The Controversy of the Decolonization Discourse
January 17, 2024
  • Leonid Ragozin
    Riga-based independent journalist
In this essay, journalist Leonid Ragozin argues that calls for “decolonizing” Russia play into the hands of the Kremlin’s anti-Western propaganda by evoking the fear of civil war – the same fear that makes Russians tacitly support Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
Road sign at the boundary of East Berlin, East Germany's capital from 1948 to 1990. Photo from 1988. Source: Wiki Commons
At a recent event held by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, two German speakers, a politician and a diplomat, were pontificating to an audience, largely comprised of Russian anti-Putin emigres, about the need to decolonize their country, culture and souls.

What used to be the main theme of anti-Western Soviet propaganda back in the 20th century is now a favorite toy of hawkish Atlanticists, pro-Ukraine activists and East European ethnonationalists. Talking about the decolonization of Russia (and Russia alone – one hardly hears about returning Tennessee to the Cherokees) has become the surest way of attracting the attention of institutions that fund scientific research and political activism.

Сomparisons are inappropriate. Period

When panelists finished their presentations, a young Russian environmental activist challenged the speakers to admit that Russia was not the only country that needed to tame its imperialist instincts. He pointed out that the US was only recently engaged in dubious military adventures on the other side of the globe and that it was currently supporting Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. The activist had an Armenian name and surname, an example of someone whom the speakers were meaning to free from the clutches of Russian imperialism.

The German politician responded by saying that those comparisons were incorrect because the US and Israel were democratic countries and Russia was a dictatorship.

The audience was comprised of people who were persecuted for opposing Putin’s regime. Some participants had served prison sentences, others faced arrests and intimidation before being forced out of country. The German speakers, on the other hand, represented a country that provided a major source of hard currency revenues for Putin’s regime.

But there was an even greater irony in seeing members of the German political establishment lecture Russians on decolonization 80 years after Germany attempted to create lebensraum for its population by enslaving and exterminating the “inferior” eastern Slavic “race.” A few weeks later, the Heinrich Böll Foundation would attempt to withhold an award it gave to the Jewish Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen who dared to compare Gaza to Jewish ghettoes in a New Yorker article. The entire context of Palestinian suffering, which can be seen as a consequence of the horrific genocide unleashed by Germany, as well as a product of European colonialism, seemed to escape the virtue-signaling German liberals.

Go East

A more subtle irony lay in the fact that the mentioned event took place smack in the middle of East Germany where all the early medieval toponyms (prominently including the largest cities – Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden) derived from the Slavic people who lived there before being colonized, assimilated and culturally erased by Germans in their relentless Drang nach Osten, which inspired Hitler a millennium later.

The German entity that emerged as a result of this conquest, conducted in the name of the Holy Roman Empire, was called Prussia – after a Baltic ethnic group that went extinct in the process. When centuries later the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea was annexed by Russian tsar Peter the Great, the ancestors of German colonizers, known as Baltic Germans, became the backbone of the fledgling Russian Empire, occupying key posts in the government and the military up until the 1917 revolution.
That European empire treated a huge chunk of its titular nation, the Russians, in a way that was not too dissimilar from how European colonizers in North America treated African slaves – through its own form of legalized slavery known as serfdom.
A view of the Kazan Kremlin. Source: Wiki Commons
What remains of the indigenous Slavic population in Germany today is the Sorbs, a small Slavic minority populating an area called Lausitz (Łužica in Lower Sorbian) near the Polish border.

An average German does not get to know much about them at school, apart from Krabat, a famous fantasy book by Otfried Preußler, which is based on Sorbian folklore. The author of the book had his Slavic surname (Syrowatka) changed by his parents to a German one during the Nazi occupation of his native Bohemia in 1941. Soon after, he was enlisted in the German army and ended up as a POW in the Tatar autonomous region, part of the Russian Soviet Republic (itself a constituent part of the USSR). He spent five years there before being released and settling down in Bavaria.

Currently known as the Republic of Tatarstan, Tatar autonomy was set up by the Bolsheviks in 1920 as part of their policy of favoring national self-determination. This happened 470 years after Volga Tatars lost their statehood, having been conquered by the fledgling Russian empire. The destruction of the Khanate of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 marked the beginning of Russia’s own imperial Drang nach Osten, which proceeded all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The form of national self-determination imposed on Volga Tatars by the Bolsheviks was of course implemented within the stringent framework of the Leninist totalitarian state. Besides that, its borders were drawn in a way that left large ethnic Tatar populations in neighboring regions. Tatar autonomy was targeted by the Communist terror just like any other part of the USSR. It was also devastated by the catastrophic Volga famine in the early years of the Soviet era.

But this proto-state, which ensured the preservation and modernization of Tatar culture and language, existed throughout the entire Soviet period and strengthened itself after the USSR collapsed. It was in Tatarstan that President Boris Yeltsin made his famous pledge: “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” The republic heeded this advice more than any other Russian autonomous region bar Chechnya. Many of these achievements, however, were rolled back in Putin’s years.

Did the Sorbs fare better or worse than Volga Tatars in the 20th century? Hard to say. On the hardship side definitely better, but on the decolonization side probably worse. They were ignored by the Weimar Republic and persecuted by the Nazis, who regarded them as Slavic-speaking Germans who must be properly Germanized. They were treated respectfully by the East German authorities, but obtained no proto-statehood along Soviet lines. In the unified Germany, the issue of their political autonomy was never properly raised. Their land remains divided between two German states, Brandenburg and Saxony.
In the course of European history, it is not empires but ethnic-based nation states that posed the greatest threat to the survival of ethnic minorities.”
European emperors, notably Russian ones, enjoyed bragging about all the numerous ethnicities and religious groups whose lands they managed to grab, typically listing them in their official titles. Undoing their cultures was not their goal, at least until the rise of anti-imperial nationalism.

Europe’s multiethnic and multi-linguistic tapestry continued to flourish until the advent of nation states, which strove to form mono-lingual and mono-cultural societies. Only the emergence of the European Union, inspired by the post-World War II “never again” spirit, succeeded in limiting that trend somewhat, even as this club of nation states has so far proved to be unable to tackle multiple issues with ethnic minority rights from Spain to the Baltics.

As a European periphery where modern nation-building processes arrived with a considerable delay, Russia retains numerous ethnic minorities in its vast territory. But it started losing that diversity already when the post-World War II USSR began drifting toward reinventing itself as a predominantly Russian nation state. That process accelerated after the collapse of the USSR when Russia turned into a proper nation state with an 81% ethnic Russian population and the rest of the citizens heavily Russified.

With this transformation came another genetic illness of ethnic nation states – irredentism, the desire to claim the lands populated by ethnic kin left beyond the country’s borders after the fall of empire. Clashing with Ukrainian ethnonationalism, that sentiment fueled the conflict in Ukraine.

Needless to say, the war in Ukraine highlighted the enormity of the task Russians are facing – that of tackling Russia’s imperialist legacy and building a multi-cultural political nation. But do the West-sponsored efforts help this endeavor? And are Western countries, with their own histories (including attempts to conquer Russia) and lingering imperialist instincts, really in a position to lecture Russians on this subject?
Musa Jalil, the Tatar poet and Hero of the Soviet Union. Source: Wiki Commons
The legionnaires

Right in the middle of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, stands one of the city’s best-known landmarks, the monument to the poet Musa Jalil. Born into a peasant family, he jumped on the social lift provided by the Bolsheviks and spent all of his adult life being paid by the Soviet government to write in his native language and study Volga Tatar culture. Of course, his poetry and prose were heavily influenced by his very genuine communist beliefs.

Just like Otfried Preußler, Jalil was drafted into the army during World War II and ended up in German captivity. Rather than die of hunger or in a gas chamber like thousands of Soviet POWs, he chose to join the Idel-Ural Legion, a military unit formed by the Nazis out of Soviet POWs from Turkic and Finno-Ugric minorities of the Volga region.

It was just one of many ethnic “legions” that were set up by the Nazis under the slogan of liberating nations from “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Its name derived from the failed project of a large Tatar-dominated autonomous area in the Volga region, attempted in 1918. Idel is the Volga in the Tatar language.

The promise of “decolonization” was definitely part of the lure for the Tatar POWs, even though Hitler was not really willing to make this dream come true (when Ukrainian fascists tried to set to a pro-Nazi puppet state in 1941, they were punished).

The Idel-Ural Legion was destined to be remembered by its particular disloyalty to its German imperial masters. Its members fought poorly and deserted by the hundreds to join Belarusian and Polish partisans. This was not least due to the work of a clandestine communist cell of which Jalil became a member. The organization was eventually betrayed and its members were arrested.

Jalil spent the last six months of his life in Berlin’s Moabit Prison, a half-hour walk from where the Heinrich-Böll Foundation stands today. He was guillotined in February 1944, leaving behind several notebooks of poetry that were preserved by fellow inmates. Known as the “Moabit notebooks,” they ensured his immortality as a Soviet Tatar hero. To comprehend the complexity of the story, it is worth noting that two of the fellow inmates who delivered the notebooks to the Soviet government perished in the Gulag, which could have very well been the plight of Jalil himself had he survived in Germany.

The Idel-Ural brand was also immortalized, in a sense, after the demise of the Third Reich. In the wake of the Cold War, many legionnaires were coopted by American and other Western secret services, along with numerous former Nazi collaborators from the Soviet bloc. With them, the American-led Western alliance inherited – directly from Alfred Rosenberg’s Ostministerium – the idea that the USSR (and its post-1991 heir Russia) should be countered primarily by means of promoting anti-Russian ethnonationalism.

Two alumni of the Idel-Ural Legion (and Rosenberg’s ministry) got to lead the Tatar-Bashkir service of Radio Liberty, an outfit targeting the Soviet bloc tasked with winning the information war, from 1954 to 1989.

In 1959, the US Congress adopted the Captive Nations Act, which listed Soviet republics, such as Ukraine and Belarus (under the name of White Ruthenia), as well as East European satellites, such as Poland and Hungary, as nations that needed to be liberated from Soviet enslavement. But in a Tolkienite twist, two imaginary countries, Idel-Ural and Cossackia, were also added.

The idea of Idel-Ural did not really take off after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Tatars enjoyed national revival within the political framework of their existing autonomy. But when Radio Liberty launched its website targeting the Volga region, it was named Idel-Realii, a name that was a bit too obviously consonant with that of the Nazi legion.

Idel-Ural resurfaced in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine at various forums organized by the champions of Ukraine’s war effort. Backed by the PiS, the far-right party that ruled Poland until last fall, the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum featured a few Tolkien-style separatist projects, such as Ingria (St Petersburg area), East Krivia (Pskov Region) and Smalandia (Smolensk Region) – in addition to Idel-Ural.

Via such figures as fugitive Russian politician Ilya Ponomaryov, the forum is linked to the effort by Ukrainian military intelligence to set up various “legions,” “corps” and “battalions” with Russian citizens who wish to fight against Putin’s Russia under the auspices of Ukraine’s International Legion. A few of these units represent various separatist projects in Russia.

Ukrainian defense intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov famously receives journalists in an office decorated with a map of Russia divided into dozens of imaginary states. He also took pleasure in cutting a cake in the shape of that map on his birthday.
A vast majority of Russians, pro-Putin and anti-Putin alike, see the decolonization discourse for what it is – an often comically hapless infowar effort that helps the Kremlin’s propaganda way more than Ukraine’s war effort.”
Headquarters of the European Commission, Brussels. Source: Wiki Commons
A realm of charlatans and grifters duping Western institutions out of their money.

While many grievances of Russia’s ethnic minorities are justified, there are dozens of practical reasons why the disintegration of Russia is extremely unlikely (imagine Yakutia defending its territory, bigger than Western Europe, with a population of under two million, half of whom are ethnic Russians). It is also hard to fathom why Russia should disintegrate when the rest of Europe is uniting – rather than be part of that integration.

But above all, it is hardly surprising that the prospect of Russia disintegrating and getting bogged down in a scaled-up version of the Yugoslav wars does not excite its citizens, including members of ethnic minorities. It is this horrifying prospect that helped Putin to turn Ukraine into a propagandist scarecrow and outsource his domestic conflict into a neighboring country. It also helps the Kremlin to sell the narrative that Russia was forced to fight a war of survival in Ukraine so as to avoid the same war on its own territory.

The result is obvious: while separatist projects supported by Ukraine and the West are firmly rooted in the virtual reality of dubious “political technology,” thousands of Tatars, Buryats and Tuvans are fighting in Ukraine for the Kremlin in real life, many of them as volunteers. Putin is successfully building a political nation in his own authoritarian designs, while the West’s designs for Russia are hard to comprehend.
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