Why has Russian imperialism been largely ignored in Western academia? Read an analysis by Atilla Can Ekici, a doctoral student at the University of Plymouth.
This guest post is by Atilla Can Ekici. Atilla completed his master's degree at Birkbeck, University of London in 2020. He continues his doctoral education at the University of Plymouth, which he started in 2021 under the guidance of Dr Patrick Holden. His main areas of work are Saudi Arabia, Iran, foreign aid, and the Middle East.
The invasion of Ukraine, which started in February of 2022, continues to be at the top of the world agenda, but should we be surprised by this invasion? Not when we remember that Russia has actually been in Crimea since 2014 and look at Russia's actions, both before and after the Soviets.
Discussions of imperialism and colonization have long been an integral part of Western academia, with British and French imperialisms being studied closely and thoroughly. However, one major player in the colonial landscape has often been overlooked: Russia.
In this blog post, we will explore the article by Botakoz Kassymbekova published on Aljazeera about why Russian imperialism has largely been ignored by Western academia.
It is important to note that not all Western academia has ignored Russia's imperial nature or recent activities in Georgia and Ukraine. However, there have been certain mainstream perspectives and areas of study within academia, particularly within the fields of politics and international relations, that have overlooked or downplayed these issues.
It is important to recognize the diversity of perspectives within academia and to be specific about which perspectives are being referred to when discussing these issues. Kassymbekova does not seem to prefer this much, and in more general terms she criticises the western academy in her article.
A brief history of Russian Imperialism
Russian imperial ambitions date back to the 16th century when the Grand Principality of Moscow, or Muscovy, proclaimed itself the third Rome, the successor of the Byzantine Empire, and protector of all Orthodox Christians. Kassymbekova says that the Russian Empire's ambitions began in the 16th century, and by the mid-19th century, it was one of the largest land empires.
The Bolsheviks, after the October Revolution, fought to maintain imperial borders despite proclaiming an end to Russian imperialism. Stalin embraced Russian nationalism, privileging ethnic Russians and promoting Russification. Soviet colonisation included purging native leaders and disparaging non-Russian cultures.
Despite this long history, according to Kassymbekova the Soviet Union and its legacy of colonialism have often been disregarded by Western scholars. For many, the idea of Stalin leading a post-colonial state seemed more plausible, and Soviet coloniality was dismissed, partly due to the Russo-centric knowledge of the Soviet Union in the West.
Furthermore, the Soviet Union became a space for projections for those who sought to criticise capitalism and Western imperialism, further obscuring the reality of Russian colonialism. Those who blamed capitalism for oppression believed that its elimination would end all forms of oppression. They saw the Soviet Union as an internationalist project that brought equality and freedom to formerly subjugated peoples. Violence against various nations and ethnic groups was either ignored or treated as a necessary evil in the transition to communism.
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According to the author, western academia often overlooked Soviet coloniality, focusing on individuals and official proclamations rather than Stalin's obsession with maintaining Russian imperial borders using tsarist Russia's toolkit. Knowledge about the Soviet Union in the West was Russo-centric, with non-Russian émigrés dismissed as conservative ideologues.
The Soviet Union was seen as an internationalist project opposing capitalism and Western imperialism, leading to the dismissal of violence against various nations and ethnic groups. Soviet studies focused on Moscow and Leningrad, with little understanding of peripheral uprisings. The 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union did not result in a rigorous examination of Russia's colonial legacy, unlike post-WWII decolonisation waves in other regions.
In Russia, the dominant narrative was one of victimhood, while in the West, the Soviet Union's collapse was a shock. Many admired Gorbachev and his reforms. Western fear of chaos led to viewing independence movements within the Soviet space as destructive ethnonationalism. The myth of the Soviet Union as a nation-builder led the West to see Russia as having a sphere of influence.
According to the author, the focus on victimhood and the lack of acknowledgment of Russian imperialism has led to a limited understanding of the country's more recent actions. Western academia and political circles had little to say about the genocidal wars Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin, led in Chechnya. Instead of recognising the Chechens' claims to sovereignty and nationhood, the West readily accepted the portrayal of Chechens as bandits, nationalists, and terrorists.
This same blindness has affected the perception of Russian imperial ambitions in Eastern Europe, such as the 2008 war on Georgia and the annexation of Crimea. The West overlooked Russian imperial ambitions in Eastern Europe. Currently, there are scholars who acknowledge the necessity of conducting a moral evaluation of their perspectives in order to identify how they have adopted the viewpoint of the Russian government as the standard.
Condemnation of Russia's actions in Ukraine and Georgia is not solely the responsibility of Western countries or academia. All countries and individuals have a responsibility to uphold the principles of international law and promote human rights. While some countries in the global South may have been more hesitant to condemn Russia's actions due to geographic distance or other factors, it is important for the international community as a whole to hold violators accountable and to work towards a more peaceful and just world.
The author ends her article by writing: "to understand Russia, one needs to listen to those who lived under Russian colonial rule. To understand former and current Russian colonies, one needs to listen to historians from these places and study their cultures, languages and histories, both written and unwritten. To appreciate the ways out of colonial dictatorships, one needs to study the successful transformations of states like Ukraine. This would require dismissing the myth of the “artificial nation” and finally seeing Russia as an empire."
As part of Plymouth’s MA International Relations: Security and Development, you’ll delve into specific debates about global security, development aid and conflict resolution: