Bad Russian History: A Rant

The imperial flag of the Romanov dynasty of Russia

1.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many pro-Ukrainian activists have framed the war in terms of colonialism/post-colonialism. Russia, they argue, must be understood as an historical empire that is, in the details, different from (say) the British Empire but that, in general, operates according to the same basic principles of European empires…especially European land empires such as Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a colonial invasion, they argue. Consequently, the Ukrainian struggle must be understood as an anti-colonial struggle.

Russian partisans are very aware that this argument is spreading in the West. Consequently, pro-Russian trolls have asserted that all Europe is the product of empire, and that it’s time to decolonize the continent. You might have seen the following map bouncing around the Internet. Initially I saw a version in Russian. The version below has been translated into English:

The map resembles those maps you see of North America divided among that continent’s indigenous peoples. Such maps are usually fictions; the indigenous peoples of North America did not divide themselves into “nations” before Columbus arrived, in part because the whole conception of “nation” and strict “national boundaries” is a largely Eurasian concept. The above map is equally problematic…especially when you consider that it recognizes supposedly pre-colonial entities such as Galicia, Franconia, Burgundy and Aquitaine but ignores many national, political, cultural, and linguistic groups. Where, for instance, are my own family’s ancestors, the Alsatians? More to the point: many national, cultural, political, cultural, and linguistic groups within the former Russian Empire are entirely absent, most notably the Belarussians and the Ukrainians. As others have pointed out, it’s striking that the largest territories on the map go to Russia and its longtime ally, Serbia.

The map is pure propaganda; it makes no attempt to be anything but propaganda. It’s a joke at the expense of anyone who argues that Ukraine is a “post-colonial” entity on the same level as, say, Nigeria or Myanmar.

Liberal advocates of the colonial framework for the war in Ukraine would argue that it’s absurd to imagine onetime British colonies as the only post-colonial entities. Western Leftists, meanwhile, balk at the idea of including white people (such as Ukrainians) into the post-colonial discourse. After years of thinking about anti-colonial struggle solely in terms of the Black and indigenous people of color, anti-imperial Leftists seem less than willing to discuss the Russian invasion in colonial terms…especially when the alleged colonized nation, Ukraine, is receiving military support from the most powerful empire on the planet, the United States. You can see this tension play out in a recent Democracy Now! interview with the Yale historian of Ukraine, Timothy Snyder. The Leftists at Democracy Now! don’t view Ukrainians as colonial subjects; Snyder does.

I am sympathetic with any Leftist who is reluctant to conflate British-U.S. colonialism with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The very word “colonialism” evokes images of naval empire and the oppression of people who are framed in terms of their skin color (whether black, brown, yellow, or red…i.e., anything but white). On the other hand, I am adamantly unsympathetic with anyone who denies that Russia has an imperial history with its neighbors. We witness such denial all over the Internet today.

2.

I’ve seen the following post circulating on Russian propaganda and/or American ultra-left-wing, anti-imperialist channels I follow on social media. Although the post appears without attribution, it is allegedly the work of a Finnish blogger. The post is long but I encourage you to read it.

A Finnish blogger shocked social networks when he published this article:

You ask about the results of Russia’s “aggression”? These are the following: half of Europe and parts of Asia received statehood from this particular state.

Let’s remember exactly who:

– Finland in 1802 and 1918 (until 1802 it never had its own state).

– Latvia in 1918 (until 1918 it never had its own state).

– Estonia in 1918 (until 1918 it never had its own state).

– In 1918, Lithuania restored its statehood thanks to Russia.

– Poland restored its state twice, in 1918 and 1944. with the help of Russia. The division of Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany was only for a short period of time!

– Romania was born as a result of the Russian-Turkish wars and became sovereign by the will of Russia in 1877-1878.

Moldova as a state was born within the Soviet Union.

Bulgaria was liberated from the oppression of the Ottoman Empire as a result of the victory of the Russian arms gained in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878 and regained its independence, which was the goal of this. Thankfully, the state of Bulgaria participated in two world wars as a part of the anti-Russia coalitions. Bulgaria is currently a member of NATO and there are American bases on its territory. After 1945, no Russian soldier was present on their territory…

– Serbia, as a sovereign state, was born as a result of this war.

– At first, Azerbaijan was formed as a state only as a part of the Soviet Union.

– Armenia physically survived only as a part of the Soviet Union and as a revived state.

– Georgia has physically remained and revived as a state thanks to the Russian Empire

– Turkmenistan never had a statehood and formed it only as a part of the Soviet Union.

– Kyrgyzstan never had a statehood and it was formed only as a part of the Soviet Union.

– Kazakhstan never had a statehood and it only formed it as a part of the Soviet Union.

– Mongolia never had a statehood and formed it only with the help of the Soviet Union.

Belarus and Ukraine first received statehood as a part of the Soviet Union republics as a result of the Great October Revolution. And only in 1991 (also from Russia) did they get their full independence.

It is also worth considering the role of Russia-Soviet Union in the birth and development of states such as China, Vietnam, North Korea, India, Greece (Russia seized it from the Turks in 1821), Algeria, Cuba, Israel, Angola, Mozambique Etc.

This is such a weird “aggression” historically on the part of the Russians!

With the significant contribution of this country, even Switzerland became independent from France. Also, this is due to Suvorov (217 years ago), and Switzerland has never fought ever since.

It has also happened:

– Liberation of Austria from the Third Empire in 1945;

– Liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Third Empire in 1945;

– II. Catherine’s position in 1780 with the establishment of the League of Armed Neutrality and the actual support of the United States of North America in their struggle for independence from Great Britain.

– twice in the last 2 centuries Russia has provided independence to most European states after the annihilation of Hitler and Napoleon;

– Stalin’s position on the negotiations with the United States and England, which gave Germany the opportunity to retain statehood after the defeat in 1945;

-Gorbacsov’s position which allowed the reunification of both Germany in 1990 without unnecessary issues; -Soviet Union’s support to Egypt, followed by 1956-1957-1967-74. -The key role of the Union secured in 1975 the achievement of the independence of Angola.

And lastly, the most important. The Soviet Union was the one that played a key role in the majority of Western European colonies gaining their independence in the global decolonization process initiated by the Union.

The whole history of Russia shows that, under every government and regime, it has consistently adhered to the principles of independence and self-determination of nations and peoples. He was the one who helped in every possible way to create a multi-polar world for every era and every time.

Unfortunately, he sacrificed his own interests very often at the same time, and if the policy of the mother Russia was at least a fraction similar to that of the British, then half the world would now be part of the Russian Imperial Community. And the Russian people, like the sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, would bathe in luxury, at the expense of the states, countries and capitals liberated from other colonizers.

That’s why half the world owes Russia their life.

And this is why you are so guilty to this great country! Sending this file to create a memory chain. In memory of 20 million Soviet citizens, 10 million Christians, 1900 priests, who were killed, tortured, raped, burned, starved and exterminated by Nazis It is now more important than ever to do everything so that the world will never forget, always remember the contribution of the Soviet people to liberating Europe from fascism.

As you probably know, I sympathize with anyone—Russian nationalists or scholars of Russian history—who complain about chauvinistic American interpretations of Russian history (e.g., “Russian is an inherently aggressive state,” “the Russian national character is servile,” or “Russians intrinsically prefer autocrats and oppression,” etc.). Such “history” is full of lies about Russia.

But the pro-Russian version of history in the above post is…comically bad. It’s difficult to imagine any “Finnish blogger” writing this, unless they were ethnically Russian, paid by the Russian government, or otherwise a Russian partisan. To read this post, you’d think Russia has spent most of its history conquering other nations and expanding its borders in order to benevolently grant nationhood to the peoples it conquered. Unlike Spanish, French, British, or American imperialism, Russian imperialism exists to liberate nations. In fact, Russian imperialism doesn’t really exist at all!

This version of events is patently absurd.

What follows is my response to the above post. My version of events and my interpretation of history are influenced by many historians, most of them (I admit) American, especially Timothy Snyder (see the Democracy Now! interview linked above) and Stephen Kotkin. I am especially influenced by Snyder’s distinction between “state,” “nation,” and “empire.” The author of the post is very sly about the distinction between “state” and “nation.” Where “Russia” is concerned, the author makes no distinction between the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation (all separate states) and Russia (a nation). But where Finland, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, etc., etc., etc. are concerned, the author deals exclusively with modern states. This is intentionally deceptive.

3.

Let’s take the Finnish blogger’s post point-by-point, starting with Finland and the Baltic states:

Finland did not receive “statehood” from Russia; it fought hard to achieve its modern statehood. The Finnish government received quasi-independence from Russia in the early 19th century after being annexed from the Swedish Empire, although it remained part of the Russian Empire. The Finnish people had lived for centuries between Swedish and Russian power. Finnish national identity emerged in the mid-19th century along with dozens of other anti-imperial/anti-colonial nationalist movements in Europe; these movements were partly a response to Napoleonic policy and a consequence of the collapse of the Napoleonic empire. Finland did not achieve full statehood until the Russian empire collapsed during World War I. It fought for its own independence and was granted statehood during a period of historical weakness in Russia: Lenin granted statehood to Finland (and many other nations on this list) because the Bolsheviks were busy consolidating power within Russia. This was not an act of generosity on Russia’s part.

The same is true of the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania). Lenin’s policy of recognizing national identities and granting statehood to nations of the former Russian Empire was not an act of socialist benevolence. It was a Bolshevik political strategy to consolidate power within Russia before and during the Russian Civil War, when Bolshevik power was still tenuous. Lenin needed to avoid sparking nationalist wars while fighting the White Army, and so his government recognized the independence of many nations. The Soviet Union reconquered or reincorporated these nations as soon as it was feasible.

The reincorporation of these nations mostly occurred under Stalin. Anti-Stalin socialists, influenced by Trotsky, often try to distinguish between Lenin allegedly benevolent policies and Stalin’s aggressive policies. But the two were not that different, and more continuity existed between Lenin and Stalin than is popularly acknowledged. Lenin and Stalin more or less agreed about the relationships between nationalism, independent nation-states, and the spread of global communism. Necessity forced Lenin to recognize nation-states within the former Russian Empire, but his policy of national recognition wasn’t grounded in his ideals so much as in political expediency. The Bolshevik/Soviet government ceased to recognize those nation-states as soon as possible.

This is essentially what happened in Ukraine, which briefly achieved independence after the 1917 revolution. When Putin asserts that Ukraine was an invention of Lenin, he is operating under the logic of a “benevolent Lenin.” This has been the anti-Stalin, pro-Lenin/Trotsky line: Lenin created nation-states and Stalin destroyed them. This is a bad interpretation of history.

On Romania:

Romanian is an ancient language. As a national identity, “Romania” dates back to at least the 16th century, with roots in the nation called Wallachia. The terms “Romanian” and “Wallachian” are arguably identical. Russia did not independently decide to create Romania after Russia’s war with the Ottomans. Romanian sovereignty was designed and recognized by all the major empires of Europe in the Treaty of Berlin; Russia’s acknowledgement of Romania was a compromise in exchange for the region of Bessarabia (between Romania and Ukraine), which became part of the Russian Empire.

On Bulgaria:

Bulgaria is an ancient nation. Bulgaria was actually an empire for a long time before the Ottomans invaded. After the Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria gained its independence, not merely as a result of Russia but also of Germany and Great Britain. The idea that Russia is somehow exclusively responsible for modern Bulgarian statehood is absurd. It is arguable that Russia recognized independent Bulgaria in the 1870s because the Russian government assumed that Bulgaria would be a Russian ally in southeastern Europe. The opposite proved to be true, as Bulgaria fell under German influence; one could argue that Germany did more to maintain Bulgarian independence than Russia did throughout most of its pre-Communist history.

On Serbia:

Like Bulgaria, Serbia is an ancient nation. The idea that Serbia owes its existence to Russia is pretty insulting. Russia has certainly supported the Serbian state throughout Serbia’s history…but that’s because Serbian national interests frequently coincide with Russian imperial interests. Russia recognized Serbian sovereignty and helped protect Serbian independence at many times. Serbia is probably the one country that Russia has gone very far out of its way to defend. Russia and Serbia certainly have a “special relationship” (just as the U.S. has a special relationship with a few smaller countries like Israel and Ireland). But Russia did not create Serbia.

On Moldova:

Moldova has existed as a political entity since the Middle Ages; it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and then ceded to the Russian Empire after the Russo-Turkish War against the will of Moldovan elites. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Moldova was controlled by the Ottomans Empire, Russian Empire, Romania, and the Soviet Union. These states maintained a policy of colonization within Moldova and actively suppressed Moldovan national identity. Along with so many other nations, Moldova had sought national sovereignty in the revolutions of 1848. This completely undermines the idea that Moldova is an artifact of the USSR.

On all nations liberated from the Ottomans by Russia:

Russia did liberate many nations from the Ottomans and did recognize many, many independent states after its victory in the Russo-Turkish war. Russia also annexed many nations after the war. In either case, it’s not as if Russia benevolently swept in and created nations that weren’t previously recognized. Many of these nations had enjoyed sovereignty prior to the Ottoman invasion of Europe, and many of these nations were recognized as nations (if not as independent states) by the Ottomans themselves. A few of these nations were allowed to maintained a degree of political independence at different times within the Ottoman Empire, just as Finland and other nations were allowed a degree of political independence under the Russian and Soviet empires (just as various republics are allowed a degree of political independence in the Russian Federation). By granting statehood to certain nations, Russia was not behaving generously or benevolently; Russia was merely recognizing the political facts on the ground. Wherever and whenever it could, Russia suppressed the political independence of the nations it controlled (just as the French, British, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and Americans did).

On the Caucuses and central Asia:

The idea that Russia created or granted statehood to Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia (Mongolia!) is pretty crazy. These are ancient nationalities, some of whom enjoyed independent statehood (and sometimes maintained empires of their own!) before Russia existed. This is the reason why the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union granted these nations different degrees of political autonomy within the empire/union. It would have been impossible to fully incorporate these nations into a Russian national identity because they operated so independently as separate nations. Similarly, when the Russian Federation recognized regions such as Chechnya and Tatarstan as republics, they were responding to the political realities on the ground. Russia really had no choice except to recognize these republics. They had earned their own political identity.

The idea that Mongolia “never had a statehood” is…I mean…uh…I simply…look, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the predecessor of the Russian Empire, would not have achieved power at all if not for its status as a vassal of the Mongolian Empire. Arguing that Russia created Mongolia is like arguing that Mongolia created Russia. Neither assertion is true.

On Poland:

The idea that the Russian Communists willingly granted Poland statehood in 1918 and again in 1944 is an historical distortion so extreme, I will not even comment on it. If you believe this, you prefer lies over truth.

Russia’s relationship with Poland (along with Austria and Germany’s relationship with Poland) has been a colonizer-colony relationship since the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century. This is an historical fact. Period.

On nations liberated from the Third Reich:

With a few exceptions (e.g., Austria), every nation the USSR liberated became a vassal state of the USSR. The peoples who Stalin liberated were probably thankful for their liberation from the Nazis…but as soon as they could, they tried to liberate themselves from Soviet influence, too (Yugoslavia did so immediately; Hungary tried in 1956; Czechoslovakia tried in 1968; and everyone did in 1989-1991). So to argue that Russia was a purely liberatory force during WWII is pretty much a lie.

Given the Russian roots of modern anti-Semitism (re: Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the creation of the Pale of Settlement during the Russian Empire), I would be very careful about arguing that Russia was a wholly anti-fascist force in Europe.

On the long list of states (the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Vietnam, India, Greece, Algeria, Cuba, Mozambique, Israel, Angola) that Russia had a hand in creating:

The author of this post is, again, really confused about the terms “nation,” “state,” and “nation-state.” In doing so, he strictly maintains distinctions between nations (which, he fails to mention, Russia had no hand in creating) and states (which, admittedly, the Russian Empire and the USSR did help create). But he refuses to distinguish between Russia as a nation and as a state.

So let’s be clear: “Russia” did not create or help create those Cold War-era states. The Soviet Union did. In most cases, the Soviet Union was responding to political facts on the ground (self-liberation movements) or concocting cynical geopolitical strategies (e.g., Stalin’s recognition of Greece).

And let’s not forget that the USSR was a union of republics. To argue that every action of the USSR was an action of “Russia” is untrue. You could as easily argue that Ukraine (a major part of the USSR) created all those states.

Yes, the USSR did help liberate many nations from Western colonialism…but the West helped liberate many nations from Russian colonialism. So…yeah.

The idea that Switzerland exists because of Russia is…look, I’m an American of Swiss ancestry, I’m a Russophile, and I’m an Orthodox Christian. I love Russian people, Russian culture, Russian literature, Russian art, Russian history, Russian religion, and the Russian language. I even love Russian food. If I could argue that I had Russian roots because of my Swiss ancestry, I would. But I can’t. Because Switzerland would absolutely have existed without Russia.

On Ukraine:

Ukrainian national identity has existed for centuries. Ukrainian national identity is arguably older than Russian national identity; it is certainly older than Russian statehood. The Ukrainian people have ties to Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Romania. All of those states have a claim to the Ukrainian state, and their histories are interwoven with Ukrainian history. The idea that Ukraine is simply one part of Russia is untrue.

It’s very difficult for Americans to understand the relationships between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, because those three nations have cultural, linguistic, and religious ties that we don’t share with any other nation, even Great Britain. So I’m not denying the incredible closeness between Russia and Ukraine. But the idea that Ukraine doesn’t exist apart from Russia is untrue.

4.

The author writes:

“The whole history of Russia shows that, under every government and regime, it has consistently adhered to the principles of independence and self-determination of nations and peoples.”

This is not simply a lie; it is a falsehood so large that it’s downright comical.

“[Russia] was the one who helped in every possible way to create a multi-polar world for every era and every time.”

Well, not every era (did Russia resist ancient Assyrian hegemony?). It’s true that Russia has frequently fought to create a multi-polar world…but this is largely because Russia was never in the position to be a global hegemon like Britain or the U.S. I see no evidence that Russia would turn down global hegemony if it was offered to Russia. The USSR certainly tried to achieve global hegemony—that was the whole point of Communism!

“Unfortunately, [Russia] sacrificed his own interests very often at the same time…”

I’d challenge the blogger to name one instance in which a Russian government sacrificed its own geopolitical interests in the name of a national independence movement.

“…and if the policy of the mother Russia was at least a fraction similar to that of the British, then half the world would now be part of the Russian Imperial Community. And the Russian people, like the sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, would bathe in luxury, at the expense of the states, countries and capitals liberated from other colonizers.”

The reason half the world is not now part of the Russian imperial community is because the British-American imperialists actively fought and defeated Russian imperial ambitions. Russian states engaged in a centuries-long imperial conflict with Britain and its successor, America. The Anglosphere more-or-less won. The reason half the world isn’t in Russia’s orbit is the same reason that half the world isn’t in France’s or Germany’s orbit. The British-Americans used their naval and economic superiority to build their own global empire and prevented Russia from doing the same.

Since Ivan the Terrible, Russian national identity has been intertwined with Russian imperial identity. Does that make Russia uniquely bad? No. Austrian, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, French, British, German, and American national identities are also intertwined with their imperial identities. So let’s not be unreasonably tough on Russia when so many nations are also guilty of imperialism. But let’s not treat Russian imperialism as a liberatory project.

“That’s why half the world owes Russia their life.”

Nope. The vast majority of nations that achieved statehood in the 19th and 20th centuries did so by fighting for their own independence. In the process, they allowed themselves to be used as pawns by empires like Britain, France, Germany, the U.S., and (yes) Russia. These smaller countries used the imperial ambitions and political interests of those larger countries to achieve their own sovereignty. I would actually argue that they used the great empires as their pawns in the fight for national independence. The empires don’t deserve credit.

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