Home News Ukrainian activist traces war’s roots in ‘centuries of Russian colonial rule’

Ukrainian activist traces war’s roots in ‘centuries of Russian colonial rule’


On a recent afternoon in Kiev, a literature professor and a stand-up comedian came together to talk about Russian colonialism, a topic that has become a focus for Ukrainian activists, cultural figures and bookstore owners.

The discussion, moderated by Mariam Naiem, a graphic designer and former philosophy student who has become an unlikely expert on the topic, was recorded for a new podcast on Ukraine’s national public broadcaster.

“This war is just a continuation of centuries of Russian colonial rule,” Ms. Naim, 32, said of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “It’s the same script.”

The podcast guests agreed that Russia’s long cultural and political domination of Ukraine, first through its empire and then the Soviet Union, has left an indelible mark, and they lamented that they are far more familiar with Russian poetry and film than with their own country’s cultural treasures.

Ms Naim said the goal of the podcast was to address this issue and “talk about our path to decolonisation as individuals and as a society”.

It seemed like a strange moment of cultural reflection for a war-torn country as it faced the question of how to fight back Russian troops advance along the front.

But Ms. Naim and many Ukrainians say understanding Russia’s war in Ukraine — and its consequences — is difficult. The city was razed to the ground, Displaced children and The looted museum — It is crucial to study how Russia has long exerted influence on their country.

Naim, whose mother is Ukrainian and father is Afghan, represents a new generation of Ukrainians who have been trying to rebuild their identity and break away from Russian influence since Moscow’s invasion in February 2022. These efforts have mainly focused on studying Russia’s history in Ukraine and emphasizing its colonial imprint.

Ms. Naim, who studied philosophy at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv and worked for a time as a researcher with Jason Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale University, has become a leading figure in the movement.

Last year, she hosted a Award-Winning Podcast On the theoretical underpinnings of Russian colonialism. She says she is now writing a book to help Ukrainians “decolonize” themselves, in addition to a new podcast she’s currently recording.

Mr. Stanley said: “She had a great influence on me ideologically.” Tower of BabelHe established contact with the Ukrainian online news outlet last year and said she convinced him that Ukraine’s postcolonial history was not studied enough and “should change.”

This is not an easy task. Calling Russia a colonial empire challenges decades of scholarship that has shied away from looking at Russian history from a colonial perspective. Many scholars argue that Russia’s shared history with Ukraine is complex and less stark than the racial hierarchies and economic oppression that are typical of colonialism.

But Ms. Naim and others say Russia’s centuries-long attempts to impose its language on Ukraine, send settlers to occupy Ukrainian territory and rewrite Ukrainian history from Moscow’s perspective are hallmarks of colonialism.

Ms. Naim said it was through this war that Ukrainians came to recognize their heritage and finally began to “decolonize.” She cited Many people switched from speaking Russian to speaking Ukrainian.

“It’s an act of decolonization,” she said.

Although many Ukrainians have invested time Raising funds for the military or Rebuilding destroyed housesAfterward, Ms. Naim’s activism became more intellectual, focused on deconstructing Russian influences, including those that shaped her.

She was born in 1992 in Kiev to a Russian-speaking family. Her father, who was Afghanistan’s Minister of Education, left Kabul after the Soviet invasion in 1979. She has two brothers, MustafaLeaders of the 2014 Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, MarcyHe lost an eye in 2022 fighting with Russian troops.

She grew up in newly independent Ukraine in the 1990s, when the country’s cultural scene was dominated by Russian music, television shows and books.

At school, she said, although classes were in Ukrainian, it was “not cool” to speak it on the playground. Russian literature was also “cooler” than Ukrainian, “more mysterious and complex,” she recalled. Some of the novels she read denigrated Ukrainians as uneducated.

“Turgenev made me think of myself more as a Russian than as a Ukrainian.” Wrote on Instagram two years agoreferring to the 19th-century Russian novelist. “Because I don’t want to be that interesting Ukrainian.”

It took Ms. Naim many years and several books to shake off these views.

During the epidemic, she immersed herself in “Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism”, in which Polish-American scholar Eva Thompson argues that writers such as Pushkin and Tolstoy helped legitimize Russia’s colonial ambitions.

“I realised that centuries of colonialism had seeped into my thinking,” Ms Naim said.

After the Russian invasion, she Wrote her research In her Instagram pagewith 22,000 followers, who believe Russia seeks to erase Ukrainian culture and identity Its roots lie in a long history of colonialism.

Her post garnered attention and motivated her to spread the word further. In addition to the podcast, she has given the following interviews: Ukraine media exist Colonialism She posted on her Instagram page more PostsFor example, questioning the place in Ukrainian school curriculum of Mikhail Bulgakov, the Kiev-born Soviet writer who mocked Ukrainians.

The response has been very positive.

On a recent afternoon at a music festival in Kiev, a passerby thanked her for her efforts, and several people that day told her how much they had learned from her podcast.

Still, she spends a lot of time trying to convince people that it makes sense to talk about Russian colonialism.

Vladimir YermolenkoThe Ukrainian philosopher said people have long been skeptical about the topic.

Unlike Western colonies, which were often distant overseas territories, Russian colonies were contiguous territories, he said. Russian colonialism also never had racial exclusion as a core policy, he added. Instead, it was based on an equally violent “idea of ​​sameness,” which meant that the colonized should give up their own identities and accept the colonizer’s norms.

Mr. Yermolenko said President Vladimir V. Putin’s claims that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” were clearly motivated by colonization.

“For a long time, people didn’t want to hear about Russian colonialism,” Mr. Yermolenko said. “Only now are we seeing the intelligentsia starting to expose these lies.”

Since the Russian invasion, some scholars have described it as “Colonial Wars” or one of the following Recolonization. President Emmanuel Macron himself has had to Confronting the Legacy of French ColonialismAccusing Russia of being “one of the last colonial imperialist powers.”

Ukrainian authorities have also begun to work towards breaking away from Russian influence, e.g. Toppling Soviet-era statues and Russian place names are prohibitedBut they did not call it a “decolonization” process, which frustrated Ms. Naim.

“We don’t use recipes when we make cakes,” she said. “We need recipes.”

Still, she is happy to see that discussions about Russian colonialism are beginning to take root.

On a recent afternoon in central Kiev, Ms. Naim walked into a large bookstore and gazed at a long table filled with newly published books.

“Let’s see how much of this is about colonialism,” she said.

“This one, this one,” she said, picking up book after book. one Russia occupies a dominant position in Ukrainian cultural life. other books about rebellious Ukrainian writers of the 1960s—and stacked them on a corner of the table.

A few minutes later, there were 21 books in the pile.

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