By Alexander Motyl

May 1, 2024



Decolonization is hard for Ukrainians, but for Russians it’s proving almost impossible. A revolution in mindset is needed.  Most Ukrainians, like most other non-Russians, see the Soviet-Russian empire as having collapsed in 1989-1991, at which point their country ceased being a colony that took its cues from the imperial center.

But the job of decolonization, which entails reversing the destructive impact on the Ukrainian language, culture, society, economy, and identity from centuries of imperial and non-imperial exploitation, has, most believe, only just begun.

In this respect, Ukrainians are strikingly similar to post-colonial Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans who distinguished, and still distinguish, between the formal end of empires and the subsequent task of decolonization.

Russia’s self-elected president, Vladimir Putin, continues to pursue both goals — empire and colonization. On the one hand, he is trying to reestablish some version of the Soviet/Russian empire, with Russia as the metropole and Ukraine (and Belarus and potentially other states in the “near abroad”) as the obedient vassal.

On the other, he is also determined to destroy the Ukrainian language, culture, memory, history, and identity, as he has made abundantly clear in his writings and speeches. Unsurprisingly, Ukrainians are resisting on both levels, with soldiers opposing Russian armed aggression on the front and artists, scholars, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens resisting spiritual colonization at home, with oftentimes controversial results.

The ongoing flap in Ukraine over the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov is a case in point. Was he a “symbol of Russian imperial policy,” as the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory recently declared, or is he a representative of a mixed “Creole” culture that was both Russian and Ukrainian, as the Ukrainian culturologist Ivan Kozlenko suggests? Naturally, Bulgakov, who had little sympathy for Ukrainians but did reside in Kyiv for many years, was both.

Kozlenko’s analysis is worth quoting as it explains why Bulgakov has become so controversial just now: “I am sure that over time, when the Ukrainian identity is finally established, we will be able to calmly and without emotions evaluate this cultural heritage. Of course, in wartime, when it is appropriated and instrumentalized by the imperial center, it becomes a weapon of the empire. Therefore, the tendency to completely reject this [Russian] heritage is currently winning. However, in my opinion, not everything is so clear-cut here. The identification of Creole Russophone culture with Russian, in my opinion, is wrong.”

As Kozlenko reminds us, it’s important to appreciate that ongoing decolonization efforts are taking place at a time of genocidal war in which Russia’s elites have made it absolutely clear that

their ultimate goal is the destruction of the Ukrainian state and the extermination of the Ukrainian nation.

These criminal goals were not foisted on a hapless Russian metropole by a “neo-Nazi” Ukrainian periphery hoping to launch another Operation Barbarossa. They were consciously and purposefully chosen by Putin and his comrades, just as Soviet and Imperial Russian rulers consciously and purposefully pursued them. Unsurprisingly, many colonized Ukrainians have concluded, both today and at various times in their history, that they have no choice but to defend themselves with equal force.

Viewing Ukraine from a colonial perspective leads to very different interpretations of its history and culture. Once Ukrainians are viewed as part of a centuries-long struggle against empire and colonization, their oftentimes brutal responses automatically acquire the features of national liberation struggles and peasant wars involving desperate attempts at physical and spiritual survival, and to regain or acquire their voice.

Ukrainian history thereby becomes a narrative of self-assertion and of resistance to oppression. The violence that permeates so much of that history loses its anomic, purposeless, blind quality and becomes instead a form of mostly peasant resistance to imperial violence.

The rejection of Russian culture stops looking like narrow-minded provincialism and instead appears as self-defense, even if of an occasionally overheated kind. As happens so often in former colonies, decolonization often assumes radical features that are functions of the felt need for immediate rectification, lest colonization rear its head again. Metropolitan cultures rarely understand that the radicalism of peripheral colonies was engendered by their own radical colonization efforts.

Given today’s anti-colonial Zeitgeist, former imperial masters have no choice but to learn to live as their colonies’ equals.

That’s not easy, as the British and French can attest. But it’s a transformation that Russians haven’t even begun to consider.

Their regnant self-image is still that of benign rulers who brought and still bring the fruits of Russia’s superior culture to the uncivilized non-Russian masses. As long as that attitude persists, decolonization — and what the Kremlin brands as Russophobia — will be the order of the day in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states.


Alexander Motyl is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University-Newark.