The end of Russia’s imperial innocence

May 25, 2022
  • Botakoz Kassymbekova
    Lecturer at the Department of History, University of Basel, Switzerland.
  • Director, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), The George Washington University.
Botakoz Kassymbekova and Marlene Laruelle on how the myth of imperial innocence has ended for good with the Ukraine war. Russia’s century-old narrative of being an imperial savior, entangled with the sacred memory of World War II, will make any memory process particularly painful.
Soviet poster, 1935. Source: Wiki Commons
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signals the end of
imperial innocence. The approval of the war among Russians should be seen not only as a product of a powerful media machine, but also a result of the fact that the war has been translated into a tale of a liberator saving the world from evil. This narrative has its roots not only in the memory of World War II (the Great Patriotic War in Russian), but also in a centuries-old discourse on imperial Russia as a savior.

If the British and French imperial discourses are based on the premise of a civilizing mission, the Russian imperial discourse functions on the premise of liberating: Russia does not simply civilize, it saves and liberates the colonized, as well as itself, from external oppression. This narrative is exemplified in Putin’s speeches about Ukrainians needing to be “de-Nazified” in order to become themselves again (that is, becoming Russians’ “brothers” who share a common motherland). The “stickiness” of this imperial vision in which the Ukrainian “younger brother” needs to be protected from Western perdition by the Russian elder brother signals Russia’s failure at replacing old imperial linkages with a new genuine partnership based on common strategic interests, both in the past and future.

This Russian imperial identity endures because it is based on a self-image of sacral martyrdom. The Russian public has learned to perceive itself as victims defending themselves against onslaughts from Mongols in the Middle Ages, from Europeans and Ottomans beginning in the early modern era (the war against Sweden in the early 18th century, and the many Russo-Turkish wars), from Nazis during World War II and from the Americans since then. The Soviet Union reproduced in many ways the idea of imperial innocence by portraying Western powers as colonial and Soviet socialism as a global anti-capitalist power, and indeed the Soviet Union was broadly seen in the developing world as a powerful anticolonial force.

"Empire has been Russia’s language against the West: Russia counters Western normative pressure, read as Western imperialism, with its own imperialism toward its colonial subjects, be they internal, like Chechnya (as the embodiment of Putin’s restoration of a “vertical of power,” with Ramzan Kadyrov behaving like a Russian colonial officer), or semi-external, like Ukraine."

"White Sun of the Desert" film poster, 1970. Source: Wiki Commons
Instead of looking inward, Russian intellectuals have mostly concentrated on discussing Russia vis-à-vis the West rather than Russia vis-à-vis its own colonial subjects. Even the Russian liberal journalists who interviewed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in March seemed more concerned about Western Russophobia than about Russia trying to take responsibility for Ukraine’s fate.

Over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War, the imperial myth has remained almost untouched in Russia. Any call for decolonizing national historiographies in the post-Soviet republics is received with at best indifference, at worst as an attack on Russia’s own identity. Though liberal elites complain about the lack of democracy under Putin’s regime, they haven’t challenged the imperial paradigm. Anti-corruption activist and dissident leader Aleksey Navalny’s entrenched xenophobia, if not racism, toward ethnic minorities, as well as the Russian liberal intelligentsia’s willingness to overlook it, represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the inability to challenge Russia’s attitude toward those it has colonized.

It takes a society decades to decenter its imperial mindset: even today, French culture is still largely shaped by memory wars over Algeria. Russia missed a window of opportunity to embark on its own decentering in the 2000s, a time of economic prosperity and internationalization. Revisiting its imperial innocence now, in a period of economic stagnation, deglobalization and reputational damage, is much more challenging. Seeing oneself as the innocent savior helps to deal psychologically with economic hardship and isolation. The imperial myth tells a story of victory, producing feelings of belonging while keeping people passive and uncritical.

"Memory work is painful: it strips death of all its sacral meaning, obliges one to rewrite family histories and forces a fundamental rethink of identity. As the war in Ukraine has been framed as the continuation of the Great Patriotic War, the entanglement with the sacredness of the 1945 victory in Russian public opinion will make memory work all the more excruciating."

Russian society now entering a new stage of conservative consolidation, the needed revisiting of the idea of imperial innocence has been once again postponed.

Still, Russia’s myth of imperial innocence and victimhood has ended in Ukraine for good – other former colonies are joining the process of decolonization, and we see new links emerging between, for instance, Ukraine and Central Asia. Russia’s intellectuals might well listen to these decentering stories and voices now, as any long-term solutions for Russia will necessarily involve critically looking at its imperial past.
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