“The history of Russia is the history of a country that colonizes itself.” This phrase, first coined by the historian Sergei Solov’ev in the 1840s, gained widespread currency thanks to Vasilii Kliuchevskii’s Course of Russian History, first published in 1911 and still popular today.
It remains one of the best-known aphorisms about Russian history. And yet, any historian of the Russian empire knows that one surefire way today to drop a brick in a conversation with Russian colleagues is to refer to ‘Russian colonialism.’ With rare exceptions, you will be met with a baffled, if not offended, response: “Colonialism? What Colonialism? Russia has never had colonies.”
I have heard the same response, and the same arguments, from Orenburg to Oxford, and they have changed little in the 15 years since I began my doctoral research. I set out to compare Russian rule in Central Asia with British rule in India in the 19th century, and I can still remember the response of a distinguished Russian Indologist at the Oriental Institute in Moscow when I hesitatingly outlined my ideas.
“There’s no comparison – India was a colony of Britain, Indians were considered racially inferior. Russians never treated Central Asians in the same way,” the scholar told me. She cited the distinguished 19th-century Russian scholar of Buddhism, Ivan Minaev, whose diaries reveal his horror at the way in which the British treated Indians. I wonder what Minaev would have made of Moscow today, where it is common to hear Central Asian migrant workers referred to as chernozhopye (blackasses).
In Britain and France, the other main European colonial powers of the 19th and 20th centuries, you will still find many public figures and a smaller number of professional historians who defend their country’s imperial record, glossing over atrocities such as the Amritsar Massacre, the suppression of Mau-Mau, or the Algerian War.
Even such defenders, however, would not deny the colonial nature of these empires, in the sense that they were made up of territories whose inhabitants had an inferior political status, subordinated to the metropole, and usually subject to cultural, racial and religious discrimination. Such apologists for European colonialism instead argue that these arrangements were for the benefit of their colonial subjects.
Only in the Russian case do you encounter an allergic reaction to the very word ‘colonial’ (kolonial’nyi), something increasingly enforced by the state. Russia’s conquest and rule in Asia are invisible in Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent article on the history of Russian foreign policy. In October 2016, Russia’s Security Council called for the creation of a special center that would produce approved versions of Russian history to combat ‘falsifications’ from the West and from former Soviet republics. Among the topics in need of defense against supposed falsifiers is ‘speculation on the colonial question.’
How to explain this? Prior to 1917 and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty, there was no such sensitivity. Russia was a member of the International Colonial Institute, based in Brussels, where the European empires swapped ideas on the best techniques for the control and development of their colonies. The last three decades of the Tsarist regime saw the acceleration of what was explicitly described as a ‘colonizing movement’ (kolonizatsionnoe dvizhenie) of Russian and Ukrainian peasants into Central Asia, where they were settled on land that had been taken away from the local inhabitants, particularly Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. This was overseen by a department of state, the Resettlement Administration, whose house journal was called Voprosy Kolonizatsii (Questions of Colonization).
Turkestan, the governor-generalship that covered the whole of modern Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and southern Kazakhstan, was often referred to as nasha koloniya (‘our colony’) by officials anxious to see its resources more fully exploited for the benefit of the empire. True, Russia was a land empire and did not create separate colonial states like the British and French, so it was much harder to determine where ‘Core Russia’ (korennaya Rossiya) ended and the ‘Asiatic’ or ‘colonial’ regions began, but there were nevertheless some clear markers of the separateness and inferiority of some of Russia’s territories and their inhabitants.
It is important to remember that Central Asia and the Caucasus were conquered violently, and not ‘peacefully assimilated,’ with the most notorious massacre coming at the capture of Gök-Tepe in 1881, where 14,000 Turkmen were killed. In addition, the Muslim inhabitants of Turkestan, the Steppe and the North Caucasus were inorodtsy, or ‘aliens,’ not subjects of the empire. They lived under military rule and military law, without access even to the limited rights that had been granted to European Russia with the Great Reforms of the 1860s, such as zemstva (provincial elected assemblies), independent courts or right to vote in the new State Duma after 1906.
Being outside the rudimentary structures of Russian citizenship had some advantages of course, notably exemption from military service. But it was still an indication of their inferior status. Nowhere was this inferior status more clearly demonstrated than on the land question, where in Central Asia the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz had less statutory right to the soil they farmed and pastured their animals on than incoming settlers from European Russia. These two factors – the lack of integration into the Empire and the expropriation of land for Russian settlement – are crucial to explaining the Central Asian Revolt of 1916, which was put down with a brutality that matched the repression of similar revolts in French and British colonies.
Before the revolution of 1917, there were Russian officials, soldiers and intellectuals who claimed that their empire offered a different model of imperialism to that of the British and French – more assimilationist, less racist. “We are not Englishmen, who in India strive to by no means mingle with the native races. … Our strength, by contrast, up until now has consisted in that we assimilated the defeated peoples, blending with them peacefully,” wrote the military geographer Mikhail Veniukov in 1877.
The immensely wealthy and deeply eccentric Prince Esper Ukhtomskii, tutor to Tsar Nicholas II, owner of several newspapers and ideologue of Russian expansion in the Far East, went even further, writing that “Russia, in reality, conquers nothing in the East, since all the alien races visibly absorbed by her are related to us in blood, in traditions, in thought; and we are only knitting together closer the bonds between us and that which in reality was always ours.”
This gives a clue to how these ideas of kinship were used, namely to justify Russian expansion and control. In any case, they were a minority view. Overt biological racism certainly was less common in Russia than in the British or French empires, but for most Russians the division between their own European culture and Christianity, and that of their Asiatic, Muslim subjects was no less real for that.
After 1917, the intellectual heirs of ‘Asianist’ thinkers like Ukhtomskii were émigré Eurasianists, led by Nikolai Trubetskoy and George Vernadsky, who developed an idea of Eurasia that was explicitly anti-colonial, although, as it insisted on the organic unity of the Empire’s territories, it still justified Russian dominance. ‘Eurasianism’ clearly continues to serve this purpose today in the thought of Alexander Dugin.
It was the Bolsheviks who espoused anti-colonialism most wholeheartedly, and we have to turn to the Soviet period to understand why most Russians are so resistant to the idea that their empire was colonial. While Tsarist rule over non-Russians was denounced as oppressive and exploitative colonialism – an ‘absolute evil’ – by the first generation of Soviet historians in the 1920s and 1930s, under Stalin it became obligatory to refer to it as a ‘lesser evil’ compared both to the ‘feudal’ regimes it had replaced, and to the alternative of British colonialism. Soviet historians were expected to emphasize the positive role played by the Russian ‘elder brother’ in raising the ‘backward peoples’ of the Empire (which included the Central Asians, Caucasians, and indigenous peoples of Siberia) to political consciousness and civilization.
While ‘colonialism’ never completely disappeared from the Soviet lexicon on Tsarist rule, it was much more commonly applied to the ‘bourgeois’ empires – above all the British and French – and always used pejoratively. In Soviet thinking, there could be no such thing as a positive form of imperialism or colonialism, and the use of the term by Western historians and politicians was taken (usually rightly) as a deliberate insult.
The Soviet regime was in many ways very different from its Tsarist predecessor. There was universal citizenship, and while the rights this gave may have been meaningless, they were equally meaningless for all, Russian and non-Russian. The USSR pursued policies of korenizatsiia, or indigenization, in its non-Russian regions, and helped to create new nations with their own territories, officially-approved histories and national identities. Not for nothing has one historian called it the ‘Affirmative Action Empire.’ Above all, it espoused hugely ambitious, if increasingly unrealistic, goals to develop and modernize society and individuals – to turn them into new Soviet people – in ways the Tsarist regime never contemplated.
Nevertheless, Russians were dominant in the USSR, and becoming ‘Soviet’ in essence meant learning Russian and adopting Russian cultural norms. Cultural, if not economic or political colonialism, was a fact of life, and strongly resented by many non-Russians. The ideal of the ‘Friendship of Peoples’ was a noble one, certainly more attractive than the ugly ethnic nationalism we see in Russia and some other former Soviet republics today, but it helped to disguise a much messier and more unequal reality.
Ironically, it is the mass migration of Central Asians to Russian cities since independence, on a far greater scale than anything seen when the USSR still existed, that has revealed the latent racism in parts of Russian society, just as similar migration from the Maghreb, the Caribbean and South Asia did in France and Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
So the Russian objection to ‘colonialism’ is partly because in Russian the word now has purely negative, pejorative associations: it has been almost a hundred years since it was seen as a normal or neutral way to describe Russian rule over non-Russians. It also has a geopolitical dimension – Russia’s attempts to reassert its control over its ‘near abroad’ and its development of mini client states in places like Abkhazia or Transnistria are undermined by allegations that the relationship is colonial, rather than fraternal.
The inequalities and hierarchies of power that we associate with ‘colonialism’ existed and continue to exist in Russia’s relations with the non-Russian peoples of its former empire, but they are consistently denied. This allows overt racism towards Central Asian and Caucasian migrants in Russia to thrive, despite the opposition and activism of a small, but brave and vocal group of Russians.
Kliuchevskii’s phrase about Russia as a land that ‘colonizes itself’ uses the reflexive form of the verb (kolonizuetsya), which implies that all this land is and always has been Russian, and that nobody else ever had any right to it – something akin to the American idea of ‘manifest destiny,’ which was also used to justify aggressive settler colonialism. It is worth reflecting that Russia’s colonial exceptionalism is not unique – the Chinese also deny the colonial nature of their rule in Tibet and Xinjiang, and most Americans also prefer to think of themselves as rebels against the colonialism of the British empire, ignoring American rule in the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
The difference is that in the USA, and in other western democracies, those who deny or defend colonialism are constantly and robustly challenged. In Russia, the deniers have the power of the state behind them, and the challengers are a small and embattled minority.