Illustration courtesy of Voices on Central Asia.

The Misuse of Postcolonial Discourse in Russia

Often, we have a tendency to be quite liberal in our use of the word “postcolonial.” This is precisely the case in most postcolonial discourse surrounding the Soviet Union.

Oct 10, 2021

In 2001, David Moore argued that postcolonialism is a category with global application. But when scholars asserted the need to look at the former Soviet world through a postcolonial lens in the early 1990s (like the Ukrainian-Australian scholar Marko Pavlyshyn in 1993), they were ignored and ridiculed by the overwhelming majority of Russian intellectuals and Western-trained specialists on Russian culture. Now, most academics agree that Russia — under the Tsars and the Communist Party — was a colonizer.
And now we take for granted that not only Russia but all states in the world fall into the postcolonial duality: the colonizer or the colonized. When students come to NYU Abu Dhabi, they face fierce pressure to acknowledge postcolonial narratives. Many students coming from regions that might not have actively and broadly discussed postcolonialism find themselves faced with the dilemma of adapting to the postcolonial narrative or sticking to their views by writing pesky comments on NYUAD’s Facebook groups throughout their time at university.
In postcolonial narratives, distortion occurs on various levels. Consider, again, Russia. Alexander Etkind argues that postcolonialism in Russia is finding a somewhat unexpected application in support of a view that Russia, starting with Peter the Great's reforms, developed as a self-colonizing state. According to Etkind, most Russian historians see Russian colonization as a passive interior extension of the Russian people that built its territory, whereas Western colonization is portrayed as external, aggressive and overt. The concept is applied in such a way that Russian colonization appears to have a positive outlook.
The same historians define Western colonization in a manner that presupposes decolonization, while for Russia the definition makes decolonization appear logically impossible. In other words, they claim that once a noncontiguous territory had been annexed to the Russian empire, it becomes necessary to restore continuity by capturing the land in between. In his conclusion, Etkind argues that Russian culture has yet to "find a positive, enlightened solution" to their colonial heritage, which he asks for in his article.
But Russia is so diverse, that it begs the question: what exactly is postcolonialism in this context? Has Russia even fully gone through decolonization as the Western postcolonialist model presupposes? When we look at the Russian Federation today, we find a peculiar paradox because the authority's internal relations, with territories such as Bashkortostan and Chechnya, demonstrate little sign of decolonization. In Russia’s history, decolonization took the form of absorbing the colony into the parent state. The Far East and the aforementioned republics constituted an important component of the present-day Russian Federation under the Soviet Union, and this system has stayed since the USSR's disintegration.
It's unsurprising to see postcolonial discourse being abused by apologists of colonization. What is much more unexpected, perhaps, is the abuse of this discourse by the colonized. To quote Gayatri Spivak, “Every postcoloniality is situated, and therefore different.” Appropriating one region’s experience of colonization isn’t intellectually viable because both the colonial and postcolonial experiences are contextual and informed by the historical, cultural and political forces of each country. Kazakhstan, among other post-Soviet countries, is an example of a postcolonial state in which events of past repression and dominance are mainly presented in awkwardly adapted political narratives. Without a strong intellectual movement to discuss this postcolonial experience, Kazakh society is ultimately manipulated by “nation-builders” who run the serious risk of dividing society.
For now, unfortunately, postcolonial discussions are usually content with the Russian (and sometimes even Soviet and Tsarist) representations of “Asian Russia.” The debate over postcolonialism is critical for our understanding of various nation-building processes, but one must be aware that even postcolonial narratives and arguments are appropriated by different political sides for their own gains. In order to establish the global applicability of postcolonial arguments, what must be centered are the lived experiences of those who were colonized.
Adi Baurzhanuly is a Staff Writer. Email him at
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