“This War was Unavoidable”: Russian Colonialism and the Self-Deception of the West

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Article by Radomyr Mokryk, Ph.D, Researcher at the Department of East European Studies, Charles University Prague. The Ukrainian Week

Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine has been going on for more than a month and there is no sign of its imminent end. The death toll is in the thousands, Russian-occupied cities are starving to death, and news about war crimes, rape, and looting are increasingly heard from the occupied territories. The Western world has unequivocally condemned the Putin regime and emphasized its responsibility for the war. However, recently it seems that the West has not understood the real causes of the ongoing war.

“Russia is more than just a critique of its political elite: it is a people of rich culture, the countries of Dmitry Shostakovich, Anna Netrebko, and Leo Tolstoy. Art is able to reflect on our time and give it a voice. It creates a space for exchange and mutual understanding. This creates an opportunity for diversity, meeting, and reconciliation.” These words were written by the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock on her Facebook page during her visit to Moscow in mid-January 2022. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began a month after the minister’s remarks. Annalena Baerbock was not the only one in the West who repeatedly made mistakes in her calculations. The desire to see Russians as a great cultural people, the people of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, is deeply rooted in the West and has its reasons.

European intellectuals in the West usually met with representatives of Russian emigration. At the beginning of the 20th century, such a fate befell fugitives from the milieu of Russian aristocracy who were fleeing Bolshevik terror. In later times, contacts took place primarily through Russian dissidents and political oppositionists. Such contacts doubtlessly created an image of a cultural and cultivated Russia, a country that found itself under pressure of either Soviet totalitarianism or Putin’s dictatorship. In addition, culture itself functioned as a “diplomatic tool”. Since Soviet times, Russian culture has worked externally as a diplomatic “screen” for Russian-Soviet militarism. Russia still uses the same “cultural camouflage” today. Western readers enthusiastically read classical texts of Russian literature, go to Russian ballet theatres, and listen to the music of great Russian composers. Culture aroused admiration and sympathy. And, above all, the desire to understand the “mysterious Russian soul”. This desire forced Europeans to overlook the rattling of Russian sabres. When Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, reacted to the German Minister’s text by remarking that there are no ballerinas on the Ukrainian borders now but only armed soldiers ready to kill, he was not heard. But he was absolutely right.

The illusion of a “real Russia” which looks like a living room in the Turbins’ house from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, and of Russians as delicate and sensitive people like the heroes of Leo Tolstoy’s novels, is being shattered today. Russia is waging another aggressive war against Ukraine which looks more like permanent terrorism and mass killings of civilians. Yes, this aggression is led by Vladimir Putin, but he does not commit all the crimes with his own hands. Behind him are thousands and millions of Russians.

The New Russian “Dissidents”

Still, the West seems unready to let go of its illusions. Western intellectuals continue to look for the “real Russia” and “modern Russian dissidents”. Russian journalist Marina Ovsyannikova recently became a star for the Western media as a symbol of Russian resistance. The editor, who for many years was a cog in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, protested the war live on Russian state television. Her deed seemed so heroic and bright to Western journalists that for a moment it overshadowed the devastated Chernihiv and starving Mariupol. In addition, Ovsyannikova recorded a short video in which she repeated the essentially colonial cliché about the “reconciliation of fraternal peoples” and the mantra that “ordinary Russians are not guilty”.

For the West, Ovsyannikova hit the nail on the head. This is exactly what many people in Europe would like to see: innocent Russians and real “dissidents” like Ovsyannikova who have been “held hostage” by a bloody dictator. In this way, Ukrainians could reconcile with the “brotherly Russian people” and peace would arrive. The world could return to its normal life. However, the possibility of such a dialogue between Russians and Ukrainians is completely unrealistic, no matter how much the West seeks it.

Read more: Is it possible to separate Pushkin from Putin?

Recently, the Russian editor took part in the Italian talk show Che tempo che fa and said in her speech that she was frightened by the scale of Russophobia in the world and stressed that ordinary Russians, who are not guilty of anything, suffer from sanctions. Ovsyannikova also suggested “resuming dialogue” – through culture, of course. The enthusiastic audience applauded, and the moderator emotionally thanked the guest for her courage.

Such a relativization of responsibility and courage is another level at which the West does not seem to understand Ukraine. Because while the Russian “dissident” bravely performed on an Italian talk show, whole families tried to flee from her compatriots from the towns around Kyiv under fire. Not everyone survived. While Ovsyannikova complained in her Instagram that her daughter could not pay in the school cafeteria with a virtual card, Ukrainians in Mariupol were dying of hunger. Attempts to equate these stories, at least somehow, or to put an equal sign between them, are completely outrageous and blasphemous from the point of view of Ukrainians.

Ovsyannikova also recalled crying while watching videos from destroyed Ukrainian cities. In one breath, she also added that she “feels infinitely sorry for Russian boys” who die in a foreign land. Because they have such “confused, unhappy and still naive faces”. Such attempts to shed tears and sympathy for the representatives of the invading army can cause nothing but contempt. Ukraine is spreading daily information about brutal crimes in the occupied territories: Russians are killing civilians, raping women, and looting homes. “Confusion” on the faces of “Russian boys” usually appears only when they face the barrel of a machine gun of a soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Attempts by Western journalists to point to any member of the Russian army as a victim evoke nothing but outrage among Ukrainians. And this outrage is completely logical and justified.

The Society of “Real Russia”

If at least some sociological research in Russia can be trusted, it can be stated that a week before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Levada Centre recorded support for President Putin’s policy among Russians at the level of 71%. Over time, these data only increased. As of the end of March, the same Levada Center released the results of a new poll stating that support rose to 83%. This, in fact, is not surprising, since the Kremlin’s aggressive policy has always received the support and approval of Russian society. A similar rise of the dictator’s popularity among Russians was recorded in 2014 after the occupation of Ukrainian Crimea.

For the sake of fairness, though, results offered by opposition platforms are worth a look. The group led by Alexei Minaylo organized a poll which they themselves called unrepresentative due to questionable methodology and a small sample. Still, these results are also noteworthy. According to this survey, 59% of respondents support the invasion of Ukraine and only 22% of Russians were against it. As is the case with official sociological polls, we can assume a certain “adjustment” of the results – but for an opposite purpose. The truth, obviously, lays somewhere in the middle. In any case, we can state confidently that at least two-thirds of Russians support the aggression against Ukraine.

Read more: How Russian literature serves Russian Imperialism

Former Yandex News Director Lev Gershenzon interprets these results in a sense that most Russians have fallen victim to propaganda and do not really understand what is happening in Ukraine. In some sense, he’s right. Ukrainian social networks spread stories in which Ukrainians tell how they tried to explain to their Russian relatives what was really going on in their country. The usual reaction by the Russians was either denial (“you’re lying”) or an expressed support for Putin. This war thus became the backdrop for many family dramas. The question remains, however, whether “propaganda blindness” can justify the Russians’ support for the war in Ukraine? We no longer live in 1943, and the Soviet Pravda is not the only source of information for citizens. Nowadays, even if we take into account all the restrictions on freedom of speech, social networks, and censorship, people even in Russia have the opportunity to obtain truthful information. Whether or not they wish to do so is another matter. It seems that the claim of “I was deceived by propaganda” is just a convenient self-justification and an attempt to escape responsibility.

Of course, one should not ignore the weak efforts of hundreds or even thousands of Russians to protest against the war in various ways, nor should the harsh measures taken by the authorities to stop any protests go unnoticed. Still, it’s worth remembering the scale of these protests. According to the latest census, Russia’s population is over 140 million citizens. There are about 12 million people living in Moscow itself. This means that even if thousands, even tens of thousands, attend a rally in the Russian capital, it’s just a drop in the ocean of those who support Putin’s regime, or those who silently contemplate and agree with the brutal crimes currently being committed in Ukraine in the name of the Russian people.

The Tradition of Colonialism

The above-mentioned opposition opinion poll also reveals an interesting trend: among those Russians who support this “military operation”, nearly a third “sympathize” with Ukrainians. They sympathize with the “real Ukrainians”, those who, in the opinion of the Russians, must be “liberated”. This is in fact one of the main keys to understanding Russian-Ukrainian relations.

In one of his classic works on the theory of colonialism, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said explained that the spread of empire is always based on the colonizer’s belief that the “aborigines” must be conquered. Moreover, they themselves wish to be conquered. This is the traditional Russian perception of Ukraine. In the Russian mind, Ukraine has always been a colony, and Ukrainians are just an amusing ethnographic community and a part of the great Russian people. In the days of the Russian Empire, “Little Russia” (Malorussia) was merely a province of the empire. In Soviet times, Ukraine was a republic that had to be ruled from Moscow. This imperial sentiment did not fade even after the fall of the Soviet empire. When Putin claims that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was in fact the collapse of a great historical Russia”, there is no doubt that the vast majority of Russians agree with him. Ukraine must want to return, regardless of what Ukrainians themselves think about it. Because for the colonizer it is not important what “the aborigines” think.


This colonial story was also reflected in Russian culture. The militaristic rhetoric of Russian state television’s political talk shows is no more than a primitive and vulgar culmination, the pinnacle of the imperialist iceberg that has been cultivated in Russian culture for centuries. Russian culture is permeated by imperial myth, and the vast majority of writers whose works are read by Western readers were “troubadours of the empire”, as Ewa Thompson aptly defined. Imperial mythology of Russia took various forms and facets. The attentive reader can find it in Dostoevsky’s existential crises, in Tolstoy’s pretentious pacifism, or in Bulgakov’s outright chauvinism. The strategy of cultural imperialism is not only the pathetic patriotic cries such as Pushkin’s text On the Anniversary of Borodino, but also a whitewashing of the Russian elite as in War and Peace or contempt for other peoples, including Ukrainians, which occurs in the texts many Russian writers.

Ukrainians have been the target of ridicule and contempt in Russian cultural tradition for centuries. And if Nikolai Gogol still described the “Little Russians” with obvious sympathy as a romantic “singing and dancing tribe”, since the middle of the 19th century the openly contemptuous treatment of “Chochols” has become one of the leitmotifs of Russian literature. Not for nothing did Ukrainian writer and politician Volodymyr Vynnychenko publish an open letter to Russian writers in the early 20th century, calling for a stop to all chauvinistic attitudes towards Ukrainians. After all, in their works, according to Vynnychenko, “always and everywhere the Chochol is a bit dull, a little cunning, certainly lazy, melancholic, and sometimes affable”. Vynnychenko’s appeal was left unanswered. Moreover, the tradition of portraying Ukrainians as “stupid Little Russians” moved from the Russian to the Soviet empire.

In general, it would be possible to simply shrug this off as a mere whim of Russian writers. But culture is not just a phenomenon detached from real life and does not exist in some vacuum. Culture is something that forms the system of values, some coordinate system. In the Russian system, Ukrainians played the role of a dummy inhabitants of the western edge of the empire. “Little brothers” who, if necessary, must be returned to the right path. Hand in hand, Russian imperialist policies and colonial culture have shaped a society full of contempt for Ukrainians, including the belief that Ukraine belongs to them.

Cultural Dialogue

When one understands the cultural origins of today’s war, the desire of some intellectuals and politicians in the West to become moderators in the “cultural dialogue” between Russians and Ukrainians looks quite grotesque. One of the most telling cases is the recent attempt to organize a concert For Freedom and Peace under the patronage of German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The concert program, which consisted almost entirely of Russian performers and works by Russian composers, outraged Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk, who refused to take part in such a “cultural reconciliation”. The invitation of the Ukrainian ambassador to such an event indicates, first and foremost, a complete lack of understanding of both the current traumas that Ukraine is experiencing and the historical and cultural context of the war. High Russian culture, so often admired in the West, was and remains an instrument of imperial pressure of “metropolis” for Ukrainians. Attempts to “push” Ukrainians and Russians into dialogue through joint projects, scholarships, or cultural events again seem to put an “equal” sign between victim and aggressor. Moreover, Ukrainians found themselves in the shadow of the “elder brother” once again, despite the fact that today’s heroic resistance of Ukrainians to Russian aggression is much more than just resistance to military invasion. It is a desperate struggle for the right to exist, for the identity of one’s own culture and history. This is a desire to break the imperial spiral of Russian history. Under these conditions, the attempts of Western politicians to “squeeze” Ukrainians back into the arms of fictitious “fraternal peoples” are complete nonsense.

After Russia is defeated and Putin is gone, perhaps it would be possible many years later to begin talking about some kind of dialogue. Maybe then, many years later, a concert of Tchaikovsky’s music will take place in the renewed and rebuilt Kyiv, and somewhere, someday, a Ukrainian will open Dostoevsky’s book. Perhaps even then, many years after Russia’s defeat and collapse, Ukrainians will once again be able to see the average Russian as a “confused boy”. But there are serious doubts about that as well.

Today, Russian society and culture are on Putin’s side in this war. The centuries of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Bulgakov formed a society that is ready to go and kill its neighbours for the mythical vision of a “greater Russia”. The only way to stop Russia’s terrorist frenzy today is to limit any contact with the civilized world and isolate Russians in a cultural sense, so that every Russian feels his share of guilt and responsibility. Further attempts to justify the “ordinary Russian” will only result in subsequent wars. This story is repeated from generation to generation. Only when every Russian realizes that his Russia, which is looking for “Nazis” in Ukraine, has long been much more like a Nazi state – only then can real change be possible. Only a complete reassessment of Russia can stop this endless imperialist spiral.

The fate of Russia, of course, is still in the hands of the Russians themselves. However, it is hardly worth expecting any changes from the inside. It is possible to presume that Russians will cultivate a sense of insult and “unjust hostility” from the West. This will revive traditional Russian messianism. And in the West, one should finally understand that the dream of another “real” Russia is merely fiction. There is no “good Russia” that has once again fallen into the hands of a bloody dictator. Thousands of Russians are killing Ukrainians while you read this text. And millions of Russians applaud them. The real Russia is an empire that seeks blood, wars, and new lands. Manifestations of true humanism and truly high culture are only a small deviation on the background of the totalitarian machine. Russia is not Marina Ovsyannikova, and Russia is not Pierre Bezukhov at all. Russia is Vladimir Putin.