Imperialism and identity

Imperialism and identity

On October 6-9, Lviv hosted the 29th International BookForum. Over 40 authors from Ukraine, the UK, the USA, Mexico, Syria, Portugal, France, Iran and Tanzania attended the event. In particular, one of the main panel discussions was "Imperialism and Identity". 

The discussion was attended by a writer, publicist, activist and doctor of historical sciences, Olena Stiazhkina, a Tanzanian-British writer, Nobel Prize for Literature winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Mexican journalist and activist Lydia Cacho, a British journalist of Ukrainian origin Ihor Pomerantsev, an American journalist and member of the editorial board of The New Yorker Jon Lee Anderson and a journalist, publicist and military man Dmytro Krapyvenko.

"Svidomi" summarised the main thoughts of the discussion.

On postcolonialism in Ukraine 

Dmytro Krapyvenko: When we talk about postcolonialism and imperialism in the Ukrainian context, we understand that we are somewhat late with these conversations. After all, postcolonial theories emerged several decades ago. And the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Frantz Fanon were written mainly about the countries of Africa, the Middle East and Asian countries. But unfortunately, when it comes to the war in Ukraine, there is a misunderstanding that there is no such solidarity with the countries of Africa, which also suffer from wars; that there is racial prejudice, and postcolonialism concerns specific regions. I believe that this is not true. Everything written by such theorists as Edward Said is just as true for the peoples enslaved by Russia.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Part of the problem is an incomplete understanding of what is happening in Ukraine, this internal empire of the USSR or Russia that has lasted for many centuries and spread to Central Asia and parts of Europe. People see Russia or the USSR on the map and do not feel aggression. We often think of colonialism as European expansion into the non-European world, but there are other forms of colonialism. To a certain extent, China, the Soviet Union, and India are of this kind. And these are empires that colonise neighbouring territories, not overseas. That is probably why people who suffered from the imperial influence [we are talking about the peoples of Africa and Central Asia - ed.] do not fully understand Ukraine. For them, these were strangers, not neighbours.

What is Russian imperialism?

Elena Stiazhkina: Why does the West not see Russian colonialism? Russian imperialism has a distinguishing feature. Western imperialism developed in the context of changes and time, so it is based on these changes and values. Looking at the Russian version, we see that time goes differently there - in a circle. It is a time in which there is no tomorrow; it focuses on the past. The following month or year will be the same as the previous one. 

People unseen by Westerners live in small towns lacking water, gas and electricity. They live off gardens and forests, collecting dry wood to heat their homes. So when we read that they give 5 kilograms of fish for the mobilised Russians in Sakhalin, a ram in Mordovia, and firewood somewhere else - it seems savage for the Western, changing and value-based perspective. 

The West sees Moscow and St. Petersburg as classical Russia, but classical Russia lives differently. Russians look upon the West from the point of view of hypocrisy. They think of Munich and Paris as cities with nice front sides, while people live as poorly as they do. This imperialism is initial, never completed, unstable, and, therefore, is constantly reproducing itself. 

Countries that survived imperial influence can unite 

Dmytro Krapyvenko: To mark ourselves on the world coordinate system, we must say that postcolonial theory in culture, literature, and worldview extends to the peoples enslaved by Russia. I am talking about the Baltic and Central Asian countries, Ukraine and Belarus. We lack solidarity to say that if we do not tolerate imperialism, we do not tolerate Russian imperialism. To do this, we need to involve intellectual circles to tell the world that Ukraine is a former colony like India or Ireland. If we put the question this way, we will make it straightforward for others, and our war will be perceived in the proper context rather than talk about Russia's spheres of interest. Therefore, we need solidarity with the countries that used to be colonies.

Ihor Pomerantsev: Nowadays, the USA and Great Britain are the biggest allies of Ukraine. Most countries in Africa and Asia consider them colonialists and usurpers. Therefore, the issue of cooperation is quite complicated. Take Said and Fanon. Said is the author of Orientalism. Orientalism is a book that blames the West, especially the British and French. However, experts found there were over 200 historical mistakes. Moreover, there are quotes from the international department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee of the 30s, and the book's epigraph quotes Karl Marx. As for Frans Fanon, he is also a radical fighter, a Marxist. Instead, we’d better direct our thoughts to Ireland. It is the European experience of the struggle against imperialism.

Olena Stiazhkina: We need to talk to post-colonial peoples because we share the same fate: genocidal, ethnocidal. Yet, we have not developed the language. So first, we try to explain ourselves to the West. Still, we miss [communication with former colonies] and make a big mistake because postcolonial states are a powerful force of solidarity. 

 Manifestations of Russian imperialism today  

Jon Lee Anderson: We have the narratives of the Cold War. Putin wisely and brilliantly articulated the idea of brotherhood between Mother Russia and the countries that used to be part of the USSR. Today it plays into his hands. The idea that the USSR was on the side of the anti-colonial struggle remains, and the US has not done enough to create its narrative. People don't have a broader understanding, so they often go back to explaining that the US imposed it. 

Olena Stiazhkina:  If you know, "Russian" is an adjective, and Russian imperialism was engaged in absorbing and dissolving other nations using this word: "Russian Ukrainian", "Russian Belarusian", and "Russian German". Two basic positions: brotherly nations and one people. To become part of the empire, the second word was to be omitted. That is, a Russian Ukrainian is no longer a Ukrainian but only a Russian. And we must admit that they succeeded: when the world, including the countries of Latin America, and Africa, describe our territory, they call it Russian. How did they achieve it? Through ethnocides and genocides. First of all.

Since Russian imperialism always imitates the language of the West, genocides were presented there [to the West - ed. as a matter of course. For example, operations to destroy Poles, Germans, and Koreans were presented as a fight against spies. The genocide of Ukrainians in the 30s was passed off as natural disasters and industrialisation. The idea of the Ukrainian resistance in 1944 was disguised as Ukrainian collaborators of the Nazis. After all, Europe thinks that the Russian people liberated it. But among those Russian people, there were 7 million Ukrainians in the army. Europe believes that the Russian people suffered, but it was Belarus and Ukraine that were occupied. The Russian people had to suffer so that no one would notice the Holocaust.