Reexamining Russia’s history as colonizers

Kenneth R. Rosen


In this edition, universities across the world are reevaluating the basis of Russian studies and how the field is studied, examined and taught. 

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A study room at the University of Florida named after Karl Marx was renamed. A Harvard scholar encouraged universities, including his own, to sever financial ties with Russia. A Dartmouth student petitioned to rename the Russian Department to the “Eastern European Studies Department.” In Europe, Milano-Bicocca University briefly canceled a course about Fyodor Dostoevsky.

If some of these actions seem a little clumsy, the broader point is that the war in Ukraine has triggered a serious reflection within Western universities about how they have been teaching Russian studies. Academics wonder whether their field, largely founded in the aftermath of the Second World War, put too great an emphasis on Soviet and post-Soviet Russia and too little on the countries over which Russia imposed both physical and cultural control. In February, Lydia Tomkiw reported on this reckoning for Coda Story,  a piece I highly recommend you read. 

Scholars are arguing that the war has exposed a long-standing weakness in their discipline — that the Russian state overshadows discussion of and from the point of view of colonized nations. In a way, Russian studies departments repeat the colonial erasure of other perspectives. 

To address this, advocates of “decolonization” or “decentering” are pushing for the increased representation of long-marginalized voices in Russian, Soviet and Eurasian studies. This would involve reevaluating curriculums in history, literature, culture, political science and economics to include a greater diversity of readings and views.

“I’m reflecting on my own experience and my own training,” said Susan Smith-Peter, a professor of Russian history at the College of Staten Island CUNY. She recently wrote an article, titled “How the Field Was Colonized: Russian History’s Ukrainian Blind Spot,” to try to answer some of the questions she had about her education. “Why was I not really taught about Ukraine,” she asks. “Why is it that the view of Russian history is so centered on Russia specifically, while at the same time Russia is assumed to cover all the former USSR and all of the Russian empire?”

Ahead of a special Coda Story event on Thursday, I spoke with academics from across Europe and North America to get a sense of how a discussion over “decolonizing” their field of study was impacting research and teaching methods. More importantly, I tried to understand what decolonizing meant: Few seemed to agree on the definition, though many agreed that changes to the field were necessary.


So what does decolonizing mean? 

For some, it means offering other language courses within programs focusing on Russia and questioning whether those programs should remain so devotedly Russocentric. Should those programs instead focus more broadly on Eastern Europe and Eurasia and on Slavic studies? For other academics, it is less about shifting away from Russia as a central focus of Russian studies and more about being inclusive of nations that, for decades, were deliberately thrust into the shadow of Russia and the Soviet Union.

“I think there should be more diversity of voices, different positionalities really participating in the conversation,” said Botakoz Kassymbekova, an assistant professor at the University of Basel, specializing in Soviet and Russian imperial history. Kassymbekova is originally from Kazakhstan. “In Western academia,” she told me, “we almost don’t have any professors from Central Asia or the Caucasus teaching courses.”

But some professors told me that Russian studies shouldn’t devolve into a study of the wrongs of the empire. “Sometimes decolonization can lead to a race between victims and to discussion over who was more victimized by the perpetrator, in this case Russia,” said Bartlomiej Gajos, a senior research fellow at the Mieroszewski Centre in Warsaw. “We have been having this discussion since 1991. Because the whole region experienced the Second World War, the Holocaust, Soviet domination, so you have this discussion over who was the biggest victim in the region. ”

Lewis H. Siegelbaum, a professor of Russian and European history at Michigan State University, told me the debate over how to restructure Russian studies has prompted him to revisit his own work that took him to the Donbas region of Ukraine in the 1980s and 1990s. “There is a ready acceptance of the need to be more sensitive to the agency of peoples from the different parts of the former Soviet empire,” he said. “They do have histories of their own, rich and varied.”


Decolonization is the theme of this year’s edition of the annual conference of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, to be held in Philadelphia in late November. Over 2,000 specialists will meet to reexamine how Russocentric relationships to hierarchy and colonial power and subjects have had an impact on the structures of their discipline. 

 A scholarly reckoning with Russia’s imperial past and the trail of destruction it has laid is likely long overdue. Despite Russia’s colonial war in Ukraine, the Kremlin is able to successfully position Russia as an anti-colonial power, especially in parts of the world that suffered intensely from Western colonialism. 

It will be especially interesting to watch how scholars might be able to reexamine Russian colonialism in the context of its Western counterpart. Can they complicate what Kassymbekova has described as Russia’s “imperial innocence,” its self-delusion that it liberated colonized people rather than subjugated them? And will scholars also be able to have an impact on those people around the world who share Russia’s vision of itself?  

Some scholars argue that the very existence of the ASEEES convention, the largest gathering of its kind, underscores the imbalance in hierarchies and power. Few from Eastern Europe and Central Asia can even afford to attend a conference held across the Atlantic.

“Sometimes at international conferences,” said Iryna Sklokina, a researcher at the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, “you have these people who are expected to represent the oppressed and the colonized and less privileged groups.” They are tokenized, she argues: “They are given a voice, and space to be present, but to what extent do their opinions really influence the picture?”

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