How Do We Decolonize Russia?
The war in Ukraine can be understood as (de)colonial, at least because the people of Ukraine are waging an anti-imperial war against Russia. But what do people mean when, in the midst of military turmoil, they also suggest decolonizing Russia? Many Russians who are against the war talk about decolonizing Russia from Vladimir Putin and the pro-war elites, saying that if the delusional militarists are removed from power, things will get better. This kind of attitude was very common in the first months of the full-scale military invasion and still seems to carry some weight, but is rapidly weakening as the war progresses.
In conversation with two Ukrainian public figures Yuri Romanenko and Oleksii Arestovych, Polish thinker and statesman Piotr Kulpa concludes that the decolonization of Russia is that of the Rus legacy and peoples of Rus from Muskovy (the Grand Duchy of Moscow). The Grand Duchy appeared as a post-Mongolian authoritarian statehood that, winning the battle for ancient Rus legacy, called itself “Russia” and, having become an empire, colonized numerous local populations. At the same time there existed other projects to revive a united Rus. For instance, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which annexed the territories of the Tsardom of Galicia-Volhynia and united with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, fought against the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Lithuanian Grand Duchy approached “Russia” and its history differently than Muscovy, not basing on the Golden Horde’s authoritarian legacy but rather on the oligarchic-republican model, with “Russia” understood as a territorial entity that “brought together” the legacy of ancient Rus.
Perhaps if the project of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Western Russian principalities had prevailed, “Russia” would have been not an autocratic but an oligarchic-republican state, unlikely to go beyond the Urals and more likely to be closely connected with Europe. Interestingly, for some time, the Grand Duchy of Moscow apparently did not consider itself “Russia,” and the memory of Rus legacy was kept in the Western Russian principalities that had not experienced the Golden Horde’s influence. The Grand Duchy of Moscow’s transition to “Russia,” the transformation of self-consciousness through “becoming the Other,” is a fascinating topic for researchers of geocultural identity. The Grand Duchy of Moscow becomes the “Russian Tsardom” precisely in the context of its struggle with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Timothy Snyder identifies another turning point in history: when the status of left-bank Ukraine changed in the mid-seventeenth century. At that time, the university cities of Kiev and Chernigov, with their rich traditions of religious disputes had not yet been held by Moscow, were annexed to “Muscovy.” According to Snyder, a number of intellectuals from Ukraine, notably Lazar Baranovich, indoctrinated Muscovy with ideas that Little Russia (Malorossiya), Ukraine, was a “chrysalid,” or key to Big Russia (Velikorossiya), that is, to the very project of “Russia.” This strategy would supposedly lead to their native lands acquiring key importance within Russia in the new territorial configuration. To expand on Snyder’s thoughts even further, the former Golden Horde Muscovy was thus reborn from within, becoming the carrier of the Western Russian project of “Russia.” Complete rebirth, of course, did not happen, although the fixation on the Western Russian and Ukrainian lands became firmly embedded in the minds of the Muscovite elite.
In this fashion, some supporters of Russian decolonization are trying to “separate” Muscovy from the heritage of ancient Rus. There are other Western Russian projects that free peoples and communities, especially beyond the Urals, from being associated with Russia, such as Oleksii Arestovych’s intellectual construct of “Rus-Ukraine” (The Fifth Project), as well as a number of regional Russian movements and discursive initiatives that set colonized regions in opposition to imperial Moscow, all of which are defined by this understanding of Russia’s decolonization.
Using anticolonial rhetoric, Putin declares the need to “decolonize” Russia from the West, echoing the opening argument of Eurasianism set forth by Nikolai Trubetskoy in Europe and Humanity (1920). Trubetskoy argued that the “Romano-Germanic world” was positioned as world hegemon and that it was up to the rest of the humanity to challenge this hegemony (and to “provincialize Europe,” as postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty later put it). Enormous casualties caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine make these ideas look dangerously grotesque. In the Global South and East, however, harsh anti-Western rhetoric seems valid for many reasons, so Putin’s anti-Westernism, or, as Sergei Abashin put it, “decolonization à la Russe,” is taken more seriously.
Why are there so many different and conflicting interpretations of decolonization today? One reason is that since the 1970s, decolonization has increasingly been understood as a discursive struggle against the coloniality of knowledge by means of theoretical and artistic speculation. Seen through this lens, any particular decolonial process is characterized by its own unique model, which is the sole condition for genuine emancipation from colonial knowledge. It is no coincidence, then, that critical theory and contemporary art, which problematize decoloniality precisely as a property of knowledge and a representation of the world, become the most important arena of decolonial struggle.
A Decolonial Scandal in Art
In 2022, while Russia waged an unprecedented war in Ukraine, a decolonial scandal erupted at an exhibition entitled Documenta 15 held in Kassel, Germany. The exhibition curators, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, were accused of insensitivity toward the German context because they included a number of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli statements in the exhibition (e.g., the “Popular Justice” mural by the Indonesian group Taring Padi). The curators apologized, but noted that anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Global South are a byproduct of its colonization by Western countries. Indonesian artists wanted to share with the world their history of resistance, claiming that they have some right over its politically incorrect imagery because the activist artifacts were produced in the heat of the struggle against the authoritarian Suharto regime and its allies, which included Western intelligence services and Israel. The most problematic exhibits were eventually removed from the exhibition, but the organizers refused to engage in serious reflection on the problem beyond the abovementioned arguments. Moreover, the curators, in turn, were offended by German and, more broadly, European audience reactions, describing it as “censorship, vandalism, hostility, and racism.” At the exhibition’s close, they declared that the voices of “others” seemed to be perceived as dangerous to the “excessively colonized” institutions of the West, so from then on, they would focus on building their own communities outside of it. However, the disappointment was mutual.
The direct confrontation of German “memory politics” with ambiguous artifacts from previously colonized countries demonstrated that dialogue would be problematic for the foreseeable future. Accusations of mutual insensitivity reached such intensity that both sides preferred to shut down and stick to their guns. Characteristically, this happened at the Documenta, the epicenter of decolonial sensitivity in institutional art. Against the backdrop of war in Ukraine, the argument over the partial acceptability of “decolonial anti-Semitism” in the anti-imperialist struggle may seem structurally similar to Putin’s “decolonial” rhetoric on the need to fight alien influences both within his country and along its borders in the liberation from Western hegemony. Moreover, while Putin’s “decolonization” appears to be an appropriation of progressive discourse by reactionary forces, the Documenta curators’ indignation points to the possibility that a reactionary argument might be framed as a progressive struggle. But where is the boundary between the two, and how do we distinguish between them? Does the abundance of competing models of decolonization, like the Documenta scandal, point to some flaws or contradictions in contemporary decolonial thinking?
Pitfalls of Decolonial Thinking
The abundant use of decolonial rhetoric by contemporary autocratic, right-wing, and even imperial regimes makes it necessary to examine the discourse of decolonization further to see the paradoxes, or pitfalls, of decolonial thinking. Three of them can be identified:
- The first pitfall comes from the gradual transition of chief anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist critic from Marxism to postmodern critical thought. There have been several key figures in this transition. First, Edward Said, who, according to Ayaz Ahmad and Vivec Chibber, articulated this shift from the dominant critical optics in his famous book Orientalism (1978). Second, Latin American thinkers such as Aníbal Quijano and Walter Mignolo, who later demonstrated the necessity and major meaning of theoretical and artistic speculation by shifting the focus from political struggle in the traditional sense to “decoloniality” as a decolonization of knowledge and ways of feeling the world. In line with this turn, which can be labeled “decolonialist,” scholars have introduced the notion of the “decolonial aesthesis” (as a decolonial alternative to the Western-centered colonial aesthetic), increasingly shifting the understanding of decolonization toward artistic and philosophical speculation. Once this turn to decoloniality occurred, the struggle of formally independent societies against the coloniality of knowledge became an ever-expanding set of counter-hegemony practices. Thus, the decolonial process became not only potentially endless but also open to any political power and ideology.
- The second pitfall of decolonial thinking has to do with the genesis of decolonial discourse, which draws heavily on the critique of modernity carried out by Western critical thought. Broadly speaking, it decolonizes modern knowledge and rejects its dominant values: progress, rationality, and liberalism. According to Western critical thought, these attitudes are inextricably linked to colonization and must therefore be dismantled. Thus, the rejection of modern attitudes from within Western critical theory fuels, and often produces, demands for liberation from Western hegemony in the Global South and East. As a result, ambiguous and sometimes even overtly reactionary anti-liberalism and anti-Westernism not only superficially approximate (appropriate) progressive decolonial rhetoric, but become closely intertwined with both Western critical theory and decolonial energy. Moreover, Global South decolonial movements, including decolonial art, are often supported by Global North neoliberal institutions. In the context of Documenta, it was said that the methodology of curatorship itself is a product of European art funding for the Global South and of European plans to decentralize and outsource cultural production. It turns out that decoloniality as a discourse is in no small measure a product of neocolonialism, both in terms of theory and infrastructure.
- The third pitfall consists in the inflation of the discourse. With time, decolonial theory shifted its focus to the postmodernist stake on the production of knowledge, and started attributing the status of subaltern to, potentially, any community. Consequently, the claim of decolonization depreciated, extending to all relations of power and subordination. It has proliferated and expanded to such an extent that it often loses its concrete historical meaning. In particular, it has become difficult to distinguish between external imperial colonization and internal national colonization, especially in disputed territories with hybrid identities. For example, what is China’s policy in Xinjiang and Tibet: imperial colonization, nation-building, or both? Can we speak of the (de)colonization of communities that were included in the “body of the nation” on a formally unified sovereign territory? And what about those who were included long ago, even before the nation-building era, and on entirely different grounds? Finally, is it possible to decolonize from the very demand for decolonization by understanding it as a Western-centric discourse? It is the inflation of decolonial optics that makes the very raising of these questions possible.
All these paradoxes are vividly manifested in the (de)colonial Ukrainian war.
Paradoxes of Contemporary (De)Colonial War
In the case of Russia, the “decolonial” struggle against Western hegemony turns into an imperialist war against the decolonial uprising of the Ukrainians. What does a Russian soldier do when he “liberates” the Ukrainians? On the one hand, he simply continues the imperialist project of the “truly Russian bully” in the space of the lost empire. But on the other hand, according to Russian propaganda, the soldier must feel that he is making a decolonial gesture, freeing himself and others from the “collective West.” As a result, Russia employs both the ideology of imperialism and decolonization in this war. One can, of course, twiddle one’s thumbs to try and distinguish rhetoric from facts, but I would join Slavoj Žižek in urging one to take ideology and the mechanisms of its implementation extremely seriously.
Contemporary decolonization necessarily includes the consciousness of the decolonized. The statements made by Putin and his entourage are quite unambiguous: for them, Ukraine is seized by alien ideas, and its inhabitants’ thinking is under the influence of the colonizing West. In this sense, Putin promotes “decolonization” as a cleansing, both outside and inside state borders, for both Ukrainian and Russian society. Seen from this perspective, the Russian state’s frantic struggle against “foreign agents” and the so-called Cultural Front Z (an initiative by a number of pro-war workers in the Russian cultural sphere for “special military operation in culture”) are part of an internal cleansing program. Here, among other things, the Russian elites’ old neurosis about their feeling of dependence and even subordination to Europe, primarily in terms of knowledge and a number of cultural practices, is also evident.
In general, the processes of struggle against the hated hegemon in one’s own state, society and, I should add, within one’s own consciousness are everywhere, even if these processes are completely different, emerging from other circumstances, and for other reasons. In Central Asian states, for example, vestiges of Russian and Soviet colonialism are being justifiably fought against. The programs and processes of decommunization, which have been unfolding in some countries that were once part of the Eastern bloc or the Soviet Union, can also be seen as a version of a counter-hegemonic struggle. In contemporary Russia, the regime is instrumentalizing the “voice of decoloniality” as part of a military campaign of imperial conquest. Ukraine is seen as an external hegemon’s “internal” locus , from whose power Russia has obsessively wanted to free itself for so long. Elements of imperial and decolonial ideologies are woven together into an irrational combination of geocultural neurosis that turns into military-political psychosis.
What do we do in this situation? Do we assume some kind of “perverse decolonization,” that is, try to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” kinds of decolonization, “necessary” and “unnecessary”? Undoubtedly these distinctions could be made, but according to the logic of decolonization, if everyone involved in the conflict does this, the resolution of the crisis is “transferred to the battlefield.” It may be possible to develop some common understanding of decolonization on a strategic level through analysis and acceptance of the “unconscious” of decoloniality, its fatalism.
Progressist and Cosmogonic Fatalism
By defining the decolonization (of the Global South, Ukraine, Russia, etc.) as inevitable, we see it as an objective historical process, just as the Marxists of the Second International in the late nineteenth century heralded the collapse of capitalism. We enter here the realm of the secular progressivist fatalism, which sees decolonization as the contemporary embodiment of inevitable historical progress. For all the post-modern criticism of progressivism as part of European colonialism, the idea of progress as a movement toward a universally better future (more developed, just, moral, etc.) is not easy for many to abandon, especially for those who follow the Marxist or classical national-liberation view of decolonization.
However, decolonialism is an eclectic phenomenon. Having turned into decoloniality, that is, a discursive counter-hegemonic struggle, it has defined its new foundation, “alternative” systems of knowledge; in particular, anti-authoritarian and nonconformist esoterics. This formerly “oppressed” alternative knowledge has surfaced periodically, from Gnostics and the Renaissance hermetic magicians-humanists like Giordano Bruno, to early communist societies like the Diggers, Romantic writers, postcolonial literature such as Wilson Harris, and even contemporary mass-cultural narratives like The Matrix. Here the secular decolonial perspective’s “progressist fatalism” is reinforced by an esoteric understanding of progress as a universal cosmogonic force. According to this understanding, the world initially “progresses” from one to many (in philosophical language, it “emanates”), so increasingly people are alienated from each other and objects are differentiated, they seem to fall out of the state of wholeness. When further fragmentation of the world is impossible, “progress” ends in a “revolution” and the return, or regeneration of oneness, reassembling the world from its disparate individualized parts, begins. This vision, which can be called “cosmogonic fatalism,” leads not just to an esoterics, but to an anti-authoritarian esoterics.
Cosmogonic fatalism stands as a kind of unconsciousness of progressivist fatalism and decoloniality, an ahistorical (i.e., cosmic, simultaneously natural and divine) side of decolonization as a historical process. In the view of cosmology, the historical process of decolonization is the inevitable separation of geographical, natural, and cultural units, which are gradually and independently liberated from an alien and repressive geographical totality. Such a process can be called geoindividuation. The basic modern geographical notion of the “earthly individual,” which dates back to Western romanticism, returns, this time linking up with the esoteric perception of the Earth and the cosmos as a living being, which characterizes both Western esoterics and a number of decolonial non-Western cosmologies.
In this picture of the world, its decolonization is indeed inevitable. It is a kind of pervasive and continuous geographical differentiation, which consists in the political and discursive emancipation of smaller and smaller geographical units, nation-states, ethnic and sub-ethnic communities, and so on. In terms of the mass-cultural Star Wars narrative, in which a gnostic anti-authoritarian esoterics can also be detected, it is a rebellion against the Empire, with the plurality of the Rebel Alliance replacing a single hierarchical entity (or several entities).
It’s not “Everything is ambiguous”
However, to acknowledge the action of decolonial energy, even on Russia’s side, is not to say “everything is ambiguous.” On the contrary, it’s not ambiguous at all. The forces of decolonization, if understood within the framework of progressivist and underlying cosmogonic fatalism as unstoppable geoindividuation, will inevitably lead to Ukraine’s emancipation from Russia, just as, let us be consistent, of Russia from the West. The process will not end there, leading to the decolonization of smaller communities within both states. But do we want to look at decolonization as an objective historical process? After all, by adopting this perspective, we are also forced to apply it to those entities whose emancipation we are fighting for, as if extending decolonization beyond any borders. Nevertheless, it is the radicalization of this attitude that may resolve the crisis of decolonial thought. If we take the logic of decoloniality in its progressivist fatalism to its limits, then at some point we find ourselves in a world (or even in space) without empires and colonies (whether internal or external). In this sense, a Russian who aspires in any way to decolonize Russia should understand that any imperial consciousness is doomed to historical defeat. Ukraine must be free, and this is also because its sovereignty and freedom will help Russia overcome its imperial consciousness and thus to adhere to the history.
How to deal with this today, when conflicts between different groups who agree on the need for historical decolonization are intensifying, and the internal contradictions of decoloniality as a property of knowledge and thought are growing? We can, of course, stick our heads in the sand, refusing to comprehend decolonization’s paradoxes and pitfalls. We can try and endlessly draw boundaries between “friends” and “foes,” separating the “wrong” decolonization from the “right.” Finally, we could try to “silence” the entire decolonial discourse as potentially “dangerous” if only because of the “perversions” displayed by the Russian regime. However, the discussion around decolonization reflects the actual redistribution of power in the world as an objective historical process. The solution I suggest here, a radical decolonization that involves accepting all its excesses as contradictions of an inevitable historical process, is primarily speculative. In this sense, it continues the “decolonialist” turn toward the decolonization of knowledge and feeling. Adopting this speculative perspective does not mean denying the need for tactical polarization “on the battlefield,” but rather accepting it with a reasonable strategic certainty of victory for Ukraine, in so far as it embodies the forces of decolonization. Decolonization is indeed inevitable, but the point is to understand the confusing and ambiguous ways in which it sometimes works in reality and, despite this, to support it.
This publication was supported by Сhto delat e.V.