Ukraine: The Legacy Of Colonialism

In the Crimea, troops in insignia-free uniforms have seized airports and taken control of the region. In Moscow, Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament has officially authorized former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin to employ the Russian military in Ukraine. In Kiev, capital of Ukraine, an insurrection that may or may not be genuinely spontaneous and may or may not be composed mainly of nationalist xenophobes has overthrown the elected president and driven him from the capital. In the West, the usual suspects are calling for the United States and its allies to “do something.” As we approach the centennial of the Great War, yet another crisis in another place the people of the imperial center rarely consider threatens to upset the global apple cart.

The anarchist line is as obvious as it is predictable — we are opposed to the very existence of the state, so naturally we opposed all wars. However, for reasons drawn particularly from the market anarchist critique of state action, intervention in this dispute is an especially bad idea and especially unlikely to result in any outcome the interventionists find desirable. To understand why, we must examine the history of Ukraine particularly and Eastern Europe generally.

The history of the region is dominated in Western minds by the Soviet Union and its sudden collapse twenty-three years ago, but the Soviet Union was merely the continuation in a new ideological guise of the old Russian Empire, which over the centuries steadily expanded its hegemony over the peoples on its borders until it stretched from the Baltic to the Bering Sea and from the Arctic to the borders of Persia, Mongolia and China, encompassing an imperial, colonial empire as large as any ever seen.

Because Russia’s colonies did not generally take the form of overseas possessions populated by peoples with different skin colors and dramatically different cultures, the fundamentally colonial nature of the Russian project is often missed. Further, this nature is still more obscured by the anti-colonial rhetoric of the USSR, which whatever its other claims was in its policy towards its neighbors a continuation of the Russian imperial project.
Ukraine is in many ways paradigmatic for how Russia treated her “near-abroad,” to use the Russian term for Russia’s colonies. Officially the Ukrainians were not regarded as a separate nationality, the Ukrainian language was banned, Ukrainian churches were forced to comply with Russian religious norms or to go underground, even traditional Ukrainian forms of dress and celebrations were suppressed. The official policy, in Ukraine and elsewhere, was “Russification,” that is, state attempts to replace indigenous cultures with Russian culture, and to turn the colonized into Russians.

This sort of policy is common to state formation wherever it occurs. As Graham Robb documented so ably in his The Discovery of France, centralizing states invariably impose favored forms of language, religion, and culture in an attempt to “unify the people,” that is, acculturate them so that their subjugation to the center feels less like foreign domination and more like patriotism. These patterns forms a continuity between “domestic” processes of state-imposed acculturation, such as public schools and state churches, and more familiar forms of “colonialism.”

The Russian treatment of the near-abroad falls between the “domestic colonialism” of state-forming and more familiar overseas colonialism. The cultures subjugated by the Russian state, particularly those speaking Slavic languages and identifying as Slavs, are in fact close relatives to Russian culture, and this closeness can obscure the fundamentally imperial nature of the Russian state’s expansion — to Westerners, it can more closely resemble favored forms of state formation in which the central government asserts its power and “unifies the nation,” overcoming provincialist, secessionist movements, than it does disfavored “imperialism,” in which a colonizer subjugates the colonized and displaces the indigenous culture. Russian-sponsored “Pan-Slavic” ideologies present the Slavs, a broad and diverse linguistic grouping of many disparate cultures, as a fundamentally unified people rightly ruled from the Russian imperial center, whether that center’s ideological orthodoxy was Tsarist Orthodoxy or “socialism in one country.”

Over the centuries the interplay of the successive Russian colonial powers, Tsarist and Soviet, with the various intermittently resurgent nationalisms of the various peoples of the lands between Russia and Germany have created a volatile region with largely arbitrary borders that do not trace any linguistic, ethnic, or cultural fault lines. Official Russian policy has encouraged Russian settlement in the near-abroad, just as French policy encouraged French settlement in Algeria, resulting today in substantial Russian minorities in most of the countries of the near-abroad, with many regions within these countries having outright Russian majorities, with impacts similar to the settlement of Scottish Presbyterians on the “Plantation of Ulster) in the 17th century. Further, periodic attempts at both the cultural and the physical extermination of the indigenous peoples have created deep divides between colonizer and colonized. For the ethnic Ukrainian, the Holodomor, or Ukrainian Terror-Famine, was a deliberate attempt by the Soviet Russian government to exterminate as many Ukrainians as possible and to destroy them as a people. In Russian accounts, the Holodomor, if it occurred at all, was an ordinary famine, not a deliberate policy of the government, and Ukrainian commemorations of it are seen as simple anti-Russian propaganda. (The parallels to the Gorta Mór, or Irish Potato Famine of 1845, are obvious, as the Irish generally see the famine as the product of British policy — “God sent the blight, the English sent the famine” — while English accounts generally blame Irish monoculture and, in an earlier, more nakedly racist time, the supposedly primitive nature of the Irish.)

So, in Ukraine, we have a state divided along several fault lines — between Ukrainian and Russian most obviously, but also between Cossack and non-Cossack, between Orthodox and Catholic, and between Ukrainian and all the non-Russian ethnic minorities, among others. Indeed, we cannot know all the various fault lines of Ukraine, because we have access to the relevant information only second-hand and filtered through various political lenses. Further, the goals of any proposed Western intervention in Ukraine depends heavily on these fault lines — unlike the Putin regime’s nakedly imperialistic desire to secure hegemony over more territory, the West desires a “stable, democratic government” in Ukraine, and adheres still to the Westphalian commitment to the sanctity of borders — borders that, in the case of the former Russian Empire/USSR, were drawn largely by imperial bureaucrats for imperial reasons of state.
Therefore, while for anarchists military force is always objectionable, and we indeed do condemn Putin’s moves to subjugate Ukraine, military intervention by Western powers is particularly ill-suited to the situation. No settlement imposed by outsiders will satisfy all parties, as whoever comes out on the losing end will doubtless harbor revanchist sentiments and determine to avenge themselves as soon as Western support disappears. By intervening to create some favored outcome, the West will commit itself to perpetually maintaining that outcome or, as we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan, eventually be forced to resign itself to seeing the order it establishes collapse.

The long and complex history of Ukraine and the fraught legacies of imperialism — for surely the descendants of Russian settlers in Ukraine and in other near-abroad colonies have interests as legitimate as those of the Scots-Irish, or of white Americans living on former Indian lands — complicate the issue such that imposing a settlement resembles central planning. The planners, be they at Gosplan or in Foggy Bottom, cannot access all the relevant information needed to implement their plan. Indeed, the necessary information does not yet exist, as the peoples of the region must generate it themselves via settling their own differences. Sometimes no easy answers exist, and in this centennial of the Great War, we should keep clearly in the forefront of our minds how rapidly intervention in a crisis far away can spin out of control. The peoples of this region can only create a peaceful, lasting, permanent settlement if they are permitted to determine the shape of that settlement for themselves. We can only make things worse.

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