Five myths that helped Russian colonialism remain hidden in plain sight
Several days before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and the genocide of my people started, I was in deep agony. Here I was, a Ukrainian journalist, who had spent a decade trying to raise global awareness about Russian colonial behavior. Yet again, the world would talk about the impending mass slaughter as something unprecedented, new and perplexing. Converting my anxieties into journalism, I started an X thread listing cases of Russian invasions over the past 111 years. It wasn’t an academic or nuanced analysis, but rather connected the dots between separate, seemingly unrelated events. Under different regimes and rulers, Russia has used the same formula to consolidate its colonial domination in the near-Russian space — manipulation, invasion, extermination. Since then, the post has gone viral and I turned it into a guidebook illustrated by Ukrainian wartime artists.
Exposing Russia as a colonial fascist empire with a history of organized terrorism following a well-established formula is first and foremost about justice. But it’s also about stopping the popular talk that ‘this is Putin’s war and Russians are victims too.’ It’s about exposing that Russia has always been like this and will remain so unless it faces accountability. But, to quote Shuhada’ Sadaqat (originally known as Sinéad O’Connor – a legend of anti-colonial art), before there’s justice, there must be knowledge and understanding. Until the world stops ignoring the problem of Russian colonialism, regimes and generations in Russia will keep changing, but Russian fascism will keep terrorizing neighboring societies, like mine.
In lots of ways, my mission of curating and amplifying storytelling and research about Russian colonialism is shaped by my life-long work of addressing Russian disinformation. Moreover, the fact that this phenomenon remained ignored and marginalized worldwide for this long is the biggest success story of Russian propaganda myth making. In a tribute to the stellar work that my colleagues at EUvsDisinfo do, I want to zero-in on five key myths that prevent us from seeing Russia as a colonizer.
1. Colonialism is only about what white westerners did to people of color in the Global South.
Those who insist that colonialism is complex and hard to understand are wrong and right at the same time.
It is easy to understand if you switch on your empathy and have any experience of being subjugated or oppressed, individually or as part of a community. If you do, you will recognize colonialism the instant you face it. I have traveled the world and met people from backgrounds and cultures very far from my own. Sometimes we would use different vocabulary to label our experiences, but when it came down to sharing intimate stories of surviving colonial violence, there was no misunderstanding. Whether I was speaking to a South Sudanese, Kazakh (or Qazaq, written in the indigenous manner instead of a Russified transliteration), Irish or Afar friend, the recognition of what colonialism is and does was almost instinctive.
Mariam Naiem, a prominent Ukrainian cultural researcher who often self-documents and critically evaluates her own decolonization, talks about ‘cultural alienation’ as a universal feature of colonialism: devaluation and rejection of one’s own culture as ‘primitive’, and seeing value in a different, dominant, imposed culture of their colonizers. “I have spent countless hours working to eradicate my “cultural cringe”: the internalized inferiority complex that causes people to devalue their own community’s culture. However, this is the process of healing,” Naiem writes.
The complex part starts with the taxonomy of it all. Colonialism takes many forms. It is essential to distinguish between imperialism (more about economy and land grab) and colonialism (more about identity and culture) and understand why Russia is, indeed, a colonial empire. In a series of video explainers produced by me and Mariam Naiem for Volya Hub, we emphasize that a colonial empire is not only about territory; it is about identity first and how the empire dominates by erasing or mutilating it. There’s a growing body of research suggesting that colonialism can take many forms. Even within the Russian empire colonial subjugation would form a spectre, from Ukraine (more about appropriation of the Ukrainian identity) to Qazaqstan (more about white supremacy) — with settler colonialism remaining an arc fixture.
It doesn’t have to be only about overseas colonies and enslavement of people of color.
In fact, the latter is an archaic view of Western researchers and a leftover of Western ‘colonial gaze’: the fact that Western colonial empires were like this does not mean that colonialism elsewhere will have the same characteristics. We cannot look at all colonial experiences globally from a Western perspective alone.
2. Moscow is the place where you understand Russia
The Iron Curtain is not only about the Soviet Union. It also about the gate-keeping culture that Russia built over centuries, isolating all the voices of the people it enslaved. Moscow had a complete monopoly on explaining to foreigners who we were, where we came from, and what our destiny was. As well as the ability to authoritatively create a mythology about what Russia is and who Russians are. This has led to a trend abroad where everything related to Russia, or the countries around Russia, has always been explained exclusively by Russians.
This is how a distorted global knowledge of who Ukrainians, Qazaqs or Moldovans are was crystalized through the prism of the colonizer. Time to decolonize it.
This is how the so-called Tolstoyevsky culture of romanticizing ‘great Russian culture’ has been championed by Moscow globally while concealing the fact that it was pillaged and appropriated from indigenous cultures Russia colonized. Time to decolonize it.
That’s how every major Western academic institution ended up having a ‘Slavic/Eastern Europe/Eurasian/Russian’ department, producing thousands of ‘Russia experts’ and still completely failing to predict the ongoing genocide in Ukraine. Time to decolonize it.
That’s how Russia got away with the myth of being a champion of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, while institutionalizing racism behind its Iron Curtain, and having a history of overseas colonial conquest, including in Africa and America.
That’s why, to this day, the voices emerging from Ukraine (or other former or current Russian colonies) have to compete and draw attention to the fact that the current genocide in Ukraine is not something unprecedented. It has happened many times before and will happen many times after us, if Russian colonialism remains unchecked and uncalled.
Survivors of colonialism must lead these conversations, not the colonizers and their descendants – so there’s more diversity and nuance introduced to this conversation.
3. The colonizer is the victim, the rest of the world is Russophobic
They say ‘we are bringing civilisation.’ They say ‘we came to protect you.’ They say ‘we are defending ourselves.’
Whether it is the ongoing genocide in Ukraine, the 2008 invasion of Sakartvelo (Georgia), the 1939 invasion of Finland, or the 1911 invasion of Iran, Russia always uses a self-victimizing rhetoric to justify the assault. And when the empire is criticized for violence, successive Russian regimes had just one counter-argument: “Russophobia.” Even to this day, the argument is widely embraced and parroted not only by Putin, but even by Russians claiming that they are in opposition to Putin.
This is from testimony to the United Nations Security Council by Timothy Snyder, one of the world’s leading historians on Eastern Europe:
“The imperial power dehumanizes the actual victim, and claims to be the victim. When the victim (in this case Ukraine) opposes being attacked, being murdered, being colonized, the empire says that wanting to be left in peace is unreasonable, an illness. This is a “phobia.” This claim that the victims are irrational, that they are “phobic,” that they have a “phobia,” is meant to distract from the actual experience of the victims in the real world, which is an experience, of course, of aggression and war and atrocity. The term “Russophobia” is an imperial strategy designed to change the subject from an actual war of aggression to the feelings of the aggressors, thereby suppressing the existence and the experience of the people who are most harmed. The imperialist says: “We are the only people here. We are the real victims. And our hurt feelings count more than other people’s lives.”
If I suggest that it is a hate crime against the British or French or Americans to talk about their colonial crimes or that it is an abuse towards an abuser to demand accountability from them, I’d be universally condemned, both in the Global North and Global South. So why is there a different standard for Russia?
4. “Imperial Innocence.”
They say ‘the Tsar did it.’ They say ‘Stalin did it.’ They say ‘Putin did it.’
Russian society has an old and unaddressed problem with imperialism, fascism and colonialism. Even modern-day anti-war Russians often prefer to put all the blame for any genocidal crimes their country is committing, or has committed, on one individual dictator, ruler or one regime. Any discussion about acknowledging the culture of Russian colonial violence that dates back centuries provokes the same ‘Russophobia’ cries from both Putin supporters and his Russian opponents.
A prominent Qazaq thinker Botakoz Kassymbekova coined the term ‘imperial innocence’ to describe this phenomenon. Russians ‘expect loyalty from former Russian colonies, which includes knowledge of the Russian language, political loyalty, and unity in opposition to Western influence. According to such an imperial view, Russian rule over non-Russian populations is not colonialism but a gift of modernity. It is a deeply altruistic act performed for backward people. Rejection of Russian cultural dominance, including building independent foreign policy and contesting the Russian view of Soviet history is an act of political disloyalty… A search for independence triggers a sense of victimhood in Russia, as if disagreement with the Russian imperial self-image is an attack on Russian cultural greatness,’ Kassymbekova writes in a trailblazer essay about Russian colonialism.
The imperial innocence myth is the ideological backbone that connects various Russian regimes throughout history in their continuous and shared push to preserve Russian colonial domination. And it is also what kept Russian imperial propaganda consistently on-message, even with never-ending change of what it likes to call itself: a tsardom, an empire, a union, a federation. This allowed Moscow to hide the colonial nature of its empire for this long. To endlessly reset the accountability mode, and evade responsibility for previous crimes every time there’s a new ruler in place: “Sorry, guys, we have a new regime, and everything that happened in the past stays in the past.”
The most successful damage control publicity strategy ever invented.
5. Russia cannot be a colonizer because no victims came forward throughout its history
Although I have been researching Russian colonialism for over a decade, I am still shocked at how difficult it is to find any visual documentary evidence of Russian colonial crimes or of the tens of millions of its victims — even in relatively recent history. Moscow could deport an entire nation overnight, such as the Qirimli or Kalmyks in the 1940s, but it is almost impossible to find enough photographic or video evidence of these crimes in the public domain. It is even more difficult to find evidence of Russian incursions into isolated indigenous communities in Siberia or the Arctic.
Why is that? Systematic work to conceal or destroy historical evidence among the colonized peoples is an inseparable part of Russian colonial success. After February 24, 2022, the Russians occupied my home village in the Zaporizhzhia region. One of the first things they did was to raid local archives and libraries and seize and burn everything they found there that was in the Ukrainian language. They even deliberately destroyed family photo albums in some of the local houses.
The Russian policy of rewriting history and destroying authentic sources that contradict the ideology of Russian civilizational domination has remained unchanged for centuries and across different regimes.
And when your indigenous identity is obliterated, it is much easier for the empire to say who you are, where you come from, and what your fate will be.
From knowledge to justice. What’s next?
The resistance of Ukrainians now inspires everyone who knows intimately what Russian colonialism is: from Czechia to Kyrgyzstan. If Ukraine falls, this never-ending cycle of colonial terrorism will continue. Russia will invade more countries, steal more lands, erase more indigenous voices. Therefore, Ukraine, driving the empire out of its territory, has and will have the most substantial impact on whether all these stories about liberation, the end of the empire, and decolonization will have a future.
The best way to end the empire is to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In all my conversations about Russian colonialism, I stress that all the work done on exposing the Russian colonial empire will be meaningless if Ukraine does not receive enough weapons.
What comes next is the work on soul-searching and centering the voices of survivors, not the voice of the abuser.
I am an author practicing empathetic and justice-centering journalism. So for the sake of full disclosure, the work of explaining and exposing the culture of Russian colonialism had to be deeply personal for me. We have endless gaps in my family tree just because so many of my ancestors were murdered, kidnapped or deported by Russian colonizers. My entire life I have been battling severe identity confusion, where you can’t know much about your roots, and what little you do know, you have been conditioned to despise. Reconnecting with my Ukrainianness required serious investigative journalism skills. But once I embarked on that journey, I started seeing that this is neither an accident nor an individual story, but part of a larger scheme of enslavement and Russification that aimed to erase my identity. And when your indigenous identity is obliterated, it is much easier for the empire to say who you are, where you come from, and what your fate will be.
“What is authentic in your identity and worldview, and what is imposed by a colonizer?” We can’t always find a clear-cut answer; decolonization can last a lifetime. But it is crucial to start this educational journey – both for the survivors and those who are committed to ending all forms of imperialism and colonialism.
When you open the ‘Russian Colonialism 101’ guide, the first page has just one phrase “The Empire will fall”. I needed to start the book with hope amid the darkest times. But it is also a fact. All empires fall apart. Through knowledge, justice and military defeat, this will also happen to Russia. A partitioned, disarmed and decolonized Russia is the only peace plan that will work.