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“One formula. Forty-eight nations”: a review of Russian Colonialism 101: How to Occupy a Neighbor and Get Away with It

As Russia’s aggression against Ukraine drags on, it is important to remember the wider forces that brought about this war. Exposing a centuries-old tradition of oppression emanating from the Kremlin, Maksym Eristavi has compiled a powerful book that demands an end to such colonial tendencies.

May 24, 2024 - Nicole Yurcaba - Books and Reviews

Cover of Russian Colonialism 101.

More and more academics and scholars are making an effort to educate the wider public about the history of a vast empire that is influencing today’s current events. Scholars, academics and journalists are not focusing entirely on the British Empire. Rather, since February 2022, their focus has shifted to the brutal and violent legacy left by another former empire, whose existence threatened, oppressed and silenced numerous ethnic and indigenous identities. Russian Colonialism 101: How to Occupy a Neighbor and Get Away with It – An Illustrated Guide, edited by Maksym Eristavi, carefully dissects Russia’s genocidal, murderous legacy and uses clear facts and unique illustrations. Overall, the work reminds readers that colonialism is not a silent figment of the past.

In the introduction to Russian Colonialism 101, Eristavi reminds readers that “Ukrainians are not the only people who have suffered continually from unprovoked Russian aggression and land stealing.” Eristavi also emphasizes something that is particularly important for western audiences to understand: “We believe that the cycle of unpunished Russian imperialism and colonialism has to stop with us.” This statement captures the essence of Ukrainian resilience, not only historically, but also during the early days of the 2022 invasion. This was a time when western leaders predicted Kyiv’s fall within the war’s first three days.

However, one of the book’s most powerful elements is that Eristavi elevates the conversation beyond commonly known areas in the former Soviet Union by introducing readers to little known and greatly understudied groups such as the Tuvans, Kalmyks, Buryats and Dolgans. This focus on indigenous peoples oppressed by Russian colonialism helps raise awareness about the necessity of exposing Russia’s inherent racism. In the cases of these groups, Moscow relied on gaslighting mechanisms such as stoking divisions and identity erasure. The Russians then invaded in order “to protect” and exterminated these groups via mass murder in order to carry out the Russification of society, culture, language and even the environment. Understanding the indigenous historical context is a necessity as the war rages on, especially as indigenous populations in Russia – who are technically protected from the military draft – see that such protection is not evenly applied.

The book also provides readers with the historical background concerning another immensely propagandized topic – language. As Russia’s colonialist and imperialist policies spread, so has “aggressive Russification”. In countries like Moldova, the Kremlin justified keeping colonial troops on Moldovan territory in 1991 “‘to protect’ ethnic Russians and Russian speakers”. One of Putin’s many justifications for invading and “de-nazifying” Ukraine is to protect Russian-language speakers and ethnic Russians from discrimination. In post-invasion Ukraine, Putin’s methods ultimately backfired, as many Russian speakers have transitioned to using the Ukrainian language. Ukrainian has become a language of safety and resistance.

The kidnappings of Ukrainian children in Russian-occupied areas of the country have made international headlines since the start of the war. Recently, an article by The Hill stated that an “estimated 500 Ukrainian children have been returned since February 2022”. However, the number of returned children is a tiny fraction compared to the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Ukrainian children that have been kidnapped from their homes and sent to Russia. Eristavi’s research informs readers, nonetheless, that in the context of Russian colonialism, kidnapping is one of the country’s tried and tested methods of aggressively assimilating those it wishes to occupy and destroy. Specifically, Eristavi’s research focuses on the Nenets, a group that throughout the 1930s endured the seizure of their reindeer herds, the confiscation of their lands, the murders of community and spiritual leaders, and the “mass kidnapping of Indigenous kids for boarding schools”. These boarding schools subjected indigenous children to “violent identity erasure”, a strategy similar to the re-education methods Ukrainian children are subjected to after being kidnapped.

Russian Colonialism 101 exposes the brutal parts of Russian colonialism that Russian politicians and leaders fail to admit. It also highlights another important fact that many westerners sadly believe that Ukraine will not achieve, especially as timely military aid from the United States seems unlikely, a meaningful victory. Spanning the events of 1989-91 in countries such as Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the book focuses on the transformative power of cultural resistance. Azerbaijanis rebelled against Russian occupation by hosting mass protests, and Russia’s crackdowns backfired by turbocharging the restoration of Azerbaijan’s full independence. Similarly, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians mobilized and demoralized Russian colonial troops using “popular resistance”.

Popular and powerful resistance is a common theme in Russian Colonialism 101. One of the book’s most humbling moments appears towards its end. In “Exhibit 48: Ukraine 2022-TBC”, Eristavi’s work focuses on Russia’s deployment of “dehumanizing language to deny the existence of a Ukrainian identity”. The old Russian tactics of disinformation campaigns, recognizing puppet statelets, kidnapping, and the razing of cities and villages emerged in a new era of modern warfare. However, the primary weapon against such measures, described as “unprecedented resistance from Ukrainians defending their democracy”, remains steadfast.

Russian Colonialism 101 must also be recognized for its artistic elements which emotionally convey the terror, resistance and oppression that each featured country endured under Moscow’s colonialism. Numerous Ukrainian artists helped with the book’s black and red graphics. These graphics make the book a guidebook through history like no other. Therefore, Russian Colonialism 101 is not simply another factbook with information generalized for everyday readers to understand. It is a work of visual and literary art that espouses the very powerful, popular and people-driven resistance against oppression, murder and genocide that it encourages.

Russian Colonialism 101: How to Occupy a Neighbor and Get Away with It by Maksym Eristavi. ‎IST Publishing 2023

Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is Humanities faculty at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in the United States. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.

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