Yakov Rabkin, Emeritus Professor of History, University of Montreal
Samir Saul, Full Professor of History, University of Montreal
The war in Ukraine has revived Western plans to dismember Russia and, in the words of the proponents of this idea, to complete the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Sustained efforts, as well as considerable funds, are devoted to fostering ethnic nationalism among Russia’s many ethnic groups. Meetings are organized outside Russia in order to foment separatism along ethnic lines. The plan to break up the country is sometimes referred to as the “decolonization of Russia”. Since the strongest opposition to Russia comes from political groups that consider themselves progressive (such as the Democratic Party in the United States or the Green Party in Germany), the concept of decolonization makes this idea appear as anti-imperialist and progressive.
But in Russia, another type of decolonization is underway. Intellectuals, artists and politicians plead for the liberation of the country not only from economic and technological dependence on the West, but also from the cultural colonization that has triumphed since the era of perestroika. The dismantling of the Soviet Union was not only “a geopolitical catastrophe”, as Putin once said. It was also a psychological blow to millions of Soviet citizens, and not just Russians. All the sacrifices made to build a radically different society and to lift the country from two horribly expensive world wars suddenly seemed to have been made in vain.
The population suffered a profound loss of self-confidence and self-respect. It fell into a kind of collective depression, the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s having plunged the majority of the population into abject poverty. Russia was on its knees, plagued by the kind of staggering inertia and mental bondage that peoples colonized by Western empires had experienced before. Russia was on the way to becoming a veritable colony of the West. While Putin was the first foreign leader to call Washington after the Twin Towers bombing in 2001, he proposed the idea of Russia joining NATO.
Intellectual concepts, artistic tastes, business practices and government policies were imported uncritically and proclaimed superior simply because they came from the West. The language has absorbed a heavy dose of often superfluous Americanisms. Historical continuity was snubbed in favor of imitation. Pro-Western reformers knowingly destroyed much of the country’s technological and industrial potential with the avowed ideological aim of uprooting all traces of socialism. Aeroflot, once the largest airline in the world, used exclusively Soviet-made aircraft. A few years after post-Soviet reforms, it switched to Western-made aircraft, most of which are currently grounded due to Western sanctions. Today, belated efforts are being made in Russia to revive the civil aircraft industry.
For more than three decades, a powerful comprador bourgeoisie controlled by neoliberal oligarchs has taken root in the country and its corridors of power. These people considered the West a reliable and generous friend. They developed an infinite faith in globalization which promised an uninterrupted supply of consumer goods, industrial equipment and electronic components. Western banks were used not only for deposits of private funds, but also for the placement of Russia’s sovereign reserves.
Most of these funds are now frozen and at risk of being expropriated. Yet many loyal to the “rules-based order” under Washington continue to wield influence in Moscow. They hope against hope that once the war is over, everything will return to normal. But a struggle is underway to free the country from the colonial dependence that these intellectuals, politicians, businessmen and financiers have promoted and benefited from for decades.
The Russian television and film industries absorbed American influence with fervor. Although series may be made locally, they follow storylines and fashions from elsewhere. Whether or not one appreciates Soviet films and literature, there is no doubt that they were authentic and original. Much of today’s Russian cultural production is derived and imitated. Cheap entertainment invaded most television studios, leaving one channel, Kultura, as a sort of natural reserve for quality programs, often consisting of films made in the USSR.
The education system has encouraged selfishness, competition, and a rush for money. Ayn Rand’s books have become gospel to millions of disoriented ex-Soviets. Individual consumption replaced socialist values, and even minimal community concerns. A former Minister of Education openly argued for the training of educated consumers, rather than scientists, engineers or intellectuals. No wonder many young men fled the country when mobilization for the armed forces was declared last fall. Patriotism has long become a dirty word among sophisticated city dwellers. Although clumsy, efforts are being made to change these educational policies, and time will tell how effective they will be.
Russia is waking up to the charm of submission to the West, the glorification of its ideology and the adulation of its models. Disdain and thinly concealed efforts by the United States to bring Russia to heel have largely contributed to this trend. Just as the colonized world has risen to shed the shackles of colonial domination, Russia is breaking free from the mental straitjacket of the past thirty years. Patriotism, volunteerism and social concerns are making a strong comeback.
The conflict in Ukraine catalyzed this historic transition. Decolonization has reached Russia’s foreign policy discourse. Putin and Lavrov no longer refer to “our Western partners” because a real war is going on between Russia and NATO, which Russian, Ukrainian and Western officials now openly admit.
Russian leaders may criticize their Soviet predecessors, but they face similar if not more daunting challenges. As they attempt to consolidate alliances and seek new ones, they invoke the Soviet legacy of support for anti-colonialism.
Many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have long harbored aspirations for national sovereignty and a multipolar world. Today, Russia encourages them to resume their fight against Western hegemony. These countries have not bought into Western sanctions against Russia and are watching closely how it deals with the collective West. Thus, attempts to mentally and economically decolonize Russia can only encourage decolonization elsewhere.