War with an empire and russian imperial mindset

illustration of Nikita Titov

This war can have many names. War of russia against Ukraine, war of barbarians against civilization, war between darkness and light to name a few.

Russia’s actions are so crazy and self-destructive that many are eager to justify them by placing the blame on a deranged tyrant who has a nuclear “button” and is schizophrenic. Especially because this narrative is very popular among the so-called russian liberals as well as in Germany or France, who desperately hope to keep things “as they were” (spoiler alert: it won’t happen).

We know about putin’s illness and that he had gone mad. BUT it is obvious that this sickness started way before February 2022 or even the spring of 2014. This illness had affected all social classes of russia’s population including the “liberals”, “intellectuals” and “fighters of the regime”.

This disease is called “imperialism and colonialism”, which pervaded russian politics, culture and mentality of a russian citizen for many years.

The current war in Ukraine is a continuation of a war fought for hundreds of years. A war which is well remembered by Baltic countries, Poland, Czech republic, Slovakia, Finland and all the nations which were occupied to become part of the russian empire (or soviet union). Throughout its history russia tried to create several types of empires.

Let’s identify the main signs of Russian imperialism (colonialism) and then reflect on possible ways of dealing with them in a modern world.

1. Russia is obsessed with size

Yes, it’s the size of the territory which is a critical component of russian imperial ideology. They have absolutely no interest in the quality of life in these territories. Nevertheless russia keeps bragging about its size.

For many russians the immenseness of russia, “one sixth of all the dry land on Earth” was a huge advantage of soviet union. It was a thing of boast and a part of national folklore. How can it be considered an advantage when poverty reigns on these territories? They are populated by people with the lowest possible income who live without sewage.

It is unclear why the torture and executions in the russian prison camps (of all who oppose the system) is part of national pride and identity of so many russians. 

“For russian consciousness the territorial advantage is the biggest asset. Not the scientific or cultural achievements, but the conquests make them proud. This space needs to constantly expand. And shame on a ruler who could not expand it” – Yevgeniy Anisimov, professor of European university in Saint Petersburg.

2. Chauvinism including towards the peoples living on its own territory

The language barrier prevents Europeans to understand the scale of chauvinism in russia, because it is almost impossible to translate the linguistic

mockery and degrading names which russians gave to almost all the peoples residing on russian territory.

Now that we are observing the consequences of this chauvinism we have to also grasp its scale. More importantly, this chauvinistic terminology is used by central mass media outlets as much in informal conversations between people.

Americans have been dubbed “pindosy” on russian TV and are not referred to in any other manner. Ukrainians go by “khokhly” or “ukropy”.

Neither does imperial chauvinism have mercy on the peoples populating russia. Hundreds of comedy shows have been mocking Caucasian people living in Northern russia for decades. These shows have been jeering Ukrainians, Belarussians, Baltic peoples. They all were depicted as narrow-minded villagers, who love potatoes, funny trousers, salo and are slow.

As a matter of fact the tools of chauvinism were invented quite a while ago and russians are simply on this beaten track.

Why is russian cultural isolation such a hot topic today? Because it is russian culture who is “cementing” the basements of russian imperial idea and depicts its protagonists from this particular point of view. It may seem like an art idea at first glance, but its consistency in many products of Russian culture is worth considering.

Vasya Lozhkin “The great wonderful Russia”

3. Love for the Tzar and absence of self-respect

In the beginning of the war in Ukraine there was a meme saying that we cannot be conquered by the people whose language doesn’t have a phrase “Ya peremozhu!” (UKR), “I will win!” (ENG).

This stuck me as interesting and I picked up my dictionary and reconfirmed that indeed there is no such verbal form in russian language. The word “win” has no future form in first person singular, so this is something to accept. Instead a idiom or another synonymous form  should be used to express it.

Indeed, russians don’t perceive themselves in a personal context or in a context of freedom and individual success. The empire devours its children taking their “me” and creates collectivism, which has no personal opinion or individual resistance. Neither does it have personal decisions nor self-made success.

Therefore we should not be surprised by the russian soldiers speaking obscenities to their loved ones or by their wives who reward rapes and murders of Ukrainians. This is all part of the imperial politics where a human being is considered as just cannon meat. Where looting, rape and terror are the means of rewarding the poor.

Some express opinions that it is kremlin’s propaganda that made Russians into slaves, who repeat the schizophrenic slogans while placing the letter “Z” every place they could find.

Propaganda has huge power and should not be underestimated. But yet we don’t know what came first – soviet/russian propaganda of depersonalization or russians’ wish to give up their ability to decide anything and fearing being free. (Freedom of speech in russia in the 90s is the most horrible “nightmare” one can imagine).

Olesya Drashkaba, «Slaves were sent to liberate the free people.”

4. Militarization and “victory” dependency

Watching russia’s hysteria before the 9th of May celebration it becomes obvious that the term “victorious” exists for a reason. For all the free world the victory in the Second World War cannot be overestimated.  But stalin’s regime turned it into cement for its own regime.

Russia is the only country in the world which does not mourn the victims of the IIWW but celebrates this day and wants to “repeat it”.

While the world institutionalized security, de-nazified their countries and discussed the horrors of IIWW, russia was “pumping” their citizens full of hate and militarized itself.  Russia monopolized victory and built its mythological rewritten history.

For this reason russians did not perceive the events of 1991 as a liberation from the empire and horrible soviet terror but as a fall of a “great victorious country”, which they continue mourning.  In putin’s own words, the collapse of the soviet union is a “geopolitical tragedy”.

Putin’s dream and the reason behind this war is going back to the soviet times both in territorially and through terror, isolation, imperialism. Despite russia’s threats to “push the nuclear button”, only russia’s defeat in this war guarantees the final freedom for all the free post-soviet countries of the world.

Now that we know the key manifestations of imperialism in russia and in russians, the free world has to come up with a way to win this “argument”.  How does one spot it in oneself and does not let postcolonial ideas distort one’s view of events?

Ukraine will defeat russia in this war. Despite their atrocities we have not other choice but to win. Neither does the world. Our world will either tumble into darkness of middle ages and obscurity or will choose the side of freedom and beauty. The biggest victory will have to be the the mindset victory. Not only in the post-soviet countries’ mindsets but the rest who always considered some countries (including Ukraine) as an “area of influence”.

Hence we need to:

  • Stop believing that it’s only the fault of putin! De-pitinisation is only a small part of our victory. We must carry out a decolonization!
  • Revise our beliefs about culture and politics of russia and soviet union.
  • In case you did not know or notice, the key role of terror and suppression of all the people of these empires is the notion of “area of influence” – traces of the colonial perception of history;
  • Re-discover our history. Russians had infected almost the whole world with their invented history and “great” culture so we would have to re-learn everything. The good news is that we can discover many new and interesting things, because the truth is often more cool than the polished imperial myths;
  • Stop having inferiority complex towards russians. It’s often manifested when Russians (liberals especially) say that a change in regime is coming in russia and that they will learn the truth and everything will change. Everyone has an opportunity to know the truth but, as we see now, this hardly changes anything;
  • Not forget this war. No matter how much we would like to continue living without the horrible news. Today we fight for this life, for a calm and free life of a Man on his land. And this applies not only to Ukrainians;
  • Discover Ukrainian culture. It will be an amazing adventure for Europe and the whole world. Because russia annexed, silenced and destroyed our culture for centuries. Our culture is not only distinctive and integrated into the global context, but can also explain a lot in our relationships of our peoples;
  • Believe in the victory of Ukraine and the whole world over russian imperialism and occupational ambitions!
Andriy Yermolenko  «Heroes never die»

* Ukraine has been discussing writing words “russia” and “putin” without capitalizing the first letter. There are a few worthy arguments for that. For example, that these are the rules of our language and we should not change them because of some occupiers and war criminals. The author of the article is the follower of another philosophy – that “russia” had crossed the line to such an extent that it isn’t worthy to be perceived just as any other country (be named with a capital letter).

Olesya Drashkaba