Is the Ukraine War an Anti-Colonial Struggle?

In January, an eye-catching yurt providing free electricity, food, and tea appeared in Bucha, Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces discovered horrific Russian war crimes when they retook the town last April. It was the first of a set of “yurts of invincibility,” funded by private Kazakh companies and erected by members of the Kazakh diaspora, which are being touted as manifestations of postcolonial and anti-imperial solidarity between Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Initiatives supporting Ukrainians in the same spirit as the yurts have emerged across countries, that were once under Moscow’s control.

Ukrainians and their allies have been clear that the Russian invasion is an explicit act of imperial aggression, and have sought to use this argument to galvanize support from countries and peoples that also suffered from the violence and erasure of Russian colonialism. The question is to what extent this framing resonates with the millions of people in countries once part of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, and how sustainable any nascent anti-colonial sentiment or solidarity really is.

In the West, the terms “anti-colonial,” “decolonial,” and “postcolonial” are most often associated with Africa, Latin America, and South Asia and the legacies of British, French, Spanish, and Belgian colonialism. As Botakoz Kassymbekova, assistant professor of modern history at the University of Basel, recently wrote for Al Jazeera, the overlooking of Russian colonialism is largely due to the Russocentric nature of Western knowledge of Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

In January, an eye-catching yurt providing free electricity, food, and tea appeared in Bucha, Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces discovered horrific Russian war crimes when they retook the town last April. It was the first of a set of “yurts of invincibility,” funded by private Kazakh companies and erected by members of the Kazakh diaspora, which are being touted as manifestations of postcolonial and anti-imperial solidarity between Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Initiatives supporting Ukrainians in the same spirit as the yurts have emerged across countries, that were once under Moscow’s control.

Ukrainians and their allies have been clear that the Russian invasion is an explicit act of imperial aggression, and have sought to use this argument to galvanize support from countries and peoples that also suffered from the violence and erasure of Russian colonialism. The question is to what extent this framing resonates with the millions of people in countries once part of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, and how sustainable any nascent anti-colonial sentiment or solidarity really is.

In the West, the terms “anti-colonial,” “decolonial,” and “postcolonial” are most often associated with Africa, Latin America, and South Asia and the legacies of British, French, Spanish, and Belgian colonialism. As Botakoz Kassymbekova, assistant professor of modern history at the University of Basel, recently wrote for Al Jazeera, the overlooking of Russian colonialism is largely due to the Russocentric nature of Western knowledge of Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

Ukrainian journalist Maksym Eristavi has been working hard to challenge these assumptions and foster connections between people and communities impacted by Russian colonialism through Ukrainian Spaces, a podcast he founded with digital activist Valeriia Voshchevska. Responses to the episodes, he said, had shown a real eagerness among listeners in the region to engage with the idea of anti-colonial solidarity.

“The episodes we did with Kazakh and Kyrgyz allies have been the most listened-to episodes in the history of our project,” Eristavi said. “The first episodes we did with Ukrainians would turn into group therapy sessions, a safe space to share our generational trauma …. The same dynamic played out with our Central Asian friends and allies. There were moments when we would feel absolutely the same, when we would intimately feel what they were trying to convey.”

This sense of emotional kinship founded upon similarly traumatic experiences is emerging after decades of Soviet propaganda, said Azamat Junisbai, a Pitzer College professor of sociology focusing on Central Asia. The Soviet Union was in many ways a successor to the Russian empire, given the privileged position it granted to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and Russian culture and the way it treated minorities, he said. But the notion that the Soviet Union could be a colonial power was deeply taboo in a Communist state that trumpeted its supposedly anti-imperialist credentials. “Growing up as a kid in Kazakhstan, the notion that we were a colony of Russia was never ever mentioned,” Junisbai said. Decades of imbibing this propaganda prevented many Kazakhs from acknowledging—and therefore resisting—Russian colonialism, although the process was slowly happening. Junisbai believes Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine “put this process on steroids,” he said.

Maria Yeryoma, Belarusian media manager at the Kyiv Independent and former employee of the independent media outlet TUT.BY, said the invasion had also brought the concepts of colonialism and anti-colonialism to the fore for pro-democracy Belarusians. “We saw that narrative [being used by Ukrainians] and felt that it was somewhat relatable to us as well,” she said.

While Russia’s war has spread the anti-colonialism terms beyond the limited academic and cultural circles to which they were previously confined, she says, their usage by Belarusians is most often “borrowing” from the Ukrainian context, rather than an expression of any homegrown approach to the concepts. Inga and Alina, Belarusian volunteers who had relocated to the Polish city of Przemysl to help Ukrainians fleeing across the border, also rarely used the terms colonialism or anti-colonialism, more frequently referring to “resisting Russian influence and aggression.”

Georgian journalist and director of Open Caucasus Media Mariam Nikuradze said Georgians also don’t use the terms, despite being the direct victims of Russian military aggression in 2008. “We barely hear anything about Russian colonialism,” she said. “I don’t remember previous government officials framing it this way either …. I wouldn’t say Georgians saw the 2008 war as an act of colonial aggression.”

Similarly, in my conversation with Eka Gigauri, executive director of Transparency International Georgia, Russian “occupation” was the most commonly used term, rather than Russian “colonialism,” although it often had similar connotations. “We all understand that [Ukrainians] fight our fight as well,” Gigauri said. “We have experienced the same disasters; we understand what it means to be occupied by a country with whom you have nothing in common.”

Solidarity can mean symbolic actions such as the gathering of Georgians and Ukrainians in Tbilisi, Georgia, to decorate Christmas trees with their countries’ flags; the performance of a Ukrainian song in the center of Minsk, Belarus, by singer Meriem Herasimenka; and the protest performance by activists from the Oyan, Qazaqstan! (“Wake Up, Kazakhstan!”) group, in which members lay on the ground covered in Ukrainian flags outside the Russian embassy. It can also, as exemplified by the yurts of invincibility, mean tangible aid provided by ordinary citizens. The evacuation of Ukrainian citizens to Poland by Belarusian activist Andrei Kulakov in his eye-catching blue and yellow minibus is another example of very real support.

But expressions of solidarity can also be intangible. Eristavi said that, for him, anti-colonial solidarity means amplifying each other’s stories.

“The foundation of any colonial ideology is making you feel small and like whatever happened to you is an isolated case,” he said. “It robs you of the understanding [that] there is a larger scheme behind it. … When we share our stories, when we amplify each other, the empire starts to crack.”

Junisbai said the Russian invasion marked a definitive anti-colonial awakening for many Kazakhs. He compared the residual positive attitudes towards Russia to a hot air balloon kept afloat by the older generation’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union. “The war has punctured that balloon,” he said. “It is coming down. There are hardly any people left who remain under any illusions.”

Yet if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become the engine of anti-colonial trends and discourses in the region, they may run out of steam when the war ends.

Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and activist, said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s repressive regime was “a product of Russian colonialism,” referencing the authoritarian leader’s adherence to Soviet values and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-term support for the dictator next door. “They are now in the same basket,” Liubakova said. “Those who hate Putin hate Lukashenko, and those who hate Lukashenko hate Putin.”

The connection between Belarus’s democratic movement—the burgeoning of which preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by many years—and resistance to Russian colonialism suggests that anti-colonial awareness in the country will continue to grow even after the war’s conclusion. There is also hope in Uzbekistan that such awareness will outlast the war. Temur Umarov, an expert on Central Asia and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: “The narrative right now is in the hands of young people. More than 50 percent of the population [in Uzbekistan] is younger than 30, which means that they … have many more questions about the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, [such as] why we are not talking about decolonization?”

A key tenet of decolonization is moving away from political and cultural paradigms that center on the imperial metropole, valorizing indigenous and local experiences, cultures, and identities. There is a tragic paradox in the fact that much of what now joins such disparate countries together, providing the basis for solidarity, is a direct result of colonial policies. As in the former colonies of the British Empire, the language of the colonizer, Russian, continues—to varying degrees—to dominate communication between these now independent societies. A shared language, however, does not mean entirely shared experiences. In the social and political hierarchies of both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, an ethnic Kazakh would have experienced colonial practices very differently from an ethnic Ukrainian. “Racism was not so prominent in Russia’s colonization of Ukraine as it was in its colonization of Central Asia,” Eristavi pointed out.

For now, the war binds many people together in opposition to Moscow. But what might anti-colonial solidarity look like in the post-war era? In this immensely diverse region, the metropole provides a common enemy against which vastly different countries can unite. The question, then, is the extent to which solidarity between these countries can exist outside of this oppositional paradigm. Upon what basis can these countries and peoples build and sustain solidarities with each other if not the rejection of the old imperial master? Are these kinds of relations necessary, or even desirable, in the long term?

The two institutions claiming to represent these countries’ “shared interests”—the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization—are dominated by Russia and largely serve as vessels for the Kremlin’s strategic agenda. While the governments of member states such as Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan remain dependent on Moscow politically and economically—and, indeed, while they remain authoritarian or hybrid regimes—these institutions are never going to embody the emerging anti-colonial sentiments in their societies. The true potential for anti- and decolonial solidarities in the region lies not with governments but the grassroots. People-to-people initiatives—of the kind we are now seeing as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—that bring ordinary citizens together and create spaces for organic dialogue and mutual learning will provide the momentum for their continued development.

Beyond the commonalities imposed by the Soviet authorities, Eurasia’s cultural and political landscape is immensely varied. While Belarusian culture may share traits with Ukrainian culture, both are distinct from the cultures of Central Asia. Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the European Parliament that Ukraine is part of Europe. “This is our Europe,” he said. “This is our way of life, and for Ukraine it’s a way home.” The narrative that Ukraine is a historically European nation—with all the value and civilizational judgements that term entails—separated by Russia from its natural home is not something that can be adopted by Central Asian countries that cannot aspire to EU membership.

Rather than assuming commonalities, solidarity in the cultural sphere means negotiating differences after decades of Russian-enforced homogeneity. Katie Boudreau Morris, a scholar who focuses on migration and settler colonialism in Canada, wrote that settlers could only engage in true solidarity with indigenous communities through “constant and uncomfortable engagement with difference—an engagement that is based on mutual recognition and connection.” That remains true even between communities that were both colonized; acknowledging and grappling with difference remains relevant in order not to erase the variety of experiences.

Each society grapples with the heritage of Russian dominance. One way civil society could foster ongoing solidarity is through providing spaces where people from such immensely varied backgrounds could share experiences and learn from one another as they seek to reclaim their languages and distinct cultures. In Ukraine, thousands have turned away from Russian—even if it is their first language—and switched to Ukrainian, with similar trends occurring in Belarus and Kazakhstan. It is in the process of decolonization where solidarity among former Russian colonies can flourish.

Solidarity does not mean sameness. . The manifold initiatives that have emerged to support Ukraine and its people across what was once the Russian empire demonstrate a readiness to reject Moscow’s long shadow, as well as fertile ground for grassroots cooperation after the war ends. No matter in what terms one understands it, Russia’s full-scale invasion has brought discussions of identity—individual, social, and political—to the fore. Only if and when Ukraine wins will we begin to see where these conversations lead.

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