Russia in the larger history of decolonization

In the first half of the 1900s, empires were headquartered in London, Paris, Vienna/Budapest, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, and Washington. They were not quite simultaneous. For instance, the apogee of the Japanese empire came in 1942, well after the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires had disintegrated. However, during a single human lifespan, most of the world was dominated by competing empires, most of which fought in the two world wars.

To varying degrees, these capitals and metropoles have had to confront moral issues as their empires have been denounced from outside and within. And they have had to confront deep practical challenges as they have lost the capacity to dominate far-flung countries.

They have handled these moral and pragmatic issues in various ways and to varying degrees, none of them completely well. Perhaps Germany, Japan, and Italy made the cleanest breaks as a result of their defeats in 1945. I know the German case best, and it reflects a strong repudiation of imperialism. However, the moral introspection followed the military disaster–and not immediately.

The two imperial powers that were able to delay the reckoning longest were the US and the USSR, because they emerged from WWII with their military power intact, not defeated or exhausted. Also, both had ideologies that persuaded many of their own people–if few others–that they had never been empires in the first place. The US had the Declaration of Independence and the Monroe Doctrine and called itself the leader of the free world. The USSR was supposedly a union of equal republics united by universalist ideals; Lenin had been a trenchant critic of imperialism.

Today, the USA still has plenty of work to do decolonize. We must equalize power and reckon with past wrongs, above all the conquest and slavery that built the 50 states as well as the remaining territories. And we must recalibrate our relations with the rest of the world. The Afghan and Iraq wars were not only morally untenable but also humiliating defeats for the USA. They echoed the Suez crisis, which taught London and Paris that their imperial days were numbered. There is even a plausible argument that AR-15 are being purchased in huge numbers–and some are being used in mass murders–because of the post-9/11 wars. I suspect that the catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan bubble just below the surface of many of our current controversies. Americans feel betrayed by elites. We define our elite enemies in somewhat different ways, but it’s a fact that bipartisan elites supported these wars. Still, we are having a robust conversation about these themes–including an ugly backlash–and our neocolonialists seem to be in retreat in foreign policy.

As for Russia: there may well be a better internal conversation about colonialism there than I would know. Indeed, I am in no position to assess current Russian culture. I am sure that the Russian conversation about colonialism should be robust, fully acknowledging that the Tsarist empire was an example of European colonialism, the Soviet Union was a Russian-dominated empire, the Russian Federation is still 20% non-Russian, the “near-abroad” consists of sovereign states, and recent interventions in countries like Syria and Mali have been morally repugnant (but not unusually so–for instance, Russia’s involvement in Mali directly follows France’s involvement there).

These are moral points. Meanwhile, as a pragmatic matter, Russians must acknowledge that their GDP (even before the current war) was $1.7 trillion: half the size of Germany’s, a tenth of China’s, and less than a thirteenth of the USA’s. The Russian economy is not only relatively small but depends on unsustainable carbon extraction.

The Russian Federation should find its way to being a mid-sized federal republic with a distinctive and diverse cultural heritage, remarkable natural resources, a post-carbon economy, and decentralized power.

Seen in global perspective, it is not actually surprising that Russia hasn’t made this journey yet. It never faced the crises that confronted most of the other empires of 1900-1950. The collapse of the USSR in 1989-91 could be interpreted as a temporary weakness and betrayal, not as a delayed and incomplete conclusion of Russian imperialism.

In The Atlantic recently, Casey Michel wrote, “The West must complete the project that began in 1991. It must seek to fully decolonize Russia.” That statement strikes me as colonialist in itself, replicating the moral superiority and pragmatic hubris that countries like the USA must learn to surpass. Why would “we” succeed in decolonizing a region on the other side of the planet, even if doing so were our business? Citizens of the Russian Federation must decolonize their own country or else continue to decline, both morally and pragmatically. Ukrainians may assist, but their role is to save Ukraine, not to reform their neighbor. And we are right to support Ukraine–for the sake of that country.

I am skeptical that large-scale moral self-criticism is an engine of social change. (See “alerting people to their privilege,” for some evidence.) However, defeat can be an effective teacher.

See also: Putin’s cultural nationalism;  why I stand with Ukraine (from 2015); and Ukraine means borderland (2017)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.