How Western scholars overlooked Russian imperialism

For far too long, Western academia has ignored the legacies of the Russian Empire and colonisation.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, discussions emerged about the imperial nature of the war. Scholars who spoke up about it were quickly dismissed in certain Western academic and political circles.

Some, especially the self-professed “anti-imperialists”, claimed Russia was “provoked” and portrayed Ukraine’s resistance as a “Western imperial” plot. Others considered analyses of Russian imperialism as having a pro-war, hawkish agenda or being a reflection of narrow ethno-nationalist sentiments.

But for scholars from the post-Soviet space – from places that have suffered from Russian aggression and imperialism – these reactions were hardly a surprise. They had been ignored and dismissed before.

Discussions of Russian imperialism have long been overlooked while American, British and French imperialisms have been studied closely and thoroughly. This has much to do with how Western academia and to a certain extent political elites have chosen to approach the Soviet Union and its eventual dissolution.

From empire to a ‘union’

Russian imperial ambitions date back to the 16th century when the Grand Principality of Moscow, or Muscovy, proclaimed itself the third Rome, the successor of the Byzantine Empire and protector of all Orthodox Christians.

The Russian imperial army fought numerous wars in the east, west and south, and by the mid-19th century, Russia had become the largest land empire. Along with the British, Austro-Hungarian and French empires, it understood and presented itself as a European colonial power.

Following the October Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the end of the Russian monarchy and Russian imperialism, but they fought brutally to preserve the Russian imperial borders. They reconquered newly formed independent states, such as Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, which emerged after the collapse of the Russian Empire.

In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin embraced Russian nationalism based on the old imperial myth of the greatness of the Russian people. Bolshevik Moscow made ethnic Russians the most privileged group in the Soviet Union and sent Russian settlers to populate and control non-Russian regions.

Purging native leaders, forcefully resettling entire ethnic groups and creating conditions that led to mass deaths were all part of Soviet colonisation. Non-Russian people’s cultures, languages and histories were disparaged while Russification was presented as enlightenment.

At the same time, the Soviet Union adopted a progressive narrative of enfranchising nations conquered by the Russian Empire and giving them national rights within the Soviet Union. Many in Western academia bought into the anti-colonial narrative Moscow was trying to sell because they took official proclamations at face value and wanted to believe in the story of communist anti-imperialism.

Indeed, the Bolsheviks eliminated the tsarist aristocracy, and the people who took power were of diverse backgrounds. Stalin, for example, was an ethnic Georgian who spoke Russian with an accent.

For many Western scholars, that apparently meant that he was leading a post-colonial state. By focusing on individuals and official proclamations, Western academia too often overlooked the fact that Stalin was obsessed with maintaining Russian imperial borders and had adopted the same toolkit – ethnic cleansing, crushing dissent, destroying national movements, privileging Russian ethnicity and culture – that tsarist Russia used to maintain them.

Soviet coloniality was dismissed also because knowledge about the Soviet Union in the West was Russocentric. The Soviet Union was often referred to simply as Russia. There was little knowledge about non-Russian people. Non-Russian émigrés who fled to the West and wrote about Soviet coloniality with firsthand experience of Soviet imperialism were dismissed as anti-Soviet conservative ideologues.

Importantly, the Soviet Union also became a space of projections for those who looked for ways to criticise capitalism and Western imperialism. Those who blamed capitalism for oppression believed that eliminating capitalism would end all forms of oppression. For them, the Soviet Union was an internationalist project that brought equality and freedom to formerly subjugated peoples.

Violence against various nations and ethnic groups was either ignored or treated as a necessary evil of the transition to communism.

Western scholarship also overwhelmingly focused on the Soviet metropoles – Moscow and Leningrad. They knew very little, if at all, about the Soviet peripheries, which meant that nobody really understood the uprisings in Central Asia, the Caucasus or the Baltics from the late 1980s onwards or the bloodshed in Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and later Chechnya.

As Ronald Gregor Suny, historian of Soviet imperial nation-building, noted in a 2017 interview, “Before the late 1980s, no one cared about non-Russians. Sovietology and Soviet studies [were] about the centre and the top – who was standing where on the Kremlin, on the mausoleum, and so forth.”

The generation of scholars who started studying the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s were also shaped by their firsthand experience of the country. When they travelled as foreign students to Moscow, they found impoverished people. Empty shelves and pervasive poverty made Russians look like victims of the Soviet regime, and financially, Soviet Moscow seemed more like a European periphery than an imperial metropole, which they associated with material affluence.

Dissolution without decolonisation

The wave of decolonisation in Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, which started after World War II, was accompanied by rigorous academic discussions and scholarship of colonial legacies and tools of violence.

By contrast, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union did not result in similar scrutiny of the Russian imperial legacy.

For metropolitan Western Europe and the United States, Europe stood for metropolitanism – a place from which the world was colonised, not a place of colonisation. Accepting colonial history within Europe made little sense, so the colonial nature of Russia remained unchallenged.

In Russia itself, the dominant narrative was one of victimhood. Russians learned to see themselves as a special nation that sacrificed its own wellbeing for the sake of non-Russians in the Soviet Union. “Let us stop feeding them” was the slogan Russians used to explain Moscow’s decision to let the colonies go in 1991.

In the West, the collapse of the Soviet Union came as a shock. Many – both in academia and politics – liked Mikhail Gorbachev and saw him as a hero, a man of peace. They approved of his reforms, which spurred a new era of freedom of speech.

Gorbachev was soft, open and democratic in his communication and seemed like a good partner for the next few decades. The United States was even willing to offer him assistance to reform the country; US policy was against Soviet disintegration.

This is how late Professor Mark von Hagen recalled in 2016 the political atmosphere back then: “Again, George Bush … was defending Gorbachev until the very last possible moment because he and the United States government at that level, with a few dissenting voices, wanted to keep the Soviet Union together because they were so afraid of the kind of crazy, fascist nationalism that they thought the Ukrainians represented.”

Indeed, this Western fear of chaos, bloodshed and even nuclear incidents led to the perception of independence movements within the former Soviet space as expressions of destructive ethno-nationalism rather than a natural progression of an empire collapsing.

At the same time, since the official dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was organised centrally by Moscow, it made the question of imperial oppression obsolete in the minds of Western observers. The idea that the Soviet Union was an internationalist experiment continued to stick, and its collapse was seen as this experiment simply expiring.

Many Western historians perceived it not as a regime that erased diverse polities and national movements, but as a political project that created and developed nations. This is highly problematic not only because it ignores the history of national movements that took place prior to the Bolshevik takeover but also goes contrary to the idea of a nation being formed on the basis of popular legitimacy.

Still there were exceptions. Influential works by historians like Ronald Grigor Suny (The Revenge of the Past) and Andreas Kappeler (Russia as a Multinational Empire) have pointed to the violent Bolshevik policies towards colonised nations and their resistance. Others like von Hagen (Does Ukraine Have a History?) and Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands) who have written from the point of view of the colonised were able to properly predict and warn of historical continuities and dangers still posed by Russia today for these nations.

What the myth of the Soviet Union as a nation-builder did was promote in the West the idea that Russia has a sphere of influence, a “backyard”, where it has the right to intervene.

That is why Western academia and political circles had little to say about the genocidal wars Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin, led in Chechnya. Rather than seeing people claiming sovereignty and nationhood, the West readily bought into their portrayals of Chechens as bandits, nationalists and terrorists. That is why they also failed to see Russian imperial ambitions in Eastern Europe – the 2008 war on Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, etc – as such.

There has already been some recognition that mistakes were made. As Professor Susan Smith-Peter recently commented: “As scholars of Russia, we need to undertake a searching moral inventory to see the ways in which we have taken the Russian state’s point of view as a default. Have we in any way taken part in the glorification of the Russian state that Putin has taken to a pathological extreme? Has our field participated in casting Ukraine as a state without history in our own way?“

Indeed, it has. And it is time to correct that.

To understand Russia, one needs to listen to those who lived under Russian colonial rule. To understand former and current Russian colonies, one needs to listen to historians from these places and study their cultures, languages and histories, both written and unwritten. To appreciate the ways out of colonial dictatorships, one needs to study the successful transformations of states like Ukraine. This would require dismissing the myth of the “artificial nation” and finally seeing Russia as an empire.