On the debates regarding the “decolonization” of Russia


Ilya BudraitskisSince the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the debate about “decolonizing” Russia has moved rapidly from the realm of academia and cultural criticism to that of actual politics. Demands to “decolonize Russia” are voiced by opposition activists from Russia’s “national republics” (such as Buryatia or Bashkortostan) as well as from Ukrainian and some European […]

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the debate about “decolonizing” Russia has moved rapidly from the realm of academia and cultural criticism to that of actual politics. Demands to “decolonize Russia” are voiced by opposition activists from Russia’s “national republics” (such as Buryatia or Bashkortostan) as well as from Ukrainian and some European politicians. Among Russian opposition emigrants, reflections on the causes of the invasion have also led to a search for its foundations in the country’s imperial past. At the same time, the issue of “decolonization” occupies an important place in the rhetoric of the Russian authorities: on the one hand, Vladimir Putin views “separatism” as the main threat to national security, and on the other, he calls on the countries of the Global South to fight against “Western colonialism”.

Thus, the blurring of the very notion of “decolonization” is exacerbated by its instrumentalization in geopolitical discourse. In several of his recent policy speeches, Putin has revealed his view of the world: all countries are divided between colonies and metropolises; this has been and will always be the case. The only question is if some have the courage to admit this, while others (“the collective West”) cover up this bitter truth with hypocritical demagoguery on international law. Putin (who is basically following the approach of the well-known German conservative thinker Carl Schmitt) is convinced that any law reflects only a form of domination, and therefore it is necessary to identify the “sovereign” who is the real origin of all law.

Thus, “decolonization” means emancipation from the shackles of Western-imposed colonial rule, and a transition towards a “multipolar world” in which there will be no common norms, and the only true right will be that of the strongest. Inside Russia itself, such “decolonization” (or “strengthening of sovereignty,” to quote Putin) means a program for the complete elimination not only of political dissent but also of any elements of autonomy of the society from the state, including NGOs and freedom of expression in academia or the cultural field. More recently the notion of “cultural sovereignty” was introduce into the official “Fundamentals of Russian Cultural Policy,” and the Ministry of Justice is preparing a definition of “legal sovereignty”.

Decolonisation and Ethnic minorities in Russia

On the other hand, calls by some American or European politicians to “decolonize” Russia equate decolonization with a form of punishment. In this form, decolonization means nothing less than partitioning the country, which will occur as the result of a military defeat. Consequently, it is assumed that a “decolonized” Russia will finally give up its imperial ambitions and cease to be a threat to its neighbors. It is difficult not to notice that the outcome of such a “decolonization” process risks leading to the opposite, resulting in the growth of imperial revanchism and the desire to overcome the externally imposed political forms as a product of “national humiliation” (as historical precedents have already proved time and time again, from Germany after World War I to post-Soviet Russia in the early 1990s). Hence, both versions of “decolonization,” using it as a tool, completely deprive the concept of its original emancipatory meaning. Moreover, by imposing “decolonization” as an external process they deprive the agency of those who should be the main subject of it – such as oppressed peoples, whose identity, culture, and languages, have been historically suppressed by imperial powers.

All this demands a serious discussion on the significance of decolonization as a political program, which is directly linked both to the revision of the imperial vector of Russian foreign policy and to the democratization of its internal structure. The war exposed social and national inequalities in Russia, which are structural in character, as well as pointing to an unjust distribution of resources and power. The disproportionate mobilization of national republics (such as Dagestan, Tuva, and Buryatia) into the Russian army reflects the position of these regions within Russia as the poorest and most economically backward, where mass unemployment often leaves young people no other choice. During the two decades of Putin’s rule, Russia has consistently pursued a path of de-federalization, building a model where all financial resources are concentrated in Moscow and a few large megacities, and the regions lose what little self-governance and control over their revenues that they had. This highly unjust and anti-democratic model of so-called “vertical of power” (Putin’s definition) led to the growth of local movements for the rights of self-governance and environmental protection in a few Russian regions (both in “national republics” such as Komi and Bashkortostan, and in ethnically “Russian” regions such as Khabarovsk Krai) in the years preceding the war.

A way out of Russia’s societal crisis created by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is possible only by adopting a new Constitution and consistently reshaping the preceding political order. This means nothing less than a search for the foundations of a new social contract – an answer to the question of what can preserve us as one country other than rigid authoritarian power, a unified imperial “culture,” and the economic domination of Moscow. The key principle of a future genuine federation (or confederation) in Russia should be the voluntary nature of the association, secured in the form of a legal right of the subjects (primarily ethnic minorities) to secede from it. It is worth noting that this very principle for union republics was proposed by Lenin at the time of the creation of the USSR and was then reproduced in all three Soviet constitutions. Although this right could not be implemented during the Soviet period, it sets an important historical precedent for thinking about alternatives to imperial over-centralization, which has largely led the country to its current crisis. De-colonization can only be an inner process, a large-scale reflection of the past and present, in which all of Russian society, including the Russian majority, must participate. Only by voluntarily and consciously parting with the imperial experience can the inhabitants of Russia build a democratic social state that will cease to be a permanent threat to its neighbors.

Ilya Budraitskis