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Oppressed empire

The Kremlin’s rhetoric about the fight against western imperialism reveals more about Russia’s war with Ukraine than it would seem at first glance.

February 27, 2024 - Fedor Agapov - Articles and Commentary

Russian, Soviet and Russian imperial flags in St. Petersburg. Photo: Dmitrii Iakimov / Shutterstock

Commenting on their foreign policy in the context of the war against Ukraine, the Russian authorities have repeatedly resorted to anti-colonial rhetoric towards western countries. From the outside, this looks senseless, since the attack on Ukraine itself looks primarily like Moscow’s attempt to regain its lost greatness. However, despite the apparent absurdity, through the prism of post-colonial theory these statements take on a completely different colour, which helps us to better understand the Kremlin’s view of current processes in international politics. It also explains why peace between Russia and Ukraine is definitely not to be expected in the near future.

Russian expansion and post-colonialism

According to a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in February 2023, Moscow agrees “with the demands to bring the decolonization process to a fair conclusion” and obliges, for example, France to return the once captured Mayotte to the Comoros Islands, and Great Britain to give the Chagos Islands back to Mauritius. In his turn, Vladimir Putin, after the occupation of several regions of Ukraine, criticized western countries, saying that while they were talking about freedom and democracy, they were actually pursuing an imperial policy and creating the exact opposite situation in the world. Finally, in Russian pro-state media, one can see publications in which the Kremlin’s current war against Kyiv is described as nothing other than a struggle waged by Russia for its own “liberation from colonial dependence”. We are talking, of course, about dependence on western countries.

These statements are not random rhetorical tricks used by Moscow to justify military aggression, but a crucial part of the political outlook of that part of the Russian elite that really believes in something. Intuitively, this view seems quite incomprehensible, for if there is any country in the world that behaves like an aggressive empire, it is Russia. But this is where the theory of post-colonialism comes in, which has already dealt with similar cases. To describe Russia as a unique imperial state that suffers from the complex of provinciality and subordination to the West, the academic community uses the concept of a “subaltern empire”. The term “subaltern” in the social sciences refers to a subordinate and marginalized group of people who are suppressed by another, more powerful party.

The origins of the Kremlin’s inferiority complex


First and foremost, Russia’s sense of itself as a periphery of Europe arose from the economic relationship between Moscow and the West. During the Russian Empire, the country’s main exports were food and agricultural raw materials in exchange for machinery from western countries. Then the Soviet Union, in the last decades of its existence, was one of the main exporters of natural resources on the planet. And now Russia is a supplier of gas and oil, which in return it gains technology from the West. In a world where technological progress in the minds of people is in many ways equal to social and cultural progress, the inhabitants of the periphery by default perceive people from the countries to which their resources go as more developed, and therefore feel themselves in a subordinate position in relation to them.

This sense of economic subordination was then transferred to the cultural plane. In countries that are suppliers of natural resources, huge inequalities between social classes often develop, as was the case in the Russian Empire. The main agent of culture in the 19th century was, of course, the aristocracy, which in Russia was heavily influenced by Western Europe, especially France. Thus, the very idea of “high culture” in Russia was formed with reference to the Western European model.

Inside the country, this resulted in a situation in which a Europeanized minority, up to a point even often non-Russian-speaking (aristocrats often spoke French among themselves for a long time), ruled over a suppressed and subjugated majority. The consequence of this was a cultural hierarchy in which Western Europeans held the top positions, while below them was the Europeanized layer of the propertied class. The most “uncultured” community was the rest of the Russian population. This situation did not change after the establishment of the Soviet regime. The majority, who felt their inferiority in relation to the elite, received mass education, while the majority of the elite itself was pushed abroad or repressed. Thus, in the cultural picture of the world of a huge number of people in Russia, high culture, together with the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, was completely displaced into the western world, which the USSR, and now Russia, opposes in the political arena.

This state of affairs, overlaid with the Soviet rhetoric of the struggle against capitalism, has created a contradictory worldview among Russian politicians. On the one hand, Moscow is engaged in expansionist policies and actively opposes the West, while on the other hand, Russia always appears in its own eyes as a representative of oppressed people. In the 20th century, the USSR supposedly protected the working class from exploitation by the western bourgeoisie, and now Russia is supposedly one of the leaders of the “Global South” to which it hardly belongs. It is paradoxical and ironic that in both cases Russia, fighting the West, explains its struggle in the “language of the enemy”. The USSR was guided in its policies by the philosophy of the German thinker Karl Marx, while the current Russian concept of a “Russian World”, so beloved by Vladimir Putin, directly follows the ideas of the American political scientist Samuel Huntington and his “Clash of Civilizations” theory.

Russia, as a country that culturally belongs to Europe, feels that the West does not fully recognize it as its own and looks down on it. At the same time, Moscow continues to be obsessed with the West and wants to prove to it that it is as good as it is. As a result, it sets itself insoluble tasks every time. Thus, to compensate for its sense of inferiority, the Kremlin organizes various aggressive actions, such as the war in Ukraine, hoping to get on the same level as the West through a show of force. In the end, however, it is only further frustrated by subsequent negative reactions in Brussels and Washington.

Putin, war and revenge

If we take into account this perception of Moscow about itself, the current war between Russia and Ukraine appears in a slightly different form. It is not without reason that Russian propaganda calls Ukraine a “brotherly nation” in the Soviet tradition. Although from the outside it rightly appears that the Kremlin is waging a neo-imperialist war in an attempt to regain its own greatness, inside the Russian government it is seen as a showdown between two fellow combatants in the wider fight against colonialism. One of these sides – Ukraine – has turned its back on its comrade and decided to swear allegiance to the much hated master.

This difference in perception explains why the war launched by Russia on February 24th 2022 has reached such extreme levels of brutality. Had the Kremlin really thought of it as a colonial war, perhaps it would have retreated given the heavy losses suffered by the Russian army. But now, apparently, Putin regards the current attack on Ukraine not only as a tactical step in the geopolitical game, but also as a personal act of revenge. And what kind of negotiations, or even more so pity, can there be when we are talking not just about an enemy, but a traitor? By the way, the Russian president himself spoke about betrayal as the only thing that cannot be forgiven in one of his interviews.

Thus, in the 21st century, Russia suffers from the same problems in its relations with the West as it did a hundred or even a hundred and fifty years ago. As a supplier of natural resources, Moscow could not economically or culturally separate itself from the West even if it wanted to – the Kremlin still needs western technology and the Russian population prefers American cultural products over those from China. At the same time, Moscow is still painfully obsessed with the West and wants to show it, at least through military might, that it should be seen as an equal. An extreme version of this we can now observe in the case of Ukraine, which, wanting to distance itself from the Kremlin, has challenged the most essential parts of Moscow’s political identity, and has become a platform on which Russia, through military action, expresses its grievances to Europe and the United States.

Unfortunately, this means that, at least as long as Vladimir Putin is alive, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to wait for a period of calm that can be enjoyed as an independent country. Further on, everything will depend on how political life inside Russia itself develops and whether the country will be able to find a new format for relations with western nations, within which the Kremlin will have no desire to prove its status to them by any, even the bloodiest, means.

Fedor Agapov is an Amsterdam-based Russian and German political scientist whose research interests are international relations and political behavior. He now works as a producer at TVRain — an independent news channel that was forced to leave Russia after the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

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