“Decolonization frees from some dependencies, but often brings others”
Sergey Abashin and Elena Srapyan
This essay is part of a collaborative project between the Russia Program and Perito, an online media platform on culture and territories. Through a series of translated interviews and essays, we introduce Perito's content on Russia and Russia's minorities to English-speaking audiences

Social anthropologist and expert on Central Asian countries Sergey Abashin is one of the first scholars in Russia to turn toward postcolonial optics in his work and teaching activities. Editor-in-Chief of Perito Elena Srapyan spoke with Abashin about decolonization movements, possible interpretations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s place on the global stage, and how to seek out ways to fight inequality, even in the current atmosphere of desperation.
Sergey Abashin. Photo by Sasha Nevskaya
Elena Srapyan: Almost everything that you’ve been studying in recent years has proven quite relevant. How does that feel?

Sergey Abashin: I actually became acquainted with postcolonial literature a long time ago, when the theme of colonialism was not so widely discussed in the public sphere. At that point, I felt that I was on the sidelines, marginalized when compared to research on more popular topics. But it was interesting to me, so I started learning more about it.

Now, postcolonialism is more frequently spoken of from the viewpoint of those being colonized. And once again, I feel marginalized. What viewpoint should I speak from? I am from Moscow, a white man, an anthropologist — anthropology has always been considered a colonial science. Like it or not, I find myself in the position of a colonialist. It is rather difficult to speak from this position without being criticized. The previous type of marginalization suited me better: no one was talking about postcolonialism, but I could lecture, speak calmly, no one listened to me, and everything was fine.

And the issue doesn’t just concern me. It concerns the conversation surrounding colonialism, about which I wrote in my short essay “Decolonising Decolonization.” Colonial and postcolonial theory was devised in the countries of the imperial and post-imperial world, and there is a lot of colonialism in the very language of decolonization and postcolonialism. It’s difficult to escape from this imbroglio — you want to support decolonization, but it so often just sounds like another colonial agenda passed down from the metropole.

I feel essentially the same way when I think about Madina Tlostanova and decoloniality. I’m speaking about this as a project that I like, but which is definitely utopian. Knowledge is created in universities organized according to the Western model, with a very clear hierarchy of academic mobility. The same applies to art, literature — all realms of knowledge creation. It’s really hard to talk about the decolonization of knowledge. To obtain alternative knowledge, you need to create an alternative system. It’s hard for me to imagine that in our world, where all resources are already distributed through the existing system, and no one, it seems, is planning to take budgetary funds from established universities and devote them to creating new, decentralized models. At the same time, it seems like an important conversation to have. Perhaps at some point, a loophole will be found.

It’s quite possible that in some distant future, resources will be redistributed in a new way and political power, as well as where the central hubs and fringes will shift. But for now, this is a distant and utopian outlook, because we don’t know what will happen even in 10, 20, 30 years. I believe it’s vital not to forget about this utopia and to refer back to it, but to be aware that it is an ideal.

New public organizations, in particular Asians of Russia and Free Buryatia, declared 2023 the year of decolonizing Russia. This is a quote from the manifesto published by Free Buryatia: “It’s time to admit that the Russian Federation as a federation does not exist. Instead, there is an empire in which there is a state-forming people and the great, all-powerful Russian language. Every Russian must understand that all the peoples inhabiting Russia are equal. And the problems of the Bashkir, Buryat, Udmurt, Kalmyk, Tuvan, Chechen, Tatar, Yakut and other peoples are no less important than the problems of ethnic Russians.”

How do you feel about this new perspective on the conversation about colonial Russia and the calls to decolonize it in various ways? This manifesto, for example, talks about acknowledging the interests [of the republics], and that’s one of the models they’re discussing. There are others, all the way up to complete territorial decentralization.
Cover of Madina Tlostanova's "What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet? Decolonial Art from the Ruins of the Soviet Empire" (Duke University Press, 2018)
I urge everyone not to brush them off, but to engage in conversation with them, because this call for decolonization is a call for a dialog on equal terms, for communication, for recognition of these people, for recognition of their special interests, their identity.

Of course, when we shift to the projects, we encounter a lot of unrealistic illusions. For example, I don’t quite understand it when they say, “Let’s divide the empire, secede, form new states”. But decolonization is far from just secession or the creation of a separate state, or even autonomy. Decolonization in the modern sense, in the sense used by Tlostanova and Quijano, is about something else. It’s what happens in your mind, how you free yourself from colonial stereotypes and post-colonial dependence.

It seems to me that decolonization is being used in the primary sense, meaning the creation of a nation-state. It figures in this agenda as well. It’s still a legitimate topic of discussion.

It figures in, yes, but this is where I think discourse is important. We need to understand what we will obtain as a result of this decolonization. How realistic is it? We heard your voice, you have articulated your position and formed an intellectual movement, but who do you represent? How far will the masses follow you, and to what extent do your ideas reflect the public sentiment? How realistic is the idea of creating a separate state? Maybe some kind of regional and republican autonomy would be more realistic?

This raises new questions. So we call for the creation of nation-states. But the concept of the nation-state is precisely the kind of European idea that decolonization proposes we fight. Here we see a contradiction: political decolonization does not mean decolonization of consciousness. This type of decolonization does not lead to liberation from the previous dependence on imperial influence, but simply to different manifestations of the same colonial language and the same Western nation-state format.

We can even say that these political decolonization initiatives may lead not to liberation from colonialism, but to an even greater strengthening of neocolonial hierarchies.

What do you mean when you talk about the strengthening of neocolonial hierarchies?

Say, for example, a small state is created somewhere in the middle of Eurasia. It’s isolated from infrastructure and transport routes, with only a raw material economy. Such a state may prove so weak that it becomes even more dependent on its neighbors or on Moscow, which will simply redefine its relationships with these countries. Either it will be dependent on China or America.

Take the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the one hand, it meant liberation, new nation-states, an important impetus for people to gain agency. On the other hand, while residents of Central Asian countries used to go to Russia, where they worked as citizens and had the same rights as the people around them, now they travel to Russia and have absolutely no rights. It turns out that upon freeing themselves, they became even more dependent, in some situations.

Therefore, decolonization must be approached carefully. In some cases, it doesn’t just lead to liberation, but rather is accompanied by new forms of dependence. I’m not even saying that the community being liberated necessarily has to have a particularly complex internal structure. It has its own dominant and subordinate groups. Once this community becomes liberated, it may increase discrimination against its own ethnic minorities, or women, for example, or some other minority group, possibly through religious rhetoric.

Decolonization frees from some dependencies, but often brings others. The rhetoric of decolonization alone does not automatically solve all problems. Often, the rhetoric of decolonization is adopted by elite groups, which use it to gain status in the West, in Western universities, in Western political structures, and gain access to Western resources.

However, again, this criticism of decolonization does not mean that the call for decolonization is completely misguided. This push leads many people and communities to gain agency and a voice, to recognize their interests and their identity. And this is a vital, valuable and, most importantly, inevitable process that must be accepted and taken into account.

You used the word “we” several times, mostly in a rhetorical sense, but still…This discourse about the decolonization of Russia and beyond — who is leading it?

That is also one of the problems. We understand that the conversation about decolonization is an invitation to listen, to engage in some sort of discourse. But who is conducting this discourse with whom and from what position — this is another issue. There is the political discourse. Groups united by some sort of pre-existing independent political group or party are urging the center, Moscow, to find a way to redistribute finances, resources, powers, rights, to acknowledge and improve the status of certain small communities. This is one form of discourse.

Another form occurs in academia. The American Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies recently decided that the theme for their 2023 conference would be decolonization, or rather, how to encourage academia to focus on new regions, new sources, new topics. This is a call to study not only what has happened in the Kremlin, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, or Leningrad, but also what has happened in other places, in the provinces, on the outskirts of empires, among ethnic, religious and other minority groups. How the outskirts and colonies influenced larger, overarching processes within the empire, their participation in them. This is a call to actively include not only reports and opinions from the imperial center in our research, but also new sources in local languages — sources that describe what people thought, how they defined themselves, how they lived.

It would be nice if the voices of local scholars were more audible, so that scholars from regions, republics, and autonomous areas are more involved in the general academic agenda. “We are organizing a conference” — there is no possible way that only residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg are involved in the organizational process. This is academic decolonization.

But this is all relative as well. Scholars who are ethnically Kalmyk may live in Moscow or Petersburg, but what role are they playing? Do they represent the imperial center or their own republic? Does a scholar from the center always represent the center, or do they sometimes represent the interests of the outlying regions that they are studying? These roles can be fluid and may change.

That leads into my next question. To me, the current discourse about decolonization seems very ethnocentric and essentialist. The public part of the conversation often occurs at a level where ethnicities and nationalities are spoken of as givens, an inherent quality of a person. You write about this at the very beginning of your book Soviet Kishlak: the categorical apparatus of nations is not free from hegemony, especially when they begin to seek out “truly native” elements, free from Western influence in the social and intellectual sphere. You often refer to Sheila Fitzpatrick, who views Soviet identities as effects constructed by external cultural, social orders and norms, masks, roles that a person tries on in modern life.
Cover of Rogers Brubaker's "Ethnicity without Groups" (Harvard University Press, 2006)
There is also a wonderful book by Rogers Brubaker in which he not only discusses this contextual construction of identity, but also considers contextual construction under the influence of changing circumstances. In anthropology, we’re talking about identity as an increasingly fluid concept, and at the same time, in public political discussion we have essentialist concepts. What do you think about this?

I understand your doubts, and that’s why I talk about being cautious with the language of decolonization. But there’s another side to the story: the concept of constructing a nation and national identity is also sometimes used as a tool for political manipulation. Recently, we have repeatedly heard the argument that Ukraine or some other nation was invented, that it is not real, that it was basically just some sort of conspiracy, and this today is a rhetorical justification for certain political decisions.

Danger lurks around every corner, and we must not ignore it. There is no simple solution. We can only find a solution through discourse, when people who are not from the capital, not from the metropolitan areas, who represent small, minority communities participate in this dialog. And in this constant conversation, we find a certain formulation, a certain mutual understanding — even agreement.

Tomorrow, everything may be redefined, and then we’ll get together again and find a new solution, but the principle of constant dialog, where everyone has a voice, seems vital to me. It is even more vital than finding the right formulation that will work for everyone. Even the entirely accurate motto “Everyone must condemn essentialism” may become a replication of colonial patterns.

In practice, this is not easy. Everyone has different statuses, different access to resources, and the stronger can always put pressure on the weaker. But if we establish mandatory rules for ourselves, research ethics, then we can find a way to overcome these challenges.

And this does not just apply to academia. Discourse is also important in politics, where it’s needed to overcome conflicts. That is why we must create political instruments for dialog. I, for example, am quite comfortable with the idea of having quotas for political representation. Quotas create a platform from which a person can conduct a dialogue and express the interests of his community.

In your book, you write that there’s a particular branch of historiography that studies Soviet national policy and different forms of Sovietness in non-Russian regions. What is currently happening in this area of research? Is this discussion still ongoing? And what stances on imperialism and coloniality do we see in this field?

This area of research still isn’t particularly popular in Russia. If you look at conferences held in Moscow and St. Petersburg, only a very small part of them are devoted to the national republics. They may discuss these topics in the republics, but the discussion rarely goes beyond the borders of the republics or becomes an important topic for the entire scholarly community. There is no large-scale public conversation.

In a conceptual sense, it seems to me that this isn’t an area of research that currently exists in Russian academia or in the general discussion — there are only a few young researchers on the outskirts who are trying to develop a decolonial agenda on the topics of conquest, revolutions or civic movements. On the other hand, research that officially welcomes [and approves] this past still continues to be produced. The empire wasn’t so bad, and there was never really any colonialism in Russia. These are the conclusions that receive official support in current circumstances. There is also a stance somewhere in the middle — perhaps things weren’t so great in the empire, and there was even colonialism, but in Soviet times, everything was wonderful and special. There is a number of scholars who retain nostalgia for everything Soviet, a certain idealized image of the Soviet Union.

I don’t see any overarching public discourse that has formed here. Moreover, this discourse is moving to the West. I study Central Asia, and the main literature on the region is now being published in English, in the USA and Great Britain. New books on the topic are published nearly every year. We, Russian scholars, no longer participate in the development of conceptual approaches and academic trends. We have become intellectual outsiders and we themselves are partially to blame because we cannot construct a productive dialog with our colleagues in Central Asia and the world at large.

When I was studying at the European University, in one of our conversations you noted that postcolonial approaches, to put it mildly, are not very popular. Why is there such a skeptical attitude towards postcolonialism in Russian academia? And how much does this have to do with the fact that both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union are supposedly “affirmative action empires?” How much do we believe in the concept of affirmative action empires? I, for one, don’t really buy it.
Caption: Cover of the new translation into Russian of Edward Said's "Orientalism". Translator Katerina Lopatikina, editor Anton Ikhsanov (Garage Moscow, 2021).
I also wonder about this. Why were postcolonial topics unpopular until very recently? A huge number of pieces by Bourdieu and Foucault have been published, as well as whole volumes of Carl Schmitt’s work. But try to count the number of postcolonial classics that have already been translated and published. Well, there’s Said. Chakrabarti — literally two years ago, Fanon — last year. And when we first had that conversation, none of these translations existed yet.

Why is this the case? The first explanation is that these concepts contain a lot of leftist ideals, which were rejected after the fall of the USSR. Many people associate conversatio ns about colonialism, such as they were in the Soviet era, with dogmatism and “fake science.” It must be said that in recent decades, the topic of colonialism has faded into the background a little in the West as well.

Another possible explanation is related to the idea that Russia is a sovereign country with its own sovereign language, where colonialism is an alien idea that destroys us and divides us. This is what official sources are now saying. The word “decolonization” is often understood by officials as, “They want to break us up into many small states and destroy us, as they did the USSR.”

The centralized structure of Russian academia may play a role as well. In the West, the main postcolonial texts came from former colonies. Their authors are among the postcolonial intellectuals who were included in global and post-imperial academic mobility. It is possible that neither the Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union created the same mobility. Our academic environment is less fluid, more hierarchical, and divided into many closed sects.
The cover of Abashin's book "Soviet Kishlak: Between Colonialism and Modernization" (Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2015).
And what about the “affirmative action empire?” This is the way in which the USSR, and less often, the Russian Empire, is contrasted with the Western Empire. Although it seems to me that if you really wanted to, you could also present the British Empire as an “affirmative action empire,” with their construction of railways, social and bureaucratic institutions, and so on. Your book is called Soviet Kishlak: Between Colonialism and Modernization. This debate really is happening, in very black-and-white terms, but it’s being developed in the public sphere, and is louder this year than ever before. “We helped develop the area” or “We took away people’s agency.” What are your thoughts on this issue?

It seems to me that it is important to break this discussion or this issue into several parts. For instance, when we think about the Russian Empire of the 19th century, we see a lot of similarities with other empires: the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and others. There was a consensus in Western, and even Soviet historiography, that it was a colonial empire with its own characteristics, a continental empire that tried to integrate local residents, paying heed not to racial characteristics, but to ethnic and religious ones. Politicians of that time said that we had a special empire, while, on the other hand, they always referred to the French and British experience.

Now, in fact, they are trying to challenge this and claim that the Russian Empire was not colonial. But that’s a political point of view, it’s still not the prevailing opinion in the academic sphere. Now the debate is a little different: should colonial empires be viewed solely in a negative light? They globalized the world, created global economic routes, technologies, mobility, and new divisions, including along national lines. Benedict Anderson writes about this. There is the Cambridge school, which says that empires were not simply created from top-down — local elites or local population groups actively participated in the creation of the empire and benefitted in their own way from this collaboration.

The narrative about the Soviet time is entirely different: that the Soviet powers, as an “affirmative action empire,” contributed to the creation of nation-states and national cultures within one large state. We even saw instances of repression against Russians: Terry Martin describes how former Russian colonists were evicted from Turkestan. The Russian Empire sought to introduce colonists to the outlying territories and thus control them, while the Soviet Union, on the contrary, tried to control the outlying territories with the help of local elites.

The Soviet people were given a common citizenship and a common ideology. There is the discussion of Soviet identity and agency, and many insist that it existed. Economic development projects are also a separate discussion: either Russia sustained these republics or the republics sustained Moscow, but the fact remains that huge resources were invested in the outlying territories, where roads, factories, schools and hospitals were constructed.

In this way, the Soviet Union has several features that don’t fall under the classical definition of a colonial empire. Some say it still was a colonial empire, as there was foundational inequality, Russification occurred, and so on. Others say that it was not a colonial empire, but rather an attempt to overcome previous colonial inequalities. If you’re not seeking evidence for one truth, but look at the practices on the whole, you’ll see that both sides were present. There is still no prevailing opinion in this discussion.
Cover of Yuri Slezkine's "Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North" (Cornell University Press, 2016)
I like how in Arctic Mirrors, Yuri Slezkine shows how government rhetoric and government policy worked differently at different times. And I think it’s useful to introduce some kind of diachronic, temporal dimension into this discussion.

Yes, yes. There were the twenties, thirties, the late Soviet period, there were the eighties. Some British historian is probably also saying “Let’s take a diachronic look at the British Empire!” And as it turns out, it also had distinct stages with different policies. There is no single model for a colonial empire.

They were all quite different, adapted to different times and different conditions. And in this regard, the Soviet Union is not unique, but simply a late-stage imperial project that includes anti-colonial emancipatory practices and policies.

It always seems like we exclude non-European empires from the conversation, the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire for starters. I am sure that there are many emancipatory elements of various kinds. Nevertheless, they are still empires.

Yes, there is great interest in the Ottoman Empire in particular. There’s another nuance here that I, at least, can see and it’s an issue for me — I don’t want to call everything an empire. A large state with many ethnic groups is immediately considered an empire. At that rate, we’ll find empires everywhere we look. I see the empire as an early modern project, a project of the New Age.

The Ottoman Empire still seems like a full-fledged empire.

Yes — to the extent that it adopted these European fashions and European structures, institutions, ideas, and participated in general politics in Europe or the Middle East through dialog with European empires and countries. Or Japan, which also, from the end of the 19th century, began to master this European language, fashion, technology and, in this sense, also became like an empire.

That is why, incidentally, I’d also be very hesitant about calling modern countries “empires.” When they say that today’s Russia is an empire — yes, there are references to the imperial qualities of modern Russia, and even to references to the Russian Empire outright: a peculiar trend nowadays for the Russian Empire. But still, today’s Russia is no longer an empire; it is a complex society.

Where does this line lie for you?

I’m still trying to find it. It doesn’t lie anywhere yet.

There are also the pre-Columbian empires.

Yes, yes. The pre-Columbian empires — the Mongol Empire, (Genghis Khan), the Egyptian empire. As soon as we throw these into the mix with the British and Russian Empires, that’s it, the meaning of the word “empire” is entirely lost, for me at least. Then it simply becomes a synonym for the phrase “big state,” because we will find complex hierarchies in any such state.

What about the “territorial conquest” component? It seems to me that when we talk about empires, we’re talking about the subjugation of other cultures.

In any modern state there are smaller cultures, ethnic minorities that are put in a subordinate position. Throughout history, certain states have subjugated other countries, cultures, tribes, peoples.

What’s important about the concept of an empire is that this subjugation was used to advance modern projects. We do not just subjugate, but we bring civilization, we offer modern science and technology, we build railways, we provide education and healthcare. For me, a modern empire begins with modernity, the creation of a new world. Not just “we’ve subjugated a group of people,” but “we are creating a new modern society in our colonies and in the outlying territories, we are leading them into modernity, which we ourselves have already reached.”

Today, Russia isn’t proposing any projects like this. What do they say? “The Russian World.” That’s more of a nationalist rhetoric than an imperial one.

I think we need to come up with a different conceptual language for talking about the new, current conflicts, new territorial claims, new relationships — different terms that reflect or define new global or local hierarchies and conflicts.

In your book you write: “A significant, if not the overwhelming part of Central Asian society did not and does not consider itself postcolonial.” Might this be explained by the successful social policy of the Soviet regime and nostalgia in the era of post-Soviet decline? Or is it the result of equally successful ideological brainwashing, reinforced by unprecedented repression? On one hand, you probably still encounter both of these things, even within a single person, but on the other, there most certainly is a new intellectual elite that has risen from this area. You can see this at conferences, in foreign universities — there are many Kazakh scholars, and more and more of them are women. What is your view on this situation now, in 2022?

When I wrote that book, that was how things were. Neither the Central Asian elite nor the local society saw themselves as postcolonial, nor did they talk about Soviet-era colonialism. And now we hear this conversation happening more and more frequently. In some countries, it has almost become the dominant discourse. Not only in Central Asia, but in the South Caucasus, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, people are beginning to write about coloniality and postcoloniality.

One of the reasons for this is the fact that the elite who were socialized during the Soviet times are being phased out. In the 2010s, a new generation of scholars and intellectuals entered the scene — one which read Western books and began to speak this language.

There’s another reason as well. Oddly enough, while we can view the Soviet Era as a complex time when there were a lot of colonial practices and tendencies, but also a lot of emancipatory practices built into the ideology itself, in the nineties and aughts, when these countries separated, the the relationships between them became far more colonial then they had been in Soviet times. We’ve been observing colonial practices in relations between two former republics for a year now. Before, this would have been unimaginable.
Cover of Eugene M. Avrutin's "Racism in Modern Russia: From the Romanovs to Putin" (Bloomsbury, 2022)
Or another example with migrants. As far as status and perception, today’s migrants in Russia, from the point of view of status and public reception, are absolutely the same as the migrants who came to France and Britain in the second half of the 20th century from the former French and British colonies. They are openly economically exploited and simultaneously discriminated against on racial and ethnic grounds. Xenophobia and racism existed in Soviet times, but they were at the everyday level. The official ideology fought against racism, there was a policy of quotas and emancipation. Now racism is rampant. We see open discrimination: the police stop people on the subway based on their ethnicity, “We rent only to Slavs,” and so on.

And this current state of inequality is extrapolated from the past. The Soviet emancipatory initiatives all failed, they didn’t work. In hindsight, we realized that the colonial hierarchies, as it turns out, were the main element. These hierarchies, and not the emancipatory measures, were what ultimately survived to determine the relations between Russia and the other former Soviet republics today.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, there was an intense spike in xenophobia and hate-crime murders. Russia remains a very xenophobic state today, as evidenced by the Civic Assistance Committee’s map of hate-crime murders. Is this connected to the fact that in Soviet times, xenophobia was both cultivated and camouflaged?

In Soviet times, there was not just the rhetoric of friendship between different peoples, there was a purposeful policy. Women were emancipated, minorities were given quota-based representation, there was economic investment in the outlying territories, and there was support for nation-building.

Some were offered assistance, others were discriminated against, depending on the situation.

Yes, people were deported, repressed, restricted and censored. I don’t forget or exclude that. But nonetheless, emancipation practices were relatively widespread. But the collapse of the USSR led to the collapse of these emancipation projects. And once the dust settled, we were left with inequality, injustice, mutual territorial claims and offenses, colonial relationships: “We are developed, and you are undeveloped.”

There is a nostalgia for the time when we were all friends, but now we are not. This is an exaggeration, but behind it, there is a specific Soviet-era ideology and policy. Now we see the Soviet era from the perspective of current conflicts, xenophobia, migrantophobia, and the outright racism of the nineties and aughts. Of course we see and evaluate the Soviet era differently.

Why did the xenophobia remain, even after the economic situation leveled out?

It leveled out in the consumerist sense, but as far as cultural stereotypes or ideas, it has remained. The surge in migrant-phobia occurred precisely in 2009–2010. The 2010s have already seen a pronounced wave of migrant-phobia with racist undertones. This does not directly correlate with the growth of consumption, how much money people have, how many cars they have, or where they have started traveling. Rather, there is an inverse correlation: as prosperity increased, ethnic stereotypes became more public.

I’ve heard you were called an “imperialist” a few times. What are your thoughts on this?

A lot of people I know who live in Moscow are perplexed: “Why do they need Kalmyk or Buryat, when English is everywhere now, and Russian grants you access to everything?” It is very difficult for us here in the center to put ourselves in the shoes of those whose languages, appearance, culture and social status put them in a subordinate position. In sociological terms, I have the habitus of a person from the center. This is bound to manifest itself in conversations, in words. I was talking to you and also caught myself saying, “we.” This is typical imperial language. I am fully aware that I still have many remnants of imperial stereotypes left in me, and people from the outlying territories, or from other republics, or other ethnicities can see and feel this, feel it as an imposition of hierarchy. It would be strange if I, as a white man, an anthropologist from Moscow, came to the republics and suddenly found myself completely at home. I believe that my task is not to pretend to be at home, but to acknowledge and reflect on the imperialisms embedded in me, embedded in us.
"Living in two worlds: Rethinking transnationalism and translocality", ed. by Olga Brednikova and Sergey Abashin (Moscow, 2021)
We all are coming from a certain position. The question is how much we recognize it and how much we try to work with it. Let me give you an example about political correctness. Sometimes my colleagues, who are very opposition-minded and believe that they are not imperialists at all, that they are liberal democrats or even leftists, when you tell them: “Say ‘Kyrgyz,’ not ‘Kirgiz,’” they start trying to prove that this has nothing to do with imperialism. At some point, for example, I realized that I was saying “Transcaucasia” and didn’t even consider the fact that this was a Muscovite view, an imperial view. But someone pointed it out, and now I try to watch my language and say “South Caucasus.” That is, imperialism is a structural position, but not an essentialist one, not an inherent and permanent position. You can work with it, you can correct it. The best way to get rid of your imperialism is to be in constant dialog with colleagues, friends and even opponents from other countries and regions. Then they point out to you: you said something wrong here. Then you get a better sense of what people care about, what is important to them.

I’ll permit myself to play a polemical role here. I look at these colonial relations from a slightly different viewpoint, from a Latin American one. And for me, in addition to language and discursive coloniality, there appears, for example, also phenotypic coloniality, racial. And in this regard, I want to ask: to what extent can you decolonize your relationships with people while being from a certain background and with certain privileges?

What’s important is not the result, but the process. Various hierarchies are part of our lives, and we are embedded in these hierarchies. Economic, political, social, racial, cultural. If they change, they change either spontaneously or through big politics over a long period of time. Whether we like it or not, we are in privileged positions due to race or because we live in Moscow or St. Petersburg, or even New York! The hierarchy does not end in Moscow.

Realizing this, I consider the process itself important, how we try to work with language, racial boundaries and ethnic stereotypes. There is a human rights activist, Valentina Chupik, who fights for the rights of migrants. She has constructed a whole program for migrant schools, where she first teaches migrant activists, and then just migrants, how to deal with racial bias within the police.

How does she do it?
In various ways. After all, there are still laws. The legislation doesn’t advocate racial bias in policing. It’s just that the police act this way because they are accustomed to doing so.

How can you change these practices if you’re in the same position as the discriminating party?

Valentina Chupik and her colleagues teach what the law requires a police officer to say, on what grounds they can detain you or check your documents, and what rights a migrant can demand in these situations. Sometimes the police officer realizes that he has violated some code, and the migrant emerges victorious.

Of course, we will never escape discrimination or hierarchies, but the process itself, the movement itself, the intention itself, even the demonstration of intention is important. You can’t help, but at least you can show empathy, understanding, help with something, say the right word. Say “Kyrgyz” instead of “Kirgiz.” It’s not that difficult.

Usually, when I speak about this, I propose that we combat inequality with introspection. For example, you cannot change the situation, but you try to understand what is happening. In the future, this will change your behavior, and many years later it may change the situation on the whole. But I am somewhat skeptical about the crash course in squeezing the imperialism out of yourself that is now happening among those who have gone to Georgia and Armenia, given that this is a rather colonial action in itself.

Yes, this kind of “crash course” may end up becoming a new form of colonialism. This is a gesture from the center: “I’m meeting you on your level, I agree to your conditions, so be it.” This is not an easy thing to do, you need constant criticism from both sides, you need an outside perspective. And this is a mutual relationship. We may well present our criticism to those who occupy the position of the colonized. For example, criticize them for how they sometimes use this position to subjugate someone else. What we need here is communication, and reciprocity, and the consistent desire to meet each other halfway.

In your essay “Decolonising Decolonisation,” you described how the country's current leadership uses decolonial rhetoric in public discourse. The speech Putin gave during the mobilization was impressive in this regard. The conceptual apparatus he used is a recognizable anti-colonial agenda of the foreign left. Do you think this speech reached its audience?
A Soviet anti-colonial poster "Colonialism has no place on Earth!"
This, rather, is anti-colonial rhetoric. Kremlin experts do not yet use the word “decolonization” and are even afraid of it. They use “anti-colonial”: the anti-colonial movement, the fight against colonialism, is a reference to Soviet ideology, an attempt to re-actualize it. Rhetoric that is aimed exclusively at the outside world: “here, in the Russian world, we had no colonies, colonialism, or anything colonial. Colonialism is something that happens out there, somewhere outside of our world. The Soviet Union did not have colonialism, we got rid of colonialism. Colonialism is something that happens in Africa, Asia, Latin America”. Putin and his closest associates are people of the Soviet era, either my age or older. They learned this language once, and now it just comes out of them involuntarily. Not because they specifically want something, but simply because they have no other language to say that the West is bad.

Although, of course, there’s a pragmatic political sense to this. Putin’s anti-colonial speech was addressed to left-wing groups in the West, to countries that speak this anti-colonial language. His goal is to enter into an alliance against America or the West. This, however, does not fit well with the conservative rhetoric that the Kremlin uses. An internal conflict arises here, but publicly, it is not particularly noticeable.

Is this kind of anti-colonialism heard around the world? It seems to me that this rhetoric has an effect on some segment of the leftist groups and communities. Just the other day, I was talking with colleagues, and they said that in Africa, Asia, and South America they don’t like the States so much that many of them appreciate Putin’s stance when he talks about the anti-colonial struggle with the States. Anti-colonial speeches seem to evoke a sympathetic response and generate, if not support, then a sense of ambiguousness. Yes, Russia is to blame, but America is also to blame.

The conversation about colonialism always revolves around Russia, while Russia itself is, in my opinion, in a neo-colonial relationship with other forces in the world. How do you view this relationship? Wallerstein's world-systems approach, on the one hand, is already quite old. On the other hand, does a more relevant model of global relations exist?

Wallerstein’s concept is functional, and describes these relationships well. Today’s Russia is usually placed in the semi-periphery as a country that both has its own outlying territories and at the same time is itself somewhat dependent on an external center.

There are many different components to this though. From an economic point of view, Russia is a supplier of resources to the West, near the periphery, if not fully in it. If you think about nuclear weapons, the scale of the country, the population, cultural and scholarly potential, then Russia could be considered one of the centers, because there are several of them in the world. The Kremlin says this all the time: they wanted to make us a colony, but we don’t want to be a colony, we are seeking sovereignty and fighting for a multipolar world against the colonialist West. Is there any truth to this? Can a Russian person or a person living in Russia feel colonized by the West? Yes, and these feelings are common.

On the other hand, we can turn our attention to transnational happenings, see the central hub not as existing in any specific country, but in the transnational connections and communities. And Russia should not be viewed entirely as dependent on this center, but rather the dependent layers and groups of the population should be identified. And in this sense, it’s easier to read the regions’ dependence on Moscow as a periphery community’s dependence on these transnational networks, on Moscow oligarchs — or even, perhaps, on Tyumen oligarchs.

When describing neocolonialism, people often note that neocolonial relationships are no longer divided into the power of states, but into relationships with corporations, which nevertheless often have national affiliations.

We can see this from several different angles. It’s interesting to debate, to pit different positions against each other, to hear opinions. But in a political sense, the Kremlin has an unambiguous stance: it is fighting a certain global hegemon.

This is an understandable and partially politically advantageous position. Another thing is that, of course, unlike the Soviet Union, it’s not entirely clear what support Russia can provide to countries with post-colonial problems.

Some will have their debt written off, another country will receive a loan. It is clear that in an economic sense, the China is the significant new player, not Russia.

Could we call the *** [word redacted due to active censorship in Russia — Editor’s note] in Ukraine colonial?

Remember what I said about the Soviet era, where we see both colonial practices and emancipatory practices. In the current *** [word redacted due to active censorship in Russia — Editor’s note] we also see various things. On the one hand, the reproduction of imperial clichés about Novorossiya, Russian Crimea, the triune of Slavic peoples, which refer directly to colonial practices of expansion and division of the world. On the other hand, the language used is nationalistic. They make appeals to the “Russian world,” to the infringement of Russian people, the Russian language, to the existence of certain native Russian territories.

There are also nation-building practices: “We are not simply conducting an ethnic cleansing, we are making you – Russians, one of us.” This is very nationalistic rhetoric. Nationalist language cannot be called simply colonial; it is more complex. At some level, even before these events, when the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) existed, the Soviet-leftist language was popular, saying that people’s republics were being created, that Soviet practices will be reproduced there, that these are working-class regions. I recently read that in one of the cities, all the streets were renamed and given their old, Soviet names. That is, we see a symbiosis of different descriptive languages.

It was interesting when, in the New Wave podcast, Andrei Zorin said that the *** [word redacted due to active censorship in Russia — Editor’s note] in Ukraine was difficult to perceive as colonial, because for Moscow, parting with Kyiv is parting with a metropolis, and not with a colony.

There are a few different ways we could go. We could say: look, this is not quite colonialism, there are still a lot of things intertwined here, and we must recognize this complexity and unravel it analytically. There are many different practices, different levels, different groups that position themselves differently.

But we could also take a different path. We could say that any colonial policy is always complex and hybrid. The so-called classic view of colonialism never existed in reality, it is an ideal model. In reality, there is always a mixture of personal interests and rhetoric as people fought for justice, helped each other, liberated, defended themselves. When Central Asia was conquered in the 19th century, officials and generals said that they liberated slaves and women.

Nevertheless, I’m not satisfied with the desire to construct an explanation of the current situation on the basis of the old conceptual apparatus. We live in the 21st century, the century of postmodernism, post-industrialism, transnational ties, globility, mobility, we are dealing with other types of societies, conflicts and practices. And I suggest looking for new words so that everything that happened to us has a name. Not colonialism — a 19th-century term, not nationalism, a 19th- and 20th-century term. Surely there are thinkers, philosophers who are trying to conceive of new language for this.

We use old terms, because there are no new terms yet. The very word “post-colonialism” is an attempt to move beyond old words and come up with a new terminology, but it still relies on the old.
Photo courtesy of Sasha Nevskaya.
From my point of view, these attempts have been quite successful. A new set of terms and approaches has already been created.

Yes, and what is the benefit of colonial language? With all the problems that arise, what positive things does it have to offer? The fact that it draws our attention to violence, to discrimination, to the hierarchy. In turning away from the terms “colonialism” and “postcolonialism,” it would be fantastic if we didn’t also reject this focus. Not by trying to relativize it, not by saying that there has always been violence, so there’s nothing to be done about existing violence.

Here, I’d like to address a small question to you that they often ask me. I say that I do not believe in getting rid of hierarchies: it seems like an impossible task. Inequality in the world only deepens. And they say to me: then why fight inequality, if it is inevitable? Critical studies imply that it is worth fighting — a stance characteristic of leftist academia. How would you respond to this question?

You can always fight and work with inequality. Perhaps there will always be crime, people will always commit crimes. So what? Should we not understand why people commit crimes, seeking social and psychological reasons, reform policy surrounding the police and other legislation, decide what we are doing with them, with these criminals?

Our sociality, our culture, our morality is constructed in such a way that we try to somehow influence, prevent and understand such phenomena. This is our way of conceptualizing things so that we gain a holistic undertsanding of ourselves. Even if the struggle does not have a practical meaning — and I think it does — it is inherent within us. We feel human because we are fighting injustice.
  • Sergey Abashin

    Social anthropologist and expert on Central Asian countries
  • Elena Srapyan

    Editor-in-Chief of Perito
More articles
Subscribe to our newsletter
You will receive our biweekly newsletter with the most relevant Russia-related research news.