How imperialism and orientalism paved Russia’s road to war. And how we can break it down again

Slowly but surely, we are awakening from our European dream of peace and security on the continent. Unreal, yet it has been almost a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, part of the war that already started in 2014. Yet nine years of war does not seem to have made a shocking contribution to knowledge of the European countries in Central and Eastern Europe. So how can we understand this region without falling into condescending clichés or downright toxic disinformation?

Russian imperialism

It is strange that many people do not wonder how Russia could have become by far the largest country in the world. To explain this, we need to look at Russian imperialism. Where the Netherlands occupied its colonies overseas, Russia attached the conquered territory to the existing land, administered from Moscow. ‘Russia exists, and so it will be’ seems to be the line of thought at times. It testifies to a Russian imperial view, also in Western thinking. For example, the existence of Russia as such is not disputed; that Ukraine exists is, according to some, a point of discussion.

These kinds of ideas do also occur in popular media. For example, the Dutch television travel program 3 op Reis (3 on travel) visits Latvia. The country is sketched using an old Soviet nuclear missile base, a ride through Riga in an old Volga (pronounced with a thick Russian accent), followed by an anecdote about Yuri Gagarin. We were in Latvia, weren’t we? A good illustration of going along with a Russian imperial idea. This idea partly fell apart with the breakup of the Soviet Union, which Putin has described as ‘the end of historical Russia.’ This end ensured, among other things, that sovereign Ukraine took a European path despite many internal problems. The ‘losses’ of Russian influence over Kyiv are thus for Moscow the legitimate reason for the current imperial war. Because in the logic of Tsarina Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796), you defend the borders of the Russian Empire by pushing them forward.


Orientalism within Europe

But Russian imperialism is not the only problem. Western Orientalism also plays an important role. The term Orientalism was first used by Edward Said in 1979. He regarded it as a Western form of domination, the exercise of power over the ‘East,’ which was seen as ‘the other.’ Said argues that an Eastern civilization is so often presented as culturally backward, dangerous, unpredictable, or incomprehensible. Polish scholars Jan Winiecki and Piotr Sztompka applied this concept to Western European perceptions of Central- and Eastern Europe and found Orientalist contradictions within liberal-academic discourse. For example, the term ‘Eastern Bloc’ is still used, referring to countries in Central- and Eastern Europe. The term dates to the time of the Cold War, but it has not disappeared from our language, and that is problematic. Inconclusive references such as Eastern Europe or Eastern Bloc reduce countries to an undefined group, without their own identity or right to exist to which one assigns negative clichés, such as poverty, corruption, concrete grey constructions, or excessive alcohol consumption.

This idea can also be clearly seen in another example from 3 op Reis, in which the presenter visits the market hall of the Latvian capital, where he visibly is making a fool out of a traditional sheep wool cardigan with footwear. The director thinks it is necessary to emphasize the ‘ridiculousness’ of this garment in comic frames, including laughter. These Orientalist views allow Western countries – wherever they begin or end – to dismiss Central or Eastern European countries as different. An idea that was physical until the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall that separated the Homo Sovieticus and Homo Westernicus.


Hope for the future

Can we never again doze off in that European dream of yesteryear? It does not have to be that pessimistic. Western Oriental thinking may have given Russia the feeling of being able to enter that region and thus offered room for her imperial ambitions and can only be stopped by a strong power. This seems to be happening at the front in Ukraine, but it is still largely Ukrainians with American support who make a difference there. For this strength to come from European societies, a reform of European citizenship can be looked at to combat the Orientalist undermining of Central and Eastern European states. This calls for a revival of equivalence beliefs in the dominant way of thinking.

Given the characteristic diversity on our continent, Europeans must move beyond the nation-state and work towards a republican conception of citizenship. From this point of view, free and independent citizens form a community in which one regulates oneself by participating and thus creates a political community that binds citizens to the ‘political entity.’ Despite cultural pluralism, citizens can form an idea of a ‘common will’ through broad participation. Europeans can overcome the nation-state, and it fits more strongly with more heterogeneous structures. In this way, different groups with different identities can live together and be legitimized by each other. This is done through public debate, based on essential principles in the form of equal rights. For example, based on the European Convention on Human Rights. This ideal may sound unimaginable, but so did the invasion of February 24, 2022. Probably the European dream in which Europe lived until a year ago, sounded during- and right after the Second World War unimaginable as well. But nothing could be further from the truth: Europe has long been able to guarantee stable peace. With a republican vision of citizenship, we can break Russia’s paved road down again.



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Bram Jongejan studeerde maatschappijleer en is werkzaam als docent burgerschap. Daarnaast rondde hij de master Russian and Eurasian Studies en studeerde af op burgerschap en burgerschapsonderwijs in Rusland.