March 23, 2022

Decolonialism and the Invasion of Ukraine

Adrian Ivakhiv

[Ed. note: This piece was orignally published at UKR-TAZ and responds in part to Oleksiy Radynski’s essay “The Case Against the Russian Federation” from the March 2022 issue of e-flux journal. Reprinted with permission of the author.]

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’s Ali Brelan makes the same argument, and notes that the US 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.

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.

Category
War & Conflict
Subject
Ukraine, Russia, Decolonization

Adrian Ivakhiv is a cultural theorist and ecophilosopher. He is a Professor of Environmental Thought and Culture at the University of Vermont.

Subscribe
I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for subscribing to e-flux

Feel free to subscribe to additional content from the e-flux platform.