Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture was actually an internal colonial war. In his “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”, Timothy Snyder gives an illuminating account of the Soviet empire as “self colonization”. Although it proved its readiness for expansion after 1945, it was primarily an “internal empire”: it treated its lands and people as colonies, mobilizing all the peoples of the empire in the building of a new order, through an affirmative action strategy favouring (non-Russian) “nationalities” from 1917 to 1929, then through a more open and imperial domination, but always denying its colonial nature: the Soviet “fortress” was the “fatherland of the workers of the world” and other fake claims to universal benevolence. Which oppression is more unbearable than the one that firmly denies itself? Hence the ruthless violence of bolshevism, its “war against its own people” as Hannah Arendt coined it. This is a unique political pattern: domination by assimilation, assimilation by love and denial. Internal colonialism was a general feature of the Soviet world, but it has a major intensity and persistence in the case of Ukraine (and to a lesser extent of Belarus). It is a very paradoxical condition, easy to misunderstand or to forget, difficult to spell out. Personally, I almost instantly shared the craving for “desovietization” of Ukraine when I met it, but I needed much more time and experiences to understand the colonial dimension of the Soviet rule and of its Putinian sequel, because internal colonialism is both deeper and less visible than standard colonialism.
Ukraine was the jewel of the empire: rich soils, frost free coastline, with almost no period of independence for centuries and with an intricate history easy to distort and to drown in a Russian tale of malorossy - “little Russians”. But it is also a dangerous country to watch like a hawk, because of its strategic location, next to Poland and to the West, and because of its rebel mind, its stubborn claim to political autonomy, shared by poets and peasants, despite an age-old lack of statehood. “I love Ukrainians but not what they think they are, nor what they say”, could one read recently in a reader’s post in Le Monde. Although blatantly inconsistent, sadomasochistic so to speak, self imperialism is the core of the Soviet and Putinian temper towards Ukraine, made of propensity to violence, love-hate, sincere bad faith (being deceived by its own big lies).
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What is unique to internal colonialism among colonial and totalitarian empires? Compared to Bolsheviks, the Nazis displayed an equal if not worse cruelty, but not against the Germans. Their violence was against alien enemies. The Jews, including German Jews, were considered the most alien of aliens, the “counter race” (Gegenrasse). French colonial empire had a special relationship with Algeria. It was not only the jewel of the empire, but a part of France itself. Legally since Algeria was the only colony to be a “department” (oblast), but most of all in the political imaginary: “L’Algérie, c’est la France”, used to say many politicians, including François Mitterrand in his youth. Algeria’s independence was unthinkable even for people who agreed with decolonization for other French dominions. Yet, this imaginary integration matches by no means the imperial Russian and Soviet relationship with Ukraine. Especially in the Soviet era, the stifling “brotherly love” did not understand itself as relation of domination, and in fact not as a relation at all. Ukraine was Russia. And it is still the same today since the Putin regime endorsed the imperial Soviet legacy. Ukraine should not exist. Rather, Ukraine does not exist and we love it! The puzzling fact with this extremely violent standpoint is its plausible deniability force: how can there be any colonialism if there is no genuine colonized people?
Again, many empires were convinced of their own legitimacy to such a point that they were blind to the oppression and injustice they inflicted to natives, but none to the point of denying their very imperial status (including the phrase “empire”), to the point of considering any claim or expression of a dominated identity as a mistake. Claiming that Ukraine does not exist is even more brutal than claiming that the Maidan revolution brought a “fascist junta” to power. Rather, the first claim is the “proof” of the second. The trouble with Russian denial is that it is sneakily contagious. It backs without saying all kinds of “reasonable” attitudes: from understanding for Russian policy (“it is their Lebensraum”) to wait-and-see scepticism towards Maidan (“are they able to govern themselves?”). Of course it is unfair, of course it is based on big lies about the “Rus” — pretending that Rus and Russia are one and the same thing —, about Saint Volodymyr being Russian, about the inseparability of Ukrainian and Russian culture and economy, etc. But it works. When Depardieu repeats after many “Ukraine is part of Russia”, even those who don’t take him seriously wonder whether he has a point, even a limited one. There is a vicious circle which turns Soviet and Russian denial into a self-fulfilling prophecy: the non-existence of Ukraine proves that there is no Soviet and Russian colonial domination, the denial of colonial domination proves that there is no such thing as Ukraine. As lunatic and outrageous as it is, this pattern of thought has some currency. It is like a layer cake: if you don’t buy one layer, you will accept another.
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In a democratic world where colonialism has no legitimacy at all and is becoming something like the evil as such, communism and its Putinian sequel managed to hide completely their own colonial practices. Many people agreeing to condemn Russia’s violation of human rights, political violence, aggression of neighbours will hesitate in naming these practices “colonial”, be it in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Ukraine (Crimea, Donbas). Putin’s Russia may be guilty of a lot of crimes, but not of this one, which happens to be the crime as such for the liberal mind.
Ukrainians and friends of Ukraine should be aware of the issue: internal colonialism is so deeply hidden it needs special efforts and special concepts to be dug up. Maybe the narrative on European values and European roots of Ukraine is not enough if it is not clearly connected to a decolonization narrative. This is the ultimate meaning of decommunization laws and the reason why they should be supported without restriction. But there is a long way to go. Separating from an inner colonizer and managing to live with him is much more challenging than mere decolonization.
To break with the colonizer, with the cultural alienation is more demanding in the case of internal colonialism and, at the same time, the bounds created by common history are deeper, and probably more fruitful. Is not the Russian speaking culture a living part of Ukrainian life? Many Russian speaking writers, academics are as Ukrainian and patriots as their Ukrainian speaking colleagues (for instance Andrei Kourkov or Olena Stiazkhina). And they are also - that’s the tricky but positive thing - members, and perhaps among savers of Russian culture, which is today, so to speak, a political refugee in Ukraine. To put briefly a complex issue, the presence of Russian culture and language in Ukraine is a many-faceted reality, connected both to the deepest alienation and the richest genuine sources of Ukrainian culture. This is the burden of internal colonialism.