Introduction: Beyond the colonial vortex of the ‘West’: Subverting non-western imperialisms before and after 24 February 2022
by South/South Movement
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On the 24th of February 2022, explosions and air raid sirens echoed throughout Ukraine as Russia began its heavy shelling.
On that day, Russia escalated its war against Ukraine, which has been ongoing since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, to a full-scale invasion. Even though the war did not start on the 24th of February, it was transformed on that day. Intensifying, scaling, and accelerating, Russian imperialism catalysed a wave of violence, as the ‘new’ invasion multiplied the ‘old’. The war broke open existing structures of slow violence, planted new time bombs, and crowded hospitals ‘with people, with bodies, with pieces of humans and pieces of families’ (anonymous, quoted in Bazdyrieva 2022). While imperial Russia threatens to erase Ukrainian cities, cultures, and ecosystems, as scholars and activists, we must join the people of Ukraine in resisting its violence by direct action and strengthening solidarity networks among people resisting violence and oppression everywhere in the world, as well as by unsettling hegemonic epistemologies about the entire ‘post-Soviet’ space. Disassembling the Russian war machine means unlearning Russian colonial ideology that forms and fuels the current invasion. It also means amplifying critical conversations about non-western imperialisms outside the borders of Eurocentric and Western-centric epistemic regimes.
While some forms of colonial cooperation and inter-imperial geopolitics between the Global North and Russia are widely discussed, others seem to stay in the shadow of fossil fuel contracts or leftist Cold War imaginings of the Soviet state as a better project of modernity and viable alternative to capitalism. Western cultural and academic institutions remain mired in these toxic dependencies, which among other things manifest in the apparent surprise that Western cultural and academic institutions express when attempting to understand Russia’s colonial/imperial status. Silencing those who have been calling Russian imperialism by its name for years, many, including decolonial scholars like Walter Mignolo (2012; 2015), present Russia as a ‘dewesternising’ force. In these ways and others, decolonial and postcolonial scholarships generally tend to critique violence if it originates in the Global North, leaving out of the colonial matrix non-western imperial powers such as Russia (Hendl 2022).
Similarly, many Western leftist thinkers deliberately ignore or downplay the uncomfortable history of the Soviet Union, which consists of racialised killings and dispossessions concealed by and within the Soviet internationalist ideology (Arystanbek 2022). Alarmingly, Western historiography has regurgitated Russocentrism about Ukraine’s past and present, thereby bringing to the fore the question of scholarly complicity in entrenching Russia’s narrative legitimation of its war against Ukraine (Zayarnyuk 2022). Also complicit are many Western academics who have long taken for granted Russia’s ‘anticolonial’ mythology sustaining the Soviet Union as a ‘progressive’ political project, which obscures histories of ‘ethnic cleansing, crushing dissent, destroying national movements, privileging Russian ethnicity and culture’ (Kassymbekova 2023). That said, there are those in Western academia, deliberately left uncited here, who point to Russian hegemony as the ‘big-bad-Other’ to the ‘good-Western-Self’ in world politics. Yet they remain deafeningly silent—lest they be forced to confront their own Western-centric geopolitical commitments—on calling the nature of the beast for what it is: Russia as a colonial/imperial power. These forms of erasure often manifest themselves through scholarly calls to nuance our understanding of the Soviet Union as more than simply extractive and colonial, as if its ostensibly ‘good’ aspects make the violence less brutal. Despite all the evidence presented by scholars, activists, writers, and journalists like Stanislav Aseyev, Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov, Alima Bissenova, Vitaly Chernetsky, Anna Politkovskaya, Danielle Ross, Madina Tlostanova, and many others, as well as acts of protest such as Albert Razin’s 2019 self-immolation, it has taken a full-scale invasion of Ukraine for the centuries-long Russian ideology of expansionism to become regarded as a colonial/imperial enterprise. In spite of this, many still continue to treat Russian colonialism/imperialism as a less violent, less threatening, unstudied, and unknown form of imperialism.
The escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine has also caused a rupture across many institutions dedicated to engagement with Russian, post-Soviet, Slavic, and Eastern European cultures, de facto functioning as study centres of ‘great Russian culture’. A growing number of Ukrainians now refuse to be part of these institutions, where they are largely included as ‘the Other’. Numerous departments and museums have found themselves in a perplexing situation. How can they continue treating Russia and its ‘little siblings’ as a monolith? Does disbanding a department amount to its decolonisation? Is it possible to create new institutions centred around those who now refuse to be placed under the same roof as Russia? As existing regional, political, and historical concepts seem ever more obsolete and inadequate (Pyzik 2014; Shekhovtsov 2009; Sosnovskaya and Borisionok 2021), we stress the political stakes of thinking differently about the ‘imperial’ and the ‘colonial’ as embodied in and by what is often discursively seen as the ‘multipolar’ antipode to Western dominance in international politics: the ‘non-west’.
Like many before us, we are grappling with questions of how we might refer to the space we invite into dialogue here, and what vocabularies we can use to describe the ‘void’ left by the collapse of the so-called ‘Second World’ (Tlostanova 2018). As many scholars, activists, and commentators have extensively criticised, our existing geographical and cultural categories either reenact geographies of Russian and Soviet empires or perpetuate Cold War dichotomies. Building on existing decolonial and postcolonial perspectives on Europe(s), we address this particular epistemic space conceptualised between the ‘Global South’ and the ‘Global North’. This ‘grey zone’, variously named as postsocialist, postcommunist, post-Soviet, Eurasia or Global East, calls for revisiting the liminalities and dichotomies encompassed by these very concepts (Chari and Verdery 2009; Tlostanova 2012; Todorova 1997; Velickovic 2012).
This terminological aporia is not the object of our intervention as such. Rather, the absence of concise naming in regard to the post-Soviet space, we propose, invites us to see the world through the prism of coloniality (Quijano 2000; Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2014) as a hierarchical mechanism of power. This prompts us, in turn, to reflect with thinkers like Édouard Glissant on the fact that the ‘West’ has always been a project, not a place (1989, 2). This echoes Živković’s thoughts on the shifting nature of ‘East’ within the amorphous concept of ‘Eastern Europe’, which denotes an imaginary rather than an actual geography (Živković 2011: 45–7). Such ideas uncover how coloniality and its co-constitutive systems of domination can fragment and crystalise repeatedly across multiple and sometimes overlapping spaces, such as the sites where ‘Europe’—long associated transparently with the ‘West’—merges and is undone by the ‘East’ as its alter. This interpretation amplifies differences between colonial wounds, even when those who inflict them come from the same place.
In this dialogue, we attempt to interrogate settler-colonialism, imperial wars, wars of conquest, genocides, material dispossessions, colonial/modern hierarchies, and epistemic violence as heterogeneous mechanisms that can hardly be flattened into a single solid colonial project. We read the colonialities of Russian and other non-western imperialisms as a complex branching structure, parts of which can contradict and oppose one another or, sometimes, cross-pollinate with Western imperialisms in and through which they are themselves excluded or made ‘the Other’. We insist on the unflinching unmasking of these colonialities ‘as a stream of diverse founts and multiple tributaries, in an attempt to cure ourselves of pessimism to then return, renewed, to action, to the wave of “germinal forces” loaded with utopias’ (Gandarilla Salgado, García-Bravo, and Benzi 2021: 211).
This dialogue features scholars, critics, activists, writers, and artists to reflect on non-western forms of colonial and imperial violence, with a focus on mechanisms that have been, and continue to be, enacted by the place known in its anglicised form as ‘Russia’. We urge contributors to agitate colonialities by both calling out and making more legible their methods of dispossession, erasure, and mass exterminations. Even though colonial experiences thread through the texts in our dialogue, we do not see them as the only feature that defines each contribution. While the primary focus for some, these experiences are de-emphasised for others, leaving space to centre other agencies, cultures, and stories outside colonial violence. Here, we simultaneously address the Russian colonial/imperial project and refuse to solely focus on it, taking the subject-positions of the contributors seriously (Sabaratnam 2011). Skirting endless imperialist preoccupation with itself, ‘whether positive or negative value judgments are attached’ is an arduous task when working against the colonial (Appadurai 1996, as cited in Chernetsky 2007). Contributors to this dialogue work to create ruptures rather than reconstruct imperial geographies, addressing and disentangling the emplacement of imperial projects without taking their terms or focal points as given. We welcome perspectives that purposefully disregard Russia, focusing instead on, for example, Crimean Tatar art or Georgian literature. While questioning geographical taxonomies, we pay close attention to situated knowledges and experiences rooted in particular sites of anti-imperial, anticolonial struggles.
This dialogue takes its departure point from Russian imperialism as the most familiar colonial violence to many of our contributors as both researchers and persons with lived experiences entangled by it. Building on this, we hope to unite Buryat, Chechen, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Sakha, and Ukrainian decolonial voices, among others, into a generative dialogue with voices speaking against Chinese, Indian, Iranian, Israeli, Japanese, Turkish, and other non-western imperial projects. However, in extending our invitation to those who struggle against non-western imperialisms, the collection cautiously reflects on similarities and differences in the forms of violence we collectively aim to abolish. We believe it is crucial to build transnational solidarities (in the plural) in resisting imperial, authoritarian, and genocidal regimes. In the process of building transnational solidarities, we often learn that experiences of colonial control which are geographically distant are, in fact, congruent. We can powerfully compare and contrast, if treated carefully, branches of colonialities as seemingly far removed from one another as imperial warfare and (settler) colonial dispossession. Thinking about and against non-western imperialisms complicates the Global North/South binary, denaturalises the coherence of the ‘West’ itself, and defies the persistent imperial exceptionalism of Western academia—proved hardly resonant with the ‘Second World’ (Tlostanova 2011).
We see the vast spatial and conceptual geography of this transnational dialogue as a particularly pressing matter since connections between the anticolonial struggles of Syria, Palestine, and Ukraine have too often been turned into a comparative (and usually divisive) mental exercise rather than a call for solidarity (Ayoub 2022). Too often, the critique of coloniality by so-called ‘critical’ voices speaking from Western(-centric) positionalities dominates ‘anti-imperial’ and ‘anticolonial’ conversations by presuming the status of the ‘West’-as-place(s) and coloniality-as-event, resulting in a perpetual return to the vortex of colonial/imperial cores. Furthermore, Western coloniality of knowledge operates as ‘an imperial shutter’ that aims to separate contexts and experiences of oppression (Azoulay 2019), leaving us trapped within an infinity mirror of Russian and Western imperialisms. In the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine, it sidelines the agency of many people of Ukraine, including Muslims, indigenous Crimean Tatars, people of colour, Ukrainian Roma, and feminist and queer voices, who have stood in solidarity against the Russian invasion of Syria and the Israeli settler colonial ethnostate. At the same time, we have to work through the uneven amplification of Ukrainian experiences in Western media due to the perceived contextual whiteness of the people of Ukraine in order to build networks of solidarities with other peoples fighting oppression, colonisation, and genocides, whose political subjectivity and agency are erased by systemic racialisation and Eurocentrism.
Without precluding transnational solidaristic ties with and for Ukrainians, it is equally imperative to remain wary of methodological nationalism, in particular the ways in which high politics between nation-states (re)inscribe themselves geopolitically into the colonial/imperial order. For example, tensions arise from the prospective accession of Ukraine to the European Union and, by extension, its formal politico-economic and civilisational imbrication in the coloniality of the European project. We need to also scrutinise how ruling political regimes in contexts such as India, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Türkiye, and the United Arab Emirates, among others, act in complicity with (non-)western imperialisms. From a decolonial standpoint, we insist on wrestling with these thorny tensions if we are to genuinely foster solidarities ‘from below’ and concretise radical allyships between the global south(s) and the global east(s).
One of the core premises of any tangible decolonial solidarity is dialogue unmediated by colonial powers or their proxies, whether in institutionalised or tacit forms, even though this dialogue will almost inevitably be full of frictions. Syrian writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh writes, ‘Ukraine is a Syrian cause. So is the world’ (Saleh 2022). Such a message of global solidarity, weaving together that which connects, constraints and likewise supports us is what led to South/South Movement being welcomed as collective co-editors, understanding that in doing so we may, in our own small way, contribute to this act of decolonial practice so as to give space to its many facets and ensure each is celebrated and interrogated as part of the wider decolonial project.
We are grateful to Darya Tsymbalyuk and Anna Engelhardt for their initial efforts in very ably placing the dialogue together. Because of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, Darya and Anna have had to make a difficult political decision to step down. As a collective, we are grateful to the original co-editors for entrusting the dialogue in our hands. As South/South Movement, we are committed to nurturing the dialogue in a way that stays faithful to its decolonial thrust: (1) highlighting the multitude of ways one can stand in solidarity with others struggling against violence and oppression given the diversity of colonialities and (2) unlearning Russian and other non-western colonial/imperial orders by facilitating allyships with and within those struggles. We strive to carry this ethos and praxis through while bringing in our own sensibilities: dialoguing across ‘peripheries’, both in a spatial and epistemic sense, and thinking between the (post)colonial and the (post)socialist. In other words, we commit ourselves to ‘the ethical imperative of thinking “with” others as we seriously engage in inter-epistemic dialogues to advance an ecology of decolonial knowledges and practices born in struggle’ (Fúnez-Flores, Díaz Beltrán, and Jupp 2022: 602).
With this dialogue, we do not aim to innovate new frames of anticolonial, decolonial, and postcolonial critiques. Rather, thinking with these ways of knowing otherwise and inspired by other examples of solidarity (Ayoub, Saleh, Mustafa, Yurchenko, and Bilous 2022), we strive to engage in a dialogue with fellow travellers, learning from their experiences, and looking for ways to strengthen transnational networks of resistance and support, scholarly or otherwise.
Here, we suggest some of the questions that have guided us in this process so far:
- Can we talk about shared experiences of places colonised by Russia (or another empire) without reconstructing the geographical space of an empire or naturalising the historical and conceptual emplacement of imperial projects? What would these places be called?
- What is the future of post-Soviet/Eurasian/Eastern European/Slavic cultural institutions, foundations, and departments? How have scholars and activists in such contexts addressed questions of area studies and territory-framing? What is the ‘area’ of area studies? Do we need area studies at all?
- How can we address imperialism and colonialism without being perpetually drawn into the terms and discourses set by the (Western) imperial/colonial core?
- What are the potential ways to dissolve the dominance of the Russian state and culture, welcoming the indigenous autonomy of those currently under Russian colonial rule?
- How can we work with a core vocabulary, such as ‘anticolonial’, ‘anti-imperial’, ‘postcolonial’, ‘decolonial’, ‘colonial’ and ‘imperial’, so that it would suit the particular context we engage with?
- How do we find common ground and build solidarities across peripheralised spaces without downplaying differences?
- How can we challenge and think beyond the high politics of international solidarity as something inherent between nation-states? In what ways can we commit to thinking with and from sites of anticolonial and anti-imperial struggles transnationally? ∎
This dialogue would not have been possible without the initial intellectual and organisational labours of Darya Tsymbalyuk and Anna Engelhardt. Our introduction preserves many passages from the draft written by the original co-editors. We are grateful to Tiffany G. Williams and Botakoz Kassymbekova for helpful comments on earlier versions of this introduction. We also wish to thank Iryna Zamuruieva for graciously letting us use a number of collages from her ‘Adonis vernalis dreaming’ series as the featured images of some contributions in this dialogue, including our own. See more collages and read about the project here. Last but not least, we are indebted to our fellow travellers, especially the new co-editors, for committing their time and energy towards the delivery of this dialogue, even in the face of academic precarity.
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About the collective co-editors
South/South Movement is a transnational student-led collective independently run by and for scholars, activists, and scholar-activists from and for the global souths. We are invested in questioning Eurocentric and Western-centric knowledge regimes in social and political studies. Learn more about our work here: https://www.southsouthmovement.org/.