Decolonial narrative must acknowledge Eastern Europe’s relationship to colonialism

By Dr Eret Talviste

OVER the past two weeks, after Vladimir Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine and the outbreak of war, a certain anti-racist/ decolonial narrative has emerged primarily from Western left-wing intellectuals.

The narrative correctly emphasises the inherent racism in the West’s ability to give sympathy to war refugees.

Yes, wars in Syria, Iraqi, Yemen and Palestine should be condemned and refugees from the Global South welcomed.

But before reducing this complex war in Ukraine to simply an issue of racism, it is worth thinking about eastern Europe’s relationship to colonialism.

There is no single ‘Europe’, as there is no one single ‘Far-East’ or ‘Africa’. Reducing all Europe to one ‘Europe’ ignores the complex history of eastern Europe and its relationship to colonialism.

An intersectional feminist and decolonial critique is necessary to see that showing solidarity to Ukraine is not simply a racist act of giving sympathy to white people. It is possible to condemn Putin’s war while condemning racism – in fact, the two should be interrelated.

The attitude that dismisses solidarity to Ukraine based on the argument that racism exists among white people is a very special kind of privilege that comes from a specifically Western (European) position that fully ignores the complex histories of various eastern and central European countries and their constant struggle for freedom and right to define themselves, and to keep their languages and cultures alive.

Europe, in some de/postcolonial approaches, is becoming an umbrella term as we refer to western Europe (Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain– the old colonial powers) that unfairly ‘covers’ other European areas. Eastern European countries have not exercised massive and brutal colonisations of overseas lands; they have been colonised by Russia and various other empires.

Colonialism and racial and ethnic discrimination in the east, in other words, is much more complex than the West is willing to understand. Before ‘explaining’ (or ‘westsplaining’) the economy of sympathy to the east, the West should consider that the people in the neighbouring countries to Ukraine, and in the Baltics, are so mobilised because they understand the war that unfolds in close proximity to their own countries because of a shared past.

The basis of that sympathy cannot be reduced simply to the same skin colour nor dismissed because of that.

There is also a visible hypocrisy in this ‘defence’ of racial equality in this narrative which is related to ‘whiteness’ and Western Eurocentrism.

One of the most central, general, and yet important things from post/ decolonial studies is that white Western people see various ethnicities a unified category of ‘others’ to exploit, discriminate, or simply ignore. With the events in Ukraine, we see that this ‘othering’ is not limited to people of different ethnicities who are ‘not white’, but also to white people – everyone is a universal mass of ‘other’. 

Europe, for a western European or a person in the US who sits in their comfortable home, becomes one single Europe, which it certainly isn’t because of the abovementioned reasons.

Historically, Eastern Europeans are also seen as ‘Slavs’ who are certainly not treated as ‘white Europeans’ – discrimination of the east European workforce is very much alive in the UK today, for example. This leads to the fact that the West also often see eastern Europeans as ‘worse’.

In a twisted way, this is one of the reasons why at the moment there is a narrative that blames Ukrainians and Poles for racism in handling the people who want to escape the country.

There is no doubt there is racism everywhere in the world, including Eastern Europe, but in this context, what is the solution then? To let the Ukrainians suffer because they’re white and presumably racist anyway so Putin can first kill some of them and later have the rest of them?

It is also for certain that if Putin wins, racism in the world as such will only grow.

When the West does not offer solidary to Ukraine or condemn Putin’s war based on the argument that the east of Europe is white and/or racist, maybe the West should think twice about where it sits while tweeting these things.

By creating that narrative, a complex conflict that includes the workings of global capitalism, energy crisis, superpowers of NATO and Russia, and a nuclear threat is flattened into one issue – racism – that allows the West to feel morally superior in terms of having more knowledge of racial issues.

By doing that, the West is melting Europe into one indistinguishable western European colonial power, which it certainly isn’t, or dismissing eastern Europe as ‘white’ other, handing it to Putin to be handled as the West has handled its own colonies in the past.

In turn, the West exercises its own imperial power and gaze again over areas it does not know because its understanding of colonialism is centred around western Europe and its overseas colonies, and adding Russian and eastern European relations into that scheme throws the Western knowledge off-balance.

Dr Eret Talviste is a part-time postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tartu in Estonia, and a Commissioner for Equal Treatment at Tallinn University. She has written various essays and reviews about intimacy, feminism, and literature for Estonian cultural magazines and has upcoming academic articles on similar topics in international scholarly journals.

Featured Image: Garry Young @ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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