The unfolding conversations on colonial legacies and how to counter them

Speaking up about repression during the Soviet Union’s colonial rule is empowering communities to come to terms with historical trauma. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has drawn global attention to the colonial legacies of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. As Ukrainian Fellow Artem Shaipov recently asked in an article for Foreign Policy: “Why has it taken a war of conquest for experts to recognise Russia’s nature as a vast imperial enterprise?” Artem was among those discussing ‘countering Russia’s imperial narratives’ during a John Smith Trust roundtable with Fellows and James Nixey, Director of Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, in April this year.  

The conversation on decolonisation that’s belatedly unfolding centres around Ukraine; this consideration is crucial, and Ukraine is where the rejection of the Russia’s imperial narratives is strongest. But John Smith Fellows from other countries are thinking about and countering what they see as harmful narratives from their shared experience of Soviet rule. 

Legacies of trauma 

At the John Smith Fellows’ Ideas Exchange in Oxford in March, Fellows shared their experiences and understanding of the decolonisation processes happening in their countries. In many cases, these have been catalysed by events in Ukraine. In Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Fellows discussed how victims of Soviet deportations, purges and famines did not often speak about their trauma.  

Olimpia Gribincea, a Moldovan Fellow, said her great-grandmother had survived the Soviet famine of 1946 – 1947 with seven children but wanted to forget it and never discussed it. Instead, the children and grandchildren of these victims have been the ones to raise awareness of their suffering. 

Another Fellow, whose grandparents were deported to Central Asia in 1944, discussed how the legacies of deportations are still felt today. On 23 February each year, the Soviet Union celebrated ‘Soviet Army and Navy Day’. This practice continues in many states today under the name of ‘Defender of the Fatherland Day’. Yet for the victims of the Red Army, this is an extremely traumatic day. Some remember, for example, the Khaibakh massacre on 27 February 1944 in which Soviet soldiers locked over 700 Chechens in a barn and burnt them alive. They did this because the weather made it too difficult to deport the Chechens by the leadership’s deadline. The continued celebration of this army makes it uncomfortable for victims and their descendants to speak out. 

Echoes of the past 

A third legacy of Soviet terror was shared by Salome Ugulava, a Georgian Fellow, in the context of the Georgian government’s proposal for a foreign agent law. Salome argued that this law “echoes the pain of post-Soviet societies, which have suffered mass political repressions, including deportations and persecutions of the people the regime labelled agents.”  

The pain of Stalin’s so-called ‘Great Purge,’ in which “tens of thousands of Georgians were persecuted in the country, including the brightest minds of the generation,” has been reawakened by the recent debate. In this sense, memories of Soviet-era trauma might be hidden and repressed, but they are not forgotten. 

Oral history in Kazakhstan 

Another Kazakh Fellow shared how Kazakhstan’s history of a nomadic lifestyle poses unique challenges to addressing trauma. The Soviet Union violently and oppressively ended this lifestyle, and with it a rich tradition of oral history. This was part of a colonial ‘civilising’ narrative, which rejected Kazakh folklore, songs and legends as legitimate sources for studying and recording history. Yet when this oral tradition is central to recording events, memory of these events is particularly vulnerable to trauma which can silence voices.  

As with other nations who experienced colonial violence, Kazakh survivors were often reluctant to discuss it. Fellows gave the example of the Central Asian revolt of 1916, also known as Urkun. Indigenous Kyrgyz and Kazakhs revolted against the corruption of the Tsarist government and its attempts to conscript Muslims to fight on the Eastern Front.  

The revolt was brutally suppressed by the Tsarist authorities and many Kyrgyz and Kazakhs fled towards China. Thousands died while attempting to cross the mountain passes. Today, many Kazakh citizens are trying to silence this story. But the Fellows agreed it was important to understand that was traumatic and draw the lessons from it. 

Power of storytelling 

An initiative by Kazakh Fellow Diana Tsoy is attempting to address this historical trauma. She is working with another John Smith Fellow on a project aiming to “preserve the history of ordinary families in Kazakhstan. It will also tell the world more about us as a nation with more than 100 ethnicities that went through so many changes in the last hundred years.”  

Inspired by a workshop she attended at the Old Fire Station, a charity-run culture hub showcasing contemporary UK and local art, drama and music, Diana’s project recognises the importance of preserving this oral history in Kazakhstan. She says “storytelling can help us as a nation to arrive at learning, can empower and is so important in our new age. It will help us preserve the real-life history which is now slowly passing away with the older generation.” Diana is collaborating with Kazakh organisation TerekStory on a project to record stories told to Kazakh children by their grandparents. The stories will be published in July 2023 by their NGO partner Policy Solutions 

Photo credit: Kazakh drapery decoration in nomads tent. Julia Volk/Pexels