Reviews Russia’s postcolonial identity. Beyond the modernization/cultural determinism debate

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3:2016, 82-83
Published on on oktober 25, 2016

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Viacheslav Morozov’s new book argues that postcolonial theory is a fruitful explanatory framework to apply to Russian politics . In such a framework, Russia must be analyzed as a “subaltern empire” Russia’s long-standing economic and normative dependence on Europe, and its attempt to “catch up”, have precipitated cycles of internal colonization and forced cultural Europeanization. The perpetual failure of these compensatory measures conditions Russia’s domestic, foreign, and identity politics.

Morozov’s narrative runs counter to the predictions of modernization theory, according to which the maturation of the Russian economy, institutions, and political culture should inevitably lead the country to “normality” Rather, Morozov argues, Russia’s subaltern condition has proven to be stable and difficult to break out of. Conversely, the book exposes essentialist intellectual shortcuts, which assert Russia’s inherent uniqueness. Such cultural determinism, Morozov demonstrates, is itself rooted in misplaced frustrations with Russia’s semi-peripheral status in the world economic system and its normative dependence on the West.

The book is organized in the following way: after an exposition of the book’s conceptual machinery in the first two chapters, chapter three establishes Russia’s economic and normative dependence on Europe. Morozov proposes a nested understanding of colonialism, uncoupled from temporal, geographical, and racial markers. While Russia may not have been formally colonized, it was a quasicolonial periphery in its relation to the European, capitalist core, acting from the sixteenth century on as a source of raw materials and a market for manufactured goods. At the same time, conditions of inequality also led to European normative hegemony, in which the Russian elite internalized European standards, discourses, understandings of modernity, etc. These conditions produced several outcomes. First, in an effort to “modernize” and transcend its subaltern economic condition, Russia embarked on state-driven self-colonization of the peasantry and the geographic periphery. Second, Russian elites forced a cultural Europeanization, at times expressed as liberalism, at others as a mission civilisatrice legitimating the imperial project. However, Russia’s application of European-modeled measures to subaltern conditions always led to failure, most recently seen in the post-Soviet economic catastrophe presided over by liberal Westernizers. Paradoxically, as chapter four argues, while the ensuing anxiety and resentment re-invigorated an imperial and anti-Western identity, Russia remains committed to and normatively dependent on the West. Putin’s “paleoconservative”turn remains Eurocentric in its modernization goals, soft-power commitment to “true” European values, and quest for Western approval, e.g. by invoking discourses of legality and self-determination in annexing Crimea. Even the most hostile discourses merely “invert” the West, using the empty signifier of the nonexistent “Russian peasant”, and fail to propose a positive system of values — a condition which echoes the hybridity of former European colonies. In policy terms, as chapter five demonstrates, subaltern imperialism generates Russian aggression in the post-Soviet space, perceived as defensive actions, and domestic repressions of the “fifth column”. Furthermore, the true subaltern the Russian people are prevented from voicing their interests and engaging politically, Eurocentric elites still viewing them as backwards and immature. All this manifests Russia’s enduring postcolonial condition.

The book’s methodology is a mixture of theoretical reflection and synthesis of previous empirical research, supplemented by analysis of dominant Russian political discourses. While Morozov is adamant that his approach is postcolonial, it almost seems that the Marxist tendencies in his account are stronger. Indeed, the two major concepts used, the core—periphery distinction and the notion of hegemony, are drawn from world-systems and Gramscian theory, both in the Marxist tradition. Granted, Morozov explicitly rejects the primacy of the economy in favor of “overdetermination”. Nonetheless, the narrative structure suggests otherwise: economic dependence as the original cause of Russia’s subalternity, and the failure of any politico-cultural process (including the Soviet experience) to break this economic dependence. While Morozov’s goal is to strengthen postcolonial analysis by adding an economic dimension, the outcome may be better characterized as a neo-Marxist account with postcolonial dimensions. This is not casuistry; in my view, openly proclaiming these credentials, and the causal model they suggest, can only add to the heuristic potential of Morozov’s account.

As it stands, Morozov’s narrative represents a fresh look at Russian history and politics, one of those rare books with the potential to pioneer a paradigm. At the very least, it successfully undermines the universalistic pretentions of modernization theory and the fantasies of those for whom Russia is an exotic, timeless Other. Not unimportant are Morozov’s theoretical reflections, which provide an interesting way of combining and enriching postcolonial theory with Marxist approaches. Morozov navigates with ease among the dense poststructuralist writings that many of us fear, communicating and critiquing them in a lucid, accessible way.

It is perhaps natural that an argument of such breadth and ambition as presented in the book would require some further nuancing and fine-tuning. For one thing, there is a rather careless conflation of the notions of “capitalist civilization”, “core”, the “West”, and “Europe” These groupings are not coterminous; moreover, I also expect that a more careful analysis of Russian political discourse would reveal subtle distinctions in the symbolic mobilization of the latter two. Similarly, the patterns of Russian politics and identity over the last five hundred years are also overgeneralized. For instance, in the context of the mere four pages devoted to the Soviet period, the equation of Stalinist collectivization with colonialism (uncritically taken from Alvin Gouldner) is unconvincing.

Furthermore, the narrative implicitly depicts a uniformly passive Russia, merely on the receiving end of European norms, discourses, and processes. However, this one-sided view ignores pan-European, co-constitutive processes, in which Russia played no small part: we may think of Russian futurist and avant-garde influences on understandings of modernity, the stimulus to anarchist, socialist, and communist political movements and thought, etc. Eurocentric modernity was not internalized by Russia, but actively produced by it, in concert with other European and Western nations.

These questions must be answered in future studies, which I very much hope will spring from the approach developed by Morozov. The book is by all standards successful in proposing a new angle on studies of Russian politics and identity, bypassing the old battle lines of modernization theory ranged against cultural determinism. This will be particularly useful to historians and political scientists.≈


  • by Antony Kalashnikov

    PhD candidate in History at the University of Oxford. His current project, “Stalinist Self-Representation and the Politics of Future Memory”, explores the self-representations of officials and events in the Stalin era.

  • all contributors

Viacheslav Morozov, Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World. New York, and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, viii + 209 pages