Russia: What kind of decolonization do we need?

Ilya Budraitskis
February 1, 2023

Ilya Budraitskis on how decolonization is being weaponized, why efforts to define what a “decolonization” program should look like are encountering serious obstacles, and why Russians need to figure it out for themselves.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the call for the “decolonization” of Russia has become one of the most popular and concrete political slogans.

The demand for “decolonization” entails a radical revision to the entire project of the modern Russian state, which now reclaims territories of countries that were once part of the empire. The revision concerns not only foreign policy, but also the internal structure of the Russian Federation – a super-centralized state that severely suppresses any elements of regional autonomy.

Real change is possible only if “decolonization” becomes a process by which Russians rewire their own consciousness and reconsider their past and present, the imperial and chauvinistic foundations of which paved the way to the current war. However, a comprehensive program of “decolonization” looks coherent only until you start asking questions. Who will be the agent of “decolonization?” What might trigger it? Finally, why should we use this particular concept and what universal (i.e. not exclusively related to Russia) meaning does it have? In other words, who should “decolonize” whom and for what?

Decolonization as geopolitics?

In terms of international relations theory, decolonization is the process by which former colonies that have turned into new states, following the collapse of colonial imperial power, acquire legal, economic and cultural independence from the former metropolis. Colonial rule never ends on its own – its end is brought about by liberation movements (in the case of the British and French colonial empires) or military defeat (the Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman empires), or often a complex combination of both.

Driven by imperial ressentiment, elites regard decolonization as a weapon in the hands of geopolitical rivals, while liberated colonies are seen as a resource for containing the influence of former metropolises (or, conversely, as a legitimate sphere for their political and economic interests). There are plenty of examples of the dangerous consequences of such views, including Hitler’s attitude toward Poland as an “artificial state” in the 1930s, the extremely painful separation of France and Algeria in the 1960s, and modern “neo-Ottoman” motifs in Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and Balkans.

In this sense, Russian revanchism, which sees the emergence of new post-Soviet states as a “geopolitical catastrophe,” is no exception. Where it is different about it is that the Kremlin has produced an entire doctrine out of imperial ressentiment that reduces decolonization to a pure contest of the strength (power) of opposing empires – Russia and America (the “collective West”).

In Putin’s speeches, the historical sequence is clear: the Bolsheviks “created” Ukraine and allowed former “historical lands” of the Russian Empire, such as the Baltic states, to separate, which owed to the weakness of state power after the loss in World War I. Similarly, in the wake of the defeat in the Cold War, “historical Russia” lost the former Soviet republics in 1991. Having lost these territories, Russia also lost part of its “sovereignty,” understood as the totality of power concentrated within the country. Thus, when borders are expanded, it represents a consolidation (strengthening) of power (both external and internal); when borders contract, power is weakened. Such a world based on the permanent struggle for survival does not tolerate power vacuums, as one colonial power is always ready to take the place of another.

This apologia for colonialism paradoxically presupposes a peculiar program of “decolonization” as a new partition of the world. Since Putin sees international law as nothing more than a pillar to support the West’s colonial power, he sees the violation of that law as an act of liberation, a “strengthening of sovereignty.”

"In fact, Putin sees the invasion of Ukraine as the beginning of a new 'decolonization,' which he calls for Asia, Africa and even Europe (also enslaved by the 'Anglo-Saxons') to continue."

Notably, in such a paradigm there is no major difference between colonialism (direct domination by the metropolis) and neo-colonialism (de facto dependence of legally sovereign states), as some countries, as the logic goes, will always impose their will on others. That is supposedly the true quasi-natural law of international relations, and the only question is whether there will be one colonial agent in the world or many.

Since for Putin any universal rights and concepts are only a form of colonial power, Putin’s “decolonization” also means an expansive redefinition of the very concept of colonization. Such “decolonization” supposes that, freed from Western-centricity, colonialism will cease to be an absolute evil and become, as it were, a neutral fact of life.

This attack on universalism bears a striking resemblance to the program of “decolonization” as “epistemic disobedience” advanced by some contemporary decolonial theorists, such as Walter Mignolo. Mignolo believes that the breakup of the world into “state-civilizations” like China, Russia and India will lead to emancipation from Western universalism in the arts and social sciences. With that breakup of the world, according to Mignolo, an equal “pluriverse” (the term of the conservative Carl Schmitt) of values and political systems will take shape. For Mignolo, the de-linking of knowledge with Western universalism also means a revision of all the West’s political “baggage,” including democracy and civil rights, as well as the right to self-determination of peoples. Instead of independent nation-states essentially just reproducing the Western political model, what is needed, according to Mignolo, is a transition to self-sufficient “civilizations.”

This version of “decolonization,” which sees any universalism as an invention of the West, overlaps not only with conservative thought in the spirit of Huntington’s famous Clash of Civilizations, but also the behavior of Putin’s Russia. In other words,

"The fact that Putin is using 'decolonial' rhetoric to justify his overtly colonial military aggression clearly demonstrates the conceptual problems with the 'decolonial' framework itself."

Meanwhile, the slogan “decolonize Russia” has rapidly turned into a propaganda tool of the West in recent months. For example, on the pages of The Atlanic, Casey Michel explicitly insists that the West must complete the project begun in 1991 […] and completely decolonize Russia.

Just as a century ago the “self-determination of nations” was used by the victorious empires against the losers of World War I, now “decolonization” is seen by some American politicians as a program to punish Russia after its inevitable defeat in Ukraine. It is hard not to notice that by calling for the “decolonization” of the enemy, the West, as it were, is trying to finally clear the issue of its own relapses of colonialism. By losing its connection with any emancipatory social substance (and therefore its universal meaning), “decolonization” thus becomes a geopolitical weapon and risks losing any definite meaning. Something similar has already happened with “denazification” – a concept that today has been nearly completely devalued by Russian propaganda. Can you imagine anything more reflective of the essence of the colonial imperial consciousness than such an instrumentalization of the anti-colonial agenda?

Decolonization as a political program

Both the unconditional support of Ukraine’s right to resist Russian aggression and

"The struggle for Russia’s future as a democratic federation (or confederation) requires a clear understanding of the fact that true decolonization is an intellectual and political program that, by definition, cannot be imposed from outside."

Decolonization is not limited to creating separate states or full-fledged autonomous areas – it involves liberation from the very frame of perceiving oneself, one’s identity, as created by imperial power. For decolonization to have a truly universal value, the once colonized peoples, as well as the heirs of the colonizers, must be its agents.

If colonial universalism was based on the affirmation of the colonizer as an abstract “person,” then decolonization should not be reduced to the pure negation of this “person” in the name of particular “civilizations” and isolated communities with “values” that are impenetrable to one another. On the contrary, decolonization must be based on a redefinition of universalism. It is necessary to stop understanding the “universal” as the state and the global market, since both the market and the state, while proclaiming universal “rights,” actually produce new hierarchies and privileges. The main problem will be that such colonial universalism should be reproduced almost unconsciously, not reduced to ideological constructions that come down from above.

The Russian imperial consciousness, like any other imperial consciousness, supposes that the formation of the modern state and its attributes was historically justified. “Universal,” “panhuman” (or in the Soviet period – “international”) completely overlaps with “Russian” in this constant. The demand for decolonization and a radical rewiring of that consciousness today is can be directly linked to the political impasse in which the Russian state found itself after the invasion of Ukraine.

The decolonization of the past – and thus of the present – should be accompanied by a revision of the view of the history of a people as the building of a state through an infinite number of transformations of parts into a whole. The history of Russia, starting with Karamzin, has been understood in this way: the state gave “shape” to society and signified the emergence of the people on the historical stage. From the 19th century and through most of the Soviet era, the state was depicted as a rational force that “gathered up” lands and protected them from external enemies.

In this paradigm, the existence of the people, along with the formation of their consciousness, was possible only in a centralized state where time (the future) was completely identical to space (territorial expansion).

"In this apologia for the state, such different outlooks as conservative-monarchist, liberal-progressive and imperial-Stalinist amazingly converged."

The juxtaposition of the state and the people as the agent and object of violence was first found in Slavophile thought and then developed in the narodnik (populist) tradition and subsequently by the Russian Marxists of the early 20th century (primarily by the historian Mikhail Pokrovsky). In his course on Russian history, Pokrovsky showed how the despotic Muscovite state, through artificial centralization imposed by the ruling class from above, consistently held back social development. This genealogical approach saw the foundation for social progress in what had been ousted, subjugated or suppressed by the state – in the Novgorod Republic and the emerging urban culture of independent principalities, in peasant uprisings and the resistance of “subjugated” peoples. The revolution thus represented a total break with the old state, not its continuation and “realization” at a new historical juncture.

Decolonization invokes the need to recreate the country and raises the question: what binds us to each other, if not a centralized state and its attributes – a uniform education and culture, a unified language? Everyone must answer that question for themselves.

The original text in Russian was published by Doxa and is republished here with their permission.