top of page

The Use and Misuse of Post(-)colonialism in Mirroring the Former Soviet Union and its ‘old periphery

After 1991 Russia’s various efforts to regain and preserve its influence over the former Soviet space have increasingly restored the idea among Western observers and public opinion of some sort of Moscow’s inherent imperial attitude, manifested in its unwillingness to retreat from the so-called “near abroad”. This idea has gained strength after Russia’s interference in the Ukrainian pro- Western Euromaidan revolution, the controversial annexation of Crimea, the pro-Russian uprising in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the repeated violations of Baltic airspace by Russian aircrafts. Associated with the usual range of hostile Kremlin’s measures and pressures over the area (energy cut-offs, trade embargoes, instrumental use of Russian minority populations, cyber activity, information warfare) these recent events have spread new feelings of fear and insecurity in the former Soviet space, especially beyond Russian Western borders.

As a reaction, significant attempts have been made to revisit historical representations that linked the old periphery to the old Soviet centre. In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, given also the peculiar circumstances of their incorporation into the USSR under the provision of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1940, and again in 1944 after the Nazi occupation, a significant rejection of the Soviet past had already taken place immediately after independence. In these states, the principle of continuity with the pre-Soviet republics provided the legal framework for what Richard Sakwa has called the “restitutive model” [1] of post-Soviet national development: a pattern based on feelings of complete detachment from the experienced past and on the need for compensation, reparation and restoration in the present. At first, considering the Soviet years illegal vis-à-vis the international law, this interpretation seemed to have easily resolved the issue of juridical transition. However, it soon gave rise to significant domestic problems, especially to the question of Russophone minorities’ statelessness in Latvia and Estonia.

In Ukraine the situation was more complex, due to the close cultural, ethnic and historical ties with Russia before, and the Soviet Union after. However, a similarly homogenizing restitutive attitude is recently gaining ground in Kiev’s new government. The decommunization process, which was finally sanctioned in May 2015 after more than ten years of attempts, and which entails the removal of communist monuments and the renaming of public places with previous communist-related themes, is a clear sign of this tendency. As part of the same phenomenon, the increasing limitations imposed on the three Ukrainian communist parties, ultimately banned last December, raised the concerns of OSCE about freedom of expression in the country, while the European Court of Human Rights is currently considering the appeal of KPU (Communist Party of Ukraine).

These measures resemble similar legislations already adopted in other European countries formerly belonging to the Soviet Union and the communist block. They are certainly a reaction to Russian post-Soviet foreign policy, but such kinds of responses are not entirely ascribable to ordinary relations with the Russian Federation as a contemporary political subject. Rather, they go well beyond a simple clash of strategic interests, as they aim to eradicate those historical roots that they used to share with their eastern neighbour, and to present a more nuanced picture of questions of representations, memory and identity. In different ways and from different perspectives, those dynamics are increasingly catching the attention of the observers, even outside the former Soviet space.

At the same time, Moscow’s effective and persistent interferences in the area after 1991 cannot be denied. These interferences have been interpreted through the lens of long-lasting Russophobic stereotypes and prejudices existing in Western culture, justified by some as a defensive behaviour vis-à-vis a Western counter-expansion, and by others as a sort of historical right upon a geopolitically natural sphere of influence. Whatever the views, beyond simplistic extremes, it is undeniable that Russia’s involvement goes hand in hand with continuous references to a shared past.

Therefore, political, social and cultural developments in the area that was once under Moscow’s influence are still strongly affected by Russia’s imperial past and its aftermaths. As a consequence, they cannot be observed without elucidating this past, and the dynamics it has created and re-created nowadays. Those argumentations, revised and strengthened on the basis of last years’ developments, have recently sparkled a debate, inside and outside the strictly academic context, concerning the forms of power and subalternity exerted in the former Tsarist/Soviet space, and their reflections in the current post-Soviet reality. In particular, postcolonial theory is becoming an increasingly used instrument, against the classical “transitology” school, which limited the analysis to patterns of economic liberalization and democratization. This new perspective, instead, is gradually shifting the focus of discussion towards concepts of coloniality, subalternity, hybridity, orientalism, and other representation’s constructs, introducing a predominantly cultural approach in (post)Soviet studies.

In order to evaluate and discuss the potentialities of such a trend, it is necessary to make a preliminary distinction between post-colonial and postcolonial. Post, in the first connotation, refers to a condition following a precise historical periodization, defined in relation to a set of political and economic developments. It basically describes the state in which a newly independent subject finds itself after formal colonization. This use of the term takes colonialism and coloniality themselves to have some analytic value as an explanatory construct, as implying relations of structural domination and exploitation of the heterogeneity of the subjects involved. According to this usage, then, post-colonialism is a historical, legal, and political term to be analysed in relation to a specific set of patterns of domination, subaltern conditions and political struggles.

The second use of the term postcolonial derives from the field of academic studies emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mostly associated with literary studies. The scholars who gave rise to this field, instead of thinking about post-colonialism as primarily or exclusively a form of historical periodization, began to use the term referring to a mode of theoretical analysis. Their primary objective was to deconstruct and “provincialize” Western forms of knowledge and their universalistic pretentions, being predominantly concerned with questions of identity, representation, hybridity, etc., than with direct forms of structural domination.

Relating to the region under discussion, the first acceptation of post-colonialism refers to all the subjects that fell under Tsarist rule before and the Soviet Union after, and their post-1991 condition. Post-colonialism, in this respect, aims to investigate and question the nature of the existing power relationships, the hierarchical position of the subjects engaged and their identity, the circumstances of the breakup and subsequent dismemberment of the Soviet Union, and its aftermath. More specifically, in most of its applications, it concerns the nature of Russian imperial relationship with all the other cultural groups, assuming the establishment of a colonial pattern of domination that is not really dissimilar from classic Western European overseas colonialism, if not for its continental nature. According to this interpretation, the Soviet Union is basically seen as a perpetuation of the previous Tsarist colonialism under new label and forms. In this context, the term “internal colonialism” has been recurrently adopted, in order to refer to a model of national development based on domination and exploitation of subaltern ethnic groups within a formally single state.

Here I would like to discuss the applicability of the “internal colonialism‟ paradigm to Soviet historical experience, by analysing the pattern of relationships between Lithuanians and Russians within the Soviet context through the lens of the internal colonial model. The aspects taken into consideration are: the historical circumstances of Lithuania becoming part of USSR; the institutional relationships; the representativeness and autonomy of Lithuanian decision-making process within the state; the existence of economic dependence from Moscow and cultural division of labour; education, cultural autonomy, forms of cultural discrimination and acculturation.

This nation-based analysis provides many reasons and evidences for Lithuanians to consider themselves as being colonized in the period they fell under Soviet rule, even with some adjustments due to the particular nature of the Soviet Union as political and economic system. For instance, in spite of discontinuous efforts to nativize the communist leadership in Lithuania, which gave significant results considering the Soviet average for national representation in the republics, the decision-making system, both at federal and party level, always remained strongly centralized in the hands of a predominantly Russian elite based in Moscow. The Soviet constitution secured central control and planning of economy and finances, leaving budgetary and economic decision making to Moscow, with significant exception in the first years of sovnarkhozy reform, between 1957 and 1962. At the same time, many Russians were imported within the Lithuanian Communist Party in order to swell its ranks and control the untrustworthy Lithuanian members; the practice of Russian watchdogs as Party’s Second Secretary was common to all the Baltic republics and for almost all the Soviet years.

As far as economy is concerned, even if Lithuania, as well as Latvia and Estonia, could not conform with the traditional pattern of economic colonialism deriving from the experience of Western European colonies (extraction of raw materials and natural resources and exporting of finished products - which instead seems to fit better with Central Asian republics), its integration into the Soviet socialist planned system still implied a sort of economic monopolization aimed at the transformation of the Baltic region into an overspecialized modern industrial periphery. Thus, collectivization led to the creation of an agricultural proletariat and to the disappearance of independent farming, the main economic activity in pre-war Lithuania, while providing workforce for the industry. Rather than producing effective benefits for Lithuanian economy and people, this pattern of industrialization fostered distorted development and strong dependency from Moscow, as most of the outcome of Lithuanian industry was destined to other areas of the Union, particularly Russia.

Moreover, Lithuanian industries requiring raw materials from Russia, Ukraine, or other parts of the Soviet Union, were given primary consideration, although their products were of little use to Lithuania itself. At the same time, those industries that would fit the natural structure of Lithuania’s economy, for which raw materials were locally available, and which certainly would contribute to the country’s general welfare, were neglected or underdeveloped. Other distortions resulting from the Soviet rule and resembling a colonial-like pattern of development are: the appearance of large clusters rather than graduate and diffuse industrialization, proportionate to the needs of the territory; the dismantlement of agriculture and farming; the dependence on Russian energy infrastructures. Therefore, Soviet economic policy appears colonial in both its aims and outcomes.

Such a picture prompts some reflections on the relation between colonialism-dependency and state centralization, socialist in this case. Under this light, the Soviet economic system seems to conform more to the general patterns of organization for continental empires, with their strong regional specialization and centralization of the decision-making process, and less to the model of classic capitalist European overseas colonialism.

Nevertheless, the more the analogies with the model of internal colonialism proved to be feasible and suitable for discussion in relation to the subaltern position of Lithuanians vis-à-vis Russians, the more it became evident that such an approach could give only a partial picture of the power relations in the Soviet Union.

In particular, several questions remain open. First, the long-standing issue regarding the dilemma between Russification and Sovietization - i.e. between a national and post-national project of development and/or domination. Second, the question as to how the Russian population as a whole benefited from the colonial relationship and, more importantly, it did not suffer from the same colonial practice. This does not mean that Lithuanians did not experience colonization in the Soviet Union. On the contrary, what I would like to stress here is that a model of internal colonialism that relies only upon the national factor is not sufficient to highlight all the dynamics and dimensions of domination and subalternity that composed the Soviet universe from the political, socio-economic and cultural point of view.

Moreover, we should not overlook the interesting, if not thorny question of the Baltics’ peculiarity in comparison with other Soviet republics. On one hand, the particular circumstances of their annexation to the USSR – Soviet occupation during the II World War with clear strategic objectives and under the provisions of a secret pact with a third power, the fierce resistance of Baltic populations, Lithuanians in particular – have traditionally given credit to the colonial thesis. On the other hand, we witness an unusual – at least for the narrative of Western colonialism – lack of feelings of cultural inferiority of the colonized vis-à-vis the colonizer and, furthermore, a reversed relation concerning orientalizing constructions.

All these considerations escape from the usual, nation-based pattern of interpretation and structural analysis, and should prompt us to question the meaning and relevance of such methodology. In this regard, the methodology of analysis deriving from postcolonial studies, what we called “the second post”, results more suitable. Moving from a critical cultural approach and investigating not only power relationships, but also mechanisms of identity construction, self-definition, hybridity and orientalism, the postcolonial reading escapes from a strict definition of historical responsibility in terms of colonizer/colonized, oppressor/oppressed. Even if power and hegemony are always at the core of the analysis, the post-structuralist perspective, which stands at the basis of the postcolonial approach, has the advantage of leaving room for “grey zones” and casting light on the multidimensionality of the post-Soviet condition, which could help to provide a deeper comprehension of it.

In conclusion, to come back to the initial question, “is a (post)colonial representation of the (post)Tsarist/Soviet space really useful for its understanding?”, I think that the matter should be disjuncted from a strictly naming process, i.e. from any process that aims to establish whether the (post)Tsarist/Soviet space is (post)colonial, how and where exactly. This is an open field for speculation, given the remote opportunities of reaching a univocal conclusion and the political implications that are at stake. Therefore, this question is likely to remain unanswerable and, as such, it holds little heuristic value.

Moreover, we may even go as far as saying that the post-colonial approach implies a postcolonial project in itself. In fact, to consider Western European colonial experience as the guiding principle of colonial studies in general is just another operation of cultural colonization. It means to elevate something that is nothing more than a particular historical experience, even though crucial, to a model, a zero-point of coloniality, from which everything else has to be analysed, compared and placed in a hierarchical scale of sameness.

By contrast, I think that the matter can be also reversed. Any strict analogies with Western conceptions of colonialism proved to be contrived and of doubtful usefulness, while a more elastic approach seems to be more creative and fruitful, besides better picturing the area under discussion. This latter attitude has made possible to raise a discussion about the very concepts of coloniality, postcoloniality, subalternity and about the identity of the subjects involved in a colonial-like relationship. In this way, it could be reasonable to ask how post-Soviet studies might contribute to post(-)colonial studies, i.e. whether the application of a methodology constructed upon a determined historical experience to an unusual context could enrich the field, detaching it from the empirical case it refers to. It might represent an ultimate de-colonial project against the Eurocentrism of post(-)colonial studies, as they are understood in the West nowadays.

(1) Sakwa, R. (2015). Ukraine and the Postcolonial Condition. openDemocracy, September 18.

Giorgia Zino holds a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe from the University of Bologna. Her Master’s thesis deals with the applicability of theories of internal colonialism to the Soviet Union, with a special focus on the relations between Soviet Lithuania and Moscow in 1940-1965. She is interested in the research field that links together (post-)Soviet studies and postcolonial theory, concerning national but also social internal cleavages.

bottom of page