free press eristavi: slava ukraïni and post-colonial nationalism
russian colonialism weaponized the idea of indigenous nationalism. time to reclaim it.
As I write this, most Ukrainians are still processing the unfathomable horror of another russian war crime. Tymofiy Shadura, a Ukrainian prisoner of war, was executed by russians for mumbling a patriotic slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine.' They shot him a dozen times, filmed it, and posted it online. Russians rejoiced on social media at the murder of another ‘nationalistic extremist.’ This is not the first Ukrainian russians executed for a slight display of patriotism. Countless examples from the ongoing genocide aside, back in 2014, russian occupation forces tortured to death a Ukrainian schoolboy Stepan Chubenko for wearing a yellow-blue ribbon.
These are just two examples of too many in the serial behaviour that dates back centuries. But only recently have I started connecting these dots. For most of my life, every time I tried to speak Ukrainian, wear anything styled in the Ukrainian flag colors, or, god forbid, sing along to our Ukrainian anthem in public — I’d get a concerned and condemning look: ‘are you a nationalist or something?’ Faced with so much violence for random displays of patriotism, no wonder my people developed an entire culture of self-censorship and collective self-policing.
Few outsiders realize that a simple exhibit of any sympathy for your nation or your indigenous roots became acceptable in Ukraine only recently. Before, anything from speaking and looking too Ukrainian to hinting at historical justice for centuries of Russian imperial abuse of Ukraine, would be severely stigmatized as something ‘extremist’ or ‘radical.’ It wasn’t an isolated behavior either. As I discovered later, people from Latvia and Georgia, to Kyrgyzstan and Qazaqstan share identical experiences about their national and patriotic sentiments regularly policed and shamed.
So why would my fellow Ukrainians (and other people in former Russian colonies) do that to each other? This is another manifestation of so-called colonized consciousness when inferiority complex and self-hatred are fueled by the carefully crafted colonial control ideology. It is designed to cut the colonizer’s costs on keeping the colonized in check: it is easier to brainwash them into thinking that they are in control of their choices, including self-hatred and rejection of their own indigenous identity. It is aimed at hijacking historical narratives and bending them to reinforce the idea of ‘civilizing’ and the inevitable nature of the empire. It is honed by regular corrective violence.
Different colonizers do it differently, but russia loves to weaponize ‘nationalism.’ In practice, it means vilifying any indigenous nationalist sentiments. You are allowed to showcase your patriotism and affection to your own people only if it is not threatening to the empire. Only if it supports a trivialized and infantilized caricature of your culture manufactured by the colonizer.
For example, signing Ukrainian songs about heartbreak or nature is fine, but liberation or anti-colonial lyrics are ‘extremist.’ Wearing a cheap and poor taste version of national clothing is fine, but tattooing a Ukrainian trident makes you a ‘radical.’ Having controlled autonomy within the empire is fine, but insisting on respecting national borders and sovereignty makes you a ‘Nazi.’ It can easily escalate to the extremes. In the 1990s, russians genocided Chechens and flattened their cities after they attempted independence — the entire indigenous nation was branded ‘extremist nationalists.’ The same arguments laid the foundation for the ongoing genocide in Ukraine and many other russian invasions.
Unfortunately, the same russian colonial propaganda trickled down to how many foreigners perceive the current or former Russian colonies. Obsessive policing for any signs of Ukrainian far-right movements is exhausting - even if the country has the lowest public support for them and not a single far-right party in the parliament. Even in the latest Western coverage of the Tymofiy Shadura execution, some outlets manipulatively branded ‘Glory to Ukraine’ as a ‘slogan of Ukrainian Nazi collaborators,’ channeling decades-old russian propaganda that discredited the 19th-century national liberation salute as ‘Nazi.’
Moreover, while confederate statues in the States or monuments for Leopold II in Belgium are still standing, any internal public discussion about national historical figures in Ukraine is scrutinized as if Ukrainians must obtain an explicit waiver from foreigners about who is appropriate to celebrate and recognize (yep, the Bandera debacle.) Meanwhile, calls for independence by indigenous nations within Russia are often met with concerns about ‘the spiral of extreme nationalism.’
‘It is a standard imperial narrative to label those seeking independence as dangerous nationalists. This narrative came to the West via Russia. Just like the story that the Chechens are Islamist terrorists and bandits,’ warns Qazaq thinker Botakoz Kassymbekova in her powerful interview with the Berliner Zeitung, linking Western sympathies for Russian colonizers and the unprocessed legacy of Western colonialism.
Luckily, there’s a growing circle of indigenous voices educating the rest of the world about the difference between offensive (when a country attacks others in ‘patriotic duty’) and defensive nationalism (when a nation exhibit high levels of patriotism because it doesn’t want it to be eradicated) and how manifestations of post-colonial nationalism are different from imperial or Western types of nationalism. 'The Zelensky Effect,’ the latest book by Olga Onuch documenting the emergence of the civic and political nation of Ukrainians amid genocide, is one of the great places to start. I will feature a couple of more authors later in this edition.
Ukrainians feeling extra proud of their nation never means expansion, but rather defense. Our peaks of patriotism and nationalism always correspond with campaigns of mass slaughtering us and rarely have any relation to ethnicity or other reductive markers. Even the Bandera discussions are often about the powerful push for decolonization and reclaiming our historical narratives from the colonizer - rather than the man himself. The lines between patriotism and nationalism in modern Ukraine are not clear - nor among genocide should you expect them to be.
‘I DO wholeheartedly agree that Ukrainian public figures should think twice before praising someone as divisive as Bandera. That shit does alienate our allies, gives Russian propaganda more ammo (although, let’s be honest, they would call us Nazis anyway), and, most importantly, hurts and offends Ukrainians who don’t see the guy as some kind of hero,’ writes Ukrainian culture critic Oleksandra Povoroznyk. ‘But claiming that Ukraine is the only country on earth where people make heroes out of questionable historical figures is pretty absurd. Pretty much every single nation that had to fight for its independence has heroes that could also be seen as terrorists, because history is messy that way.’
The issue of indigenous nationalism is complex and takes an effort to understand even for indigenous people themselves. But stopping viewing our patriotic and national sentiments through the prism of the colonizer — would be the first step towards justice.
here what's in store for you this week:
understanding Ukrainian nationalism and patriotism through decolonization: why celebrating Bandera has little to do with the man and everything with resisting Russian colonialism
why Ukrainian nationalism is a clear case of post-colonial nationalism
the overlap between colonialism and foreign objectifying of Ukrainian women
how Russia appropriated colonized cuisines and called them ‘Russian.’
curious for more? let's go.