Orientalism reanimated: colonial thinking in Western analysts’ comments on Ukraine



2014/10/27 • Featured, Politics

Article by: Fabio Belafatti

Over the last few months, pro-Russian commentators in many Western countries have been portraying the Ukrainian events using a mix of stereotypes that scarily resemble the rhetoric once typical of racist and imperialist ways of thinking. As a result of such stereotypes, Ukrainians (but also Georgians, Moldovans, Poles, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonians) have fallen victims to a new form of Orientalism, a distorted way of thinking that people in the West exhibit all too often when talking about other parts of the world. This contribution tries to provide food for thought to readers and commentators and urge the latter to stop and think before writing about Eastern Europe: first we may all need to rid ourselves of stereotypes that we may not even be aware of. 
Western commentators should rid themselves of old prejudices dating back from the age of colonialism before commenting on Eastern European affairs

What is “Orientalism” and why it matters today

In 1978, Edward W. Said published “Orientalism,” a book that became a milestone in post-colonial studies and essential reading for anyone interested in studying Asian (and especially Muslim) countries. E. W. Said effectively exposed the flawed way in which the West understands the “East.” Among other things, he pointed out that Western commentators consistently looked (and look) at the Orient as an entity incapable of evolving, stuck in an endless past of decadence and backwardness.

Even more importantly, according to Said, the “East” was (is) constantly portrayed as an invariably passive subject, unable and unworthy of being an active subject in its own way. Western colonial and post-colonial stereotypes see it as a sleeping, passive entity, subject to the action of a West believed to be the one and only entity worth of the dignity of an active subject.

Today, the Ukrainian crisis is revealing the existence of a strikingly similar prejudice. This time, though, the victim is not the Middle East, but Eastern Europe. Pro-Russian comments that appeared in Western media over the last few months all provided jaw-dropping, blatant examples of this stereotype, to the point that one can’t help but wonder what prevented the authors – some of which I know personally – from pausing for a moment to think before writing.

This happened on a large number of English-speaking comments, including some from highly prominent experts, but it’s equally obvious in other Western European countries where anti-American feelings historically run high, such as Italy for example, but also France and Spain in many cases. An analysis of the core arguments used by pro-Russian commentators immediately exposes the methodological weakness of these analyses. 

…authors accusing the West of “causing” the Ukrainian chaos by “provoking” Russia in its strategic interests and wounding its pride of great power write from a distorted, hierarchical and, ultimately, orientalist (if not outright racist) perspective on the small countries of Eastern Europe.

Pro-Russian arguments generally work along two directions: a “whataboutism”-based one and a more “geopolitical” one. The one based on whataboutism defends Russia’s actions by appealing to the well-known principle of “yes, but what about…” Russia occupied Crimea? Yes, but what about Iraq? Moscow promotes separatism in Eastern Ukraine? Yes, but didn’t the Americans do the same in Kosovo? And so on and so forth. It is not necessary to spend any time to criticize this line of argument, as it actually nothing more than a logical fallacy (argomentum ad hominem) devoid of any value per se: a cleverly-used, effective fallacy, but a fallacy all the same.

The “geopolitical” line, however, has a slightly superior value. This line defends Russia’s actions by accusing the West of “interfering” in the business of a region where it does not have any right to operate, or expresses understanding for Moscow’s preoccupation about the enlargement of NATO, the erosion of its sphere of influence, the actions of EU and NATO in its “near abroad,” and so on. And it’s exactly in this field that “Orientalism” comes to play a role.

A huge methodological and analytical distortion 

Practically all those who defend Russia in this debate fell into this trap. Reading many of the articles that accuse the West of “causing” the Ukrainian chaos by “provoking” Russia in its strategic interests and wounding its pride of great power, it’s clear how the authors write from a distorted, hierarchical and, ultimately, orientalist (if not outright racist) perspective on the small countries of Eastern Europe.

When a commentator claims that Russia feels threatened by the advance of NATO in Eastern Europe or Ukraine’s approach to the EU, he’s basically implying that Russia does indeed have an inalienable right to claim rights in the region, as if Eastern Europe was nothing but a tool to compensate Russia’s unresolved inferiority complexes. Pro-Russian commentators implicitly deny Ukraine the very dignity of active subject in the whole issue, thus even denying its relevance as an independent state.[1]

The idea that Russian actions are legitimate reactions to the interference of “outsiders” in a region seen as “Russian” is nothing but a 2.0 expression of the same imperialist mentality with which Europeans empires split the Middle East. This is all the more surprising as it often comes from people who embrace ostensibly anti-imperialist positions in any other context. In their writings, Eastern Europe is a passive object on which Moscow is the only one actor (in the Latin sense of “doer”) entitled to operate, with no concern for smaller, local figures.

How to explain, otherwise, the way in which Russian ethno-historical arguments about Crimea or Eastern Ukraine are being accepted without any criticism? Commentators have accepted Putin’s ridiculous historical argument that Crimea was a sort of a Russian Jerusalem, or that Ukraine is some kind of lost Holy Land of the Russian nation.[2] The Ukrainian version of the same events has never been seriously considered, or was downplayed as an expression of nationalism of a gang of history-less peasants. Very few experts havepointed out that Russia’s “motivations” are based on butone interpretation of Eastern European history, developed to serve the purposes of state legitimization of Czarist as well as Soviet Russia.

Russia: the only noble nation of Eastern Europe? 

Like all historical interpretations, Russia’s reading of Ukraine’s history is based on a selection of facts and meanings that acquired a precise function due to specific political priorities. Nobody should be able to seriously argue that Crimea/Donbas/Ukraine/[…] should be Russian because Russia sees it as part of its history: in order to do so, one has to first give for granted that Russia’s interpretation of history is for some reason intrinsically superior to any other, which is of course nonsense.

But that’s not the end of it. For pro-Russian commentators, the fact that Crimea was non-Russian for thousands of years doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was Russian for less than two centuries – which is nothing in historical perspective. The Russian vision and experience of this territory-object is automatically seen as more important, more “noble,” and therefore more significant than millennia of non-Russian history of the region. The tragedies of other peoples – which, incidentally, greatly contributed to making this region more “Russian” – become completely irrelevant.

All the rest, all the non-Russian peoples, occupy that massive “neutral” space between Russia and “the West.” All of these nations are of course the result of a construction of historical experiences and traditions. But this is exactly the point: these identities are as “artificial” as the Russian one. And there is no reason to believe that the Russian identity should be regarded as being on a different level, ordained with some sort of a-historical nobility.

We (Western and Eastern Europeans alike) all come from a process of creation of identity, and so does Russia: its perceptions, feelings and understanding of history didn’t descend from heaven: they developed (or, more precisely, they were developed) as a result of precise events, strategies and agendas. They don’t deserve more respect than any other. Unfortunately, pro-Russians bestow on them nobility that they deny to any contending interpretation. The result is the nonchalant, “orientalist” use of the idea of “spheres of influence,” a concept that they would correctly reject in any other case.

Ignoring “the rest”:  old habits die hard

The practice of denying the dignity of active subjects of non-Russian peoples of Eastern Europe is a long story. We Western Europeans regularly accept the idea that this part of the World falls within Russia’s “sphere”or should just be Russian. This generates appalling ideas that Russia is right in interfering in Ukraine because it already “had to give up” the Baltic States in the past and “the West” really shouldn’t “deprive” it of other countries, or that Ukraine is too important for Russian national identity because of the Kyivan Rus, as if this was enough to ignore the desires of the millions of people who had (and have) to suffer to allow Russia to freely define its identity.

For far too many Western experts what really matters is the Russian feelings. Everything else, what Ukrainians, Poles, Moldovans, Balts, Georgians, Armenians may think, is much less significant, because it’s just the feeling of “others,” subaltern subjects, unworthy of the dignity of actors, at best reacting victims of an orientalist interpretation of history that Westerners apply far too often to their Eastern European neighbors.

The disproportionate attention for Russia’s feelings, the solidarity for the Russian “tragedy” of losing its empire and the insensitivity to other peoples’ priorities become possible only if one places the Russian nation in a hierarchically superior position, applying the orientalist misconception that only a former power can have the dignity of an actor. European colonialists saw the East as a mere object they could play with. Pro-Russian commentators see Eastern Europe in the same way: Russia can do as it pleases, for this is seen as part of the natural geopolitical order.

Eastern Europe as a dummy: incapable of action?

Pro-Russian commentators’ orientalist thinking emerges in the way they portray Ukraine as a country incapable of action on its own initiative. They invariably see Eastern European countries as objects manipulated by the West. This follows what was described above: if Russia is seen as the only state worth of the dignity of “actor” and Eastern Europe as a passive, hierarchically subordinated object, it’s then inevitable that any independent action by any Eastern European state must be the result of a Western interference.

Unsurprisingly, pro-Russian commentators almost never speak in terms of “access of Eastern Europe into NATO,” but of “NATO/EU expansion in Eastern Europe.” The “East” is seen as a land of conquest – by nature subordinated to Russia – in which “the West” engages in dangerous games against its “legitimate” owner. Local actors are insignificant: their role in the whole NATO/EU enlargement process is ignored. Former communist countries are seen as victims of an inclusion in Western security structures carried out against their will.

This is of course nonsense: the integration of Eastern Europe in Euro-Atlantic security structures happened in two directions, with a very intense activity from Eastern actors that Western actors have often found far too pressing. In pro-Russian analyses, though, nothing of this appears: Eastern European states are denied the dignity of actors in the process and the very idea that tens of millions of people in the region may have wanted at many points in history to change their alignment is ruled out completely.

This is not just post-Soviet nostalgic thinking: it’s outright racism. If Eastern Europe looks west, this must be due to “Western interferences,” “pressures,” “NGOs” or whatever scapegoat pro-Russians can come up with to make sense of Russia’s failures. There must be something “Western” in action that “destabilizes the Eurasian space”; they refuse to accept that there may be genuine local interests among Eastern European peoples to realign their own countries and that, if anything, it’s actually Russia who should be held responsible for destabilizing the region with its opposition to the desires of its former imperial subjects. It may be interesting for pundits who talks about “the West destabilizing Eastern Europe” to think from this perspective for a second and see if their position still holds.

Eastern Europeans as marionettes: are we not being racist? 

This orientalist approach leads to deny the sincerity of any pro-Western protest in Eastern Europe. No one with a bit of knowledge of Eastern Europe could seriously think that Brussels or Washington may really mobilize millions of people in countries such as Ukraine. No matters how much support there can be from “outside,” it’s internal factors that at the end of the day mobilize people, especially when there’s a risk of getting killed. It’s absurd to think that someone would risk getting shot just because a bureaucrat in Brussel told him to do so.

It is therefore racist to think that nobody east of the EU may want an order of things in which Russia doesn’t dominate, as if we “Westerners” were the only ones worth of, or capable of fighting for, things like rule of law, human rights and so on. These beliefs play a reassuring role for Russia itself: better to pretend that Eastern Europe’s inclusion in NATO/EU results from an anti-Russian conspiracy rather than recognizing the failure of one’s own model and the fact that, simply put, numerous countries in Europe still fear Russia’s intentions. 

Why we should get rid of “Orientalism” 

The main victim of these stereotypes is our ability to correctly understand Eastern Europe. Western influences cannot be ignored, but it is deeply wrong to see the Ukrainian pro-democracy movement as a detour from a supposedly “natural,” inevitable order of things in which we don’t even consider Ukrainians as worth of dignity of active subjects and nation.The risk is to lose the ability to understand the role of local actors, their choices and their feelings.

It’s fascinating to focus only on great powers’ strategies, seeing Eastern Europe as a chessboard over which two players face each other. However, no matter how enjoyable grand strategies may be for pundits and general public alike, Eastern Europe is not a football pitch and we as Westerners should seriously stop looking down at the small nations of Eastern Europe as a bunch of subaltern realities, while seeing Russia as the only nation worth of consideration and dignity. Ridding ourselves of these misconceptions should be the first, compulsory step for anyone who wants to comment on Eastern European affairs. 

[1]Coming from a different starting point, Anton Shekhovtsov has briefly argued along similar lines in a very good article published while this contribution was undergoing final revision. I am grateful to him for raising the topic and I hope my contribution will add more to the debate.

[2]To get an idea of how absurdly simplistic and misleading this concept is, I suggest reading the chapter about Ukraine in Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations.

Originally from Italy, Fabio Belafatti has been living in Lithuania for the last three years and a half. Previously he lived in Latvia and Tajikistan among other places. He works as a lecturer and Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies at Vilnius University’s Centre of Oriental Studies

Edited by: Alya Shandra

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  • Paul Pourdieu


  • xanderdeafman

    Brilliant analysis, sir! (thumbs up) 😀

    Slava Ukraine!
    Слава Украине!!
    Слава Україні!

    Fortress, Glory, Freedom, Independence, Love, Courage, Victory for Ukraine!
    Фортеця, слава, свободи, незалежності, любов, мужність, перемога України!
    Крепость, слава, свобода, независимость, любовь, мужество, победа для Украины!

    • Murf


  • jmundstuk

    Very good and important. Suggest changing link to Ron Paul to someone like Richard Cohen or others at the Nation for experts who are Russian apologists. Ron Paul is a bit of an outlayer, to understate.

  • sandy miller

    Thank you for explaining this prejudice to me. I’ve been wondering why Russia is believed in this war against Ukraine and Ukraine isn’t? I’ve been wondering how these people could be apologists for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Putin’s Russia is a criminal no better than ISIS and yet the the news articles don’t treat them as such. It’s always Ukraine having to prove and re-prove russia’s actions in Ukraine. This idea that Russia is a great nation is a farce. It may be a big country but it certainly isn’t a great one. It’s a country that’s enslaved it’s people and countries around it for centuries. It’s a backward, savage country that’s stolen other countries histories and cultures. They only people that admire this country are communists!!!

  • Paul P. Valtos

    Well it seems that the Czarist attitude which influenced the revolution in 1919 has not changed Russian attitudes. Peter the Great left Russia dna travelled and worked in Wester Europe and realized how backward Russia was but his successors reverted to the old idea that Russia had no need for Western culture or innovations as it had survived so long without them. In turn it turned inward and then Lenin decided that he needed another philosophy to keep Russia way from societies that were far more advanced. He thought that by force and dictat he could start a society which would be far superior to the west.
    by 1990, Gorbachev realized that the economy was stagnant and the state was bankrupt. Stalin modernized Russia at what cost but any further advancement required the removal of the central control of the economy. I the only product being consumed and produced by the state was war, there was no return. There is no going back as they say. Once you take the boy out of the farm he’s not going back. No one in Russia believes that they have it better than the West.

  • Murf

    I think what we are seeing death throes of the last vestige of European imperialism.
    Unlike the other European empires. The Russian Empire rebranded it’s self as the USSR and so survived the collapse of the imperial age. Putin’s justifications for his actions are right out of the 19th century. Substitute the title “Russian Federation” with “Russian Empire” the rhetoric wouldn’t change by so much as a coma.
    People call it “a new Cold War”, including myself, but really it is playing out like Kipling’s “Great Game”
    That Putin is resorting this kind of imperial revivalism is not surprising. That many western commentators (including some Americans)are buying into, it is disappointing.

  • Connors

    Very good piece. Thank you.

  • Jim Monaghan

    Those interested in the history and politics of Ukraine should look here Ukraine has a history and a left tradition which was buried by Stalin. http://ukrainesolidaritycampaign.org/links/

  • RHg

    He forgot to mention the German “Russlandversteher”, people like former Chancellors Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Schmidt, who in their arrogance remind me of Ribbentrop — another German ready to hand over smaller nations to the Russians.

  • Plumbum

    Very good article! This kind of approach to the subject should have been in place since the collapse of the Soviet Union or earlier just to enlighten Western politicians and general public.

  • Helene Ryding

    Excellent article, Fabio. All these nested orientalisms in Eastern Europe are also a problem, as is Russian leaders’ own attitude to its people, shown by Alexander Etkind’s book, Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience.

  • Willem

    Hmmm, I think the reasoning is nice and all, and I for sure think that Utopia should
    be something to strive for. Yet the author seems to make the same error most
    make now a days, he ignores the division of power.

    Even if it is true that no nation, race, people or tribe should look down on others
    as theirs to do with as they please, reality is that this will always be the
    case. The fact that we have a relative peace in the Northern hemisphere doesn’t
    take away from the fact that this is not an ever lasting one. Russia, America
    and to some, unproven extent, the EU are powerful blocks and if they please
    others can only deny catering for a set period of time before they will come

    So the opinion of Ukraine and the history of things is relaxant as long as it does not
    mingle with the narrative more powerful put in place.

  • aftabkazi

    A well written article that has referred to European geopitics but ignored the address geopolitical background competition going on since the dismantling of USSR, hence the evutionary processes of the post-Soviet evolving new EurasiN order. All arguments have been summed up in the context of Orientalism. What pro-Russians have been accused for, Western Europe has also been involved relatively similar stereotypes of Eastern Europe. Aren’t some EU members eyeing on E. Europe as sphere of influence (read colony). The point is that Russia has been defending herself from the negative impacts of EU geopolitics, due to border dynamics Ukraine has to suffer. It is a me state and has not yet consolidated herself as a new nation-State identity. Who will deny that USA and EU did not interfere in Maidan and pre-maidan politics in Ukrain? Future of Ukraine is unpredictable at this moment, while Russia is now transiting towards broader Eurasian partnerships.

  • aftabkazi

    Some how manat part of my commend has disappeared while clicking g to post. Sorry.

  • Evgeny_K

    Come on! You blame Russia for being selfish and imperialistic, and you’re closing eyes on what was going on on Middle East, where dozen of regimes were downed by the people, clearly supported by Europe and USA. Let’s not forget the American invasion in Afganistan and Iraq and the chaos which is left after that. Let’s not forget Syria and attempts to drop the legitimate president of the sovereign state by supporting terrorists. Let’s not forget the bombings of Serbia – the bombing (with cluster bombs!) of civilians, not some military objects. The operation was not authorised by the United Nations and was the first time that NATO used military force without the approval of the UN Security Council and against a sovereign nation that did not pose a threat to members of the alliance. Let’s not forget Kosovo – which in the logic of the author should be forgot as Serbian, which it was for hundreds of years…

    The point is – who are those “We (Western and Eastern Europeans alike)” to judge Russia, behaving the same or even worse than that?

    • მჟავა

      Thank you for exemplifying the author’s point!
      The truth of the matter is: Russia is a warmongering, arrogant nation that has no respect for anything but power. They claim that the shortcomings in their own country is somehow caused by the West and Western influence, and they’ve been claiming it for decades. The problem, however, lies with themselves and themselves alone.
      Let us not forget Abkhazia and South Osetia, dear friend. You seem to have a peculiar selective memory when it comes to illegitimate invasions on territories of sovereign countries.

      • Evgeny_K

        No, you’ve got it wrong. The fact is that Russia does not do anything that America and NATO has already done in past 20 years. Just look back in history. These are double standarts and nothing else.

    • Karl Worthington

      According to your logic, since there have been many infamous cases of police corruption, if the police catches a murderer red-handed, the murderer shouldn’t be punished because “the police behaved the same way or even worse than that”.

      The many mistakes and abuses of the American foreign policy do not justify the Russian actions against Ukraine sovereignty.

      Your Kosovo example is incredibly flawed because Serbian authorities were enacting genocidal measures against the Albanian-speaking population of Kosovo. The intervention was focus on averting a genocide. The Kosovo Albanians later decided to leave Serbia because of the very legitimate suspicion that the Serbian authorities might start slaughtering them again.

      Ukrainian authorities did no such thing against the Russian-speaking minorities. Putin sometimes claims that they wanted to but has no evidence to support what he said other than “I’m right because I say so”.

      The Ukrainian people decided to join the European Union and NATO mostly to protect themselves from the overbearing Russian influence. People in the Baltic states did the same thing years ago and very few people in the West argued for a Russian invasion of, say, Lithuania (which hosts a significant Russian-speaking minority).

      And yet many prominent American and Western European intellectuals and journalists justify Putin’s aggressive policies against Ukraine because they dismiss the will of Ukrainian people as “Western manipulation” and believe that Putin’s Russia should have the right to own lands in which Russian speaking minorities live.

      Many European nations host significant linguistic minorities. South Tyrol is populated by German speakers and yet it’s a part of Italy, for example. No sane person would argue that Austria should invade it and annex it, because the European policy these days is to respect the borders of established states who do not violate human rights.

      The German minority in Italy is protected, among other things, by EU laws. It enjoys linguistic freedom, high standards of living and representatives in the Italian parliament that protect and carry on its interests.

      If someone is seriously concerned about the Russian minority in Ukraine they should welcome the idea of Ukraine joining the European Union. EU oversight would make life better, not worse for the Russian speakers living in Ukraine.

  • Shin Onni

    Ukrainian authorities did no such thing against the Russian-speaking minorities?? Do you actually so blind to see “they did” and still keep doing or you just don’t want to recognize the obvious facts?

  • LES1

    Brilliant article.

  • Alina Chorna

    Greatly appreciate such detailed analysis of what’s really going on in the mind of some “experts” on Eastern Europe. Usually I would think that some of those “experts” just have no clue of what they are talking about or just work for Moscow. Now I do understand from where they are coming from. Rather disturbing to realize that such opinions still dominate in so-called expertise about Eastern Europe.

    • Jim Kovpak

      A lot of those insta-experts didn’t spend any significant time learning about Ukraine until Maidan started in 2013, or worse- 2014. What is more, a lot of people assumed that because they lived in Russia and know Russia (and perhaps maybe visited Ukraine a few times), they knew Ukrainian politics. Sadly I had made that mistake myself and so in 2014 I had to catch up quickly.

      Luckily in my case I had some background to base my research on, but for a lot of these pundits they must have some people who they consider to be “go-to” experts. The problem with this, of course, is that if they are in Moscow they’ll get Moscow’s POV, and in some cases in Ukraine they get the narrative of people like Volodymyr V’iatrovych. Then of course each of these pundits now believes that they are well-informed.

  • Jim Kovpak

    Very good article. Two minor nitpicks though- whataboutism is actually the “tu quoque” fallacy, not ad hominem. Also, I would say that this line of argument does need to be addressed, but obviously you didn’t need to here. Pro-Kremlin types always try to make it a part of any discussion.

  • Terry Washington

    I agree wholehartedly with this article- I have been amused/baffled by those “liberals” oe “leftists” such as journalist John Pilger, activist Lindsey German of the StopThe War Coalition or Labour leader Jeremy Corbin who unctuously parrot arguments about Ukraine “being in the Russian sphere of influence” when they would correctly bristle if it was suggested that the United States was entitled to treat Cuba or Venezuela how it saw fit because it was”part of the American sphere of influences” under the terms of the Monroe Doctrine! Imperialism is imperialism and is a dead horse per se!