free press eristavi: the empire will fall.
Transborder solidarity to end russian colonialism has never been this broad and strong.
free press eristavi is the first newsletter educating you about Russian colonialism. The opening essay is public; the rest is behind the paywall. Your paid subscription will power my mission to mainstream Russian colonialism awareness.
Do you know what has been the most depressing thing on my journey to learn more about centuries-old crimes of Russian colonialism? Not the jaw-dropping scale of them. Not the zero accountability that Russia has faced. Not even the unfathomable amount of silenced indigenous voices. No. What depressed me the most was the realization of how many oppressed nations faced the same abuser and the same assault tactics but had little chance to push back collectively. Colonialism thrives on the ‘divide-and-rule’ tactic, ensuring the victims feel isolated and alone.
In one of the recent interviews, I talked to brilliant Emily Couch about the rising wave of anti-colonial solidarity in former Russian colonies — and how my various initiatives, from this newsletter to #UkrainianSpaces to Volya Hub, are designed to turbo-charge it. Since it is behind the Foreign Policy paywall, I wanted to tease a couple of quotes from this great piece with my Free Press Eristavi community.
First, my team can see actual evidence of the growing transborder impact of the conversation about Russian colonialism. Across all our projects, we record unprecedented reach and engagement surrounding the narrative. #UkrainianSpaces has been trending in Top-20 podcasts in former Russian colonies, including: Georgia-Sakartvelo, Kyrgyzstan, Qazaqstan, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia. Even in Russia, too, but in the top 100. #RussianColonialism, the social media awareness campaign I launched in 2018 across social media platforms, has surpassed 95 million content views online and was embraced by over 30k unique authors globally.
Ukrainian journalist Maksym Eristavi has been working hard to challenge these assumptions and foster connections between people and communities impacted by Russian colonialism through Ukrainian Spaces, a podcast he founded with digital activist Valeriia Voshchevska. Responses to the episodes, he said, had shown a real eagerness among listeners in the region to engage with the idea of anti-colonial solidarity.
“The episodes we did with Kazakh and Kyrgyz allies have been the most listened-to episodes in the history of our project,” Eristavi said. “The first episodes we did with Ukrainians would turn into group therapy sessions, a safe space to share our generational trauma …. The same dynamic played out with our Central Asian friends and allies. There were moments when we would feel absolutely the same, when we would intimately feel what they were trying to convey.”
This sense of emotional kinship founded upon similarly traumatic experiences is emerging after decades of Soviet propaganda, said Azamat Junisbai, a Pitzer College professor of sociology focusing on Central Asia. The Soviet Union was in many ways a successor to the Russian empire, given the privileged position it granted to the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and Russian culture and the way it treated minorities, he said. But the notion that the Soviet Union could be a colonial power was deeply taboo in a Communist state that trumpeted its supposedly anti-imperialist credentials. “Growing up as a kid in Kazakhstan, the notion that we were a colony of Russia was never ever mentioned,” Junisbai said. Decades of imbibing this propaganda prevented many Kazakhs from acknowledging—and therefore resisting—Russian colonialism, although the process was slowly happening. Junisbai believes Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine “put this process on steroids,” he said.
On the spectrum of Russian colonialism:
A key tenet of decolonization is moving away from political and cultural paradigms that center on the imperial metropole, valorizing Indigenous and local experiences, cultures, and identities. There is a tragic paradox in the fact that much of what now joins such disparate countries together, providing the basis for solidarity, is a direct result of colonial policies. As in the former colonies of the British Empire, the language of the colonizer, Russian, continues—to varying degrees—to dominate communication between these now independent societies. A shared language, however, does not mean entirely shared experiences. In the social and political hierarchies of both the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, an ethnic Kazakh would have experienced colonial practices very differently from an ethnic Ukrainian. “Racism was not so prominent in Russia’s colonization of Ukraine as it was in its colonization of Central Asia,” Eristavi pointed out.
The only way to ensure the end of the empire is to keep building bridges between the survivors of Russian colonialism.
Each society grapples with the heritage of Russian dominance. One way civil society could foster ongoing solidarity is through providing spaces where people from such immensely varied backgrounds could share experiences and learn from one another as they seek to reclaim their languages and distinct cultures. In Ukraine, thousands have turned away from Russian—even if it is their first language—and switched to Ukrainian, with similar trends occurring in Belarus and Kazakhstan. It is in the process of decolonization where solidarity among former Russian colonies can flourish.
Solidarity does not mean sameness. The manifold initiatives that have emerged to support Ukraine and its people across what was once the Russian empire demonstrate a readiness to reject Moscow’s long shadow, as well as fertile ground for grassroots cooperation after the war ends. No matter in what terms one understands it, Russia’s full-scale invasion has brought discussions of identity—individual, social, and political—to the fore. Only if and when Ukraine wins will we begin to see where these conversations lead.
here is what's in store for you this week:
how Russia stealing and appropriating Ukrainian avant-garde is one of the best stories to illustrate and explain Russian colonialism;
and another one would be the language issue in Ukraine. I have two stories that must become your forever bookmarks for any future reference;
how the fights against Western white supremacy and Russian colonialism are not that different;
why Russia never developed a ministry for colonized lands, and what it tells you about the type of colonialism it practices.
curious for more? let's go.