More than fifty years ago the major European powers relinquished their control over the vast territories they had conquered on different continents and had managed for several centuries. More than twenty years have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, which was sometimes referred to as the successor state to the Russian Empire. It is difficult to say with certainty whether the liberation movement brought more peace and prosperity to the newly established nations than those countries could have achieved if they had preserved their previous relationships with the mother countries. Once events happen, they cannot “unhappen;” yet it is human nature for us to ask “What if?” Thus it seems extremely important to rethink the meaning of the past era, its patterns, and trends and discover what lessons modern politicians should learn from relatively recent events.
The tangle of problems related to European expansion, Westernization, and colonization is so embedded that, to “unravel” it, one has to start from one end of the string. I would suggest starting by defining basic terms and concepts. This approach could stimulate new questions and unconventional ideas that may lead to some fresh political conclusions. It seems to me that this is a case when tackling a question that looks purely theoretical may provide an explanation for some very important current trends in global development.
COLONIES AND DEPENDENCIES
The term “colony” (from the Latin coloniae, or settlement) goes back to ancient times, when colonization was the most common way to explore new territories, without directly conquering the area or sparking bloody conflicts between colonists and the local population. The colonies of that era were not so much outposts for military expansion as “trade missions” established by the most advanced nations, above all the Phoenicians and the Greeks. According to various estimates, from the 10th to the sixth century BC, the Phoenicians founded more than 200 settlements with a total population of 450,000 all across the Mediterranean and even on the Atlantic coasts of today’s Spain and Morocco. One of these settlements was Carthage; a city that later developed into a prosperous state which survived Phoenicia and challenged Rome for more than a century, as well as many other important cities in Malta, Ibiza, Sardinia, Sicily, and in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. In some cases, the Phoenicians preferred not to establish new cities, but to settle in existing ones, creating trade centers that were added to their trade network. From the ninth to the fifth century BC, the Greeks established around 1,500 colonies in territories stretching from the Black Sea coast to Gibraltar, which at their peak were inhabited by more than 1.5 million compatriots. In many remote areas, a new polis could even be created in partnership with the local tribes. All these cities nurtured cultural, social, and political traditions common to the regions populated by their founders, and maintained close relationships with them.
In contrast to colonization, the conquest of new territories and subjugation of the local population were widespread practices at all times. However, even ancient history shows that empires were not expected to survive for long – even in historical periods with a very slow progression of time, no empire that occupied huge territories inhabited by strangers existed as a unified state for more than three hundred years. The only exception was Rome, but that was an example of a unique amalgamation of colonization and conquest. Also important is that the expansion of orbis Romanum was a gradual and slow process, which made it possible for the provincial population to be successfully Romanized. In general, one can argue that colonization in antiquity created much more stable social and political communities than the conquest of new territories exclusively through military force.
The original meaning of the word ‘colony’ survived until the beginning of the 15th century: the Spaniards used it to label the cities they founded in South and Central America, and the British employed the term to designate territories from which they displaced indigenous tribes. As noted by U.S. scholar Samuel Huntington, “in its original sense the word ‘colony’ refers to a settlement created by people who leave a mother country and travel elsewhere to establish a new society on distant turf,” so the colonists differ from immigrants who “want to become part of the society the settlers had created.” In his book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004), Huntington wrote: “a colony is entirely different from a colony in the later meaning given the term, that is, a territory and its indigenous people ruled by the government of another people.” Only later the term was applied to any lands controlled by great powers outside their home territory, and “colonial expansion” was interpreted as a specific feature of an “imperialist” era. In turn, this resulted in major confusion. Sociologists Edward Kavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini, addressing a phenomenon they called “settler colonialism,” first spoke of it as “a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present,” but then suddenly argued that “settler colonialism is not colonialism” and that “even if colonialism and settler colonialism interpenetrate and overlap, they remain separate as they confine each other.” In my view, it would be more logical to recognize only settler colonies as colonies per se and refer to all other results of expansion gained through establishing political control over foreign territories as dependencies.
One important factor is that classical colonization is limited by the size of the population in countries from which people emigrate, while military expansion is much less restrained, especially considering the overwhelming technological superiority and/or tactical advantages of developed nations. Therefore, one may argue that the strategy of colonization was much more common at the early stages of European expansion, while the tactics of occupation prevailed in later periods.
In this context, it is extremely interesting to analyze the history of European nations from the start of the Age of Discovery. When Europeans arrived in the sparsely populated New World and discovered that the locals seriously lagged behind in warfare technology, they began a long history of both conquest and colonization – with the latter clearly dominating. In the southern part of the continent, which was controlled by the Spanish and Portuguese, the Europeans relied on military force and suppression of the indigenous population; while in the north the British and French colonists preferred to push natives from the coastal territories to deep inland territories and establish classic settler colonies on the Atlantic coast. But no matter how different these processes may seem, European overseas expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries was characterized by massive transatlantic migration: by the mid-18th century around 1.3 million Europeans lived in Latin America and another 3.7 million were in North America, while the share of Europeans in the population of what is now the United States and Canada increased from ten to 80 percent between 1650 and 1825 (Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest, 2011).
The local elites were completely Europeanized in their mindset. If they revolted against their masters, they did so not because they rejected the “European path,” but because of the perception that it was possible to go along it more quickly and efficiently. Indeed, looking back on the history of former colonies, one has to admit that in many ways they were quite successful: it is enough to compare the flow of migrants from Europe to the settler colonies in the Americas (New England, Canada, Brazil, or Argentina) in the 17th and the 18th centuries with that of European dependencies in Africa and Asia two centuries later. Of course, one could call the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s or the Liberation wars of the 1820s in Latin America rebellions against the regime, but one should bear in mind that while dreaming of political independence, the colonists did not think of breaking with the European political tradition. They simply wanted to build their own “city on the hill” in accordance with an ideal European model. Thomas Jefferson and Francisco de Miranda, Benjamin Franklin and Simon Bolivar, Alexander Hamilton and Jose de San Martin were all more “European” than those who supported preserving absolutist order inside Europe.
The revolutionary events in the New World that occurred between the 1770s and the 1820s marked a no less important point in European history than what took place in the Mediterranean in the fourth and third centuries BC. In both cases, the relatively slow colonization of new homelands by ordinary free citizens driven by commercial considerations eventually gave way to an aggressive policy that relied on military power and was aimed at establishing direct political control over new vast territories. Thus “Enlightened” Europe embarked – after two thousand years – on the slippery road once trod by Alexander the Great and Octavian the Augustus.
I would argue that the empires created by the European powers as a result of large-scale military expansion should not be recognized as colonial. Similar to Alexander’s conquest of Persia or the era of Roman rule in Britain, the masters had an insignificant presence in the conquered territories (according to data, in 1921, among India’s 306 million residents, there were less than 157,000 Britons, of which about 60,000 served in the regular army; in Kenya in 1960, 68,000 Europeans accounted for a small fraction of the 8.2-million population; and the number of French civilians in Indochina on the eve of World War II did not exceed 34,000 compared to 23 million natives). Of course, the conquerors were trying to replicate in their possessions the techniques and organizational practices that were common in their homelands. Between 1849-1929, the British built around 66,000 kilometers of railways in India – several times more than what they constructed in England, and these railways now serve in the same way as the roads paved by the Romans in the Balkans. During the period from 1946-1958, 70 percent of all investments in infrastructure in the French colonies in Africa and 30 percent of current expenses aimed at maintaining these facilities were paid directly from the French federal budget. However, it is clear that Europeans were not able to repeat the real colonizing efforts in these territories that they had implemented so successfully in North America and Australia. The parent state’s authorities, often effectively and efficiently managing these possessions, did not seek to create a copy of their own civilization; rather, they considered those regions as a profitable and sometimes natural “addition” to their countries, but not their “extension.”
Thus European countries went through two very different stages during expansion: one was colonialist and the other rapacious.
The first stage resulted in what the famous British economic historian Angus Maddison called “Western offshoots” and those were in fact the only genuine European colonies. The majority of their inhabitants were descendants of European settlers, so the colonies represented some kind of “extended Europe” and remain so today. In all of them – and I am talking about vast areas that later became the U.S., Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, etc. – the settlers appeared to be the dominant population group (making up at least 30-40 percent of the population, and in most cases up to 60 percent), while the number of natives declined sharply (plunging more than two-three-fold during the first century of active European “exploration”). Moreover, Europeans built socioeconomic systems in their new possessions resembling those that existed in the home countries (with minor changes) and shared their “civilizational codes.” So further separation of the colonies from the parent state did not disrupt historical continuity, and therefore the notion of “the West,” used today as a label for European civilization, embraces both European countries and their former settler colonies.
On the contrary, to a large extent Europeans did not colonize territories that were occupied militarily and placed under political domination. The locals did not assimilate European customs and strove to overthrow foreign rule – not because they considered themselves more capable or stronger than the invaders, but because they wanted to preserve their own traditions and develop (or not develop) at their own rate. This was easy, since Europeans remained in the territories for simple administrative duties, preferring to establish a vassal system instead of modern governance and focusing mainly on exploiting natural resources in the conquered lands. The share of newcomers did not exceed one-three percent of the population, while deaths among the locals from the suppression of resistance remained within the statistical error (while fighting the Sepoy Rebellion in India in the mid-19th century, for example, the British killed about 300,000 people – with an overall local population of 282 million). Notable examples of territories that experienced domination of this kind include Indochina under French rule, the Middle East, several African tribes under British rule, and Africa in general after the 1880s, while some Latin American countries with a large number of indigenous people and their descendants (such as Peru, Bolivia, or Colombia) may be considered as transitional forms between colonies and dependencies. In the majority of cases there was a quick rejection of European practices once the conquerors withdrew, a dismantling of modern governance, and a restoration of personal power, which, in turn, easily led to ethnic conflicts and multiple (but usually unsuccessful) economic experiments. Total dependence on the colonial rulers, which is characteristic for these societies, usually creates a “development trap,” and after gaining their independence, new nations often take a downward path, forming a kind of “non-developing world.”
The above – quite sketchy – remarks seem to me sufficient to at least think about what kind of social and political entity may be called a colony, and whether one may talk about “decolonization” and “post-colonialism” as dominant features of the second half of the 20th century.
POST-COLONIALISM VS POST-DEPENDENCY
The term ‘post-colonialism’ is one of the indicative catchphrases of the 20th century. Coined by Aimé Césaire in 1950, it was further taken up by Frantz Fanon, Edward Saïd, and dozens of their followers and became trendy among advocates of a “special” path of development and with anti-imperialists. Today its supporters posit that it be used in a very broad context. Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins argue that “the term ‘post-colonialism’ is frequently misunderstood as a temporal concept, meaning the time after colonialism has ceased, or the time following the politically determined independence day on which a country breaks away from its governance by another state… [while] post-colonialism is, rather, an engagement with, and contestation of, colonialism’s discourses, power structures and social hierarchies.” ‘Post-colonialism’ in this sense becomes a theory of resistance to any unwanted dependency – on previous doctrines, on a European model of development (assumed to be far from ideal), or on images created in people’s minds.
Meanwhile, if one proceeds from the logic above, the term has no right to exist for at least two reasons. On the one hand, the colonies (as opposed to dependent territories) almost never disengaged from their mother countries if it came to a choice of development; sometimes they even enriched the discourses that were conducted in Europe, but never tried to debunk them. On the other hand, using assumptions made earlier, I would argue that “decolonization” seems to be extremely rare, since the independence of former colonies does not imply a withdrawal of the settlers who actually fought for this independence from their land. One should also note that supporters of the concepts known today as “post-colonial” condemn first of all not the practice of settler colonization, but the suppression of the local population by invaders, and therefore call for rejection of the European path rather than for its enhancement. Understandably, the attitude to former conquerors and oppressors is unlikely to be positive, but to be fair, rejection of a proven way of progress does not necessarily lead to the discovery of a more effective and promising one.
I wish to assert straightforwardly that there is no such thing as “postcolonial syndrome.” That is nonsense. Societies that developed as colonies might try to free themselves from the domination of a parent state at a point when such a situation begins to be perceived as a burden by the majority of the population. Yet they do so only to develop in the direction shown by the “colonizers” while they were subjugated to them. Settler colonies, if they become independent, tend to copy their parent states. This is, in fact, a proof of Karl Marx’s remark that “the more developed country shows a less developed country a true image of its own future.” In some cases, former colonies become equal to their former colonial powers, or even more successful. Examples of the United States vs. Great Britain, Argentina vs. Spain, and Brazil vs. Portugal speak for themselves. At its initial stage, colonization of a particular territory by more developed people can result in a great human tragedy, but it never slows down historical progress; on the contrary, it generally creates preconditions for its local acceleration.
But while the “postcolonial syndrome” is nonsense, a “post-dependency syndrome” is a reality. The liberation of dependencies cannot be labeled as “decolonization” simply because their “colonization” was rather tentative. For example, when the Dutch left the West Indies they not only took home 18,000 compatriots, but also more than 30,000 locals who were afraid of being punished by the new authorities for collaborating with the former rulers. Only 12,000 Portuguese returned from Angola and Mozambique after those two countries declared their independence, and just 40,000 French left Indochina after it succeeded in a war for independence that left 75,500 French soldiers dead (it should be noted that the French did not call Indochina a settler colony (colonie de peuplement), preferring to speak about a colony subjected to a purely economic use (colonie d’exploitation économique). Even the worst case – the war that led to the liberation of Algeria, which prior to 1962 was not even a dominion, but a département of France – led to the expulsion of 800,000 French natives who accounted for only 7.5 percent of the total population of the province (decades later the descendants of the Algerian freedom fighters regret that they were born after the country became independent since they are not eligible for French citizenship).
The European withdrawal from these areas, often extremely painful, was predetermined by both economic and political factors.
Economically, overseas possessions have become simply unnecessary. If in 1913 British and French overseas territories accounted for 58 percent of both countries’ foreign trade, in 2011 India’s share in the foreign trade of the United Kingdom stood at 1.7 percent, while the whole of Africa accounted for around two percent of French foreign trade. Today it is much easier and cheaper to buy goods delivered by former dependent territories than to fight for political control over the regions where they can be produced.
Politically, the most brutal methods of modern local warfare, including acts of terrorism and ethnic cleansing, were used on a large scale for the first time during the struggle for independence of these territories in the second half of the 20th century. Many historians and political analysts emphasize that the nature of warfare changed dramatically exactly when the resistance began to resemble a fierce rebellion with the use, at times, of unimaginable methods. Remarkably, this was legitimized by the United Nations – particularly by UN General Assembly Resolution Number 2908 of November 2, 1972 (“Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”) that “reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial people and people under foreign domination to exercise their right to self-determination and independence by all necessary means at their disposal [Author’s italics].”
In such circumstances, Europeans had no choice but to leave their overseas possessions. They withdrew, but the problems remained. The newly independent states found themselves in a global world without any survival experience. Their new status was accompanied by a tangle of problems: their former rulers did not care about creating even the basics of local government or of civil society; the boundaries between protectorates did not correspond to the areas inhabited by different local communities or tribes after they were drawn arbitrarily by European powers; the economy was completely subordinate to other states’ needs and was unable to develop without access to European markets and without assistance from the former dominant powers. Societies that were controlled for a long time from outside without adopting European cultural traditions and mixing with Europeans were doomed to remain in the periphery of global development. The consequences of the newfound freedom are obvious today – the least developed and poorest countries are those that gained independence in the 1960s. Between 1960-1996 wars and armed conflicts in Africa alone took the lives of more than eight million people – slightly less than the number of soldiers killed in World War I. More than two-thirds of the population in countries that became independent between 1957-1963 now survives on less than one dollar a day. At the same time, average defense spending in these nations is 6.6 percent of GDP. Among the 25 countries with the lowest life expectancy, 24 are African nations; in the 27 countries that gained independence during the liberation movement in the 1960s, the highest level of per capita GDP was recorded back in the second half of 1970s. For example, when it became independent Kenya was ahead of South Korea. It should also be noted that the “modest charm of ‘post-colonialism’” has a tendency to dissipate: according to public opinion polls in sub-Saharan countries in 2005, more than 49 percent of the people believed their own governments were responsible for their economic and social problems, while only 16 percent blamed their former European masters.
I am not trying to relieve the European powers of responsibility for what has happened and for what is going on now in their former possessions. But I want to emphasize that one should not label all this as “post-colonialism.” European domination in Africa and Asia should not be called an era of colonization because an improper use of terms may give rise to the wrong visions and provoke completely erroneous political steps. And here we come perhaps to the most remarkable part of our analysis and to the most atypical example of imperial and post-imperial policy – Russia.
A UNIQUE COUNTRY AND ITS FUTURE
When referring to “colonial” topics, scholars and politicians in both the Soviet Union and in Russia would invariably say that those issues are not relevant to the country. The term “the conquest of territories” was applied exclusively with reference to foreign overseas territories, while in Russia territories were just “explored.” Indigenous people were “enslaved” in “other” countries, while in Russia they were “dragged out of the miserable past” by ethnic Russians and shown the way to the modern world. But it is no good living in a world of illusions – and I believe the suggested approach may be helpful in rethinking both Russia’s history and future.
First of all, Russia, in its relations to the outside world, resembles Europe incredibly. One can only wonder how similar in chronological terms the waves of European and Russian colonization were. When the Spanish were establishing their dominance in South America and the British and the French were exploring the northern part of the New World, the Russians were moving eastwards, and between 1581-1697 they moved from Siberia to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, later crossing the Bering Strait and reaching as far as the present-day U.S. states of Oregon and California. Siberian cities were founded at the same time as the most prominent boroughs in New England, and at its apex, Russian territories located east of the Urals (including Alaska) were larger in size than all Spanish possessions in the New World from Texas to Tierra del Fuego. According to some calculations, both the extent of this expansion and the duration of control over the acquired territories make Russia the biggest empire of all time.
These vast areas became a settler colony of Russia and were dominated by methods well known to Europeans. Notably, this was clearly pointed out even by contemporaries: in the second half of the 17th century the Croatian historian Juraj Krizanic, at the time in exile in Tobolsk, compared the exploration of Siberia with both the Roman and Spanish practice of resettlement, calling it “sending of the people to remote settlements.” Later, in his classic work Siberia as a Colony, first published in 1882, Nikolai Yadrintsev proceeded from the thesis that “Siberia was born as a result of people’s movement and creativity; it is a product of the Russian peoples’ outburst of emigration, their impulse towards resettlements, and their desire to create a new life in a new country… so therefore one can assume that Siberia is predominantly a product of a free popular colonization, which later was used and heavily regulated by the state.”
In the early 20th century the most famous Russian historian of the time Vassily Klyuchevsky wrote that “the history of Russia is the history of a country that is [constantly] being colonized; the area of colonization expands alongside the state’s territory – one day contracting, another day rising, this eternal circulation continues until today.” Yet again contemporaries left plenty of evidence about atrocities perpetrated by the invaders on the “occupied” territories. According to the memoirs of Bishop Innocentius of Kamchatka, it was common for Russian pioneers to kill nearly half of rebelling tribes, and some modern Western historians argue that the number of locals killed in Siberia was close to that of North America – while in other places nothing close to this could be imagined. For example, in India under British rule. In fact, Russia, during its colonization of Siberia, not only competed with European powers, but also often surpassed them. Although according to Richard Pipes: “Russians [unlike the Europeans] did not go abroad; they preferred to colonize their own country instead.”
But the similarities do not end here. Approximately two centuries after the beginning of Siberian colonization, Russia, as well as the European powers, started not only colonial, but also purely military experiments, adding to its territory many densely populated areas and annexing neighboring states. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Russia annexed the Crimea and Bessarabia, and a huge part of Poland, Finland, Georgia, and Azerbaijan; in the mid 19th century it launched a war in the North Caucasus. Several decades later Russia occupied Central Asia. Adding to its possessions several client states, such as the Emirate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva, Russia extended its power to the borders of the British zone of influence in Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. In the same period when the European powers completed their partition of Africa and Southeast Asia, Russia reached its natural limits. However, here the similarities end and the differences begin.
The uniqueness of the Russian Empire in the early 20th century is determined, in my view, by several factors. First, Siberia – an enormous colony – was officially incorporated into a unified state (starting in 1596 the area was no longer governed by an Ambassadors’ Office) and showed no signs of secession by the time the empire had began a new round of expansion. Indeed, this was greatly different from the British Empire, which lost its American possessions before gaining new ones in Asia and Africa. Second, in contrast to the European countries and their settler colonies, Russia regarded Siberia as a dependency (or as a colonie d’exploitation économique). Russia did not try to develop the region, but simply used its natural resources; the local elites were practically absent, and the first university (founded in Tomsk in 1878) opened its doors 327 years later than in Lima, 242 years later than in Boston, and 16 years later than in Karachi. Third, Russia began to exploit its new possessions in the Caucasus and Central Asia much more actively than any of the Western powers did in their possessions gained during the “second stage” of overseas expansion. Especially surprising is the fact that this construct – combining both colonies and dependencies inside the borders of a single state – outlived the collapse of the imperial regime, and after a short period of chaos, lasted for nearly seventy years.
However, at the end of the 1980s, another weakening of centralized power led to an upsurge in separatism and to the final disintegration of the country; it was a dissolution that might appear “unproblematic” at first glance, yet it should not be considered fully accomplished even today.
Russia, like Britain in its time, let its dependent territories go without resistance, realizing that control over them was becoming too expensive. Amazingly, the leadership of the new Russia was even forced to support separatist movements since it was fighting the Soviet administrative machine just like all the other former Soviet republics’ elites. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian officials “forgot” that part of the territories that they counted as dependencies were in fact extensively colonized by ethnic Russians and Slavonic nationals. By 1989, the share of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians in the overall population of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic stood at 44.4 percent, while ethnic Kazakhs made up only 39 percent. In the Kirghiz Soviet Republic, the three ethnic groups accounted for nearly 24.3 percent of the population; in the Uzbek Soviet Republic, 9.3 percent; in the Tajik Soviet Republic, 8.5 percent; in the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic, 6.1 percent, and even in the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Republic (incorporated into the Russian Soviet Republic), 24.3 percent. In 1991, at least 11 million Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians lived in the newly independent states of Central Asia. That figure is at least 20 times larger than the number of British residents who lived in the African and Asian parts of the British Empire in 1947, and 30 times larger than the number of French nationals in France’s overseas dependencies in 1952. What followed the collapse of the Soviet Union can be described as a unique example of decolonization in the strictest sense of the word: by the mid-2000s, more than four million Russians had left (or, to be more exact, had been ousted from) the “non-developing” states of the region. By the end of the 2010s, the share of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians in the population of an independent Kazakhstan had fallen to 26.2 percent; in Kyrgyzstan to 6.9 percent; in Uzbekistan to 4.1 percent; in Tajikistan to 1.1 percent; and in Chechnya and Ingushetia, formally still parts of Russia, to 1.9 and 0.8 percent, respectively. Importantly, this happened while the Russian authorities remained silent about discrimination against their compatriots, while trying at the same time to build geopolitical alliances in the region driven by purely commercial interests.
The story of the post-Soviet states once again proves a conclusion that can be easily derived from the history of real colonization and conquest; i.e. the territories explored by European powers follow the European civilizational model only if they are overwhelmingly populated by the descendants of those who came from the parent state. Unlike colonies, dependencies are not able to build their positive identities, and therefore they cannot avoid a surge of nationalism as the only means of primitive nation building. The lessons to be learned from these realities are perfectly clear: first, no one can prevent such states from continued obsolescence; second, it seems unproductive at least to seek any alliances with them; third, it would be vicious and even immoral on the part of the former parent country to launch some kind of integration with countries that initiated and continue a policy of “decolonization.” An apologia of the so-called Eurasian Union is no more convincing than calls for recreating quasi-state forms of association, between, for example, Great Britain and Zimbabwe, or between France and Senegal. Similarly, the benefits of establishing a free-trade zone between Russia and its former dependencies are no more evident than introducing duty-free imports to Europe from Sub-Saharan Africa. Russia’s current attempts to restore some kind of political union with its former dependencies are unmatched in their irrationality.
Another feature of contemporary Russia is no less strange. Trying to reestablish “partnership” with its former dependencies, Russia pays no attention to the changing balance between the “core” and the “periphery” inside the country. At the end of the Soviet era, Siberia accounted for 13 percent of the gross economic output of the Soviet Union and had slightly less than 10 percent of its population (of course, the territory to the east of the Urals constituted 57.1 percent of the country’s entire territory, but most of it was uninhabited, thus that imbalance was not considered serious). In post-Soviet Russia, Siberia accounts for 74.8 percent of Russian territory and is home to 20.3 percent of its people. Moreover, by late 2012, 68-75 percent of Russian exports were made from products either extracted or processed in Siberia, while two forms of revenue – the subsurface mineral extraction tax and export duties for oil and natural gas (both closely connected with Siberia) provided 50.7 (!) percent of federal revenue. If Russia is deprived of this wealth, it will immediately drop from ninth to 30th in the ranking of the world’s biggest exporters, which will put the country behind Austria. If the federal budget is deprived of Siberian revenue, the increase in state pensions and in government-led investment programs that was achieved over the last decade will be wiped out. Today it seems that Siberia is not an Eastern outskirt of Russia, but that Moscow is a city located somewhere to the west of Siberia.
There has never been a colony that is so economically critical for a parent country and yet has remained politically disenfranchised. Russia’s territorial contraction, ongoing de-industrialization, and transformation into Europe’s commodity appendage change in a dramatic way its degree of stability in “colonial” terms. Thus it is essential that Russia give a far stronger voice to its eastern regions in major governmental policies, modernize its federalism, provide Siberia with more autonomy, including in foreign policy issues, and, in general, rethink the development strategy of a still united country.
Russia is a unique historical community. It enjoys the advantages that Anglomerica or Portobras would have boasted if the thirteen colonies had not seceded from the British monarchy in 1776, and if Portugal’s South American colony had not proclaimed itself an independent empire in 1822. The Russian government should appreciate these benefits and opportunities. Therefore, it is necessary to study history and remember that the great European powers fell into decline not at the time when local tribes, delirious with the thirst for freedom, ousted their armies from Zaire and Mozambique, but when their passionate pioneers found that they could develop faster and more efficiently without patronage from former capitals. The loss of colonies is incomparably more dangerous for empires than the loss of dependencies. Trying to hold on to dependencies is meaningless, but to neglect the colonies is reckless. This is the conclusion one easily arrives at if one realizes the difference between colonies and dependent territories, which modern political science neglects – not least due to captive traditional terminology. Here, as elsewhere, it is easy to make the wrong decisions while acting through conventional thinking.
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Above all this article is a call to rethink some familiar dogmas. The time for colonial and imperial experiments, in which Europeans were engaged for centuries, is now coming to an end. Looking back, one can much better understand the logic of European colonization and domination. Today it is almost obvious that the world is globalizing, not Westernizing, and the division into the center and the periphery is gradually disappearing. But the difference is equally clear between the colonial expansion that actually formed the contemporary globalized world, and temporary military control over foreign territories, which eventually led to reaction and setbacks. Europe made a mistake by not stopping its expansion at its limits of human resources, but instead relied on technology and warfare – assets that cannot substitute for cultural codes. Colonization was a great display of European power, while attempts to control the distant periphery came as its greatest mistake.
Recently Russia has found itself facing some of the same challenges that Europeans encountered half a century ago. So we should look at what has been happening in the world in the last fifty years and analyze this experience, while remaining immune to terminological and ideological dogmas. We need to rethink once again the differences between colonies and dependencies, Westernization and globalization, post-colonial development and post-dependency syndromes, and, finally, between attempts to restore empires and equitable interstate integration. This article does not offer a final answer to the critical issues of our time; rather it is an invitation to a broader discourse – which, it seems, may yield positive results.