To understand the Ukraine-Russia conflict, look to colonialism
Ukrainians have been fighting Russian imperialism for hundreds of years
By Linda Kinstler
“I come today with an appeal to all citizens of Russia,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a televised address, just hours before Russian forces launched a full-scale assault on his nation’s major cities. He said he wished to talk to the Russian people not as the leader of a nation but as a citizen of Ukraine. He wanted to tell them, in their shared language, that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s excuses for invading his country were mere fantasies. He wanted to remind the Russian people of all that they share with their Ukrainian neighbors, and to underscore that it was up to them to speak out to stop war.
“You are being told that we are Nazis,” Zelensky said. But 8 million Ukrainians died fighting with the Soviet army in World War II. Zelensky’s grandfather served in the Soviet infantry; my grandfather, born and raised outside Kyiv, spent the war running radio cables between the front line and Moscow.
“You are told that we hate Russian culture,” Zelensky said. “But how can you hate culture? Any culture? Neighbors always enrich each other’s cultures, but that does not make them one entity,” he said. “We are different, but that does not make us enemies. We want to build our own history, peaceful, calm and fair.”
Zelensky’s address was both an appeal and a prayer, a clearheaded response to Russian justifications for war. His voice was calm and forceful, but you could hear the anger behind his words. He underscored that though Russians and Ukrainians may share kin and culture, that does not mean their relationship can forever be that of colonizer and colonized. He addressed his remarks to the Russian people, but he was also speaking to their president, who had claimed only a few days earlier that “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” Putin prefers to think of Ukraine as a southern province of Russia, a territory that was mistakenly “gifted” lands by his predecessors. It is these supposed mistakes that this invasion aims to correct.
The lose-lose outcome in Ukraine
It is no accident that one of the most authoritative responses to the Kremlin’s rhetoric has come not from the United States or European powers, but from Martin Kimani, the Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, who explicitly linked the colonial history of his own country to that of Ukraine in a speech to the Security Council on Monday. Kimani’s countrymen, he said, “share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds” with people across their borders — borders that they had no role in drawing. The same is true of Ukrainians. Many families, including my own, have been split across the Russia-Ukraine border. These separations are largely accidents of history, one of the lasting effects of the collapse the Soviet Union. But this sense of kinship, Kimani said, cannot justify invasion: “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
On Wednesday evening in Kyiv, Zelensky echoed this sentiment as he warned that at any moment the embers of the former Soviet empire could burst into a catastrophic flame. Shortly after he addressed the nation, that is precisely what occurred: Russian missiles began targeting Ukrainian military sites, not just in the occupied territories in the east but also in the metropolises of Kyiv, Odessa and Kharkiv. Smoke rose over cityscapes. Civilians descended into bomb shelters.
Outside the halls of academia, the former Soviet states are rarely referred to as “post-colonial.” Instead, they are usually called “post-Soviet,” a term which suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union passively gave birth to liberated nations, each with their own unique language, history, literature and traditions. In reality, the former Soviet countries — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus among them — nurtured national movements for hundreds of years before finally getting to experience independence. The very idea of the modern nation, and the concept of nationalism, emerged in the Baltic countryside in the 18th century, when the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder rode his horse between Latvian villages collecting peasant folk songs. The songs — poems, really — seemed to Herder to bind the people to the land and to each other. Reading through them, he began to develop his romantic theory of what makes a nation. He determined that it is not history or even blood that does it, but rather the lilt of a shared language, the verses of common songs and stories.
Ukraine’s national poet, the 19th-century bard Taras Shevchenko, helped build national identity through his verse, which he composed in both Russian and Ukrainian. (A statue of him stands near Washington’s diplomatic corridor.) In one of his most-cited poems, “The Caucasus,” written in 1845, he ridicules Russian expansionism and mourns the immense loss of life it had already wrought. “We groan beneath the yoke of hangmen / While drunken justice sodden sleeps,” he writes. He describes, with a telltale twinge of irony, how Russian assimilation swallowed up the voices of the empire’s dominated lands: “From the Moldovian to the Finn, / all are silent in their languages, / because they’re blessed!” His poetry salutes the warriors who battle colonial forces, urging them on: “Keep fighting — you are sure to win! / God helps you in your fight / For fame and freedom march with you, / And right is on your side!” These words were emblazoned on banners in Kyiv’s Independence Square in 2014, when protesters took to the streets in the Revolution of Dignity. On Thursday morning, I woke up to read them on the Instagram feeds of my friends in Ukraine. They quoted Shevchenko to declare their support for their country and its soldiers as the first casualty counts came in.
On Russian state television, a map showing territorial “gifts” to Ukraine from Russian and Soviet rulers aired this past week. It showed Ukraine divided into pieces, and claimed that the eastern region had been “given” to Ukraine by Vladimir Lenin in 1922; that Crimea was “given” to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954; that a large swath of the nation’s northern territory had been a “gift” from Russian czars. What this map really shows is different periods of subjugation, moments when, as Kimani described, Ukraine’s borders were redrawn by outside forces. In a beautiful piece in the online news outlet Meduza, the historian Victoria Smolkin argues that this imagination of Ukraine is a fantasy of a fallen empire, a fever dream of imperial restoration. In his remarks Tuesday, Zelensky took pains to emphasize the similarities between Russians and Ukrainians because that is what the moment called for. But Ukraine is not Russia. Its people have been fighting Russian imperialism and colonial domination for hundreds of years.
In the chamber of the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday night, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya invoked Soviet colonial history in an effort to challenge Russia’s status on the council. He repeated an outstanding request to the secretariat to produce the reasoning for why the Russian Federation had been allowed to inherit the Soviet Union’s permanent seat, which had previously represented all of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. He also asked the Russian ambassador to confirm that Ukrainian cities would not be targeted, a request that was rendered obsolete minutes after it was issued. “It’s too late, my dear colleagues, to speak of de-escalation,” Kyslytsya said. “It is the responsibility of this body to stop the war.” The Russian ambassador corrected him: It was not a war, he claimed, but a “special military operation.”
On their way into the chamber, they and their fellow ambassadors would have walked by the newly restored and reinstalled tapestry of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” that has adorned the U.N. halls since 1984, a warning of the grotesque horror of war. Perhaps the Russian ambassador glanced at it, or maybe he just stared straight ahead.
Linda Kinstler has covered Ukrainian politics and culture since 2014. Her first book, “Come to This Court and Cry,” will be published in August.