Ways of Seeing the New Russian Colonialisms: Writing on and from Post-Soviet Territories

Nikolay Oleynikov, St. Petersburg
April 3, 2017

Summary

How can we analyse Russia’s renewed colonialism and global expansionism that affects the geopolitical tectonic shifts of today?  

Is Putin the successor of the USSR or of Tsarist Russia? How can we read the imperial language being imposed with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the ongoing warfare on Ukrainian territories, and the attacks in Syria in 2016?

We asked some of the most active artists, thinkers, and culture practitioners working experimentally in several former Soviet republics to explain contemporary Russian colonialist policies through their own lenses, perspectives, and constituencies.

Ways of Seeing the New Russian Colonialisms: Writing on and from Post-Soviet Territories

Introduction to a series — by Nikolay Oleynikov (St. Petersburg)
Accompanied by The Blind Spot (2015), an artwork by Mykola Ridnyi (Kharkiv)

Today we benefit from a detailed view of the globe: depicted by NASA, performed by Google, and even drawn by our own drones and apps. As never before, we have the tools to see the world clearly, broadly, in its parts and as a whole. It should be easier to understand how the geopolitical climate changes, yet we find ourselves confused, barely able to follow the small changes that happen at the tip of our nose. We are living in a post-truth era and each attempt to follow politics brings us nausea, so we prefer to keep our eyes wide shut.

Taking a step forward from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, John Berger offered a substantial critical overview of the politics of landscape and the politics of gaze that still resonate usefully today. In his Ways of Seeing (1972) questions about who the landscape belongs to, who is the subject of the gaze, what is depicted, by what means and at the expenses of whom, what role both the artist and the spectator play in the political constellation, still sound relevant to understand the contemporary moment.

In the history of Western art, the landscape genre appeared, along with oil-painting techniques, at the very beginning of modernity, at the early stage of capitalism in the “golden” era of European colonialism (c. 1500). This genre was meant solely to represent territories possessed by the commissioner/landowner/patron that paid an artist to paint. Earlier, the map had already appeared as a kind of broader landscape drawing, representing distance and the reachability of the horizon. Looking at maps closely, we see that in the ways territories were portrayed, control was exercised upon them.

The work of artist-curator duo Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann,[1] and the writings of artist Hito Steyerl (for example, In Free Fall, 2011), could be interpreted to have been inspired by and in continuity with Benjamin and Berger’s intuitions, offering a further reflection on today’s politics of the gaze. Their work reveals the deeply layered histories of European imperialism, colonialism, and the consequences of the trade of goods and people, focusing on how the placement of the image/look is always derived from a historically and culturally determined gaze/sight.

Perhaps that’s why nowadays the Google-viewed globe and the recent geopolitical constellation appear from behind a huge cataract-like blind spot obfuscating our view.

The Blind Spot, 2015 (fragment) installation, mixed media, by Mykola Ridnyi, Kharkiv. The title of Mykola Ridnyi’s work The Blind Spot is borrowed from ophthalmology. A blind spot is a small area on the retina where the image is created. To complement it, we rely on our own knowledge and memory without taking into account that we are continuously constructing reality. During the disease the blind spot can be perceived by a person – from the small spot to the total darkness that “fills in” the eye. Ridnyi uses this concept as a metaphor for our society in a state of media war. Based on images from media reports about the war in Eastern Ukraine, the artist completely destroys them with ink. This work is a critical statement on the mechanical following the reality designed by the media, and social blindness imposed by the propaganda of war, which creates a polarized vision of reality, dividing society into “us” and “them”, “ours” and “theirs.” (Bjorn Geldhof, Tetiana Kochubynska)

In the following series of publications commissioned for ArtsEverywhere, we focus on the particular landscape that is Post-Soviet Russia—one that seems to always slide away from being clearly and fully observed or grasped. An historical reason for this lack of clarity is perhaps to be found in the self-image that Russia projects in relation to the West as the nation found itself caught in a paradox of simultaneously opposing and striving to belong culturally to the West. This dynamic first appeared with the somewhat violent westernization of Russia imposed by Tsar Peter I (he who established the Russian Empire in 1721), as a result of the opposition between the new elites of the beardless (i.e. pro-European, modern, educated, and progressive) and the old aristocracy of the boyars (who kept wearing their beard, risking their lives, as a sign of disobedience to the new imposed order of progress). The infighting among the upper class is found throughout history and is deep rooted in the consciousness of Russia. It is revealed also in the querelle between zapadniki (Westerners) and slavyanofily (Slavophiles)—the two most influential intellectual trends of the 19th century.

This opposition reoccurs throughout Russia’s history and it is still to be found today. Putin has governed for 17 years, shuffling from being a West-oriented civilized savage to becoming an emperor of impassable taiga forest. He is one who not only rips lands from neighbors, but also sticks his nose in the business of other empires. Having ruled for so long, Putin is now playing the same old card of Russian identity again, but even with his muscled military politics on the global stage, there is a consistent outward gaze toward the complex of the West’s spectre over Russia. Whatever Russia performs, the gaze of the larger other is always there.

It is important to note that from the tsarist times and again in the post-Soviet period, Russia has been economically dependent on natural resources, and this has always been a reason to conquer vast territories: in the East over the Ural mountains through Siberia (1582-1598),[2] in the Far East up to Alaska (1799-1867); south through Crimea and the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, down to the borders of Turkey and Iran, while the Osman Empire and Persia ceded their territories during the early 18th to the early 20th centuries; and the constant redefinition of western areas, including Poland, Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania.

All national and international infrastructure was built to provide access to natural resources and their export. Nowadays these resources are mostly oil and gas, whereas in the past it was the establishment of the fur market in Europe and Asia. It was in this way that Russia’s map was enlarged to its almost 6 billion square miles, and most of it even before the Russian Empire was established by Peter I, although it never stopped growing and conquering neighboring lands until 1917.[3]

Russia’s very peculiar economic and, let’s say, psychological formation has always considered the West as a larger other. Being a colonial empire it was almost never completely independent or even equal to other empires. Even if Russia’s expansionism was imperialistic and colonial, it never reached the economic and political power of the other European empires and almost never really competed with them. If so, it happened only for a short period in last part of the 20th century when Russia considered itself a part of the European family. This was confirmed in 1812 when Russia triumphantly repelled Napoleon’s invasion. Though very soon, in 1856, Russia lost this privilege altogether with the domination over the Black Sea by a regrouped family of European nations that favored Osmans in the Crimean war campaign. This event was highly traumatic for Russian national and imperial pride. Taking into account these events and the characteristic of Russian colonialism, it’s not easy to compare it with the typical strategies of other European empires, as Professor Viatcheslav Morozov argues when he defines Russia as nothing but a ‘subaltern Empire.’[4]

So, how can we analyze what is happening in Russia today and, within that, inscribe its renewed imperialism? How should the global expansionist politics of today’s Russia be seen in relation to global history? Did the Soviet Union inherit tsarist colonialism? And is Putin the successor of the USSR or of tsarist Russia? On what premises and through which lenses do we read the imperial language being imposed with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the ongoing warfare in Ukrainian territories, and the attacks in Syria in 2016?

Russia, after the collapse of the USSR and until today, is perceived to be too big as it is (at least square-miles-wise)—and too far, too cold, too obscure, too chaotic… But looking carefully we may notice that what was Russia’s scandalously wild, medieval, violent, and obscure recent past under Putin is now becoming a civilized West’s near future under Trump.

We asked some of the most active artists, thinkers, and culture practitioners working experimentally in several former Soviet republics to explain contemporary Russian colonialist policies through their own lenses, perspectives, and constituencies. This investigation into the connections between past and present forms of imperialism and colonialism in post-Soviet territories is undertaken by several prominent contemporary public intellectuals who are processing their ways of seeing global and local geopolitical changes from where they are and what they stand for.

Historian, artist, publicist, and political activist Ilya Budraitskis (Moscow) comments on the contemporary resurgence of national identity in Putin’s Russia, and how the concept of “national values” is used to keep the status quo and reinforce the establishment of the state.

Artist Nikita Kadan (Kyiv) will offer his observation of the newest cultural phenomena of de-communization that is taking place all over Ukraine and manifests itself with a massive demolition of Soviet symbols, including Lenin’s statues or monuments to Ukrainian revolutionaries.

In their essay, theorist, cultural activist, and curatorial duo, STAB – Oksana Shatalova and Georgy Mamedov (Bishkek), speculate on the roots of queer culture and language in the late Soviet Middle-East republics. They will scrutinize the premises of queer dialectics based on the writing of Ewald Ilyenkov, a very influential Soviet philosopher and experimental pedagogue who has been rediscovered recently.

Through the analysis of artist and critic Kestutis Shapoka (Vilnius) we will learn how the originally progressive notion of “national-based modernism” that appeared in late Soviet cultural politics is used in contemporary Lithuania to support the neo-nationalist policies of the state.

The team of emergent sociologists, PS Lab (St-Petersburg, Moscow), will shed light on how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is affecting micro-politics and the way citizens perceive their reality, through the results of a field research they conducted right after the 2014 upheaval on the post-Maidan state.

Besides these five attempts to trace the contours of new Russian colonialism, there are many other interpretations and perspectives—and definitely many other voices. There’s much more to observe, and other places and cases to examine in relation to these topics. This series aims just to begin a conversation, drawing on local perspectives to deepen the reflections in response to other reports and lines of inquiries, especially on colonialism and decolonization, unfolding throughout ArtsEverywhere.


[1] In 2010 Creischer and Siekmann curated the seminal international exhibition Principio PotosíThe Potosí Principle based on artistic and historical research concerning the example of an appearance of a specific Andian Baroque as part of the process of colonization in Bolivian silver mines, and the ways in which artistic production played a role. Starting with 17th century oil paintings in local churches, their reflection on art as one of the instruments of oppression was also articulated through the artworks of contemporary artists such as Marcelo Expósito, Harun Farocki, León Ferrari, María Galindo, and Chto Delat, among others, inviting a self-critical discussion among broader international intellectual circles.

[2] Prior to Russian conquest, most of West-Siberian lands belonged to the Kuchum Khanate, a feudal state.

[3] We speculate that the Russian Federation has much more in common with its grand predecessor, the Russian Empire, than with the USSR, even though many controversies and disgraceful events happened after the revolution and before WWII. Post-1945 Cold War history must also be included in this analysis. Nevertheless, generic principles of the process of shaping the boundaries of the new state in the early 1920s were radically different from what is called colonial. Some of the publications in this section bring more light to this topic.

[4] Viatcheslav Morozov, author of “Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World“ (UK, 2014). Morozov is a professor of EU-Russia studies at the Estonian University of Tartu. See also http://inrussia.com/refuting-the-everyman-mythology.

Mykola Ridnyi

Mykola Ridnyi

Mykola Ridnyi (b.1985 in Kharkiv, Ukraine) is an artist and curator. He was a curator of the SOSka gallery-laboratory in Kharkiv from 2005–2012. Since 2016 he has been a co-editor of Prostory, an online platform for visual art, literature, translation and politics. His works have been shown at the 56th Venice bienniale for contemporary art (2015), Museum of modern art in Warsaw (2015), Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich (2016), Museum for contemporary art Leipzig (2015, 2016), The School of Kyiv – Kyiv biennial (2015) and others venues and events.

Nikolay Oleynikov

Nikolay Oleynikov

Nikolay OLEYNIKOV (1976) is a Moscow based artist and activist, member of Chto Delat?, editor for the Chto Delat? newspaper, member of the editorial board of Moscow Art Magazine (2011), co-founder of the Learning Film Group and May Congress of Creative Workers, and member of the Arkady Kots band. Since 2013 Oleynikov has been a tutor at The School of Rose (School of Engaged Art Chto Delat) and a proud member of the board of ROSA’S House of  Culture, a multidisciplinary hub for new practices of engaged culture in St.Petersburg. Oleynikov is also the author of the book SEX of the OPPRESSED (FreeMarxistPress 2013, PS-Guelph 2016) and an editor for ArtsEverywhere's section on New Russian Colonialism and an upcoming series of publications entitled Tracing the Now.

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