Allergic Russia to its colonial past

“History of Russia is the history of a country that colonized”. This statement, first mentioned by the historian Sergei Solovyov in the 1840’s, became widely known thanks to the work on Russian history authored by Vasily Klyuchevsky, published in 1911 and is still popular.

This is one of the most famous aphorisms concerning Russian history. However, any historian working in the Russian Empire, knows that the mention of “Russian colonialism” is the surest way to incur the displeasure of the Russian colleagues. With rare exception, the answer to you in amazement, or even insulted, will say: “Colonialism? What is colonialism? Russia has never had colonies”.

I heard the same answer and the same arguments from Orenburg to Oxford, and for the last 15 years that I have been researching this issue, little has changed. The theme of my research is the comparison of Russian domination in Central Asia with the British rule in India in the nineteenth century. And I still remember the reaction of the famous Russian Indologist in Moscow, when I tentatively shared with her my thoughts about it.

“There’s no comparison. India was a colony of Britain, and Indians were considered a lower race. Russian never treated Central Asians,” said she to me. Then she mentioned Ivan Minaev, famous Russian scientist of the nineteenth century, pursued the study of Buddhism, which in his diaries are told, in the horror it brought, the attitude of the British to the Indians. I wonder what would be said about modern Minaev Moscow, where Central Asian labor migrants are usually called <…> (insulting words — approx. ed.).

In the UK and France and other European countries that were major colonial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many public figures (and a few more narrow circle of professional historians) tend to defend the Imperial past of their countries, forgetting about going in those days Amritsari the atrocities like massacre, the uprising of Mau Mau and the Algerian war.

But even these advocates do not deny the colonial essence of these empires, in the sense that they are included in the composition of the territory, whose residents had lower political status and were subordinated to the Metropolitan and is usually subjected to cultural, racial and religious discrimination. Instead, these apologists for European colonialism argue that this state of Affairs was in favor of the colonies.

Only in the case of Russia, you will encounter an allergic reaction to the word “colonial”, and this attitude is all the more cultivated by the state. In the recently published article of the Minister of foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov about the history of Russian foreign policy, there is no word about the Asian conquest of Russia. In October 2016, the Russian security Council called for the establishment of a special center, whose task is the formulation approved version of Russian history for the purpose of dealing with “fraud” on the part of the West and the former Soviet republics. One of the areas in need of protection from counterfeiters, is “speculations on the colonial question.”

What is the explanation? Until 1917 and the fall of the Romanov dynasty such sensitivity was not observed. Russia was a member based in Brussels, International colonial Institute, where European empires were exchanging ideas about the most effective methods to strengthen its rule and development of the colonies. Over the last three decades of the tsarist regime, large scale so-called “colonization movement”, in which Russian and Ukrainian peasants moved to Central Asia where they were provided with selected local residents, especially the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz of the earth. The process was developed under the leadership of the state structures, the Resettlement administration, the domestic edition of which was explicitly referred to “Issues of colonization”.

Turkestan General governorate, which included the territory now belonging Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, often called “our colony” by officials, trying to achieve a more large-scale exploitation of the resources of the region for the benefit of the Empire. Yes, Russia was mainly a land power and has not established a separate colonial territorial entity as the British and the French, so it was much harder to determine where the root ends and Russia begins “Asian” or “colonial” regions, but, nevertheless, there were clear signs of isolation and lower positions of some regions and their inhabitants.

It is important to remember that Central Asia and the Caucasus, conquered with fire and sword, and not “peacefully assimilated”. The most striking example is the massacre at the capture of Geok-Tepe in 1881, when it was killed 14 thousand Turkmens. Besides, the Muslim population of Turkestan, the Great steppe and the Caucasus were considered foreigners, not subjects of the Empire. They lived under a military regime and martial law, and did not have even the limited rights that were granted to the inhabitants of the European part of Russia in the framework of the Great reforms of the 1860-ies, including territorial self-government, independent courts and the right to vote for candidates to the Duma after 1906.

Life outside of the nascent institutions of Russian citizenship had its advantages, including not having to perform military service. But still it was a sign of lower status. This inequality is very evident in the land question when it turned out that the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz had fewer rights to the land they farmed and grazed their cattle than visiting migrants from the European part of Russia. These two factors — lack of integration into the structures of the Empire and the transfer of land to Russian immigrants — largely explain the reasons for the 1916 rebellion in Central Asia, which was suppressed with no less cruelty than the similar revolt in the French and British colonies.

Before the revolution of 1917, some Russian officials, soldiers and intellectuals argued that their Empire offers a model of imperialism that differs from the British and French — more assimilation and less racist. “We are not Englishmen, who in India strive by no means to mix with the native race. Our strength, on the contrary, that was hitherto that we assimilated conquered peoples, friendly merging with them,” wrote military geographer Mikhail Venikov in 1877.

Very rich and not less eccentric Prince Esper Ukhtomsky, a mentor of Tsar Nicholas II, the owner of several Newspapers and the ideologist of Russian expansion in the far East, went even further, writing that “Russia to the East did not conquer, so this retractable in us the indigenous people — we are brother by blood, by tradition, views. We are just more closely held together and common with what was always ours.”

This indicates that the use of such ideas of kinship in particular to provide the framework under Russian dominion and expansion. In any case, these people were in the minority. Outdoor biological racism in Russia was certainly less widespread than in the British and French empires, but for the majority of Russian difference between their European culture and Christianity on the one hand, and the culture of their Asian Muslim subjects on the other, was no less explicit.

After 1917, the intellectual heirs of thinkers and asianists like Ukhtomsky became eurasianity under the direction of Nikolai Trubetskoy and Georgii Vernadsky, who developed the thesis of Eurasia, wearing a anti-colonial character, but, nevertheless, insisted on the organic unity of the territories of the Empire and to justify Russian dominance. Similar Eurasianism to this day obviously continues to serve this purpose in the doctrines of Alexander Dugin.

The Bolsheviks most wholeheartedly embraced the idea of anti-colonialism, and to understand why many Russians are so resistant to the idea that their Empire wore colonial in nature, we should take a look on Soviet period. Although the first generation of Soviet historians in the years 1920-1930, condemned tsarist rule over non-Russians as gunetilleke and exploitative colonialism, as an “absolute evil”, when Stalin became mandatory to call it “the lesser of two evils” compared to “feudal” regimes, which he replaced, and an alternative to British colonialism. Soviet historians were supposed to highlight the positive role played by the Russian “elder brother” in advancing “backward peoples” of the Empire (including the Central Asians, Caucasians and the indigenous peoples of Siberia) to the political consciousness and civilization.

Although the word “colonialism” has not disappeared from the Soviet lexicon was used against tsarist rule, it is more often used in the context of the “bourgeois” empires in the first place, the British and French — and always wore a very negative character. From the Soviet point of view, was not and could not be positive forms of imperialism and colonialism, and the use of this term by Western historians and politicians were perceived (usually justified) as a deliberate insult.

The Soviet regime in many respects was very different from tsarist. In the Soviet Union were all equally citizens, and although these nominal rights might not have been filled with a real sense, they were equally meaningless for everyone, both Russian representatives of other nationalities. In the Soviet Union, a policy of indigenization in non-Russian regions, which created a new nation with their own territories, officially approved versions of history and national identity. Reason one historian called it “Empire of positive measures” aimed at the empowerment of indigenous people. The main, and very ambitious, goal was the development and modernization of society and the individual, and, ultimately, the creation of a new “Soviet people”. Nothing like when the tsarist regime was not even considered.

However, Russian USSR were the dominant nationality, and become “Soviet” meant to learn the Russian language and adopt Russian cultural norms. Cultural colonialism is a reality of life, and it is very annoying to many representatives of other nationalities. The idea of “friendship of peoples” was a noble and undoubtedly more attractive than the ugly ethnic nationalism, which can be observed in Russia and several other republics of the former Soviet Union, but this idea helped to hide much more unattractive and inequitable reality.

Ironically, the mass migration of representatives of Central Asian republics to Russian cities — migration on a much larger scale than in the Soviet Union — showed the latent racist attitudes of the Russian society. The same thing happened in France and the UK in the years 1950-1960 in the background of the influx of migrants from North Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean Islands.

Therefore, the dislike of the Russians to the word “colonialism” was in part because in Russian it is purely negative, offensive. Since then, as it was used in a neutral way to describe Russian domination over other Nations, took almost a hundred years. Also in this issue there is a geopolitical dimension: Russia’s attempts to regain control over the “near abroad” and the establishment of small dependent territories like Abkhazia and Transnistria to prevent the accusation that such an attitude is colonial and not fraternal.

Inequality and hierarchy that are associated with “colonialism” existed and continue to exist in the relations of Russia with non-Russian peoples of the former Empire, but is constantly denied. Against this background, thrives open racism against Central Asian and Caucasian migrants, despite the protests and efforts of a small but brave and refusing to be silent part of the Russian society.

In the phrase Klyuchevskaya on Russia, which “colonized”, the word “colonized” is used in the reflexive form, implying that all the land is and always was Russian, and that no one else has ever been on them is right. This is similar to the American doctrine of “fate”, is also used to justify the aggressive colonization by settlers. It is worth noting that the idea of colonial exceptionalism Russia is not unique. The Chinese also denied the colonial character of its rule over Tibet and Sinziana, and most Americans prefer to identify themselves as descendants of the rebellion against colonial rule of the British Empire, forgetting about the American domination in the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and other territories.

The difference is that in the United States and other Western democracies deny or defend the colonialism that faces a permanent and powerful resistance. In Russia, however, denying or defending colonialism supported by the state, and resisting them people to clear and going through hard times the minority.