Ukraine and the postcolonial condition


What does the debate over Ukraine’s postcolonial status reveal about the future of the country’s domestic and international politics? Русский


Richard Sakwa
18 September 2015

The question of whether Ukraine is postcolonial may seem an abstruse matter, one best left to scholars. Yet it raises some fundamental issues about the nature of Ukrainian politics.

These issues include Ukraine’s self-identity and its relationship with Europe, its potential relationship with Russia, as well as Russia’s own relationship with Europe – as a subaltern, as the core of an alternative ‘Eurasian’ identity, or as part of a new more plural postcolonial identity.

This in turn raises a host of theoretical questions, since postcoloniality is neither spatial nor territorial, but establishes a condition that shapes a whole web of cultural and political relationships. If Ukraine is to be considered postcolonial, then so should Russia, and indeed the whole post-communist region would share in this condition. This in effect is the position of David Chioni Moore, who, in a seminal essay on the subject, effectively subsumed the notion of the ‘post-Soviet’ into the postcolonial, or more accurately, the Soviet into the colonial. But is this right? 

Post-Soviet, postcolonial? 

Postcolonial theory is becoming an increasingly popular way of explaining current developments in the post-Soviet space. It shifts discussion away from classical debates over economic transition and democratisation towards broader cultural debates over the subaltern, orientalism, and other patterns of development. 

More specifically, we are dealing with the nature of Russian imperial, and the nominally Soviet post-imperial, relationship with the Ukrainian proto-state. The dominant Ukrainian state-building narrative is that Russia, in its various guises since 1243 (the date considered the breaking point of old Kievan Rus’ under the impact of the Mongol invasion) imposed a colonial pattern of domination over Ukraine. The Soviet Union, despite periods encouraging indigenisation, notably in the 1920s, perpetuated this colonialism in new forms. 

Thus it was only appropriate that, after the incorporation of eastern Galicia into the USSR during the Second World War, Stepan Bandera and his associates in the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists redirected their struggle from the old colonial power, Poland, to the new imperial force, the Soviet Union. 


Dnipropetrovsk region, Ukraine. Hamercat / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In 1991, this version of Ukrainian development reached its apotheosis with the potential, for the first time, to create an effective and sustainable national state.

Blurred boundaries

Theories of colonialism are very different from postcolonial theory, but in the Ukrainian case, there is a tendency for the two to be merged.

From the post-colonial perspective, the historical plasticity of Ukraine’s borders is irrelevant, and is not qualitatively different from any other borders in the post-Soviet space, and indeed in most modern nation states.

The space that is now Ukraine needs to be ‘Ukrainianised’, and the legacy of past colonial oppression extirpated. This post-colonial political programme is reinforced by the cultural critique drawn from postcolonial theory, whereby the very sense of identity of the Ukrainian people needs to be purged of its subaltern status vis-à-vis Russia, to allow some sort of primordial Ukrainian culture to emerge. 

In this reading, postcolonial theory reinforces the arguments of contemporary Ukrainianisers that the country’s culture and society is autochthonous, and thus strengthens the hand of those who deny the commonality of Russian and Ukrainian culture.

For ‘Ukrainisers’ the space that is now Ukraine needs to be Ukrainianised, and the legacy of past colonial oppression extirpated.

The combination of post-colonial and postcolonial arguments is applied by numerous Ukrainian specialists and scholars studying Ukraine; along with much western media.

The logical corollary is that the Ukrainian nation state can only develop by shedding its dependency on Russia. Taras Kuzio, for example, considers Ukraine part of the ‘post-Soviet colonial space’, in which national self-affirmation inevitably finds itself at odds with attempts to retain an economic and cultural role for Russia in the region. This position is based on the view that the historical relationship with Russia was a colonial one.

The political consequences of such a view are stark and irreconcilable. The decolonisation model sustains monist (as opposed to pluralist) Ukrainianising forms of national development.

For monist Ukrainianisers, the fundamental challenge is to ‘de-sovietise’ as quickly as possible, including dismantling the Soviet social security system, economic links and bureaucratic traditions, in favour of what are considered to be more progressive European models.

On this basis, the ‘Ukrainianisers’ currently in power in Kiev are working hard not only to ‘de-sovietise’ the country, as in the notorious package of four de-communisation laws of May 2015, but also to de-Russify the media, education and other spheres.

‘Ukrainianisation’ undermines attempts to provide a constitutional basis for the country’s pluralism, and even the liberal toleration of diversity is condemned, since all that would do, as Paul D’Anieri summarises the argument, is to freeze ‘in place the results of past Russification efforts [and] to reward oppression and to ensure its success. On the contrary, it is argued, historical justice requires that the oppression be reversed.’  

Thus for Kuzio and others, all modern nation states have at some point engaged in the promotion of some sort of homogeneous national identity, often accompanied by violence, and thus Ukraine is doing now what its counterparts in western Europe did in the nineteenth century.


streetwrk.com / Flickr.com. Some rights reserved.Postcolonial theory in this context is reduced to little more than an anti-colonial struggle against subjugation. Postcolonialism becomes another weapon in the armoury of Eastern European nationalists, and in effect gives theoretical respectability to traditional Russophobia.

One could argue that this ‘decolonising’ nation-building impetus inhibits a ‘civilised’ relationship with Moscow, condemning the region to endless contestation. In the Ukrainian case, the attempt to impose a monist model onto an inherently pluralist one threatens the unity and territorial integrity of the country.

Master and servant

The political consequences of applying the combined post-colonial and postcolonial models are clear, but this does not negate the very real postcolonial condition in which Ukraine finds itself.

While the simplistic application of the post-colonial model may be contested, with all of its deleterious consequences, the cultural hybridity of Ukrainian identity renders it a classic case of the postcolonial condition.

The cultural hybridity of Ukrainian identity renders it a classic case of the postcolonial condition.

One of the more sophisticated applications of postcolonial theory has been undertaken by Mykola Riabchuk, a well-known Ukrainian public intellectual.

While Kuzio and others stress the alleged post-colonial situation in Ukraine, and thus outline a programme of anti-colonial rectification, Riabchuk is rather more subtle and locates his thinking in a more sophisticated postcolonial problematic—the more complex cultural interchanges between master and servant, imperial power and the subaltern are what’s at stake here. 

Riabchuk stresses the continuing prevalence of Russian language and culture in Ukraine, which means that the endless post-communist ambiguities in state and national development since independence in 1991 are homologous to the broader postcolonial condition. He conceptualises this as the Ukrainian Creole state, ‘that is, a state that belongs primarily to the descendants of Russian settlers as well as to those indigenes who had eventually assimilated into the dominant (Russophone) culture’. 

In Riabchuk’s view, the Ukrainian case is very different from the traditional Creole state in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere, because the culture and language of the settlers is ‘unusually proximate to those of indigenes’, accompanied by the unusual capacity of the indigenes to compete against the culture of the colonisers in terms of culture, language and various modern arts.

His policy response is not dissimilar to that of the anti-colonialists, namely a gradual but consistent and determined Ukrainianisation, a state-led affirmative action programme to enhance the status of the Ukrainian language and culture. In his view, ‘The Ukrainian state will remain dysfunctional as long as it remains Creole, that is, neither Ukrainian nor Russian but, rather, Soviet’.


streetwrk.com / Flickr.com. Some rights reserved.By contrast with this monist view, the pluralists would argue that the very proximity of the two cultures means that they have grown together and both are legitimate inheritors of the modern Ukrainian state. Pluralists would argue that the very idea of ‘indigenes’ and ‘settlers’ are reified concepts, and instead argue that nation building in post-communist Ukraine should recognise the diversity of paths that its constituent peoples have taken to join the modern state, and thus the ethnonym ‘Ukrainian’ should be primarily civic. Ukraine from this perspective is a state of all its peoples, and not the property of so-called ‘indigenes’. 

By contrast, the monist application of postcolonial theory is based on a restitutive model of national development. This assumes some sort of primordial and enduring character to the Ukrainian nation, which has finally found a political state in which to develop. The restitutive model of statehood was also applied in Estonia and Latvia after independence, with the attendant problem of the ‘dis-integration’ of the Russophone ‘settler’ population.

The restitutive model is a powerful one, based on myths of endurance and resilience in the face of centuries of adversity and subordination, and sustains the monist approach to post-communist national development. Not surprisingly, there is a powerful nationalistic charge embedded in this model, reflecting the accumulated frustrations across the centuries.

The theoretical implications of our discussion are as stark as the political consequences. In practical terms, postcolonialism is not so different from post-colonialism. Postcolonial theory asks whether the subaltern can speak, and if so, in what language, and what should they say? 

Monist Ukrainianisers argue that the state language should be Ukrainian, with Ukraine becoming emancipated from colonial subjugation as the country joins ‘Europe’. Pluralists suggest that Russia and Ukraine share a common modernity, whereas those who condemn Ukraine’s apparent post-colonial condition argue that Russia, as the leading Eurasian power, represents something inalienably regressive, backward and despotic. The escape to ‘the west’, of course, in postcolonial theory would precisely be condemned as ‘Eurocentric’ and a symptom of being the subaltern rather than its repudiation.

In other words, postcolonial theory appears to endorse conservative and exclusive positions, privileging a particular culture and inhibiting the forging of cross-cultural political solutions. 

Beyond the postcolonial

I argue there is another narrative, of a pluralistic and multicultural Ukraine, which is obscured by postcolonial discourse.

After 1991, Ukraine remained a pluralistic society, and even today remains overwhelmingly tolerant of cultural and linguistic diversity. What has been lacking is the ability to articulate this pluralism in terms that do not privilege the existing imbalances while giving constitutional substance to that pluralism. 


Artem Sheremet / Flickr.com. Some rights reserved.The rich experience of bilingual countries such as Wales, Canada and Finland, let alone Belgium, is ignored. Instead, a stripped down postcolonial discourse, even in its more sophisticated manifestations (i.e. Riabchuk), reduces the problem to an anti-colonial struggle against the legacy of colonial oppression.

Independent Ukraine developed as a hesitant and contradictory nationalising state, seeking to ensure the predominance of the Ukrainian language in official and educational institutions, yet tolerant until recently of cultural and linguistic diversity.

Ukrainian was enshrined as the single state language in the 1996 constitution, although state monolingualism was tempered by the widespread use of Russian in the mass media and personal exchanges. In constitutional terms, this was a residual rather than an enshrined right, and it is for this reason that the pluralists in Ukraine call for a more capacious constitutional settlement that would give legal right to cultural and linguistic pluralism. 

This is more than a defence of the botched and partisan 2012 Kivalov/Kolesnichenko language law, which stipulated that any of the 18 regional and minority languages spoken by 10 per cent or more of the people in an administrative region could be used as an official language alongside Ukrainian. 

The law was not an instance of genuine bilingualism, since in those regions (predominantly Russian) where it was applied the development of Ukrainian was neglected. Wales, a far smaller country, has adopted a far more enlightened and progressive approach, in which citizens are enjoined to learn Welsh and mostly do so with alacrity and enthusiasm, but English (after all, the language of the coloniser) is recognised as a foundational element of the culture that has developed over 800 years of interaction. 

In a genuinely multilingual Ukraine, the development of Ukrainian at all levels would be mandatory while allowing other languages to flourish. Instead, a bureaucratic and divisive quasi-solution was imposed, in part because of the entrenched failure to conduct a genuine national dialogue over what substantive bilingualism would mean. The failure to achieve such a fruitful dialogue is in part a consequence of the tyranny of post (-) colonial representations of the Ukrainian condition.

From a comparative politics perspective, the application of bilingualism makes sense. For scholars such as Will Kymlicka, drawing on the Canadian experience of managing a multi-lingual community, the granting of timely concessions has drawn the sting from the secessionist impulse. 

The granting of extensive devolved powers to South Tyrol ended the persistent violence there, and today the Italian region of Alto Adige is a model of what accommodation to the legitimate demands of minority cultures can achieve. In Wales the incremental development of bilingualism has satisfied the nationalists and put an end to the earlier militancy.

 The problem in Ukraine and the Baltic region is that it is not the comparative politics approach which has traction but the postcolonial (which is interpreted as post-colonial).

From this perspective, the demand for ‘pluralism’ is itself an emanation of the classical imperial mentality. It is a new way to re-impose the cultural hegemony of the traditional imperial master and to inhibit the creative development of formerly subaltern nations.

Postcoloniality is a condition characterised by the struggle for autonomy by peoples enduring a history of dependence. This ‘heroic’ reading of postcolonial theory has been very much taken to heart by the monist nationalisers in Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia, but it leaves out of account the other side of postcolonial condition, the enduring hybridity of the postcolonial subject.

The struggle to escape from colonised situations is typically couched in the language and cultural norms imparted by the former colonial power, the logical trap that is at the heart of much debate over postcolonialism.

Towards a more complex understanding of postcoloniality 

The peculiarity of Ukraine and the Baltic states is that the former imperial overlord was itself in part a subaltern. On the one side, this means that the non-Russian post-Soviet states can bypass Russia and gain a direct referent in the form of ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’ as the instrument of liberation from colonial dependence.

This is why ‘Europe’ in the Ukrainian monist philosophy gains such a passionate cultural weight, although the actual Europe of the European Union and its painful legalism, pedantic regulations and hesitant embrace comes as something of a shock. 

The postcolonial condition in Ukraine assumes a double hybridity. First, Ukraine shared in the cultural project of Soviet ‘imperialism’, even while at the same time suffering from it. It was Soviet imperialism that made the modern Ukrainian nation, endowed it with its extensive territory, and urbanised, educated and industrialised the society and economy.

The peoples now condemning Soviet colonialism were shaped by that colonialism, and thus Ukraine differs little from any number of other new states of our era in their engagement with the postcolonial condition, as legatees of transformations that provide the conditions for their challenge to the pathologies created by the transformations.

It is the second hybridity that endows the situation with its explosive character. Monist Ukrainian nationalism engages with ‘Europe’ as an escape from dependence on Russia, but thereby reproduces a new condition of subaltern dependence. The language and tropes of ‘Europeanisation’ are reified, and at their worst entail simply breaking all social, economic and cultural ties with Russia.

The ex-colonial power is thus paradoxically re-endowed with disproportionate weight, characterised as the ‘other’ against which the modern Ukrainian nation is shaped. At the same time, the new dependence on Europe stymies the development of an autochthonous Ukrainian identity that can transcend the postcolonial condition; instead it is reinforced from both directions.

Monist Ukrainian nationalism engages with ‘Europe’ as an escape from dependence on Russia, thereby reproducing a new condition of subaltern dependence

Thus Ukraine is postcolonial, but of a very specific sort that leads to a double entrapment—an aversion to Russia and the mimicry of what are taken to be European standards, thus reinforcing the hybridity of the country. After independence, this situation provoked the endless tacking between Russia and the west, the two constitutive others, with all of the deleterious consequences that we now see.

The multi-vectorism of Leonid Kuchma’s presidency (July 1994 – January 2005) may well have been conceived as a pragmatic response to the problems of a trapped and ‘cleft’ state (to use Samuel Huntington’s term), but it inevitably only reinforced patterns of dependence and lack of autonomy.

The 2014 Maidan revolution was in part an attempt to escape this dilemma, by making a decisive turn to Europe, but this once again only reinforced new forms of dependence.

Thus a more profound reading of the postcolonial condition is required. The heroic reading reduces postcolonialism to post-colonialism, where the hyphen indicates a straightforward struggle for independence and liberation from the former colonial overlord, whereas the absence of the hyphen indicates a qualitatively different set of relationships but can equally fall prey to new forms of the subaltern relationship.

These contradictions are explored in Russia's Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric Worlda brilliant new work by Viatcheslav Morozov. While this is not the place to engage substantively with this challenging and provocative work, its central argument is that Russia represents a ‘subaltern empire’, precisely capturing the complex and contradictory character of Russia as both master and slave.

Russia is an extreme hybrid, both enmeshed in the postcolonial syndrome while acting as an empire. It is subaltern because its vision of modernity is ultimately derivative, generated by Europe, with whom it has traditionally had an ambivalent relationship; but its self-image as a great power perpetuates the imperial dimension, with profound consequences for its domestic and international policies. Russia has been fully Europeanised, and can thus offer no vision of an alternative modernity; but it claims to be a more authentic version of that modernity to which it aspires – the ‘true’ Europe that was already articulated in the nineteenth century.

The subaltern relationship means that the hegemonic social order does not allow Russia’s voice to be heard; but the imperial self-identity insists that its voice is heard, hence the endless tensions, crises and contradictions of our time.

If Russia is a subaltern empire, then this entails a fundamental rethinking of its relationship with its post-Soviet neighbours. Russia has long been characterised as both victim and perpetrator, but seen from this reframed postcolonial perspective, Russia is engaged in much the same endeavour as Ukraine: to find an appropriate mode of engagement with Europe and a model of modernity that captures the contradictory and hybrid histories of the two countries. The difference, of course, is that Ukraine is only a subaltern, whereas Russia is both subaltern and an empire. The Morozov argument suggests that in different ways they are both dependent. 

This offers a route to escape from the present impasse. Instead of a rather essentialised model of culture (a common failing of postcolonial discourse), Ukraine can embrace multiple identities that are both postcolonial and post-colonial, and recognise that the subaltern condition is a broader and shared problem for all post-communist countries, including Russia. 

At the continental level, the political stalemate can be broken by transcending the narrow localisms – including that of the European Union – by combining the challenge of creating a new European modernity, pluralistic and diverse with multiple sources of sovereignty, with a new geopolitics that moves away from the stale Atlanticism of the Cold War era.

The idea of a Greater Europe, drawing on Gaullist ideas of a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, and now articulated by defenders of various forms of Gorbachev’s Common European Home, is more than a spatial construct but part of the search for a genuinely European Europe. 

In other words, if we extend the argument to suggest that, in the post-war era, Europe itself has endured elements of the postcolonial condition, then a rethinking of the multiple hybridities would suggest that a new form of postcolonial rationality, less axiological (refuting the idea that all the problems of history have been resolved by the European vision itself), would open up space for a substantive pluralism which recognises multiple identities within and between countries.

The common frame is the challenge to be European in a world that is increasingly becoming non-western. The subaltern has spoken, and it is a language that Europe itself needs to learn.

Editor's note: we are currently preparing a response to this article, and welcome further responses. 

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