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Colonialism and trauma in Central and Eastern Europe

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided the region with an opportune moment to examine its own deep-rooted legacies of colonialism. Subjected to outside rule in various forms over the past two centuries, the region could now finally grasp the chance to overcome this trauma and truly claim its “subjectivity” on the international stage.

July 1, 2022 - Miłosz J. Cordes - Articles and Commentary

Monument commemorating the Holodomor in Dnipro, Ukraine. Photo: Rospoint / Shutterstock

In a speech to the African Union Commission on June 20th, Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a colonialist land grab policy. To many African politicians, the comparison came as a surprise as Russia and the Soviet Union have often been perceived as the greatest advocates of decolonisation.

When Zelenskyy’s statement was made, I was in Brussels exploring Belgium’s postcolonial legacy. This coincidence made me reflect on layers of narratives connected to inequality and supremacy that have been deeply engrained in individual and collective mindsets.

Such narratives have been particularly visible in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), which has undergone a tremendous transition since the end of the Cold War. Once a region dominated by Moscow and Berlin over two centuries, many of its countries have today become full-fledged members of western institutions.

Despite this change, CEE remains a region that in the eyes of many still lies “in between” other political entities – Russia and the West.

The illusion of the eternal West

We should look at the West first. It is often presented as a community of democracies, unshattered by its foes and based on common values. Ever since the French Revolution of 1789, these values include human rights, respect for the individual and freedom of expression.

The revolution was the beginning of the so-called “long 19th century”, which brought industrialisation and urbanisation to many parts of Europe. It was also the period when the European powers finished creating their zones of influence in Africa and Asia. British, French, Belgian, Spanish, Portuguese and German colonial rule caused tens of millions of deaths due to starvation, malnutrition and diseases in order to exploit African and Asian resources.

This policy of exploitation continued until after the Second World War. It was the victory over the Third Reich and the consequent outbreak of the Cold War that helped construct a different, non-colonial narrative of a democratic, and human rights and freedom-oriented, West that has ever since stood against oppression and tyranny.

The West reinvented itself, hiding away several centuries of problematic history that involved racism, slavery and exploitation. This narrative peaked in 1989-91, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. The West triumphed and became the only foreign policy vector for a democratising Central and Eastern Europe.

At the turn of the 1990s, some CEE states quickly adopted and refined a key idea that was already present among the intellectuals and émigré circles. This involved the belief that the region has always belonged to western civilisation due to its religion (Catholicism and Protestantism), Latin alphabet, culture and political traditions. To justify this approach, they turned to the legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Russia’s invisible colonialism

The Commonwealth is perhaps the crucial element in grasping the other side of CEE’s colonial yoke. The French Revolution had been going on for six years already when the state disappeared from the political map of Europe, partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia.

Although the inhabitants of Poland-Lithuania were of different ethnic, linguistic, confessional and cultural backgrounds, their common denominator was the partitions. They entered the long 19th century as subjects of foreign and very ambitious political entities. They thus found themselves in a zone in between rapidly industrialising and urbanising Western Europe, and a rural, feudal East that became predominantly influenced by the Russian political culture of violence, oppression and distrust.

Russia’s presence in the region quickly became synonymous with quasi-colonial policies. Authorities in St. Petersburg introduced such “solutions” as the Pale of Settlement. This restricted Jews to settle only in particular areas in the empire’s western peripheries. From a 20th century perspective, this could be viewed as an earlier version of South African apartheid.

Serfdom, abolished in Russia in 1861, lasted for three more years in Russian-controlled Congress Poland. In the second half of Alexander II’s rule, an increasing wave of Russification imposed a considerable number of limitations on various populations, from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea, based on their ethnicity, confession and descent.

Similar policies took place in the Caucasus and Central Asia, making the whole rim of Russia’s dependencies effective internal colonies. Even the border between Kaliningrad Oblast and north-eastern Poland, dividing the former German province of East Prussia, resembles the lines drawn on the map of Africa in the 19th century by colonial powers.

The fundaments of regional trauma

The birth and rapid development of nationalism complicated the status quo in Central and Eastern Europe by adding various conflicts between newly imagined national communities to already existing political and economic tensions.

The main divisions here were twofold. The first issue involved the relations between the ruling empires (also nationalistic, like Hohenzollern Germany), as well as their links with the colonised nations. The second division involved the relations between those nations themselves.

In this complicated chessboard of mutual grievances, contradicting interests and struggles for hearts and minds, CEE became a battleground for rivalries and experiments concerning the ideas and events of the early 20th century. These included the collapse of the empires, the Russian Revolution and geopolitical ideas such as Lebensraum. Modernism also played a key role with its belief that everything and everyone could be improved by technological and social progress.

The results of these phenomena for the region were devastating. It suffered from civil wars, ideological clashes, and conflicts between newly established nation-states. The totalitarian policies pursued by both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union also led to the annihilation of these states by 1940. This ultimately resulted in the whole region finding itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

The imagined periphery

The 75 years between the outbreak of the First World War and the 1989 Polish parliamentary election reduced Central and Eastern Europe to the role of a semi-colonial periphery dominated by proxy confrontation between the superpowers (even more than the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15). This subjugation is made clear by the popular narrative that the fall of the Berlin Wall, and not the June 4th election in Poland, ultimately symbolised the end of communism in the area.

In fact, these three quarters of a century refined the colonial status of the region through a series of traumas inflicted on its population. This was done not only through grand-scale wars, but also through events that accompanied them. These include the Holocaust, the annihilation of intellectual elites, ethnic clashes in Volhynia between Poles and Ukrainians, deportations executed by the NKVD, massive post-war migrations and equally large forced resettlements and expulsions.

Post-war Central and Eastern Europe was built on the trauma of the people who remained there – deprived of their identity, fragmented and vulnerable. Because of the new Cold War order, they could not address this issue properly on both an individual and collective level. At the same time when the West embarked on creating its new founding myth, CEE experienced a new chapter in its peripheral history.

Research paradise

The changes of 1989-91 altered the situation only to a limited extent. When eight countries of the region joined the European Union on May 1st 2004, it was presented as a historic event that proved their place in western civilisation. Poland and the Baltics cheered as they anchored themselves in the framework of liberal democracy, market economics and so-called western values only 15 years after the beginning of the Soviet empire’s collapse.

The accession happened right between Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004-05. These increased public awareness of the state of affairs in the post-Soviet area, but they did not change the colonial perspective to any great degree. For example, up until recently Ukraine was often referred to as “the Ukraine”, suggesting that it is not a fully sovereign entity. Belarus is still called “White Russia” in many languages even though the “Rus” component relates to medieval Rus’ and not Russia. The Danish foreign ministry changed its chosen name for the country only recently thanks to efforts by Belarusian NGOs.

Even then, however, the presence of CEE in Euro-Atlantic structures was conditioned by discussions held between the “old West” and Russia that went above the region’s head. There were multiple restrictions imposed, such as no permanent NATO bases in CEE and concessions on the transit of goods to Kaliningrad. There was also a clear unwillingness to engage in more cooperation with Ukraine or Moldova in order to not provoke Russia.

The events that followed – Russia’s war against Georgia, pressure on Moldova and invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 – revealed the scope of discrepancies present in the quality of certain countries’ memberships in the western community. Their level of sovereignty towards Russia was challenged, as well as their overall freedom of action in their foreign policy. This reality cannot be simply explained by purely realist principles such as their size and potential. One of the keys to understanding this situation lies in exploring the phenomena of trauma and internal colonialism.

Most recently, even the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and war in Donbas did not stop western politicians from constructing gas infrastructure with Russia. However, explaining the strength of Russlandsversteher (Russia understander) politicians in Germany through reference to modern historical legacies, such as the Social Democrats’ 1970 détente policy, would be like building a house without the foundations. Emphasising the role of Russia as an important factor in CEE affairs dates back to the years immediately after the partition of Poland-Lithuania. The ghost of the long 19th century still looms above our heads.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine now gives us an opportunity to better understand this phenomenon. Thanks to this blatant violation of international principles, more and more people are interested in understanding the cultural, ideological and social roots of the Kremlin’s fixation on controlling Ukraine. They will not grasp it fully without seeing the broader regional picture: the mosaic of traumatised communities that are still struggling for their subjectivity in an area still seen as a borderland between external superpowers.

Lumumba’s tooth

Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was brutally murdered in January 1961. His body was chopped to pieces and dissolved in acid. One part of him did, however, survive. One of the perpetrators pulled out Lumumba’s tooth and kept it as a souvenir. As a result, Lumumba’s legacy as a victim of neo-imperialist intervention by the postcolonial powers did not disappear completely. Memory of his legacy survived precisely because of the fight for his tooth and its proper burial. This process only concluded a few days ago in Brussels, when Lumumba’s family was given the tooth.

I mention these events as I believe they are a striking example of how difficult it is to properly face up to colonial legacies. It requires time, difficult discussions, patience and good momentum. I believe such momentum has now appeared in the region with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The biggest challenge is to involve Russia and Russians, the colonial nation, in discussions. This process needs to be twofold. On one hand, their presence is essential if we are to start dismantling the centre-periphery narrative regarding CEE that is still present in the minds of many Russians.

On the other hand, Moscow’s presence is also needed to address the historical trauma present in contemporary Russian society. This involves events that affected other nations but also did not spare Russians themselves, such as the Holodomor, the mass terror of the 1930s, and collaboration between Stalin and Hitler prior to the German invasion of 1941.


The last 30 years have brought a unique chance for Central and Eastern Europe to shake off its two centuries of dependence in international relations. With new security developments in Europe, there is now a need for discussions on the past and present traumas that the region has experienced at the hands of external actors.

The necessary toolbox for such action can be found in postcolonial studies. Drawing parallels between the situation of nations in CEE and Africa can bring interesting results and build on the efforts already made in this direction. Such activities can help advance dialogue, deprive populist politicians of their power built on grievance, and strengthen democratic institutions in the region.

There is now great momentum for pursuing such an agenda. The war in Ukraine has already brought Poles and Ukrainians together, creating space for deep mutual reconciliation. It has also increased awareness about the existence of Ukrainian national identity in the West. Finally, it has backfired on Russia, causing the greatest economic crisis in the country since 1991. History teaches us that only challenges provide space for profound change. This is desperately needed as Russia holds more than just one “Lumumba’s tooth” in the region.

The article was published within a research project entitled “Ukrainian Long-Distance Nationalism in the Cold War: A Transnational History” at Lund University. The project has been funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

Miłosz J. Cordes holds PhD in Cultural Studies. He is a post-doc researcher and Lund University, a lecturer at DIS Study Abroad in Copenhagen and a research fellow at the Danish Foreign Policy Society. He worked in the Polish diplomatic service for 9 years, having been posted to the EU institutions, Malta and Russia. His research interests include politics of memory in Central and Eastern Europe and development in the Baltic Sea Region.

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