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The non-Russian Russia: the Decolonial Literatures

Credits Mikael Nydahl Translation: Anna Hörnell Photo: Tatiyaas Filippova April 10 2024

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 fundamentally changed the image and view of Ukraine here in the West. It almost seemed like we had been unable to make out the country’s outline until Russian troops rolled in across the border and missile attacks pointed out its cities to us one by one: here is Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv. Here Odesa, Kramatorsk, Mariupol. Here was Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Avdiivka. Only when Russia’s war against Ukraine became a reality to us – despite having been real to Ukrainians since back in 2014 – did it occur to us that Ukraine is a part of our world, and that our future is being decided there. Only when millions of Ukrainian refugees were scattered across Europe – each carrying a life, a home, and a language or two hastily squeezed into suitcases and backpacks, and clutching a future or two tightly in hand – we began to listen to their stories, despite them having been there all along.

The question we need to ask ourselves at this point, two years into the full-scale invasion, is whether our view of Russia has changed as well, and if so, how. The answer is by no means clear-cut. Some things have changed dramatically. There is relative consensus within Swedish politics and public life that Russia is at fault for the military aggression. And any illusions about (and relativizations of) the growing totalitarianism of the Russian regime are far scarcer now than before 2022. Yet the image of what kind of state the Russian Federation is in itself – politically, socially, ethnically, linguistically – has remained remarkably unchanged. That question simply hasn’t really piqued our interest. And, having never been asked, it is also impossible to reformulate in light of the deep moral and social crisis that the war against Ukraine has sent Russian society into. Beneath our unified repudiation is a peculiar status quo.


The most recent census of the Russian Federation was taken in 2020–2021. The results list 195 nationalities. A little over 105 million of the total population of over 140 million have described themselves as “Russians.”[1] The second largest group is the Tatar population at a little over four and a half million. Then come the Chechens, Bashkirs, Chuvash and Avars (at one to two million each). Following them are an additional 189 non-Russian nationalities.[2] They vary in nature, from countless indigenous peoples to different diasporas, primarily from countries that have come to neighbor the Russian Federation. All these differences aside, however, they share one core experience: that of political and cultural repression from the Russian state.

Within this repression, cultural and linguistic aspects have in some cases been toned down and in others played a major part. In the early Soviet years, Russification was not among the main means to consolidate the young Bolshevik state; on the contrary, the various national intelligentsias were encouraged to develop their cultures within the confines of a shared, progressive internationalism. This policy, however, was soon replaced by increasingly violent Russification aimed at forcing out local cultures and languages. As Stalin’s terror reached its peak in the latter half of the thirties, this policy of Russification moved on to physical liquidation of these intelligentsias no matter how progressive they were. In a Ukrainian context, this generation of murdered artists, politicians and scientists has been termed “the Executed Renaissance.” Many other non-Russian peoples have had the same experience.

Meanwhile, non-Russian cultures have been reshaped to better fit the part of younger “brothers and sisters” of the dominant Russian culture. Traditional costumes, dances, and other attributes have been made to fit within a sanctioned form of “folk culture,” providing exotic local color but separating them from (and in some ways putting them in conflict with) their culture of origins. A lot of times they’ve simply been made up. In that same way, new national poets have been created by publishing texts written by Russian poets as fictitious “translations” from various national languages. The national writers’ unions and other literary institutions have functioned more to shape and cement this type of “folk culture” than to nurture and develop their own literary and cultural expressions.

This has resulted in deep and long-lasting stagnation of non-Russian literatures. For countries that broke free from Russian political and cultural dominance during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the last thirty years have been characterized by revitalization and modernization. For cultures that remained in the Russian Federation, the nineties were a similar period of revitalization and renewed dialogue with the past, whereas the twenty-first century brought increasingly severe political and cultural repression.

Perhaps, in looking back at this historical period, it could be concluded that these processes never reached critical mass. The wider world still associates the Russian state with the Russian language and literature written in Russian, still fails to assign any importance to its colonial heritage, and, especially, remains willfully unaware of the non-Russian peoples that reside within it—Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash, Buryat, Sakha, and so on.

Even within the Russian Federation, these groups rarely have any deeper knowledge of one another. Barely anything is translated directly between minority languages. Barely anything is even translated into Russian. And in the thirty-five years that have passed since the Soviet Union disintegrated, literary institutions have remained largely unchanged: in each republic, they have become stuck in a conservative and decorative praising of national color; in the federation as a whole, they serve to preserve the dominance of Russian; and abroad, virtually all interactions with the country are directed at institutions and individuals that represent Russophone culture.

But other processes have been going on during this time, outside of institutions and parallel to politics—on a grassroots level, so to speak. Many citizens of the Russian Federation who have a non-Russian identity, or simply a non-Russian family background, or simply hail from one of the regions where non-Russian cultural layers can still be seen and heard, have long been engaged in various ways of searching for these other languages, these other affinities. For many, this search has taken place on a purely personal level, in dealing with one’s own family history or reminiscences of half-forgotten family tongues. They have often gone on without an explicit political agenda, although they of course always have political implications. They have also often been undertaken in conscious contrast to the push toward linguistic and cultural homogenization that originates in Moscow and grows stronger each year – especially as this is accompanied by blanket restrictions of human rights and freedoms, an increasingly militaristic society, higher intolerance toward all forms of dissent and deviation, and progressively more violent political repression.

Here in the West, the matter of Russian colonialism has never been dealt with in earnest. We have never been interested in its history or its current social practices. And we have failed to take it seriously as an increasingly radical factor in domestic political dynamics. One of the reasons is that we have been limited to perspectives reaching us through Russian channels. In our efforts to understand the country through Russian perspectives, we have largely adopted their blind spots – without an inkling that they even exist. Our ability and propensity to reflect on and correct these perspectives have been limited – mainly owing to the simple fact that we haven’t had the knowledge or the contacts needed to fill in the blank spots of the colonial map. Granted, there have been direct communications with representatives of non-Russian peoples, but they have been rather anecdotal and insufficient to form a coherent alternative view of what colonialism has looked like inside the country.

Russia’s warfare against Ukraine has, in one fell swoop, turned the colonial fabric inside out. No longer viewing its touched-up right side, we see its wrong side, bringing the full warp and weft of underlying patterns and common threads into view. We suddenly see how the threads of everyday racism and the education system’s institutionalized suppression of minority languages run alongside the outbreaks of military violence that have marred the entirety of Russia’s post-Soviet history: from Chechnya to Georgia and to Ukraine. We see how vulnerable minorities within the Russian Federation – primarily Caucasian and Asian ones – are sent to Ukraine as a form of “Schutztruppe,” which time and time again are deployed directly against Ukraine’s civilian population. We see how the Russian regime uses peoples it has already colonized to the brink of extinction to wage its genocidal war against a people that has just broken free from its grasp. These processes have several things in common with those encountered in, for instance, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s depictions of European colonialism in East Africa, books that can also provide an elucidative lens through which to view what is going on in present-day Ukraine.

But as history is turned wrong side out, we might also finally be able to see the non-Russians. That might be the historic window being cracked open by this crisis. Because the deep crisis currently plaguing the Russian Federation has also caused a crisis of “Russianness” itself, accelerating and deepening the decolonial cultural processes that have long been going on beneath the surface. This issue of PEN/Opp has also taken shape within this crisis: in the midst of these processes of rediscovery, reunion and reevaluation. And here is where the “decolonization” mentioned in the issue headline comes in: in redrawing mental maps, remolding identities, reconfiguring one’s gaze. For a long time, we’ve gone to the Russians to learn about the Tatars, the Udmurts – or the Ukrainians. It is about time for us to break that habit and listen to them directly. Perhaps we’ll learn a thing or two about the Russians while we’re at it.

My co-editors in this project are two poets who find themselves in the middle of these processes: the Tatar and currently Berlin-based poet Dinara Rasuleva, and the Siberian-born poet of Ukrainian and Moldavian descent Galina Rymbu, based in Lviv since 2018. It is through conversations with them that the points of view of this issue have come into being, and through the extensive networks they are part of that we have found its writers.

Photo by Tatiyaas Filippova. From the series »Birds«, photography, 2021

[1] A reminder is in place here that the relationship between the state named the Russian Federation and the Russians as its titular nation is complicated. Russian differentiates between rossiyskiy, signifying the state and its citizenship, and russkiy, signifying ethnicity, language, and culture. Thus, the country is called Rossiyskaya Federatsiya, while the census respondents have listed themselves as russkiye. A rossiyanin is a citizen of the Federation regardless of their ethnicity or linguistic identity, while a russkiy is an ethnic Russian. In Swedish and English, they are both referred to as “Russians,” which likely hasn’t made it easier for us to spot the country’s non-Russian population.

[2] Modern Russian census counts record national identity through self-identification. That means the numbers are very much open to interpretation. For instance, it’s easy to imagine it being a much more involved decision to identify with a marginalized and threatened minority than to identify as “Russian.” Many citizens of the Russian Federation also have complex family histories, which often cannot be encompassed by one identity. It’s reasonable to assume that many tangled family trees are approximated as “Russian” by the respondents, particularly if they live in regions far from their original “home countries” (which is often the case: Russia’s twentieth-century history is a story of massive population transfers). The question of which identities are safe or opportune to claim also likely affects census responses. In the 2010 census (four years before the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of Russian warfare in Donbas), about two million citizens of the Russian Federation identified as Ukrainians (which made them the third largest ethnic group behind Russians and Tatars). In 2020–2021, before the full-scale invasion, this number had shrunk to just over 800,000. One might wonder where these 1.2 million Ukrainians have disappeared to in ten years. A reasonable guess would be that part of the statistical change is due to atmospheres within the country rather than some mass exodus to Ukraine. (Meanwhile, when viewed from a slightly broader historical perspective, the Ukrainian population of the Russian Federation is also an example of another significant demographic phenomenon, which could be described as a kind of “wearing down” of non-Russian identities over time. For instance, a major portion of the population in Central and Eastern Siberia have Ukrainian, Belarusian and Polish roots that do not show up at all in the census.)

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