Changing socio-political landscapes surrounding Russia’s war on Ukraine

On 6 June 2022, activists and researchers working in and from the former Soviet sphere met at UCL Anthropology to discuss ways in which Russia’s war on Ukraine is impacting everyday lives, politics, and relationships.

Inspired by an article written at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, three members of UCL Anthropology gathered a diverse group of people to a closed roundtable in June 2022. In an atmosphere of heightened sensitivity, while speaking a language which was not their own, researchers and activists from across the former-Soviet world shared intimate experiences and reflections from places surrounding and inside Russia. Below is a summary of our exchange in which some of the more stark distinctions between us / them and good / bad gave way to more nuanced understandings. Due to the sensitive nature of this discussion, participants have been anonymised.

Part 1. What responses are you seeing on the ground to ongoing events? And what observations have you made of these responses? 

AO opened the discussion by commenting: ‘In the media we often hear about ‘Russian’ soldiers in Ukraine, but the Russian army is made up of a very diverse group of people, many of whom are minorities in Russia, or from outside Russia seeking Russian citizenship.’ MT explained, when the first ‘heroes of the war’ were recognised, Putin made a speech while awarding a medal to the relatives of a deceased Dagestani soldier, Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov. He commented that such acts of heroism made him feel that he, Putin, was Lak, Dageßstani, Chechen, Ingush, Russian, Tatar, Jewish, Mordva, and Ossetian. Standing for all ethnicities was unnerving because these relations are not equal and people are often co-opted for various reasons into the military.

This Presidential address, RA responded, was a public recognition of the Dagestani soldiers’ patriotism. It also resonated with an image of Putin as the saviour of Russia and Dagestan – an image embraced by Dagestani politicians and intellectuals. However, others responded with sharp criticism as they saw Putin’s address as yet another attempt to win the loyalty of the public and recruit more soldiers, distracting attention from the losses and socio-economic problems of Dagestan that is leading in the number of casualties. 

In Buryatia, those in power similarly vigorously support the war, but news of local soldier casualties concerns people, AZ explained, making them feel scared and powerless. The Free Buryatia Foundation has drawn together Buryats from all over the world, providing information and support for Russian Buryat soldiers and pushing for new forms of federalised governance so that ethnic regions can have more agency in shaping their own policies. Similarly, in Dagestan there is only outward support for the war and the Russian state, RA reflected. However, foreign data shows that there are many opponents. Many people from Dagestan’s rural and small towns have chosen a military career, not because of patriotism or militaristic sentiments, but because it offers a form of social mobility. This doesn’t mean they support the war. In fact, many Dagestani soldiers in hospitals in St Petersburg actively refuse to be photographed by Russian media to avoid being identified. 

In Mongolia, we heard from SJ, that the conflict has led to discussions about Russia’s place in the world and who supports Russia or the West, polarising opinions. The Mongolian government has also begun to feel direct pressure from Russia. For example, it was pressured to accept the Siberian pipeline, something that has been dragging on for the past 5 years, but that suddenly came to fruition the exact day after the German-Russian pipeline was cancelled. 

ER reflected that partnerships within and outside the country between different feminist organisations fell apart at the start of the war. Propaganda is extremely aggressive inside Russia, to the extent that they have totally taken over the public space and any ‘fake news’ about the war or Russian army that differs from what the Russian government states can lead to up to 15 years in prison. The war is bringing poverty and violence against women and further militarizing Russian society. 

We also welcomed VA’s perspective from Ukraine and Ukrainian’s abroad. He shared research on experiences of migration during the war, which highlighted class, gender and ethnicity, something he referred to as the ‘increasing securitization’ of migrants. Many experienced forms of discrimination crossing borders to the EU, including non-Ukrainians studying or living in Ukraine who held Ukrainian residency but not passports. Many male or non-white migrants were discriminated for being considered a security threat in migration experiences, whereas positive securitization of migration is experienced by Ukrainian migrants, mostly women, who are perceived as a security asset rather than a liability, while Ukrainian men are framed as responsible for the production of security within Ukraine. Other gendered dimensions of the war in Ukraine include men unable to leave, including those legally classed as men but identifying as women, and those who want to fight on the front lines but who are not legally classed as men. 

We ended this first part with a reflection on how moments of raw violence dominate the discussion, but that such accounts must also be countered with the ways in which people are living and surviving, in spite of war.  

Part 2. ‘How are you and those around you coping and talking (or not) about the ongoing situation? How have you found ideas being policed around you?

The war in Ukraine was a big blow for Kazakhstan, DK explained, especially after the events of January this year which were highly traumatic for the country. We were worried that we would be next. There have been many Russian migrants into Kazakhstan’s big cities, such as Almaty. We discussed, more generally, how blame is being assigned to people from different ethnic, economic or class divisions. AZ commented that at the beginning of the war, Artem Sheinin, a leading Russian TV personality, addressed Buryats in the Buryat language, saying ‘Buryat Brothers get to work!’. It was then, AZ explained, that we (the Buryat’s in Russia) realised that we would become the face of this war, as was the case in 2014. There is a stereotype that more Buryat men are involved in the army than other ethnicities, however that is not true; there are no ‘Buryat troops’ as such. According to our analysts, Buryats compose only around 5% of the Eastern military region, and even when talking about Buryat soldiers, people omit that the majority of them are actually ethnic Russians or even ethnic Ukrainians who live in Buryatia. In the media they are often presented simply as ‘Buryats’, conflating important regional and ethic distinctions. Being a very small community, the Free Buryatiya Foundation checks reports and accusations of war crimes associated with Buryats. Mostly we find that such accusations are in fact fake, with many of the accused not even enrolled in the army. AZ explained, sadly,‘Everyone is so keen to listen to stories of Asiatic hordes and ugly Buryats raping people, but no one really listens to our side of the story.’ 

Indeed, VA concurred that Buryat soldiers are one of the main propaganda images of the Ukrainian war. But while descriptions of guilt point to Chechens or Buryats as the most violent and barbaric, this is only really reflected in Ukrainian nationalist discourse. It is important to note that there are Chechens in the Ukrainian army, and there are Georgians, Belarusians and other ethnic groups that form their own detachments, stressing their ethnic belonging. This complicates the picture immensely. Ukrainian state discourse has acknowledged this complexity: for example, in his speeches to Russian audiences, Ukraine’s president stresses that they believe that not all Russians are supportive of the war, that they are also being exploited.

Part 3. Has decolonial language prompted you or people around you to articulate your language / ethnic identity in a novel manner? How is decolonial language being used productively or unproductively? 

The Russian state, ER explained, often appropriates the idea of ‘decolonisation’ as an alternative to Western hegemony. ‘In the Soviet Union there was a Soviet project of decolonisation, seen as an alternative to Western imperialism […] this is quite powerful today, even some leftist and feminist organisations have thought that Putin is an alternative to Western hegemony.’ Here, the terms used are the same, but they refer to very different ideas and histories. Yes, it’s important to note, MT said, that the war in Ukraine began with the proposition of ‘decommunization’. To decommunize Ukraine is to destroy it, physically disassembling the ‘affirmative action empire’ (Martin 2001). Russian propaganda reverses decolonial logics in a way that presents the war as a decolonising project, aspiring to ‘liberate’ Ukraine from Western (‘Nazi’) influence. In an uncanny manner ‘decommunization’, ‘decolonisation’, and ‘denazification’ coalesce here.

This is a good way to think about Putin’s article on the history of Ukraine, published last summer, VA recounted. Here Putin criticised Lenin’s policy on nationality, and claimed that the only drawback of Stalin’s policies was that he failed to dismantle the ‘affirmative action empire’ in the legal constitution. In Putin’s view the war is a return to the Russian empire, and its nationality policies, where Ukrainians are part of the core imperial nation. Therefore, the idea of post-colonialism is slightly fuzzy; it risks subsuming all the different forms in which Ukraine has historically been a victim, a partner, and a subject in its relations to Russia. Ukraine’s current nation building project exploits this fuzziness by presenting Ukraine’s history as that of victim. This excludes a chunk of Ukraine’s civic nation building past, a process that incorporated some parts of Soviet history that are so loathed by Putin. By giving an ethnic base to postcolonial critique, we render everything Russian or Soviet as the remnant of colonial rule that needs rejecting. But because Ukraine has gone through a nation building process for over a century now, postcolonial critique is an ambiguous thing to address in the context of this war.

As an aside, formal definitions of colonialism, RE commented, shouldn’t prevent people from mobilising the theoretical toolkit of colonialism. Indeed, not fitting a mould properly means you’re sometimes shamed into feeling you are not qualified to mobilise it as a political discourse. DK affirmed that she does believe this is a colonial war. She expanded that while debates in the early 2000s centred around whether the post-Soviet is post-colonial, with the idea that the USSR didn’t fit into conventional colonialism because it promoted the development of the peripheries. However, we shouldn’t follow Western categories and definitions. ‘The West has created such a strong episteme of itself as being at the centre of colonialism and this is in itself a coloniality of knowledge.’ The long postcolonial moment of the former Soviet world is complex and multiple, and experienced differently in different places. We do need to think about how nationalism tries to occupy the language and discourse of colonialism for its own purposes. Some, like Madina Tlostanova, call the Soviet Union a ‘colonising entity’, especially towards its so-called peripheries in Central Asia. For example, Eduard Limonov’s prison diaries from the early 2000s, and his 2015 book Kiev Kaput, written when Maidan was unravelling and Crimea was annexed, both repeat the discourse that Ukraine is not really a nation, rather it was gifted its territory by Russia, as was northern Kazakhstan. ‘This discourse never deconstructs the role of Russia, because if these are invented nations created by Russia, then Lenin must also have created Russia out of the collapsing Russian empire. This is where coloniality is hidden, DK reflected; they don’t know how to reinvent Russia, and perhaps that’s why they need this colonial war to shape themselves,’. The war on Ukraine is not the first war that Russia started. Parallels can be drawn to the wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and Transnistria: here similar dehumanising discourses were produced. The whole post-1991 history of Russia is a history of trying to reinvent a colonial state, of trying to reinvent its own metropole by engaging in all these conflicts and wars. ‘Rather than adopt postcolonial language that already exists’ DK concluded ‘we need to deconstruct and recognise Russia’s history, acknowledging that right now it is in conflict with its own history.’

ER agreed; Russian propaganda constantly uses the past, unable to reinvent itself for today and the future. This endless reinvention takes over others’ pasts too. For ethnic minorities in Russia, for instance, it is very important not to make the same mistake of concentrating only on their past, no matter how traumatic, unjust, and extended it has been. ER’s Jewish family was forced to live in the Pale of Settlement under Tsarist rule, restricting their movement, and later subject to Soviet antisemitism. ‘Although traumatic, if we only base our identity on these past traumas’, she explained, ‘it will be fragile and easy to manipulate, forcing us to fight one another once again.’ We need to talk about how we see our future and what alternative modernities we want.

Western-centric definitions and categories of colonialism can be limiting, even discriminatory, AO acknowledged; they isolate people who have experienced a diverse range of colonial and post-colonial processes. The accounts shared in this discussion highlight experiences of being entangled to and through the Russian language, at the same time as increasingly moving away from Russia(n), in some contexts. In the Caucasus, RA explained, there is an intensive process of decolonial language activism at the moment. Many young Caucasian intellectuals use minority languages. Russian language use has become less and less the property of the Russian state. It is important to add that Putin and Moscow perceive decolonisation and regionalism as ‘separatism’, or the potential for separatism. Similarly, AZ commented that a few years ago the term postcolonial was rarely spoken by Buryat scholars who were afraid that if they used it they’d be blamed for ‘separatism’. More recently, they have become part of everyday discussions and regular people in Buryatia are watching global movements like Black Lives Matter or Native American activism, finding resonance with their own positions. At the same time, the routes through which information is communicated to Russian peripheries are heavily centralised. Everything passes through Moscow, and consequently is filtered there before it reaches other parts of Russia, so minority groups are disconnected from and know little of one another – a damaging form of isolation. 

Discourse around colonialism and decolonisation in the so-called ‘Soviet peripheries’ looks quite unlike what we see in Western academia, SJ explained, and it varies greatly across the expanded region. Mongolia wasn’t part of the Soviet Union, but it was nevertheless caught up in its colonial project. Buryatia’s connection to Moscow and isolation from other regions is relevant to Mongolia as well. In socialist times, people’s movements were controlled. They could be connected to Ulaanbaatar and from Ulaanbaatar to Moscow but not to provinces just 2 km away. Decolonisation is such a difficult topic to breach in Mongolia: where do we start? Geopolitically we are not part of other regions in Asia and, since the 1990s, the country’s development was commandeered to an extent by donors, such as the UN. We were and are still coming to terms with our new identity in this geo-political and economic space where we are still dependent on Russia and China. 

VA elaborated that what worries him about the war in Ukraine is the disjuncture between the image projected by Russian propaganda, and the way in which the war is actually unfolding, the tension between imperialist ideology and colonial practice. Their idealised image of imperial Russia regaining its greatness and liberating people, which they believe Ukrainians aren’t opposed to, is in stark contrast to what’s happening on the ground. Reports show that Russian soldiers repeatedly face the reality of people who don’t understand why they are there. This sharp contrast between the Ideal and Reality leads to genocidal incentives and narratives. When these soldiers see people who are supposed to be Russians, but are not, they feel they need to ‘purify’ this space otherwise it can’t be included in Russia. This is an imperial war machine that implements extreme genocidal measures to ‘purify’ or create the space to fit their template. On the difference between an idealised template and complex reality, RE concluded that propaganda is the manipulation of language to shape reality, and when it doesn’t fit with its ideal, when the propaganda machine isn’t creating the reality that it purports, there is potential for violence. Today’s discussion illuminated different examples of the way in which such disjuncture and violence are felt and experienced in different ways.

Title image: Moscow’s Sakharovo migration centre will be the focus of the recruitment drive, according to Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Image courtesy Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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