Book review: Russia’s postcolonial identity: a subaltern empire in a eurocentric world
Viatcheslav Morozov. Russia’s postcolonial identity: a subaltern empire in a eurocentric world (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 218 pp. ISBN: 9781137409300. US$90 (Hardcover).
In Thomas Mann’s novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), which is a panorama of pre-First World War European civilization, there are a number of Russian characters. They sit at two separate tables: the Good Russian table and the Bad Russian table. Our thinking, notes Geoffrey Hosking, a leading British scholar on the Soviet Union, has not advanced much since then. At one table, we seat Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Repin, and Shakharov, at the other, most Tsars, Stalin and, most prominently today, Putin.
Indeed, many commentators bemoan the West’s supposed incapacity to ‘understand’ Russia and adopt a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis the most complex geopolitical challenge Europe has faced over the past decades. One may not have to agree with Putin’s positions, Jörg Baberowski, a professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University writes in a recent op-ed (‘The West doesn’t get it’), yet dismissing them as purely irrational is unproductive and dangerous.
In the United States, only three out of the eight Ivy League universities have appointed a tenured professor in Russian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and none of them has appointed a Russia expert in economics or sociology. The situation is similar in Germany. While there are 43 professors of Russian or East European history, there are only three professors of Russian politics, and one each in economics and sociology. Academics in developing countries such as Brazil or South Africa are generally even less knowledgeable about contemporary Russia.
In this context, Viatcheslav Morozov has written an important and thought-provoking book about Russia’s place in the world. Russia, he writes, must be viewed as a subaltern empire, and the focus should lie not on its imperial characteristic, but its subaltern nature, and as an object of external colonization that was integrated into the capitalist world-system on unequal terms.1
This argument is unusual, of course, because Russia has never been colonized: Morozov disagrees, arguing that Russia
has been colonized while remaining a sovereign state. The other, more precise way of putting this is that the Russian state has been and remains an instrument of colonization: it colonized the country on behalf of the global capitalist core while itself being integrated into European international society. (p. 32)
Russia’s world view, furthermore, is eurocentric: strongly dependent on the West in both economic and normative terms, Moscow justifies its foreign policy conduct by accusing the West of neocolonialism while pointing out the injustices inherent in the current international order. At the same time, Putin continues to engage in imperial pursuits in its ‘near abroad’, explicitly relying on the Soviet legacy to secure and expand its ‘spheres of influence’. Contemporary Russian identity critically depends on its (post)imperial self-image as a great power, where greatness is still defined by referring to the Soviet past. The Kremlin’s rhetoric regarding the need to democratize the international system by promoting a multipolar world coexists with increasingly repressive domestic policies: each claim made in the name of the subaltern consolidates the oppressive authoritarian regime within Russia and thus reinforces its imperial order.