Alex Gordon: RUSSIA, UKRAINE AND THE DYNAMICS OF COLONIZATION
“The history of Russia is the history of a country which is colonized. The zone of colonization extended there at the same time as the territory of the State”. – Vasily Klyuchevsky. A lesson in Russian history.
The work of the historian Kljuchevsky was first published in 1902. The author testifies: “Thus, resettlement, colonization of the country was the fundamental fact of our history with which all its other facts lay closely or distantly related”.
The colonization of Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia made the Russian Empire the largest country in the world in terms of territory, which spanned more than 22 million square kilometers and governed 190 ethnic groups.
Such vast areas and such successful colonization, which brought Russia to the Pacific Ocean, created in Russia’s past and present a typical metropolitan consciousness. Therefore, any secession of former colonies such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine is painful for the imperial conscience of the Russian authorities. Russia’s war in Ukraine should be seen as a struggle between a metropolis and a colony.
The peculiarity of the Russian state, noted by Kliuchevskii and reflected in its permanent and successful colonizatione, was also characteristic of the Soviet Union. In Soviet times, Russian rule over 190 peoples was called “Soviet peoples’ friendship” and even “Soviet peoples’ brotherly friendship”.
Ukraine’s struggle for independence was therefore perceived by Russia as a “betrayal of brotherly friendship”.
As Ukraine relies on the West in this struggle for independence, the “betrayal” of a former colony in relation to a former metropolis is perceived particularly acutely and is characterized not as a struggle for independence, but of transfer to another metropolis.
The narrative of Russian power, reinforced by the Soviet consciousness of always being right in any inter-ethnic conflict, boils down to the following assertion: Russia is an empire that liberates rather than colonizes, assimilates other peoples rather than seizing their territory, helps other peoples rather than exploiting them, respects other peoples rather than treating them in a paternalistic way.
Russia had no colonies so far from its borders as Great Britain, France, Spain and Portugal. Its borders shifted south and east, that is, Russian territory expanded, as Klyuchevsky argued.
Thus, the expansion of the “Russian world” took place by imperialist heating, as bodies expand when heated.
The Soviet Union expands westward and seizes in 1939-1940 the territories of Western Belarus, Western Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bessarabia and northern Bukovina lost with the dissolution of the Russian Empire.
During the same period, the USSR expanded its territory to the northwest in the war with Finland, which was fought for the “security of Leningrad”.
To justify the war, a necessary enemy image was created – White Finns.
The terminology used was that of the civil war: the Reds, the Bolsheviks – positive heroes, the Whites, supporters of tsarist power – negative heroes. Reds – Whites – this juxtaposition meant at that time for the Soviets where good and evil were.
To justify the attack on Ukraine, the ideology of the Russian Federation began to use another image of the enemy: Ukraine is ruled by the Nazis.
This image makes it clear to citizens that, since it is about the Nazis, as during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, good is on the side of Russia and evil on the side of Ukraine and therefore the war is just.
The Russian Federation does not have the sense of self-criticism characteristic of a democratic society, which can be described by a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who fights against monsters must be careful not to become a monster himself. And if you stare at the abyss for a long time, the abyss also stares at you.”
English writer Somerset Maugham, who was in Russia on a mission for the British Secret Service, wrote: “Russian patriotism is something unique; it has an abyss of vanity; Russians believe that they are unlike any other nation and therefore boast.” In his lecture entitled “The Byzantine Legacy of Russia”, delivered in Toronto on April 8-9, 1947, British historian Arnold Toynbee proclaimed that Bolshevism was the result of Russia’s fatal attraction to the specter of Byzantium, with its status as a “totalitarian” state, its absolute conviction of its right and its implacable hostility towards the West.
Soviet ideologues oppose the claim that their country is a colonial power and speak only of the “gathering of Russian lands” and the “unfailing friendship of Soviet peoples” under the aegis of “big brother”, the Russian people. “Brotherhood” and “friendship” were disguised as conquest and colonization.
In its war against Ukraine, the Russian Federation is expanding in the southeast: on September 30, it announced the annexation of four regions of Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. On December 4, 2022, Putin said that the main result of the “special military operation” was the annexation of new territories and the transformation of the Sea of Azov into the internal sea of Russia.
He noted that in this he surpassed the Russian Emperor Peter the Great, who only tried to gain access to the Sea of Azov. The area of these new territories is more than 90 thousand square kilometers. This area exceeds the territory of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg combined. This movement is presented as the restitution of “ancestral Russian” lands.
The Russian Federation uses the traditional Soviet narrative, or superiority complex, to make it feel right. In 1936, the French writer André Gide, future Nobel laureate, who visited the USSR, was astonished to learn that Soviet citizens were convinced “that decidedly everything abroad and in all areas is considerably worse than in the USSR”.
André Gide described this system of opinions as a “superiority complex”, introduced in psychology by Alfred Adler, disciple of Sigmund Freud. Adler viewed the superiority complex as the flip side of the inferiority complex.
The writer Ilya Ehrenburg expressed this dialectic as follows: “Talking endlessly about one’s superiority is associated with crawling in front of strangers – these are various manifestations of the same inferiority complex.”
Although the USSR preaches internationalism, imperial language invents the superiority of the Soviet nation over the West and more generally over opponents of socialist ideology. The collapse of the USSR did not invalidate the “superiority complex”, because such a worldview fits perfectly with the imperial model of Russian existence.
Many commentators argue that Russia’s war in Ukraine is creating a new world order. However, the creation of a new world order is only a hypothesis. So far, it is about rehabilitating the old colonial order, an attempt to recover the old colony from the old metropolis.
Russia, Ukraine and the Dynamics of Colonization by Alex Gordon