What is decolonization?

What is decolonization?

We provide you with the most important concepts, take a brief overview of historical examples of decolonization, and argue that decolonization is different from separatism.

1. Why does it matter?

Stand with Standing Rock — March on Washington. March 10, 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Wikicommons

In recent months the word “decolonization” has frequently been used in the debates around the Russian-Ukrainian war. This topic has been raised by historians and social scientists, artists and cultural workers, as well as by social movements from national republics. On the 23rd of July, OSCE held a forum in Washington, DC, titled “Decolonizing Russia: moral and strategic imperative”. Google Trends depicts the same tendency: in the first four months of the war, the frequency of inquiries on decolonization of Russia is 300%  higher than in the four months prior to 24th of February 2022.

The Russian Government also gets involved in this debate. State propaganda frequently condemns all the decolonial initiatives in Russia, falsely calling them separatists. At the same time, Russian officials use the same vocabulary to build an image of a “decolonizer state” opposing Western countries with their colonial history. For example, they call the USSR “leader of the movement” for African emancipation or emphasize “racist and neocolonial” traits of Western policies.

These concepts can be confusing.

This is our short guide for those who want to understand what these words describe and how to use them correctly. For this publication, we consulted Agasshin, a zine about the lives of ethnic communities in Russia, and «Без расизма. Как писать и говорить без расизма и ксенофобии» [No racism. Avoiding racism and xenophobia in spoken and written language], a booklet by Feminist Translocalities.

2. Where do you start?

The first thing to know is what colonialism is. The term “colonialism” stemmed from Latin colonia (settlement) and was first widely used in the XV–XVI centuries. It usually referred to the political idea of conquering independent states and nations by the “developed” countries and the rule of the latter over the former. Today we call a “metropole” any state with colonies.

In the colonization process, metropole exploits the locals and their natural resources, pushes out the languages and cultures of the natives. 

Mirny and the Mir mine. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin

It is important to distinguish colonization as a process of conquering and installing the rule over subjected territories and coloniality as measures designed to maintain the colony's various forms of dependence on the metropole. The term “coloniality” was coined by the Peruvian social philosopher Anibal Quijano. In his opinion, modern global history has been largely determined by the Western worldview, which has engendered various discrimination forms, from racism to worker exploitation.

3. Yet, isn't it known that Russia has never had colonies?

The Russian context is, in fact, quite different. Scholars describe Russian colonialism as “blurred”: while the western metropoles arranged overseas campaigns, the Russian Empire conquered lands adjacent to its borders.

Official Russian history calls most of the cases of joining territories “voluntary entries” or “exploration”. However, both these terms are contested by contemporary scholarship. For instance, a Buryat historian Vladimir Khamutaev studying the methods of Russian expansion to the East, insists that “exploration” and “voluntary entry” of people of Siberia into Russia should be viewed as “independence wars of the peoples of Siberia”. The entry of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia into the USSR is described now in the same vein. There are three Council of Europe resolutions on this topic, all of them call this process occupation or annexation. There are also doubts regarding the voluntariness of joining the Russian Empire by the peoples of the Volga region—Bashkirs, Tatars, Chuvash, and others.

Lunch in the nursery at the District Health Department. Tura, the Evenk National Republic. January 1939. Photo: Ivan Baluev

Russian coloniality has, therefore, its specific features. Scholars of Feminist Translocalities state that Russian coloniality “is built of ideas of lost greatness” of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and stems directly from there. We will elaborate on the topic of decoloniality and decolonization of former-USSR countries in a further issue of our “Guides”. 

4. What is the difference between decolonization and decoloniality?

Decolonization is a political term. It is understood not as the mere passing of laws affirming, for instance, the independence or autonomy of the former colony or accepting the historical responsibility of the metropole but also their actual implementation. Of all the measures, eliminating any metropolitan control in the fields of politics, economics and administrative management should come first. 

Decolonization would not occur in an instant; it is not a rapid process. For instance, Finland's Sámi policy change required to meet the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has already taken over a decade.

In turn, decoloniality or decolonial theory studies the relations between metropoles and former colonies. Different nations have different knowledge systems. One of the decolonial theory's tasks is to draw attention to the fact that the knowledge produced in the metropole is not universal. Most often, this applies to the humanities, especially when they describe linguistic or cultural processes. 

A Hindu servant serves tea to a European colonial woman in the early 20th century. Photographer: George Rinhart

5. Does this mean that decolonizers want to destroy Russia?

Decolonization and separatism are distinct processes. The former does not require the latter. For several decolonial activists in Russia, the major demand is compliance with the existing jurisdiction around federalism: political autonomy and preservation of local languages and cultures. On top of that, secession is sometimes not the end of decolonial processes. For instance, the dissolution of the USSR did not lead to the real decolonization of several former Soviet republics.

Another important notion in this context is a postcolonial state. It is a term for the historical period after the decolonial processes have come to an end (after the metropole control has been legally eliminated). It is the time when the former colony is overcoming all other types of dependency. Such social processes in the former Soviet republics as the demolition of Soviet monuments and memorials or the renaming of streets and underground stations are, in fact, postcolonial processes.

6. Does this mean that decolonization is the struggle for the oppressed?

Anniversary of Algerian War for Independence. October 30, 1974. Photo: Keystone Pictures USA

Yes, this is correct. Yet this tendency to include every struggle against discrimination in decolonization has met extensive criticism. Philosophers Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang see in this desire a certain danger for decolonization's political potential. They assume that this might turn a powerful tool into a metaphor. This widest topic will be the subject of our next guide.

For this publication, we consulted Agasshin, a zine about the lives of ethnic communities in Russia, and «Без расизма. Как писать и говорить без расизма и ксенофобии» [No racism. Avoiding racism and xenophobia in spoken and written language], a booklet by Feminist Translocalities.

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