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Why don’t many on the left see Russia as a colonial power?

Russia carefully cultivates its inherited association with the ‘anti-colonial’ Soviet Union in its international relations

This week I had the opportunity to ask President Michael D Higgins a question I had been wanting to put to him for a long time: “In relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, do you see Russia as a colonial power?”

I wanted to ask because Higgins has forceful and considered views about the legacy of European colonialism in Africa but has not to my knowledge articulated a view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an imperial venture.

That is certainly how Ukrainians themselves see the invasion.

“For 300 years, since middle-17th century, Ukraine was like a colony for Russia,” Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said last year as he explained the conflict to a group of African journalists. “They were suppressing our identity, our language. They insisted on the supremacy of Russian language, Russian culture...Russian civilisational supremacy. The official Russian narrative was even that Ukrainians are not able to govern themselves.”


Ukrainian writers have made great efforts since the invasion to explain why they view it in colonial terms, summed up in a book by Maksym Eristavi entitled Russian Colonialism 101.

In the past academia tended to exclude land empires from colonial studies and to accept the self-presentation of the Soviet Union as an anti-colonial force even as it suppressed national movements within its borders. As the historian Botakoz Kassymbekova wrote earlier this year: “Western academia too often overlooked the fact that Stalin was obsessed with maintaining Russian imperial borders and had adopted the same toolkit – ethnic cleansing, crushing dissent, destroying national movements, privileging Russian ethnicity and culture – that tsarist Russia used to maintain them.”

The long legacy of this arguably blinded western Europe for a long time towards the expansionist ambitions of Russia under president Vladimir Putin. It meant that when Russia invaded Ukraine some people on the left who would otherwise consider themselves anti-imperialists expressed sympathy with the Russian viewpoint, deeming it to be reacting to encroachment by western powers. In their view it was Ukrainian resistance that was the “Western imperial” force.

Russia carefully cultivates its inherited association with the “anti-colonial” Soviet Union in its international relations, particularly in the developing world.

Before his death in August the mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin promoted his Wagner paramilitary group as helping African nations throw off their old colonial masters. “They have got rid of the colonisers,” Prigozhin said in a Telegram message in which he offered Wagner’s services following a coup in Niger this summer.

“What happened in Niger is nothing other than the struggle of the people of Niger with their colonisers. With colonisers who are trying to foist their rules of life on them and their conditions and keep them in the state that Africa was in hundreds of years ago.”

The irony was that Wagner’s offer of militarily propping up African rulers came in exchange for logging rights, mining permits and permission to extract oil and gas, repeating the playbook of the old imperial resource-extraction model of the past.

Some of Higgins’s previously-expressed views on international relations led me to suspect that he might not include Ukraine within his conception of the colonised world. When I put my query to him, he began by replying “I don’t want to avoid any question”.

He continued by saying that “inherited imperialist tendencies and colonising tendencies” had “impeded” the ability of many European countries “to construct new positive partnerships with parts of Africa”.

“There is no doubt whatsoever that...the breaking up of the Soviet Union is there as an influence on the thinking of the Russian president,” he went on.

Passion then came into the President’s voice as he began to denounce the “hubris” of the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when capitalism was assumed to have become a “single hegemonic force”.

“It was announced that everything was now changed, and that we had a new single system, and a single civilisation, and that it was driven by the marketplace. And therefore it was only a matter of time into which every form of alternative collapsed,” he said.

The “quality of diplomacy” deteriorated, he continued, harming co-operation in everything from arms reduction, nuclear disposal, to the protection of the oceans. If we had more time to discuss it, he concluded, we should speak about how young people need to hear there can be a peaceful future, and that “war is not the natural condition of the species”.

I was left with the impression that my question had not been answered. Though perhaps, indirectly, it had.