A Response to Ekaterina Dyogot’s Article: Does Russia Qualify for Postcolonial Discourse?

See also Ekaterina Dyogot’s original article, How to Qualify for Postcolonial Discourse

Two pertinent anecdotes:

1) Several years ago, during a seminar on postcolonial studies, a fellow doctoral student (a white, middle-class American female) asked, “Why are we talking about the First World vs. the Third World? Where do these ordinals come from?”

“Once upon a time, there was the Second World,” I replied.

2) Earlier that year, I had discovered that I was eligible to apply for the Margaret McNamara Fellowship, offered by the World Bank to women who wished to continue their studies in the USA and were nationals of Third World countries-Russia was on the list of these countries.

This article does not spring from nostalgia, nor is it a call to reconstitute the communist humanities. It is simply a response to the article by Ekaterina Dyogot that appeared in this journal in November 2001. My aim is, namely, to stimulate a wider discussion on postcolonialism and related issues.(I should mention at the outset that I neither live nor work in Russia. Nevertheless, I am familiar with the situation in the humanities there through my activities as the director and one of the lecturers of the summer Central European University course “Art History After the Cultural Turn” (Budapest, 2001, 2002).)

The question guiding my inquiry is the same as Dyogot’s: “Does Russia have a chance to qualify for postcolonial discourse?” However, our differences start precisely at this point, for Dyogot continues, “without which it has no chance at all.”

No chance for what, I ask? I will articulate my view below; first I simply want to draw attention to the fact that the possibly “fatal” outcome of the question-in case the answer to this ontological query is “No, it does not have a chance”-is in clear contradiction with the conclusion drawn by the author herself that “it [that is, Russia] does exist.”

Dyogot thinks that the status of “the Other” was invented by Russia itself because Russia had not become “the object of any statements” by the early-nineteenth century.

She resurrects the hoary thesis of an (unnamed) philosopher according to whom this country lags behind European countries in the grand march of history: “According to philosophers, Russia simply came too late to the scene of world history to be fully appreciated.” It seems that in ‘othering’ Russia in this way the author is endorsing an obsolete teleological concept of history.

This outdated argument does not serve the author’s purpose well; while wanting Russia to qualify for postcolonial discourse, Dyogot overlooks one of the main principles of that discourse, namely that the age of grand narratives is over, with the result that her belief that Russia is a latecomer sets her at odds with most participants in that discourse.

As to the strangeness of being “different,” there were cries about (in modern terminology) geopolitical specificity-Russia was conceived as neither the West nor the East-long before the nineteenth century, so that, contrary to what Dyogot says, the country has been the object of various statements, which, incidentally, it would be very interesting to scrutinize. (For instance, one might want to start by looking at the concept of Moscovy as the Third Rome.)

One wonders how much the eleventh-century schism in the Christian church and the later developments in Eastern Orthodoxy-along with other factors-have contributed to the development of that consciousness of difference.

The Russian belief in difference from western Europeans animated late-eighteenth-century international politics in Russia, resulting, in particular, in their struggle to create a new empire stretching from the Balkans to Siberia that would incorporate all Christian Orthodox Slavic people, with Russian Czarina Katherine II’s grandson Konstantin as monarch. That empire never came into being, but something approaching it did emerge.

I do think that Russia has a chance to qualify for postcolonial discourse, but as a subject/Self rather than an object/the Other.

What gives it that chance is the fact that that country was, until quite recently, a colonizer that for more than five centuries absorbed territory steadily at the expense of various colonized peoples’ lands. Moreover, the Russian Empire was for much of this time the third-largest empire that has ever existed, ranking after only the British and the Mongol empires, and furthermore outlasted all other large empires.(Michael Rywkin, ed., Russian Colonial Expansion to 1917 (London and New York: Mansell, 1988).)

And no matter how one prefers to classify the Soviet Union-as either a colonizer or a “friend of peoples”-one has to admit that the USSR inherited the principles of Russian imperial politics, expanding enormously, especially after 1945, by way of imposing its ideology and culture on peoples in Europe and in Asia.

It is therefore strange to hear some speak of Russia as having figured as the Other (meaning: among the colonized) in the past. By definition, postcolonial refers both to a historical period of political autonomy (but not economic or cultural autonomy) in former colonies/dependent states, and to a research paradigm that attempts to explore the (neo)colonial map underlying contemporary issues in the humanities.

Thus, postcolonial studies is essentially concerned with the study of colonial discourse, and so is clearly misapplied to Russia as object/the Other, the colonized.

Did imperialist Russia not enjoy political independence? And did the Soviet Union not enjoy economic autonomy along with the cultural autonomy resulting from its deep isolation behind the Iron Curtain? It seems perfectly clear that the answer is “Yes”; Russia both before and after the revolution was a “Self” rather than the Other.

Hence, my first proposition: Russia/the former Soviet Union can become an object of study of colonial discourse only within the framework of a new “anthropology of colonists.”(See Andrea L. Smith, , “Colonialism and the Poisoning of Europe: Towards an Anthropology of Colonists,” Journal of Anthropological Research 50 (1994): 383-93.)

This new direction- towards research on colonists rather than on the impact of colonialism on dependencies-tackles directly the question of colonist formation by focusing on the historical emergence of the social category “colonists” and the associated development of colonist cultures and mentalities.

In other words, it does not pursue an analysis of how the colonized were affected but looks at how colonization changed, and, as Aime Cezaire puts it, decivilized, the colonizer-in our case, the Russians themselves.(I find a striking resemblance between what Aimé Cezaire said-that the dehumanizing and destructive effects of colonialism were not only experienced by the colonized but also by Europeans themselves (Discourse on Colonialism [Discours sur le colonialisme], trans. Joan Pinkham [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972])-and a remark made by one of Anton Chekhov’s fictional characters in his play The Cherry Orchard who warned that the mentality of the Russian feudal serf-owning nobles had been changed by that ownership.)

It would be very revealing to trace how the Russian feelings of superiority, which sanctioned their territorial and economic expansion over the centuries, have changed in the course of this colonial conquest.

Dyogot complains that Russian “skin is not black, but . . . he is the Other but has no Other’s rights, the most important of which is the right to speak for himself; the African American writer is given that right without question.”

The latter part of this statement would appear to be an oversimplification: The whole Civil Rights movement took place precisely because this right was not given but rather had to be won by means of a long struggle for a voice (on various levels including the cultural one).

More importantly, Dyogot’s reference to black Americans in the context of a discussion on postcolonialism tends to confuse the two linked, but essentially different, issues of racism and colonialism; she is “racializing” the question.

Methodologically, the United States is rarely considered a postcolonial country (although it was a colony of the United Kingdom), and the essay’s mention of contemporary black American writers as the exemplar of postcolonial subjects introduces rather irrelevantly the divide based on a difference in skin color into the discussion.

Another problematic statement in Dyogot’s article is the following: “When the Other is speaking, those who are not must be silent.”

What, precisely, does this mean? Her treatment of Negritude theory, furthermore, mentioned several times in the course of her article, is also questionable because she claims that it is not merely a precursor, but constitutes the core of the whole of postcolonial discourse.

However, the postcolonial discourse as a branch of scholarship came into being much later than and independently of this theory. (Many scholars agree that it began with Edward Said’s publication of Orientalism in 1978.)

Dyogot warns that just as Negritude theory gave rise to fundamentalism among the African intellectuals, something similar may happen in contemporary Europe where “endless difference” may lead to a world that is not “institutionally guaranteed.” But I have no idea why it should be so desirable for the world to be institutionally guaranteed, that is, fully policed. Is it because of “our own [Russian] repressiveness”?

I am also puzzled by the following: “All illusions concerning decentralization and the possibility of abolishing repression are dangerous.”(I hope I will be forgiven for saying that this language reminds me of that used by Communist Party newspapers!)

Is it not crucial for contemporary humanities in general, and postcolonial studies in particular, to show, in the words of Frantz Fanon, that “the native’s challenge to the colonial world is not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea”?(Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1991), 41.) I doubt that anyone needs a world with a preserved status quo.

Dyogot’s position oscillates between two poles. On the one hand, she claims that Russia is the Other in its relation to the West but has been “awarded” neither the title nor the proper rights of the complete Other and, therefore, a version of postcolonial discourse that would emphasize this situation would be beneficial.

On the other hand, she deems it necessary to “integrate [Russia] into the West not as the Other, but as a part of the West’s historic experience.” There seems to be an inconsistency in the author’s position here.

Luckily, the English language affords us a term for that incomplete Other, namely “another” or “some other.” It is my belief that by working out a suitable notion of Another, one can reconcile the two conflicting positions adopted in Dyogot’s text.

Would this discourse qualify as postcolonial? Probably not, but not because “the discourse of race differences within the white race has long been a taboo and probably will remain so,” as she says.

(On the contrary, the blackness of the Irish has been a topic for a long time-not to mention the not-quite-whiteness of the Jews-so that there is no reason to state that western scholars are reluctant to discuss such issues. To take it one step further, one can examine in a similar way the explicit assumption of superiority of the imperialistic Russians over Ukrainians and Belorussians-“little brothers” who did not measure up, so to speak.(Some interesting comparisons can be made between so-called internal colonization (e.g. of the Irish in the United Kingdom) and the Russian type of colonization where the colonies-ethnically non-Russian territories-were not separated from the metropolitan country by sea (as in the classical case of colonization).))

Russia, which spans parts of two continents-Europe and Asia-politically, economically, and culturally, is “Another.”

In the twentieth century, it chose its own way of development that was different from that of Western Europe. Certainly, if one is willing to widen the concept of colonization so that it encompasses “Russification” and “Sovietization” of European and Asian countries after 1945, one can apply the term postcolonial to the former so-called countries of the people’s democracy lying both west and east of the former Soviet Union.(There were striking differences between classical colonization and Sovietization (which is not to say that the Soviet regime was not harsh).)

I personally prefer the term postsocialist as better suggesting the condition of the countries of the former Second World.(There are some interesting overlapping cases-for example, that of Cuba, a former colony of the West that became Sovietized.) It is this condition that makes a recent discovery of “Coca-Cola, Versace, Tarantino, and Baudrillard . . . nothing but the most authentic and original cultural experience” in Russia.

Personally, I do not think that the Russian humanities would have much to gain from joining the club of the postcolonial studies folk. Of course, there should always be an awareness of what is happening in the neighboring disciplines and across the disciplines-and even the approach used should be similar to that of postcolonial studies, namely that of paying particular attention to the indigenous voice-but the focus and sources should be different.

My second proposition is that the Russian scholars are better situated to develop postsocialist studies, naturally with input from scholars from the West (central-eastern Europe) and the East, since Russia does share commonalities (experience of the communist past mentioned by Dyogot being just one) not only with the West but with Mongolia, China, North Korea, and other post-Soviet cultures.

The notion of a Second World can be successfully utilized in this discourse.

To conclude, I wouldlike to remind readers that the goal of postcolonial studies is not to (re)create the Manichaean universe. “The thing which has been colonized becomes man during the same process by which it frees itself,” said Fanon,(Fanon, The Wretched, 36.) and postcolonial studies frees the mind by deconstructing colonial thinking.

By labeling Russia the Other, by ignoring the postsocialist condition and subsuming the country under postcolonial discourse, the opposite result is risked, since it is simply incorrect to classify Russia in the contemporary world-system as a victim of neocolonialism.(Incidentally, not every developing country experiencing the neocolonialist condition has been referred to as a postcolonial country. In the case of Latin American countries, for example, occidentalism rather than colonialism has been the main concern. See Walter Mignolo, (Post)Occidentalism, (Post)Coloniality, and (Post)Subaltern Rationality (2000).)

There is no such thing as “the Western monopoly on anti-hegemony statement and critique of the West,” as Dyogot sees it. For example, the Subaltern School, whose significance for postcolonial studies should not be underestimated, never pretended to be Western.

Indeed, both the post-Soviet world’s new North-South divide and the failure of Marxism as a methodology present new challenges to postcolonial studies, and I believe that it is postsocialist discourse, in conjunction with postcolonial scholarship, that is necessary to shed light on these various problems.

Margaret Dikovitskaya received the M.A. degree in art history from the Repin Art Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Ph.D. degree from Columbia University, New York, USA. She published many articles on modernist sculpture, Russian emigre artists in New York City, theory and pedagogy of visual culture, and postcolonial studies. She is directing the Summer University program on art history for college faculty from Central Eastern Europe (CEU, Hungary).