Decolonization Of Ukraine: Another Way To See The Fight For The Future
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have begun a radical revision of their cultural habits and beliefs, casting off the relics of Russian colonialism. How Ukrainians see themselves and their country's past will directly affect how they fight for the future.
KYIV — When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in Feb. 2022, Ukrainians were forced to revise their cultural habits and beliefs. Music that six months ago was celebrated, suddenly became unacceptable because it came from the aggressor country. Fascination with "great Russian literature" became a thing of the past, and many regretted the lost time that could have been devoted to learning about the work of Ukrainian writers.
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As early as Jan. 2022, discussions about renaming streets and monuments became widespread in central and Southern Ukrainian cities. Now, everything is different. Almost immediately after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, citizens formed a consensus not only about the possibility of renaming streets and monuments, but also about its necessity.
All of this testifies to the intuitive request of Ukrainians for the decolonization of their own cultural narrative and historical space. But even within the country, decolonization is not fully realized. The changes taking place in Ukraine look more like a reaction to Russia's neo-imperialism. Of course, foreign countries, their opinion leaders and the public are still far from understanding the war, its causes and the transformation of Ukrainian society. This all raises the question: Has Ukraine really moved past its colonial history?
Russia had positioned itself as the metropolis at the center of the former Soviet republics, especially Ukraine, long before 2014. This became clear both in the support from mythologists (who pushed ideas about "one Slavic nation") and in the development of new theories aimed at proving Russian exceptionalism among its neighbors.
Myth of Russian exceptionalism
With the beginning of Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine in 2014, and especially after the full-scale invasion in 2022, Russia's neo-imperial behavior and rhetoric became even more obvious. Not only did the political and military circles of Russia openly discuss its supremacy, but leaders of science and culture, too. These discussions became all too real in Russian actions in occupied Ukrainian territories.
Russia continually applies a policy of cultural erasure to objects that do not fit its historical narrative. The occupying power of Crimea actually destroyed the Bakhchysarai Palace, a unique architectural monument of the Crimean Tatars, changed the "unacceptable" toponymy of the Crimean peninsula and destroyed ancient cemeteries and tombstones, which testified to the pre-Russian history of the peninsula and the continuity of life of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people on it.
The Russian invasion confirmed that history, religion, science and culture, depending on the political situation, have been the instruments or victims of Russia's neo-imperial attack on the territorial and existential sovereignty of Ukraine.
Ukraine, as a postcolonial state?
There are quite a few reasons why Ukrainian history is not associated with the history of colonialism and, accordingly, why the modern Ukrainian state is not viewed through the prism of post-colonialism. Most of them can be reduced to a fairly simple statement about the difference between the Ukrainian colonial scenario and the standard one.
The term "decolonization," at least in English, was first used in 1930 to describe Eastern European states gaining their independence. Given the geographical focus of the term, its opposite term "colonization" referred to expansion due to the annexation of adjacent lands on the European continent. But empires, especially for the non-Western world, were associated with the conquest of territories located overseas from the metropolis. In the minds of Asian countries, for example, sea power is still associated with colonial imperialism to a much greater extent than land expansion.
Russian imperialism is often disregarded.
Unlike Western European colonization, Russian colonization mostly took place over land (with a few rare exceptions including Alaska, Fort Ross in Northern California and Fort Elizabeth in Hawaii). Such "creeping" land colonization is unlike that of the English, French, Spanish or Dutch, and has been largely ignored in the discourse on colonialism. One of the founders of post-colonial theory, the Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said, has suggested that, due to the lack of a maritime component, Russian imperialism is not sufficiently imperialistic and its conquests are oftentimes justified in this sense. Said's approach largely became mainstream and focused the attention of researchers, as well as post-colonial states, on only one manifestation of colonialism: maritime. These theorists ignored an important factor: the essence of colonial policy, which consists in the subjugation of other people, their culture and way of life, establishing the dominance of the metropolis in the political and economic spheres.
Another characteristic of "standard colonialism" is that it was carried out by Western countries against the so-called third world. Post-colonial science relies heavily on the idea of the existence of the first (capitalist), second (socialist) and third (states that did not join the two previous groups) worlds. After the events of 1989–1991, postcolonial scholarship found it difficult to accept the idea that Second World powers could also be considered imperialist. As a result, Russian imperialism is often disregarded.
Ukraine, of course, was not a subject of English or French colonial interest; it did not belong to the third world during the decades when the core of post-colonial science was formed, and was not subject to the metropolis by naval conquests.
Living quarters of Hansaray in Bakhchisaray, Crimea in 2007.
How did Imperial Russia view Ukraine?
Unlike most "recognized" colonies of the past, colonialism on the territory of Ukraine mostly did not have an exploitative form. Instead, the Ukrainian center is considered by many researchers as an example of dynastic colonialism: when local elites are assimilated into the imperial project, and regional traditions, language and literature are stigmatized.
Unlike other colonies of Russia and the USSR, modern central Ukraine was viewed by the latter as a part of the imperial core rather than a colonial periphery. This is largely due to the fact that, since the time of Russian Empress Catherine II, a large part of the educated elite of the Russian Empire consisted of Ukrainians who voluntarily wanted to build a career in the imperial centers. This trend continued in the times of the USSR, when Ukrainian party members played key roles in the Soviet state. However, this did not mean the protection of Ukrainian culture, political system, or economic and administrative traditions — they had to be subordinated to the general imperial order.
All of this prevents Ukraine from easily explaining its confrontation with imperialism.
Dynastic colonialism essentially divided the population of Ukraine into two cohorts. The first is made up of those who cooperated with the metropolis, rarely suffered discrimination and participated in the management of the empire. The second (larger) cohort experienced discrimination, forced assimilation and were instilled with a sense of inferiority on a daily basis.
Territories facing this type of colonialism today are mostly part of Western countries. The people affected by this type of colonialism (these are the peoples who lived in the territory of the modern U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) do not have a powerful sovereign voice in order to participate in the discussion about the post-colonial reconstruction of the world and the mutual support of states with a colonial past. In Ukraine, however, the colonizer was a state that was ethnically and linguistically much closer to the Ukrainian population than England was to American or Australian indigenous people, and so is often disregarded or not recognized as real colonization.
Squashing Moscow's neo-colonial plans
All of this together prevents Ukraine from easily explaining to the world its confrontation with imperialism. At the same time, due to the long-term assimilation policy of the Russian Empire in the South and East of modern Ukraine, a certain split in loyalty has traditionally been observed in these regions. It caused intra-Ukrainian doubts about the very idea of escaping colonialism.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that western Ukraine was only occupied for a relatively short time during and after the Second World War, and did not experience significant Russian imperial influence. As a result, the diversity of Ukrainian experiences of colonization does not make it possible to easily imagine a simple, common idea of Ukraine's postcolonial search, and for the country to be recognized as one which suffered from colonialism.
Ukraine must gradually and methodically clarify various aspects of Russia's longstanding colonial behavior and its neo-colonial motives and methods in the current armed aggression. Such a nuanced understanding of the politics of the Russian Federation is not merely symbolic or academic in nature — it directly affects Ukraine's self-positioning in terms of accusing Russia of war crimes and crimes against humanity, getting the appropriate tools for contending with the current aggression and finally in developing stable, sustainable institutions to ensure a thriving post-war, post-colonial Ukraine.
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