Against the ‘Decolonize World War Three’ Movement

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Ukrainian poetry and the politically correct


Under what has become a classic New York Times headline “Goodbye, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy: Ukrainians look to ‘decolonize’ their Streets”, an American correspondent likens a Lviv street named after Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky to US Confederate Civil War monuments–which Southern State municipalities erected in the 1950s to undermine the civil rights struggle.


The crazed headline ironically celebrates the “decolonial” effacement of Tolstoy, the aristocratic anarchist whose long, drawn out correspondence with Mohandas Gandhi impacted the ideas of that most famous of all anti-colonial activists. After that, it would be foolish to expect any mention of the history of territorial tensions between Poland and Ukraine over former Lvov–the border-city once brutally expropriated from Poland. The Tolstoy-amputating journalist reads like a character escaped from the set of a rewritten, “woke” version of Mark Twain’s mock-travelogue “The Innocents Abroad”–about American exceptionalism.


In a similar “decolonial” vein, Foreign Policy magazine–which is a specialists’ drawing-board for the security think tank industry– ran “From Pushkin to Putin: Russian Literature’s Imperial Ideology” by Volodymyr Yermolenko, one of the Ukrainian literary scholars regularly featured in Foreign Policy. Yermolenko deploys postcolonial literary theory to unmask the alleged colonial patriarchal supremacy haunting Dostoyevsky, Lermontov and Mayakovski.

It is true that Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s anti-Western nationalism found a humourless imitator in Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose ideas about a vindicated future “Holy Russia” influenced Putin’s belief-system. But it is also true that American Cold War liberals who today promote Yermolenko, yesterday promoted Solzhenitsyn while downplaying and fluffing over his reactionary politics–even as the Russian Orthodox mystic railed against Western decadence while being luxuriously hosted as an exile in Vermont, and while accepting the Nobel prize. Solzhenitsyn’s Western supporters bear at least as much blame as poor long-dead Dostoyevsky for the spread of contemporary Christian nationalism infesting much of eastern Europe.


Yermolenko, interestingly, speaks of the 19th century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko–himself a former slave–who penned “Kavkaz”, a homage to the Caucasus’ natives’ insurgency against Tsarist imperialism, and who even vindicates an indigenous woman gang-raped by occupying Russian soldiers. Shevshenko’s visionary solidarity with Asians runs contrary to the history peddled by university departments of literature, by showing how an oppressed white European thinker was capable of self-identification with non-Europeans. Alas, even in the case of that founding bard of Ukrainian identity, such color-blind empathy had its limits–as we see in the new translation of Shevshenko’s epic “Caucasus” in the otherwise politically-correct LitHub,[1]:


Come learn from us!… Our way is (to) gouge, (…) Here in our land! What can’t we do? We count the stars, sow buckwheat seeds, We curse the French. Get good receipts For selling serfs, or else we lose Them playing cards… not Negroes, hmmm, But you know… Christians, only… dumb. We aren’t Spaniards; God forbid That we should deal in stolen goods. We heed the law! Not like those Yids… By the laws of the apostles You should love your brother! Hypocrites and idle gossips, Damned by God our Father.


Will EU capitals soon raise Shevshenko to his stars of burnt buckwheat by engraving these verses onto slick government edifices? The poem proves incompatible with the “woke” language championed by the Ukrainian academics. Reading literature requires context– here, Shevchenko narrates the perspective of Russian conquerors lording over Central Asian and Ukrainian captives, as they weigh and compare the latter’s usefulness as servants to other subaltern peoples in the world. This is not unlike how today’s European establishment makes no secret of its preferring Ukrainian refugees and the Ukrainian cause over war-victims from Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan, despite that all of them are up for exploitation one way or another.


We might ask how Shevshenko compares to the internationalist poetry by anti-colonial Haitian revolutionary Jacques Roumain, who in his verse “Sales Nègres” asks the colonized workers of the world not to obey:


When they shall give us the order,

to machine-gun our Arab brothers

in Syria

in Tunisia

in Morocco

and our white comrades, the striking labourers

to stifle those in the Louisiana cotton-plantations


Perhaps these two poets are not worlds apart. But their bohemian internationalisms differ greatly from Ukrainian and other Slavic nationalisms, which traditionally cast their peoples as martyr-guardians who defend the Christian West against invading hordes from Asia. The woke mask came off in a recent uproar when Yermolenko wrote in a tweet he later deleted under pressure from his angered twitter followers: “Russia is turning into an Asian state, and is refinding its true origins in Golden Horde, as Russian Eurasians always said. In this century its key dilemma will be to align with China or to be swallowed by China. Ukraine’s struggle extends Europe’s borders to the East”.


In “Freedom and Freedonia”,[2] late historian Tony Judt summed up the ideological mindset of entitlement that underlies Yermolenko’s botched PR-talk of “the Asiatic horde”, oft-invoked by Zelensky in speeches: “Bucharest, Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Belgrade have all been variously proposed in recent years as intrinsically and quintessentially “European” (…) precisely because they stand at the frontier where European civilization encounters (and rebuffs) the barbarians to the east or south. We know what it means to be European, they all insist, because our Europeanness has for so long been under threat. We have sacrificed and suffered so that Europe, your Europe, might thrive and live. Why aren’t you listening?”

This is anything but “decolonial” internationalism: it is the resentment over having been excluded from Western Europe’s maritime great games. For first-wave postcolonial thinkers, poets, and soldiers in Africa and the Caribbean, “decolonizing the mind” meant outgrowing such inferiority complexes.


Instead of burning Pushkin, “postcolonial” intellectuals concerned about those who dread a Russian regional bully in their midst could better learn about the culture and politics of the Caucasus. What drove Kazakhstan workers’ protests, which aroused Putin’s paranoia before February 2022? Lenin had emphasised Central Asia’s revolutionary relevance. But Stalin–himself a Georgian–punished the Caucasus with the restoration of the pre-revolutionary antics of the Tsar Alexander II, who extracted Caucasian resources while committing the today-forgotten Circassian genocide.


A spokeswoman for Circassian memory recently spoke at the Decolonize Russia regime-change conference hosted by the US government– tragically, there was no other audience or context until 2022. If the world forgot a genocide that had been designed by the Tsar, that fact only reinforces Chomsky’s rule of “worthy and unworthy” victims. Of what strategic use was it during the Cold War to acknowledge the horrors of pre-Soviet Russia? Only now that Putin advocates Solzhenitsyn’s “Holy Russia” ideology, may descendants of the Tsar’s victims be heard at all, or “decolonized” from oblivion.[3]


The Black Diplomats firm, fronted by black Detroit-born Terrell Jermaine Starr, embodies yet another Frankenstein-like attempt to make the ideologies of “decolonial” and “Black Lives Matter” one and the same with Atlanticism. Starr’s being “based between Kiev and Brooklyn” qualifies him as a “non-resident” fellow of the neo-con Atlantic Council.

“Black Diplomat’s” rhetoric on Ukraine’s right to NATO is smart “decolonial” PR. Listening to Terrell’s charm-offensive, one might be tempted to forget the racism towards “the Golden Horde,”–which includes unfortunate Mongols like Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. “Decolonize Ukraine” activists want us to forget how Western colonialism was foundational to Western capitalism: an economic era that was postponed in East-Europe when it abandoned feudalism for Leninist revolution.


The false framing of Ukraine as a “postcolonial society”, not only glosses over the anachronistic “decommunization” campaigns Ukraine enforced in 2015 and which Zelensky–first popularly elected as a peace candidate–had initially criticized. These misplaced concepts open a Pandora’s box of territorial enmities in the wider region. Some other explosive ethno-national disputes in the region– called “irredentism” in geopolitical language– include Hungary’s claims over Romania’s “Magyar land”; Serb nostalgia over Kosovo; and the Greco-Macedonian quarrel over who are the legitimate descendants of the Macedonian Alexander the Great. Such imbecilic causes proliferate wherever efforts to unite the working class were maligned by Stalinism in the collective memory. Today’s ethno-nationalists, identifying as “colonized” men and women can also easily adopt “woke” “decolonial” language, “empowering” them to emancipate themselves from mental slavery by taking up the sword against old rivals and minorities.


Western pundits rarely think twice about what potentially misuses may ensue from misplaced campus jargon as they copy-paste extraneous values and concepts about power-relations, race, or gender, onto what would otherwise seem opaque foreign places. The newfound “decolonial” consciousness, shorn of context, too easily plays into the wrong hands.


Golden Arches Vs. Golden Horde


The misuse of postcolonial terminology is now a standard PR strategy for Asian neoliberal authoritarian regimes who have grown accustomed to the red carpet rolled out for them by the West. Now, as Narendra Modi’s government censors the circulation of a damning BBC documentary about his past role as firebrand pogrom-leader in Gujarat, Bharatiya Janata Party militants issue one press release after another condemning the “colonial” disinformation campaign targeting the prime minister–“Some people in India still haven’t gotten over their colonial intoxication, they consider BBC above the Supreme Court of India,” said the BJP Law Minister, as others decried the “colonial mindset”. Turkey’s Erdogan resorts to similar devices to buffer Western criticism of his human rights violations, by saying things like “The West has preserved its grudge against Eastern societies, embodied by the Turks, under the name of orientalism.” Edward Said is rolling in his grave.

Like Yermolenko, these spokespersons speak two languages– the “anti-Orientalist” politically-correct language-structure, works for putting potential Western critics in their place. Erdogan’s decrying “orientalization” covers for his agenda of neo-Ottoman imperial revival.


Nationalists of the Balkans can meanwhile happily follow the Ukrainian example of proclaiming their “post-colonial” struggle against Turkey is as relevant now as it was in the 19th century. This might serve as another way of manufacturing consent around military escalations on the Aegean, or campaigns against neighbours, minorities and immigrants with a refurbished “postcolonial” narrative.


The breakup of the Ottoman empire, which of course had murdered millions of people, was no simple affair. It culminated in ethnic cleansings that by the 1920s had Greek nationalists expelling the Greek Muslim population, while the Turkey exiled Greek-speaking minorities “back” to Greece. These details went unnoticed by the pseudo-left caravan of the German artfair Documenta14, whose horde of curators invaded Athens in 2017. In an intended show of solidarity with Greeks shortly after their humiliation by Germany’s financial-political stranglehold in the EU, Documenta14 promoted “decoloniality” by refurbishing 19th century Greek Christian nationalist propaganda art as kitsch, while advocating for the Greek adoption of cultural values that are trending in Berlin.


Rebranding Greece a “postcolonial society” undermines genuine internationalism by working to the advantage nationalists who wish to exorcise, rewrite and erase evidence of their cultures’ having also been influenced by centuries within an Eastern empire. These plots differ in important ways from the Afro-Asian overthrow of colonial regimes in the mid 20th century.


The equivocation of zealous Atlanticism with decolonial, intersectional positions, invite us to forget NATO’s decades in Afghanistan. The revelation of a Western military narco-state in Afghanistan, and the gracelessness with which NATO failed to fulfil its professed aims of helping likely victims of the Taliban–now left to starve under Western sanctions– should reinforce our scepticism towards any claims of this technocratic regime wishing to “decolonize” anything. The European left could instead rally damaged Afghanistan-veterans alongside Afghan refugees to speak out against NATO’s rehabilitation.


The global left, meanwhile, bears responsibility in not pointing out the many misuses of its language by abovementioned neo-cons.


Despite these urgencies, the left has altogether abandoned thinking or theorizing about war–an observation often made by Italo-French philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato.


Conclusion


To avoid ending up like Yermonlenko or Terrell, we would do well to turn back to the first wave of post-colonial and anti-colonial thinkers and fighters from Africa, Asia and Latin America–and liberate these early “decolonials” from the doldrums of university departments that stifle their power.[4] But these figures weren’t mere scholars: they were also soldiers and poets–such as Tunisia’s Albert Memmi, Martinique’s Eduard Glissant, Haiti’s and Cuba’s thinkers, El Salvador’s utopian Ignacio Ellacuría, and Ukraine’s Taras Shevschenko.


Alongside Kenyan writer Ngugi Wathiong’o’s much-abused manifesto exhorting us to “Decolonizing the Mind”–we could also recite Poland’s Czeslaw Milosz, who analyzed how the “captive mind” of his fellow East Europeans straightjacketed them in a “double bind” of believing themselves forced to choose whether they’d be subjects of the German West or the Russian East. Ukrainians and Ukrainophiles take note: the only “decolonial” path is non-alignment.

[1]Lithub introduces the poem by blaming the West’s lack of familiarity with Shevschenko on “a reflection of the dominance of Russian colonializing narratives in the West…we have fostered the so-called “great” Russian literary tradition to the point that it dominates the Eastern European literary canon and cultural discourse, with the result that Ukrainian and other non-Russian literary voices have been silenced.” This woke language ignores the Cold War fame which writers like Czechs Vaclav Havel and Kundera enjoyed in the West. Whereas “problematic” Russian writers who were both socialist revolutionaries and dissidents against Stalinism–like Isaac Babel, and Yevgeny Zamyatin–were inconvenient for the Cold War’s purposes, to the extent that it might have gone unnoticed when Orwell used Zamyatin’s novel We as a model for his seminal 1984. [2] In When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010 [3] Disney Co. has meanwhile recently removed/cancelled its 1997 animation “Anastasia” about princess Anastasia Romanova, suddenly no longer a “worthy victim”. [4] Zizek has argued how literary theorist Homi K Baba castrated Fanon to instrumentalise the Martiniquan psychiatrist and author of “The Wretched of the Earth” as an allegory for “BIPOC” professors’ personal tenure-battles in Western colleges.