Staunton, Mar. 10 – Putin’s use of anti-colonial rhetoric in his war with Ukraine has its roots in Soviet practice but is fundamentally different, Aleksandr Orlov says; but it is different in one fundamental way: the Soviet rhetoric was progressive and about liberalization; Putin’s is about defending “traditional values” and the unique civilizations of those colonized.
Nonetheless, the Russian historian says, Putin’s rhetoric has found a ready audience both inside Russia whose people have been encouraged to think that empires are always someone else’s work and beyond among peoples who resent any criticism of their traditional cultures (novayagazeta.eu/articles/2023/03/10/obizhennaia-imperiia).
Especially over the last year since Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine, Orlov says, the worldview of the Russian political elite has been a paradox in that it views Russia as “a victim of colonial oppression” even though their country is “de facto a colonial empire” itself.
As Aleksandr Abalov and Vladislav Inozemtsev argued in their book Endless Empire: Russia in Search of Itself, this is a reflection of the underlying Russian matrix in which there is not a clear distinction between center and periphery or between the populations of the one and those of the other.
That opened the way in Soviet times for the communist authorities to convince “the vast majority of Soviet citizens,” Orlov says, “that ‘empire is someone else,’” but definitely not Russia, which they have always presented as anti-imperial except when it comes to Russia’s own possessions.
As the historian writes, “the domestic policy of the USSR was a bizarre mixture of colonial and non-colonial elements.” The formally independent republics were under Moscow but citizens of all of them had equal rights. But Soviet culture associated speaking non-Russian languages with backwardness and was filled with ethnic jokes.
That pattern reflected the fact that most Soviet citizens did not view their country as an empire, a fact that helps to explain why there was “an almost total lack of reflection inside the USSR about the colonial nature of the extremely unpopular war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.” Soviet people hated it but didn’t view it as a colonial war.
After 1991, this view transformed itself into conspiracy thinking about Russia as a kind of “hidden colony” of the West rather than an empire in its own right – or at best as a colonized colonial power, Orlov says. Only a very few Russian writers have addressed the continuing role of colonial thinking in Russia.
On the one hand, Madina Tlostanova has pointed out that “decolonizing discourse is sometimes appropriated by imperialists who defend their empire which is always trying to catch up from the mythical West and like a wolf in sheep’s clothing seek to cover themselves with the costume of a victim of Western arbitrariness” (wonderzine.com/wonderzine/life/life-opinion/266525-dekolonialnaya-ritorika-putina).
And on the other, Vyacheslav Morozov, in his book, Russia’s Post-Colonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (2015) argues that in Russia there is both post-imperial nostalgia and a denial that Russia is in fact an empire in its own right (link.springer.com/book/10.1057/9781137409300).