia Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies via Wikimedia Commons

Broadening the definition of decolonisation

Regarding the first criticism, my use of the term was intended to get us to think about the dynamics of decolonisation more broadly, not to limit it to very specific times and places. This is not to say that scholars like Prasenjit Duara have no point when they frame definitions of decolonisation to fit only processes in Africa and Asia. The post-World War II phase of decolonisation did have its own dynamic. Decolonisation often happens in multiple places at once with similar contemporary themes. Since race was such a key theme of the African and Asian cases, and was a lesser feature of earlier phases of decolonisation, those most interested in the racial aspects of decolonisation are naturally most interested in the period of the 1940s–1980s.

The second criticism made less sense to me. Historians of other empires freely use the term ‘decolonisation’, regardless of whether the territories becoming free had been settler colonies or governed through indirect rule. I didn’t see much sense in being more restrictive for the Russian case.

As for the criticism that the Bolsheviks had reconstituted an empire, it is of course true. But my point was not only that no one knew this would happen in the summer of 1918, but that it looked very unlikely to happen, with the Reds basically just controlling old Muscovy. This was why I ended the core chapters of the book there, and one can easily envision scenarios in which a reconstitution of empire did not happen.

Conceptualising decolonisation

So how should we describe and conceptualise decolonisation? In Imperial Apocalypse, my first intervention was to turn the focus of decolonisation away from the nation and toward the state. I argued that we better understand the process of decolonisation when we centre the examination not on the fulfillment of nationalist goals but on the concrete processes that lead to changes in territorial sovereignty and in the institutions that govern and structure actual lived experience.

This is not to say that ideology is unimportant. In fact it is critical throughout the processes I will describe, but decentring it in this way allows us to sidestep the teleology of decolonisation that it is about a nation fighting an empire and coming out on top. Both ideologically and politically, things are much messier and more uncertain, as I think contemporary events are showing us in real time. The events of 1991 and the achievement of full formal sovereignty plainly did not end the process of decolonisation in Ukraine or in Russia.

So I described a process of overlapping stages, starting with a phase of ‘imperial challenge’ in which both the legitimacy and practical control of empire is challenged in the periphery (and frequently in the metropole as well). The second phase is the state failure stage. I mean this in two ways. First, decolonisation necessarily means the loss of legitimacy of one set of governing individuals and institutions and their eventual departure. More commonly, and certainly in the case of the Russian Empire in World War I, state capacities decline, the economy suffers, control over legitimate and illegitimate violence dissipates, and the chaotic insecurity we associate with state failure ensues.

Thus, the third phase is often one of social disaster. Poverty, hunger, disease and rampant violence frequently attend the period when the imperial state has receded and its successor has not yet been firmly established. Violent political entrepreneurs vie for dominance, the former imperial power (and indeed other outside powers) involve themselves for reasons of political gain, humanitarianism or both.

Finally, the fourth stage is the post-colonial state-building phase. For reasons discussed above, I pay much less attention to this phase in my book, but it is of course an extremely important phase. It is also a lengthy one. Independence Day is the first day of this process, not the last, and we can see how long this process has taken in many countries around the world. How long exactly depends on how one defines the achievement of an internally stable state with international recognition.

Pushkin Park in Tashkent, 1964. Image: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Source: University of Virginia Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies via Wikimedia Commons

On Cultural decolonisation

Most of the discussion regarding decolonisation in the present moment has to do with cultural decolonisation. There are occasional think-pieces about Siberian or Dagestani independence along with a general breakup of the Russian Federation, but these are small in number and border on the fantastical in most instances. So the bulk of the conversation, certainly in academia, has had to do with cultural decolonisation.

In general terms, though, I think there is a great deal of under-examined tension between the culture of decolonisation and the realities of the process that is particularly acute in Europe and North America. For a variety of reasons, some connected with the Cold War and others not, progressives in both the Eastern and Western blocs latched on to the process of decolonisation and decolonisers with passion and no small amount of exoticism and romanticism.

Take, for example, the decision of Jean-Paul Sartre to literally annex himself to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth with a preface that served as a self-flagellating mea culpa on behalf of all European intellectuals who had previously ‘alone’ been the speakers and now found themselves as the objects of other (non-European) speakers. Or take, even more obviously, the popularity of Che Guevara, whose image adorned dormitory rooms across the world both before and after his death as a meme of virility, progressivism, high ideals and martyrdom.

The right was slower to engage with this process, in the first place because they were ideological compatriots of the imperialists and white settler regimes most targeted by decolonising movements. Soon, though, they too started developing heroes of decolonisation, of ‘freedom fighters’. Importantly, one of the key regions in which they sought decolonising figures was in Eastern Europe, both in the Soviet bloc and within the Soviet Union itself, most notably in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These representations tended to be romantic and heroic on both sides of the political aisle. This romanticism covered the term and process of decolonisation with a suitably shiny gloss.

As I have already described, I believe the realities of decolonisation are considerably less romantic. In sum, I think that we are predisposed, when talking about ‘decolonisation’ as a term, to think of it in this highly positive way conditioned by our cultural narratives of decolonisation and to displace the violence and other problems of the process onto other factors.

When thinking about decolonisation, it is important not to separate the cultural and the political too rigidly. Cultural decolonisers all want their work to have political consequences, while political decolonisers pay significant attention to the cultural field. Fortunately, we do not have to rely on conjecture when considering how culture and politics might be conjoined in these moments, because the overwhelmingly dominant framework of decolonising moments is one of the most powerful synthesisers of culture and politics ever devised by human hands the nation.

Here, I have to admit my age and formative experiences. As someone who attended college in the Gorbachev era and did my PhD in the 1990s, I have a take that is heavily conditioned by an intellectual generation shaped by observing the Balkan Wars, a parade of Zhirinovskys and Lebeds, shaped by university catalogues filled with courses on the nation, each one of them assigning Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and formed by my very first workshops and conferences that were devoted to producing books on the nation. I have, in sum, observed and studied nations and nationalism a great deal. And, I’m sorry to say, I don’t like them.

The two faces of nationalism

I won’t go into full detail about the whole 1990s discourse on nations and nationalism, but I will say that in the courses I took, we did a deep dive into the older, pre-Andersonian historical and political science literature on nations and nationalism, including a whole strand coloured by the prolific and influential Hans Kohn. Born to a Jewish family in Prague, and writing in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Kohn was of course fully aware that nationalism had a dark side. His solution was to propose not that nationalism tended to devolve into fascism or authoritarianism, but that there were ‘two types of nationalism’. One of them was ‘cultural nationalism’ or ‘ethnonationalism’. This was the dangerous type of nationalism, which just happened to be prevalent in the scary regions of the world – central and eastern Europe in the first place and the decolonising spaces of Africa and Asia in the second.

But there was also a good form of nationalism, ‘political nationalism’ or ‘civic nationalism’. This form of nationalism took root in western liberal democracies, and it centred on the rights and duties of citizens rather than one’s mother tongue or ethnic background. Nationalism could therefore appear in and politically strengthen multiethnic, multi-confessional states. Thus, in Kohn’s words, in a series of lectures at Northwestern University in 1956, the tie which united the United States ‘was not founded on the common attributes of nationhood – language, cultural tradition, historical territory or common descent, but on an idea’. That idea was ‘the English tradition of liberty’.

Kohn admits that American concepts of liberty ‘meant also the liberty to expand at the expense of the natives’. But he sees this not as a problem with his theory but as a salutary demonstration of ‘overflowing energy and initiative’. Empire-building and civic nationalism could – and did – go hand in hand. Because he decided to treat de Tocqueville, Kohn mentioned Black people, not because slavery and white supremacy undermined his glorious tale of liberty, but in order to observe ‘the ills which threaten the future of the Union [that] arise from the presence of a black population upon its territory’.

Kohn openly deplored the Civil War, which brought the end to legalised slavery in North America, as a moment when Americans rejected ‘compromise and the sobriety of common sense’ for ‘a rhetorical emotionalism and to most bitter controversy’. If you detect a whiff (or more than a whiff) of both Orientalism and Cold War politics in this theoretical formulation of West vs. East, rational vs. emotional, good vs. bad, I smell the same thing, and so have most scholars examining Kohn and the literature of nationalism over the past 30 years.

But still, is it possible that two types of nationalism do exist, and that we simply need to strip away the Cold War and racial dichotomies of Kohn and his followers? This might remove the Orientalist odour and recover the possibility for, say, a model African, Asian, or even Eastern European nation to chart a new political path.

Mtatzminda mountain in Tbilisi, 1958. Image: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Source: University of Virginia Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies via Wikimedia Commons

Nation-building in Ukraine

This is the possibility explored by Olga Onuch and Henry Hale in the book they published this year entitled The Zelensky Effect. They contend that Zelensky stumbled into being a living figure of a ‘civic nationalist Ukraine’ not only by virtue of being a Jewish Russian speaker from Eastern Ukraine, but also by the mode by which he gained popularity as an entertainer prior to his election as president. His show Servant of the People contrasted self-styled ethno-nationalists, who claim to be patriots but are actually corrupt and self-serving, with quiet heroes who ‘are patriots without ever saying so, simply trying to get things done out of a sense of civic duty and love for their country’. Onuch and Hale connect this explicitly with ‘key features and trends in Ukrainian society, most notably an emphasis on civic identity, meaning above all an attachment to civic duty and Ukrainian statehood rather than an identification with an ethnonational collective identity, which has been an increasingly important feature of Ukrainian politics since at least 2014’.

In sum, they conclude that ‘By regularly referencing history, Zelensky the president and Zelensky the performer before him are not only evoking, but actually building up and strengthening, Ukrainians’ contemporary sense of national civic identity.’ They admit that there is a ‘strong likelihood’ that Ukraine will eventually become divided over ethnonational issues like language, particularly in the wake of brutalities that have lead other societies to resort to ‘more exclusive definitions of the nation to wall off foreign influence’, but they do not see much evidence for this backsliding at present and hope that the prospect of EU accession can temper those emotions and political processes moving forward. They cite scholarship that finds that ‘if anything, the war seems to have strengthened Ukrainians’ commitment to liberalism and inclusive ideas of the nation’.

Onuch and Hale present us with an attractive possibility. Dispensing with Cold War binaries and Orientalist essentialism, they consider the possibility that all nationalisms are the result of political choices made in the present rather than destinies forged in the past. This anti-essentialist position was also, incidentally, one of Kohn’s signature contributions to the literature on nationalism, though as I have suggested, his blind spot regarding race complicates his historiographical position today.

But can there really be a good kind of nationalism, and is Ukraine following that path? I’m not so sure. To explain why, I’ll go back in time a bit, to the book I wrote under the influence of all that nation-studying in the 1990s, Drafting the Russian Nation. 

Deconstructing ‘civic’ nationalism

In that book, I argued that the actual Russian nation that emerged in the early 20th century was constituted by one of the most powerful generators of national identity and politics – the armed forces. As a result, it was a multi-ethnic and even a civic nation. This was true in the waning years of the empire, and it was a model self-consciously chosen by the Bolsheviks to quietly supplant the much more experimental proposition that armies and polities could be cemented together by ideas of class in a population that was, in their own view, not sufficiently class-conscious, especially in the countryside.

But wait! Aren’t civic nations also marked by a commitment to civic duties and other aspects of republicanism that were alien to both the Romanovs and Bolsheviks? How could civic nations emerge there? Well, what civic duty has been at the centre of political belonging in nations since the late 18th century? Military service. And it was indeed explicitly framed as a civic duty, as part of a social and political contract at odds with both monarchism and Marxism, under all regimes of the period, to the extent that soldiers frequently insisted upon the state’s fulfilment of obligations towards them as well. There are of course other civic responsibilities that can be added as desirable for belonging in the nation, but none are as central. This is particularly true when wars become the forges of national identity, as is clearly the case in Ukraine today.

I made one final, quite pessimistic, observation, which is that since the nation as a political form was centred on military service, it was centred around the performance of violence. As a result, the nation, whether civic or ethnic, was unstable as a political form and prone to produce periodic explosions of death and destruction.

I would make one further critique of ‘good’ civic nationalism, which is that the idea that there are happy instances of multi-ethnic polities in which the commitment is to the rule of law and community wellbeing rather than tribal identification is hard to sustain, historically speaking. As I suggested in my discussion of Kohn, the nations most often referred to as civic nations – the British, the French, the Americans – have been structured on ethnic dominance from their founding until the present day. One can write a history of ‘good’ civic nations only if one ignores white supremacy, which is a pretty massive thing to ignore.

Baku, 1964. Image: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Source: University of Virginia Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies via Wikimedia Commons

Post-colonialism in the USSR

Still, if civic nations haven’t been present in the past, could they still appear in the future? Could we imagine a situation in which an attempt to create a multi-ethnic civic nation is made? One in which a country was founded on anti-imperial lines, the histories of imperial and ethnic domination were consciously highlighted, and efforts were made not to repeat the past? One in which a new mode of solidarity could be created that recognised past discriminations and sought to build equality in the future?

As uncomfortable as it may be to recognise it, such an effort was made in the past, and it was made by the Soviet Union in the 1920s. This is not a good-Lenin, bad-Stalin argument. Much less is it a lack of recognition that the Bolsheviks built an empire in Eastern Europe and Eurasia that continues to affect politics and life now, more than 30 years after the demise of the Soviet Union. It is instead a recognition of the fact that the Soviet Union was a post-colonial state. The Bolsheviks came to power on an explicitly anti-imperial platform, indeed likely would not have come to power otherwise, and they genuinely did not want to recreate the empire they grew up in. Nor did many other people living in the wreckage of the Romanov Empire.

They wanted to create a different dynamic, and they invested significant political and monetary resources into doing so. In the first place, how shall we say this, Lenin was ‘woke’. He was eager to pose as a champion of the oppressed and to recognise the ways that he (and those like him) might consciously or unconsciously express ideas of ethnic superiority. At the Eighth Party Congress in March 1919, in the midst of a debate over nationalities policy with the internationalist wing of the Party, he begged them to recognise the imperialist mindset in all of them. ‘Scratch any Communist and you find a Great Russian chauvinist … He sits in many of us and we must fight him’.

The Party followed Lenin’s insistence that they continue to promise national self-determination and a systematic critique of Great Russian chauvinism. Not only did they vote for his proposals, but they acted on them. The Political Administration of the Red Army, for instance, was an institution committed to addressing the very significant problem of antisemitism, even though that battle was initially a losing one.

Famously, they also implemented korenizatsiia and created an astonishing web of national territorial units across the Soviet Union. This would be the meaning of ‘national in form’ throughout the 1920s. The ‘socialist in content’ was of course even more important. Regardless of what language you spoke or the ethnicity of your local political leaders, the Soviet Union would be a one-party state headquartered in Moscow. This combination of central control, military dominance, and a radically new nationality policy led to Terry Martin’s well-known description of the early Soviet Union as an ‘affirmative action empire’. And, though both affirmative action and empire would remain in place in a variety of ways until 1991, the imperialism became more noticeable and pronounced.

Martin and others give a variety of reasons for this, but one prominent shift was from seeing borderland nationalities as potential beacons for revolutionary expansion to potential fifth columns. This change from revolutionary optimism to security-state paranoia associated with the onset of Stalinism had deadly and long-lasting effects. With the obvious imperialist expansion at the conclusion of World War II, whatever glimmer of a ‘woke’ approach to empire was dead well before Stalin was. The Great Russian chauvinist identified by Lenin survived the period of potential change, and reappeared when conditions were more congenial.

Lessons from the early 1900s

I have a couple more quick points to make about decolonisation in the early 20th century that have applicability today. First, there is a biopolitical dimension to nationalism and decolonisation that expresses itself in multiple ways. Two are persistent, in part because they date back to periods of imperialism and colonialism, but also because each connects to the dark shadow of race and ethnicity that lurks beneath both empire and nation.

The first is the discourse on atrocity. This was a prominent feature of the politics of the period of decolonisation before, during, and after the Great War. It served to further totalise the conflicts by encouraging citizens to think of hostile neighboring countries not only as enemies but as beasts. The discourse on atrocity was also critical in attracting public attention and media coverage from important foreign powers. This had been important since the episode of the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’ in 1870s British politics right through the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. It would be ubiquitous during the war itself. It also had a significant biopolitical aspect, as it rooted the conflict in the violated and martyred bodies of fellow co-nationals, the younger and the more female the better.

The second is an aggressively policed, conservative gender order. This not only entails the governance of male bodies through military service discussed earlier, but also a policing of female bodies and of non-heterosexual sexualities. It is truly no accident that gender essentialism and regressive gender politics underpins rightwing politics at the present moment both in ‘imperial’ and ‘national’ formations. Signals that a decolonising polity is moving beyond habitual nationalist repressions would include equivalent changes in social attitudes and legislation regarding gender and sexuality. The Bolsheviks actually did this in the first years of their rule, but they then retreated later.

Finally, imperial endings create, by necessity, regional vacuums of power that are usually filled by intense struggles for regional hegemony. These tend to be multi-actor struggles, often with competing political entrepreneurs from newly independent states, and nearly always with the interest and attention of global powers. These bids for hegemony, whether from a Greater Serbia or a Libya, or a Vietnam, can look like empire-building to those opposed to them, and maybe they are. The lines between nations and empires can be blurrier than we think at times.

So if we were to make some preliminary conclusions: 1) Be cautious, not triumphant, when considering decolonisation as a practice and as a term. The fields of decolonisation are littered with the bodies of those who sought liberation and justice and declared victory far too soon. 2) Civic nationalism is unlikely to be a solution. All nationalisms are centred around particular modes of violence and biopolitics that are baked into the concept and can’t be easily sifted out. 3) Trying to create a new way out is necessary but difficult, and backsliding will be a constant attraction and danger.

Pushkin Park in Tashkent, 1964. Image: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Source: University of Virginia Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies via Wikimedia Commons

Decolonising Russia: some conclusions

Let me take these warnings forward as we consider the topic of the calls for decolonising Russia today. I would say there are three different types of calls for ‘decolonising the field’ at present: nationalist, pluralist, and open-ended.

Let me start with the nationalist version, which finds wide traction not only in online media and social media, but also in popular journals such as Foreign Policy. As you would expect, I am sceptical of nationalist versions in principle. It turns out that they are not much better in practice. I’ll discuss two articles here by way of example. The first is by Artem Shaipov and Yuliia Shaipova in the Spring 2023 issue of Foreign Policy, entitled ‘Change the Way We Study Russia’. The Shaipovs begin with the statement that ‘as a fact of history and problem of contemporary geopolitics, Russia’s nature as an imperial power is incontrovertible’. OK, starting out with essentialism is unpromising, but let’s see where they go from there. 

 ‘Why’, they ask ‘has it taken a brutal war of conquest for most Russia experts in the West even to begin addressing Russia’s nature as a vast colonial enterprise?’ ‘It’s high time’, they say, ‘to decolonise Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies – and stop viewing the region through Moscow’s imperial lens’. They claim that universities and other knowledge-producing institutions in the West were born in the Cold War and have been unable to shed the ‘Moscow-centric’ framing of that period. Therefore they downplay the ‘rich histories, varied cultures, and unique national identities of Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus, and Central Asia – not to mention the many conquered and colonised non-Russian peoples inhabiting wide swaths of the Russian Federation’.

These are a set of claims that may seem reasonable on their face, but what evidence do the authors provide that they are true? Well, they point to the fact that the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington ‘lumps together all 15 former Soviet republics’ and that a couple of other programs do likewise. The content of these courses isn’t addressed or really considered. Instead, the authors claim that ‘today’s Russian studies in the West still replicate the worldview of an oppressor state and … presents Russia itself as a monolith with little or no attention paid to the country’s indigenous peoples’. The authors provide no evidence for these claims whatsoever.

So if the nationalist critique has problems, do we give up on decolonising the field? I hope not. Decolonisation, both political and cultural, is necessary, even if it has been frequently deformed by nationalism. What models might we have in this respect? There is a visible effort to create such models today, an effort I will call, for lack of a better word, a pluralist model of decolonisation. One example of this is the blog post by Susan Smith-Peter in H-Russia, the international scholarly network on Russian and Soviet studies, at the very end of last year. Smith-Peter argued that the famous Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky established a basic framework for understanding the Russian Empire that took root not only in the Russian Empire in the last decades of Romanov rule but also, eventually, in Anglophone historiography after World War II. Klyuchevsky, she argued, maintained that colonisation was a key feature of Imperial Russia but had a blind spot when it came to Ukraine, in part because he saw Ukrainians as part of a larger Russian people who needed to be rescued from foreign domination. Klyuchevsky described the Russian Empire as a colonising state across much of its territory, but insisted that in Ukraine and Belarus, their activities were not colonisation but a final gathering of the Russian narod.

This combination of colonialism and imperial nation-building is actually quite common historically, but historians like Klyuchevsky transformed it into a sort of Russian Sonderweg, because it was not a maritime empire. Klyuchevsky’s ideas came to America in the person of Michael Karpovich, who leveraged his position at Harvard to influence the next generation of US-based historians of Russia, including those who would write the major textbooks in the field like Nicholas Riasanovsky. As a result, Smith-Peter argues, the US historiography on Russia is still fundamentally shaped by the Russian émigré tradition, most notably by Klyuchevsky’s vision of Russian expansionist history and its Ukrainian blind spot.

Smith-Peter’s pluralist solution distinguishes her most significantly from the nationalists, even if it may be more common than she suggests. She argues that a productive direction would be to focus attention on the study of regions, since, whether in the multi-ethnic borderlands or in the Russian provinces, people were treated by this historiographical tradition as objects rather than subjects of history. A critical method of reversing cultural imperialism is to reconstitute them as subjects in their own right.

She concludes that contemporary regionalist political activity is ignored by the western media in part because it has been ignored by historians. As a result, both history and politics continue to be deformed because ‘of the tendency of the field to look at things from the centre’s point of view’. If this echoes the nationalist line, it is not quite the same, as it is anti-essentialist and open to varieties of political expression and organisation other than ethnicised empires and nations.

Finally, the third model is more unsure. Conferences and workshops are taking the question of ‘decolonising the field’ as an open question to be solved rather than as a pre-ordained set of solutions. I think this is a useful approach. There may be other models than the nationalist and the pluralist and a wide variety of directions in which we can go. The history of decolonisation is a troubled one, politically because state failures are traumatic, and culturally because nationalism recreates many of the problems it is purported to solve. I do hope that we are not locked in an empire-nation binary forever.

Published 10 January 2024
Original in English
First published by Vikerkaar 10–11/2023

Contributed by Vikerkaar © Joshua A. Sanborn / Vikerkaar / Eurozine



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