11. 26. 2023

Decolonial Struggle in Imperial Russia

Anastasia Vosstavshaya

In May 1944, the Soviet government forcibly deported almost 200,000 Crimean Tatars in closed cattle trains, without food or water and in unsanitary conditions, to various areas of the Soviet Union (Siberia, Central Asia, and the Ural Mountains). In November 2015, Ukraine formally recognized this deportation of Crimean Tatars as a genocide, and established May 18 as a Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Genocide of the Crimean Tatar People.

Crimes against non-Russian nationalities did not end with the Soviet Union. Russia still continues this legacy. For example, Leniye Umerova, a 25-year-old Crimean Tatar, recently attempted to travel to Crimea via Georgia, but she was detained at the Crimean border and held in custody for five months, the government constantly drawing up administrative reports to justify the detention. She spent five months in North Ossetia, then was transported to Moscow and arrested on charges of spying. It’s been suggested that she was targeted because she chose not to take Russian citizenship after leaving Crimea in 2015.

This case is a vivid illustration for non-Russians in Russia: don’t forget how you were treated and are still treated in Russia.  

Indigenous peoples occupied by Russia, now or formerly, have even drafted a letter of appeal to Russian liberals called “Nothing about us without us. An Open Letter from russia’s Indigenous and Decolonial Activists.” Though this letter is, of course, directed not only at Russian liberals, they are a group who shift the problems of imperial and colonial Russia into the background.

You may have noticed that the “r” in “Russia” is written in lowercase in the title of the open letter. Do you wonder why?


Imperialism and the left in Russia

We, leftists from Russia, can define the imperialism of the Soviet Union in different ways, but the above examples – sanctions against Crimean Tatar Leniye Umerova, a letter of discontent by indigenous peoples – suggest that the historical successor to the USSR works by the same xenophobic means as its forebear. A cultural ethno-nationalist continuity has been formed.

An “opposition” leftist, Sergei Udaltsov, coordinator of the “Left Front” (a united front of leftist organizations that mix Lenin-worship with anti-vaccination pickets) and participant in the massive “Bolotny” protests against Putin in 2012, has said: “The special operation in Ukraine should be completed by the rebirth of the Soviet Union.” It’s typical red-brown rhetoric, a mix of reactionary nationalism and Soviet nostalgia. In Russia we call those who espouse such positions “redcons,” i.e. red conservatives.

Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov called for general mobilization in Russia. At the same time, he added: “I’m leading you to the idea that there is a war going on, and we have no right to lose it.” The day before, Mikhail Matveev, a Duma deputy from the Communist Party, suggested that governors and deputies enlist as volunteers at the front. Nikolai Bondarenko, CPRF member of the Saratov Oblast Duma, avoided answering directly whether he supports the “special operation” to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.

It’s safe to say now that some Russian leftists are as clueless about what’s going on as are Western defenders of Russia such as Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Noam Chomsky, who has opined that “Russia is fighting more humanely than the US.”


Russia is an empire

I think it’s necessary to talk about why Russia is an empire, and how that empire manifests itself. Until this year, the Republic of Tatarstan was the last subject (territorial unit) in the Russian Federation not to be affected by the law eliminating the presidency in republics. When that changed, mass media outlets focused on the constitutional amendment eliminating the post of president in the Republic of Tatarstan, but the main defeat for Tatars, about which only some grassroots Tatar activists spoke, is imperialist Russia’s removal of any reference to the Tatar republic’s sovereignty in the text of that republic’s constitution: the abolishing of Tatar citizenship.

This is just one example of the policy of cultural unification, of imperialist centralism, at work in Russia today. The Russian Federation will not tolerate any separate states operating under its auspices, and will oppose by all means the cultural (and not only the cultural) independence of non-Russian nationalities – Chechens, Tatars, Kalmyks, Bashkorts, Mari, Udmurts, and others –  on the territories Russia has occupied and colonized. We have seen the gradual destruction of federalism in Russia, the erosion of the freedom and independence of the federation’s republics, and attacks on the subjectivity of various oppressed ethnic groups. 

We also see a clear policy of ethnic and linguistic homogenization: a ban on taking the Unified State Exam in the Tatar language, for example, and a gradual reduction of Tatar language lessons in schools and universities. The Russian state even goes so far as to declare that public expressions of support for the self-determination of peoples are terrorism and extremism. Ruslan Gabbasov, for example, is a Bashkort who believes that the Republic of Bashkortostan should secede from the Russian Federation. Gabbasov was accused of organizing an extremist separatist community and forced to leave Bashkortostan. 

Russia has also clearly waged imperial wars: the Chechen wars, the Georgian war, the annexation of Crimea. This list is not exhaustive. Colonial wars are the foundation of the Russian regime. Russia denies the independence and autonomy of former direct colonies by starting conflicts with them and by direct intervention in their domestic policy, culminating in the seizure of parts of their territories. During the Chechen wars, Russian troops killed many Chechens; the Russians then occupied Chechen territory and appointed Chechens affiliated with the Russian state to rule.

At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, there appeared reports about troops of Chechens fighting alongside Ukrainians against Russian military aggression. Many Chechens openly say that for them the war with Russia has never ended: they say that the war has lasted for 30 years (since the first Chechen War started), 200 years (since the beginning of the military expansion of the Russian Empire to the Caucasus, the days of its imperial expansion southwards beyond the Terek River and Grozny), or even 400 years (since the first military expeditions of tsarist Russia). The Russian state has worked to represent all Chechens as “terrorists,” to give a mask of legality to a war designed to crush Chechen aspirations to independence.

This is done, among other things, so that the victim countries have less chance of joining organizations such as the European Union and NATO: active and frozen conflicts on the territory of these countries obstruct this possibility. Moreover, territories of the victim countries often become actually part of Russia, as happened in the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic – legally, according to Russia. Those territories that are not governed directly from Moscow become economically linked almost exclusively to Russia and therefore become its economic appendages. Thus, Russia is imperialistic in that it does not allow its former colonies to pursue an independent policy; seizes the territories of its neighbours; and factually, economically, and in some places “legally” annexes new territories to its revanchist empire. Russia has constructed an imperialist regime that reproduces the fundamental historical fact of Russian colonization.

Since 1991, Russia has conducted about 14 wars! And Russia’s expanding control over territory seized through war supports the centralization of power in Moscow. Why are many republics within Russia poor? Because Russia is sucking money out of the republics and regions. Russia robs the ethnic regions it occupies and spends the spoils on itself. The money flows to the federal centre, where it is then redistributed, meagrely, among the regions. Some regions have long received far less money from the federal centre than is deducted from them. The national autonomous districts feed the Russian metropole.


The place of imperialist Russia in global capitalism

Russia is siphoning resources from conquered countries, which fuel its economy. Without these infusions, Russian capitalism would be impossible; it would collapse in an instant.

Resources are drained from countries such as Tatarstan, the leading oil-producing region of the federation. Russia dumps that oil on the world market in exchange for votes and political support from the Global South. Also, by feeding Western countries stolen resources, Russia attempts to make it seem irrational for those states to put pressure on Russia: sanctions are supposedly “senseless” in this context. The Russian state cultivates Western countries’ fear of losing access to its resources. It also thereby tries to position itself as a political partner to those states. 

Thus the Russian state not only upholds capitalism within the Russian Federation, but also helps global capitalism by dumping cheap resources on the world market and easing downward pressure on the rate of profit. And that state supports authoritarian regimes such as those governing China and India by providing them with super-cheap resources.

A significant historical step in recognizing Russia as an empire is the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Vancouver declaration in July, which officially called Russia a “violently imperial and colonial” state; recognized the ongoing abuse, exploitation, and violation of rights of its indigenous peoples and minorities; and reiterated ethnic minorities’ right to self-determination. This document seems close to official international recognition of oppressed peoples in Russia.

According to scholar Janusz Bugajski, republics such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan under Russian occupation will be at the forefront of the movement for independence, driven by the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The republics are ready to secede from Russia, to gain independence. The oppressed peoples of Russia need international legal recognition. Such recognition of indigenous peoples would cause a terrible alarm for colonial Russia.

There are 89 subjects in the Russian Federation. Think about it! Almost 100 territorial units! Is it possible that all of these subjects are voluntarily in Russia? Sovereigntist movements within Russia pose a growing challenge to the imperialist Russian state today. The global left should listen to the peoples living on current or former Russian territory and support our struggles for liberation.

Anastasia Vosstavshaya is a left-wing Tatar activist, a former member of the Russian Socialist Movement, and a supporter of decolonization.