Russia’s devastating war against Ukraine is reviving old traumas of subjugation among Moscow’s historical neighbors, galvanizing new debates on decolonization, national identity and local traditions not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The brutality of Russian attacks and territorial occupation in Ukraine has sent shockwaves through all “post-Soviet” states, precipitating a sharp decline of approval of Russia as a regional leader. As recent Gallup polls show, in Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova the percentage who disapprove of Moscow now exceeds the percentage who approve.
While governments, anchored in old ties to Moscow, are shying away from recalibrating relations with Russia, civic actors have rushed to expose Russian imperialism, instigating new formats to discuss colonial legacies and champion national traditions.
The trend, involving historians, journalists, educators and artists, is strongest in Kazakhstan, where a brutal, Russian-backed crackdown on street protests in January 2022 (“Bloody January”) and the mass arrival of Russians fleeing military mobilization have fueled old anger and resentment.
“Decolonization has become a civic movement,” says Kazakh activist Assem Zhapisheva, who has set up a social media platform and YouTube channel in Kazakh. “The debate is new and powerful. Governments don’t know how to deal with it.”
Burgeoning throughout the region, the decolonization theme is taking diverse and multiple shapes, with many activists inspired by the courageous example of Ukrainians defending their national identity. Among these are 600 young people running Ukraїner, one of the largest Ukrainian volunteer media projects, telling domestic and international audiences (in 12 languages) about Ukraine’s resistance, but also its people, places, arts and traditions.
“We are sick of all brotherhood talk,” says Marharyta Golobrodska, who runs Ukraïner’s Czech subdivision in Prague. “We want to be seen as a separate country with its own history and culture.”
With the same aim, activists use very different approaches in Belarus to counter the regime of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Lisa Vetrava, the country’s most popular blogger, promotes the Belarusian language and democratic values to 50,000-plus Instagram followers and 90,000-plus TikTok subscribers, while running projects on Belarusian national identity and self-determination for the NGO Hodna. On the other end, artist Rufina Bazlova has become popular by reviving old embroidery techniques for political protest. After a successful series of stitched images of the 2020 peaceful uprising in Belarus and a wholly embroidered comic, she is now creating portraits of the country’s 1,500 political prisoners in traditional folk code ornament.
For the time being, Central Asia is leading the decolonization drive, says Kazakh scholar Botakoz Kassymbekova from the University of Basel.
“Ukraine has brought us all together,” she says. “This is a historical moment.”
Kazakhstan is seeing a surge of new schools, media and education platforms promoting the local language and history. In the capital, Astana, a research platform set up by urban activist Temirtas Iskakov targets the “demonopolization” of public space to increase local identity.
“Kazakhs now fully understand that decolonization in the 1990s was incomplete,” notes Kassymbekova. “Decolonization needs democratization.”
Describing herself as a “historian-activist,” Kassymbekova notes proudly that even Russian opposition groups in exile are now inviting her as an advisor.
“The war has brought back our old traumas,” says Kyrgyz expert Elmira Nogoibaeva, head of the Esimde research platform, who has long focused on blank spots in Kyrgyz memory and history. “We cannot move ahead, if we do not work on our past.”
Research, public debate and art exhibitions were now leading instruments to fill the “empty houses of our memory,” Nogoibaeva says.
National history, language and education have also become buzzwords in Armenia, where Russia had been traditionally embraced as a power-broker after the 1915 genocide inflicted by the Ottoman Empire.
“We now face a neo-colonial threat,” says Tigran Amiryan, a researcher, curator and literary critic who runs the Cultural and Social Narratives Laboratory in Yerevan.
Picking up the trend of decolonization issues, he set up an ambitious School of Complex Memory last year. Offering seminars on sensitive issues like cultural imperialism, Sovietization of language, decolonization of spaces, and historical conflict, the school also organizes decolonial exhibitions and public interventions. Angered by a swell of Russian-language posters in Yerevan put up by recent Russian immigrants, School activists taped them over with stickers reading “decolonize this wall.”
Amiryan’s school also aims to start “decolonial dialogues” with other post-Soviet neighbors.
“Our conflicts are part of Soviet colonization,” he says. “We have common traumas, but no common memory.”
The school has already run a workshop with Georgian experts, and even a first seminar with activists from ethnic minority groups from Russia.
“In three days,” Amiryan says with a grin, “we built a beautiful decolonial network.”
Cross-border activism is also at the heart of Ukrainian efforts to keep experiences of community-building alive in neighboring Belarus.
“Repression and war have taught us the same lesson”, says Ivan Omelian, a Ukrainian trainer on institutional development of communities, now working on Belarus.
With an NGO set up in 2020, Omelian supports what is left of Belarusian local communities and initiatives set up during the protest movement. Even if times are tough, “communities are the only way to build sustainable social structures,” he says. “In fact they are the best spaces for decolonization.”
Focusing even more inward, many activists keep coming back to the importance of self-decolonization.
“We have to start with our personal place, our person, our memory,” says Nogoibaeva, the Kyrgyz expert.
For Mariam Naiem, an Afghan-Ukrainian activist, artist, and cultural studies expert, who reaches tens of thousands of followers with her messages on Russian colonialism and cultural repression, poetry was central. Delving deep into the work of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko enabled her to find a personal path to decolonization.
“Everyone has a way,” she says. “It starts with me. With each one of us.”
Barbara von Ow-Freytag is a journalist, political scientist and board member of the Prague Civil Society Centre, based in Berlin.