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Russia and Empire


The issue of Russia and imperial studies is complicated, but it has a lot to do with structures of Western academia:

Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union into its constituent republics in 1991, Russia set about reestablishing its empire, piece by piece. These efforts included Russian-instigated separatist movements in neighboring countries, military invasions, illegal annexations, mercenary deployments, cyberattacks, manipulated elections, the poisoning of politicians, and massive disinformation campaigns. Inside Russia, which remains a tapestry of lands and peoples conquered and colonized under tsars and communists, these efforts have included warfare and mass atrocities, as in Chechnya.

All of this should be completely intelligible to someone studying the role of France in the Sahel, or the United Kingdom in the Middle East. Colonial powers continue to interfere in the politics and economics of their colonial subjects even well after formal colonial control ends. It is not accidental that Ukrainian economic growth and political development has badly trailed any of its neighbors; Russia has been committed to interfering in Ukrainian affairs since literally the day after Ukrainian independence. Accounts that focus on the events of 2014 as some sort of seminal moment for interference in the Ukrainian political system carefully avoid looking at anything at all that happened before that moment.

So why the different lens? The situation is complicated but has a lot to do with politics of the academy and the nature of post-colonial studies on the one hand and post-Soviet studies on the other. Generally speaking (and we’re getting quite broad here) folks who study the developing world and especially the impact of Western colonialism on political and economic development in the Global South do not study post-Soviet spaces, and vice versa. This means that the tools for analyzing the relationship between France and Algeria on the one hand and Russia and Kazakhstan on the other are quite different. Scholars of Soviet spaces were quite plentiful and didn’t think they needed much help from scholars of Africa and Latin America; scholars of the developing world didn’t have the connections and language skills to study post-Soviet spaces.

There was also a political divide. Scholars of the developing world, at least from the 1970s on, tended to have broadly anti-colonial sympathies. During the Cold War Moscow tended to support the anti-colonial movements that, in many cases, would come to characterize post-colonial governance in the Global South. The Soviet Union was thus not understood to be the same kind of destabilizing, destructive colonial presence as Britain, France, or Portugal. This is not quite to say that scholars of the developing world were sympathetic with Soviet foreign policy, just that they were not necessarily inclined to treat the USSR with the same kind of analytical tools that they used to describe the effects of British, French, or American imperialism. Perhaps just as importantly, right wing politics in the United States absolutely leaned into the “Soviet Empire” terminology, meaning that if you described the USSR as an empire in an academic setting it seemed as if you were affirming the rhetoric of the Reagan administration.

But of course the Soviet Union *was* and Russia *is* an empire, in all of the most literal ways that a political entity can be characterized as “imperial.” It controlled vast territories populated by a huge number of ethnic groups organized with a clear racial and ideological hierarchy, and managed these territories through a wide array of political arrangements. It was (and is) not fashionable to describe Poland or Hungary as Soviet colonies, but they certainly were constituent elements of the Soviet empire, differentiated from Estonia and Ukraine only by some mild differences in governance structure. With the transition from Soviet governance the empire shed two of its outer layers (first the nominally independent states of the Warsaw Pact and Mongolia, then the de jure republics of the Soviet Union itself) but retained control over a wide array of conquered territories inhabited by an equally wide array of ethnic groups. The wars against Chechnya were wars of imperial consolidation, reconfirming Moscow’s control over a wayward province and offering a warning to anyone else who might consider separation.

And yet many remain reluctant to grapple with Russia’s colonial role in Eastern Europe, and with the notion that the former constituent parts of that empire should be understood using analytical concepts that are common in evaluating post-colonial politics in any other part of the world. Folks who have no problem understanding why the citizens of Vietnam hate France struggle to understand why Poles or Ukrainians have negative feelings towards Russia. And unfortunately in the context of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, folks are reluctant to frame Russia’s behavior towards Ukraine as part of its long-term colonial project towards Eastern Europe. If France invaded Algeria tomorrow no one would mistake it for anything but a reassertion of French imperial prerogatives; that folks refuse to interpret Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the same way is appalling, but not particularly surprising given the academic context. In the field of international relations (my own), the school of Realism has *always* struggled to understand colonialism and metropol-periphery relations; it is not surprising in this context to see Realists fail utterly to construct an intelligible narrative about Russia’s relationship with Ukraine.

In this context it’s worthwhile to visit our favorite socialist cosplayer at our favorite restraint themed think tank:

Is it true that left-wing values can only be served by arming Ukraine? To my mind, it depends on what timescale one adopts. In the immediate term, it’s difficult to deny the horrors that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused. And it’s probably accurate to say that if the United States never sent weapons, these horrors would have been intensified. Nonetheless, when making U.S. foreign policy, one cannot only look to the immediate consequences of a given action; one must also focus on how a policy affects the structure of what historians have termed the American Empire — an empire that has done enormous damage to the world.

The idea that atrocities committed by one empire should be ignored because on balance they curtail the ambitions of another empire are not new; indeed, they’re pretty much part and parcel of the nineteenth century high imperialism. Danny Boy doesn’t tell us what he thinks about Russian imperialism, so we’re left to our own devices to determine whether a) he doesn’t think Russia is an empire, or b) he simply prefers Russian imperialism to American imperialism. All I can say is that if the answer is the former, Danny is in good company in lacking the conceptual tools to deal meaningfully with the fact that the invasion of Ukraine is part of a long-term Russian imperial project.

We do know that the preferences of the Ukrainians with respect to this question are not, by Danny, to be considered relevant. If Ukrainian villages must be massacred by Russians in order to stymie American empire, then so be it; Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.

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