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Ukrainian Activist Traces Roots of War in ‘Centuries of Russian Colonization’

Ukrainian Activist Traces Roots of War in ‘Centuries of Russian Colonization’


On a recent afternoon in Kyiv, a professor of literature and a stand-up comedian ​got together to talk about Russian colonialism, a subject that has become ​a preoccupation among Ukrainian activists, cultural figures and bookstore owners.

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

“This war is just the continuation of centuries of Russian colonization,” said Ms. Naiem, 32, ​referring to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “It’s the same playbook.”

Russia’s long cultural and political domination of Ukraine, first through its empire and then the Soviet Union, had left an indelible mark, the podcast guests agreed, as they lamented being more fluent in Russian poems and films than in their own nation’s cultural treasures.

The goal of the podcast, Ms. Naiem said, was to solve this problem and “talk about our personal and social path of decolonization.”

It may have seemed an odd moment of cultural introspection in a war-battered country with urgent problems like how to repel Russian troops advancing along the front line.

But Ms. Naiem and many Ukrainians say that to understand Russia’s war in Ukraine — and its trail of razed cities, displaced children and looted museums — it is crucial to examine how Russia has long exerted its influence over their country.

The daughter of a Ukrainian mother and an Afghan father, Ms. Naiem is emblematic of a new generation of Ukrainians who, since Moscow invaded in February 2022, have been trying to rebuild their identity free of Russian influence. Much of this effort has focused on examining Russia’s history in Ukraine and highlighting its colonial imprint.

Ms. Naiem has emerged as a leading voice in this movement. She studied philosophy at the Kyiv-based Taras Shevchenko National University and has also done a stint as a researcher with Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University.

Last year, she hosted an award-winning podcast on the theoretical foundations of Russian colonialism. In addition to the new podcast she is currently recording, she is now writing a book to help Ukrainians “decolonize” themselves, she said.

“She has seriously influenced me intellectually,” Mr. Stanley told Babel.ua, a Ukrainian online news outlet, last year. He added that she convinced him that Ukraine’s post-colonial history was not being studied enough and that “it should be changed.”

That is not an easy task. To call Russia a colonial empire is to challenge decades of scholarship that has shied away from viewing Russia’s history through a colonial prism. Russia’s shared history with Ukraine is complex and less marked by relations of racial hierarchy and economic subjugation typical of colonialism, many scholars have argued.

But Ms. Naiem and others say Russia’s centuries-long efforts to impose its language on Ukraine, occupy its territory with settlers and rewrite its history from Moscow’s perspective are all hallmarks of colonialism.

Ms. Naiem said it took the war for Ukrainians to take stock of this legacy and finally begin to “decolonize” themselves. She cited the example of the many people who have switched from speaking Russian to Ukrainian.

“This is exactly a decolonial act,” she said.

While many Ukrainians have devoted their time to raising money for the army or rebuilding destroyed houses, Ms. Naiem’s activism has been more intellectual, focused on deconstructing Russian influences, including those that shaped her.

She was born into a Russian-speaking family in Kyiv in 1992. Her father was a former education minister in Afghanistan who left Kabul after the Soviet invasion in 1979. She has two brothers, Mustafa, a leading figure of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, and Masi, who lost an eye fighting Russian troops in 2022.

When she grew up in a newly independent Ukraine in the 1990s, the country’s cultural scene was dominated by Russian music, TV shows and books.

At school, classes were in Ukrainian, but “it wasn’t cool” to speak it in the playground, she said. Russian literature was also “cooler” than Ukrainian literature, she recalled thinking, “more mysterious, more complicated.” Some of the novels she read belittled Ukrainians as uneducated people.

“Turgenev pushed me to consider myself more Russian than Ukrainian,” Ms. Naiem wrote on Instagram two years ago, referring to the 19th-century Russian novelist. “Because I didn’t want to be that funny Ukrainian.”

It took Ms. Naiem many years, and many new books, to shake off these views.

During the pandemic, she buried herself in “Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism,” a book by the Polish American scholar Ewa Thompson that argues that writers like Pushkin and Tolstoy helped legitimized Russia’s colonial ambitions.

“I realized that centuries of colonialism had seeped into my mind,” Ms. Naiem said.

After the Russian invasion, she wrote about her research on her Instagram page, which is followed by 22,000 people, arguing that Russia’s efforts to erase Ukrainian culture and identity are rooted in a long history of colonialism.

Her posts attracted attention and persuaded her to spread the word further. In addition to her podcasting, she has given interviews to Ukrainian media on colonialism and filled her Instagram page with more posts, questioning, for example, the place of Mikhail Bulgakov, a Kyiv-born Soviet writer who ridiculed Ukrainians, in Ukrainian school curricula.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

On a recent afternoon at a music festival in Kyiv, a passer-by thanked her for her efforts, one of several people that day who told her they had learned a lot from her podcasts.

Still, much of her time remains spent trying to convince people that talking of Russian colonialism is relevant.

Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher, said the topic had long been viewed with skepticism.

Unlike Western colonies, which were often far-distant, overseas places, Russian colonies were adjacent territories, he said. Russian colonialism also never made racial exclusion a core policy, he added. Instead, it was based on the no-less violent “idea of sameness,” meaning that the colonized should surrender their identity and adopt the norms of the colonizer.

Mr. Yermolenko said colonial motives were evident in President Vladimir V. Putin’s claim that Ukrainians and Russians were “one people.”

“People long didn’t want to hear about Russian colonialism,” Mr. Yermolenko said. “Only now are we kind of seeing the first steps of intellectual debunking.”

Since Russia’s invasion began, some scholars have described it as a “colonial war” or one of recolonization. President Emmanuel Macron, who himself has had to confront the legacy of French colonialism, has accused Russia of being “one of the last colonial imperial powers.”

Ukrainian authorities have also launched efforts to break free of Russian influences, such as toppling Soviet-era statues and banning Russian place names. But they have stopped short of calling it a process of “decolonization,” to Ms. Naiem’s frustration.

“We’re doing the cake without the recipe,” she said. “We need the recipe.”

Still, she is pleased that a discussion about Russian colonialism has taken root.

On a recent afternoon in central Kyiv, Ms. Naiem stepped into a large bookstore and stared at a long table covered with recently published books.

“Let’s see how many are about colonialism,” she said.

“This one, this one,” she said, as she grabbed book after book — one on Russia’s dominance of Ukrainian cultural life, another about rebellious Ukrainian writers of the 1960s — and piled them up on a corner of the table.

After a few minutes, the pile had grown to 21 books.





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