Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, there was an ideology that linked the Kremlin and the more vocal elements of the Western left. While many hardline left-wingers expressed doubts about “real existing socialism”, they and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union shared the Marxist analysis of capitalism, its flaws, and inevitable collapse.
When instead the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991, Marxist ideas nonetheless continued to hold a central place in the pedagogical approach of many academics, even as a new and ever-widening theory of postcolonialism took hold, with its emphasis on identity, power, and violence.
While Marxism and postcolonialism are distinct — their adherents regularly squabble about the issue — there is nonetheless common ground once again emerging between the Kremlin and elements of Western academia.
Vladimir Putin and his regime seek to be accepted by the developing world elites as past allies in the anti-colonial struggle and as fellow sufferers in a world run by Western powers. The Kremlin offers its hand to postcolonial rulers, proffering a version of history in which dictators are downtrodden, democracy is domination, and corruption is an understandable perk of high office.
“An essentially emancipatory, anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony is taking shape in the most diverse countries and societies,” Vladimir Putin declared at a ceremony formally sealing Russia’s theft of land from Ukraine in September 2022. “Its power will only grow with time. It is this force that will determine our future geopolitical reality.”
Putin described his war to reassert imperial dominance over Ukraine as a fight against “the neocolonial system which allows [the West] to live off the world, to plunder it.” He then sought to meld the two ideas of postcolonialism and Kremlin imperialism by arguing that his war had inspired others around the world to rise up against “Western elites [who] have remained the same colonizers.”
Putin would mention colonies, colonizers, and colonization an additional 10 times in his September 2022 speech. In the following year, he framed Russia as the world’s chief decolonizer in 65 more speeches, interviews, and statements, according to data provided by Omelas, where the author is Chief Technology Officer.
In this form of anticolonialism, which rejects outright the self-determination the term implies, Putin has found his guiding ideology. His worldview consists of three foundational points:
- all human action must be viewed through the lens of power dynamics;
- therefore claims to truth are no more than claims to power;
- and therefore Western tools for understanding the world — such as objectivity, or even the existence of Western-thinking people — are a direct threat to Russian liberation and must be cleansed from the national psyche.
Though Putin’s version of anticolonialism has a distinct ideological genealogy from the version gripping Western campuses and elite institutions, the similarities are too strong to ignore. Putin’s Russia — its violence, its propaganda, and authoritarianism — offers a stark preview of where the elite commitment to anticolonialism could be headed.
In Putin’s view, modern colonialism is invisible, propagated by Western interpretations of the world and Western values. In 2013, Putin began to directly draw the connection between democratization, the expansion of liberal values, and colonialism: “In the era of colonialism they were talking about the so-called civilizing role of the colonial states. Today, democratization slogans are being adopted. But the goal is one.”
If colonization is a psychological rather than military project, then the events of Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity posed an existential threat to Russia no less serious than that of Napoleon or Hitler.
When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began eight years later, Putin railed against what he called Ukraine’s “genocide against millions of people.” Given that even Putin’s puppet regime in Donetsk itself claimed only 8,000 dead, the genocide referred to was cultural rather than physical.
In a preview of how campus anti-colonialists would respond to the Hamas massacre of October 7, Putin declared: “All responsibility for possible bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.” In other words, military aggression is justified by the target’s refusal to cease to exist.
This ability to transform the weak into the powerful to rationalize aggression has made the approach especially appealing to elites in the developing world, who are increasingly autocratic and dismissive of Western prodding on human rights.
Not all autocrats have hopped on board: the United Nations (UN) General Assembly votes have condemned the Kremlin, pro-Russian demonstrations have been rare, and some Western academics have rejected Putin’s claims to be embarking on a decolonial project in Ukraine.
Yet indifference is not the same as opposition; there has been a widespread refusal to join Western sanctions or to bar Russia from forums like the BRICS summits or the G20. Trade has continued largely unmolested, with China and India happy to take cut-price Russian energy.
But a little over a year after Putin’s speech explaining how annexation was really decolonization, campuses erupted in celebration of an ideology strikingly similar to Putin’s own. In the wake of the worst peacetime massacre of civilians since 9/11, American students and professors unleashed a torrent of rhetoric with echoes in tone and logic from the Kremlin’s defense of the Ukraine invasion. Like Putin, those at elite educational institutions cast women and children as tools of imperialism to be expunged, blamed the murdered for their own deaths, and rationalized violence with spurious claims of genocide.
Decolonization, however, is a Western imposition on the very different worldview espoused by Hamas. Their claim to Israel and Palestine is not based on indigenous resistance, but instead, in the group’s own words, on the “land the Moslems have conquered by force”.
The irony of Putin’s deployment of Western cultural expansionism as his casus belli is that much of the Western elite now agrees with and promotes a very similar interpretation of world events. But this shared language may offer only cold comfort: if the term colonizer is so malleable it can apply to Ukrainians in the Ukrainian ancestral homeland or Jews in the Jewish ancestral homeland, the entire analysis becomes little more than a postmodernist mess.
The shared vocabulary and shared conclusion of Russian and Western anticolonialism does not reflect a shared philosophical tradition, but instead a universal, deep-seated desire to see the world in simple narratives. The role of liberalism is to rise above these simplicities, whether promoted by autocrats in Moscow or academics in Massachusetts.
Ben Dubow is a Nonresident Fellow at CEPA and the founder of Omelas, which tracks authoritarian influence online.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.