"Internal Colonization" — Re-colonization

September 2011
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The image of the scribe can be identified as the symbolic location of the author: this is how the author records and attests to a certain past, within which (inside of which) he would like to reside. The Cossack past becomes a mirror, a dream, an illusion inside which the author situates himself. The painting depicts various subjects of the empire, but the scribe is copied from the person of Yavornytsky —  a Ukrainophile and Cossackophile. Thus the representative of the imperial center identifies himself precisely with Ukrainophilia and Cossackophilia, and in so doing includes himself in the colonial masquerade.

Accordingly, the otherness of the scribe is not reducible to the fact that he is westernized while the Cossacks in the picture are easternized. It would be useless to seek in Repin an almost one’s own East, since the masquerade-East of the Cossacks is a costumed staging and a discourse about colonialism itself. This masquerade does not so much depict the Eastern flavor of the newly discovered Little Russian people--with whom the Empress wanted to get acquainted in Gogol’s “The Night Before Christmas” --as much as it points to the existence of a completely different identity. This is precisely the colonial Little Russian elite, which, masked and in secret, opposes the seemingly homogeneous imperial community. In other words, if this is the East for the imperial center, then it is an East that is “entirely-not-its-own."

Dialogism and laughing carnivalization in Repin have an anti-imperial sense and speak to the falseness (untruth) of the empire. The colonized Third World turns out to be closer to the First (Western) World because it is ironic, and because, despite its apparently obvious carnival spontaneity, it is rational and masquerade-like. At the same time the Second (imperial) World remains in the power of its illusory grandeur and strength, which require rational unmasking. Together with Yavornytsky, Repin does exactly this.

What is at the center of this discourse? The unity of the Empire and homogeneity of the people of Rus? The national culture of laughter and the naturalness of the Little Russian nationality so beloved by the romantic writers? The assimilated and subdued nearer East (Cossackdom), or the victorious and regnant West as personified by the scribe and writing, and also the western identity of the deconstructor himself?

Answers to these questions can be given by altering the viewer's perspective from that proposed by Etkind. He says the Cossack behind the scribe points towards the location of the sultan, to whom the letter is addressed, but why not consider that the Cossack is pointing not to the East, but to the North. Then Repin’s painting would acquire a new, anti-colonial meaning: distanced from the metropolis, the carnival Cossack state, which is obliged to have both an ataman and a scribe, suggests that Russian internal orientalism is an illusion. The subdued and “almost one’s own” East is in fact not innocent or subjugated. Furthermore, the letter to the Turkish sultan could have been also directed to the Russian czar.

Postcolonial criticism emphasizes the great importance of the authorial position, which re-describes the colonial situation. From the perspective of “internal colonization” and “internal orientalism” Etkind unequivocally associates himself with the West and writing, retelling again and again the Russian utopia about the romance of the intelligentsia with the people, and including in this romance relationships with external colonies.

Thus, when looking at the “deconstruction of deconstruction” it becomes noticeable that the thesis about the exclusively “internal” nature of the colonization of Little Russia is at least incomplete. The discursive strategy that deals in cultural differences creates and conceals these differences as desired. Precisely “our” adapted and somewhat simplified Ukrainian Cossack East is considered to be an unconflicted part of one’s own Russian people. It turns out that “internal colonization” operates, above all, in respect to this not quite Russian, already previously colonized people. For precisely this reason the orientalization and othering of the Cossacks in Repin’s picture look like an imaginary internal colonization of the externally colonized or, more simply, re-colonization. Ignoring the perspective from the side of the colonized “other” leads to a new colonialism, this time through writing, analysis, and intellectual authority.

Let me return to where this article began, namely the discussion between Mark Lipovetsky and Alexander Etkind about the Russian post-Soviet novel. Taking into account the experience, traumatic and unprocessed by memory, of imperial consciousness that crosses the boundaries of “internal colonization” can significantly widen our perception concerning the reasons for historical “overlap” and the monstrousness permeating the contemporary Russian novel. It recreates not only a repressed memory of totalitarianism, but also the transgressions of colonialism.

An imprint of the post-colonial experience is found in the deep structures of post-Soviet novels in Ukrainian literature, too. Its main tension lies in the experience of post-colonial distress. In the writings of Oksana Zabuzhko it is expressed through colonial trauma, which determines not only the characters’ vicissitudes, but influences the psycho-emotional sphere, corporeality, psychology, geography, poetry, love and sex. From this trauma emerges the theme of love coupled with the Ukrainianization of Russian-speaking lovers, and above all, the myth about the brotherly solidarity of two painter-sorcerers, representatives of a colonized culture, in the famous novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex. Included here are impressions about the weakness of the father broken by the totalitarian machine, and the constantly hungry and frigid mother, traumatized by her experience of Holodomor. But most essentially, the colonial experience turns out to be the collective unconscious of the entire people, which determines the content of the characters and collisions bound up mainly with familial, lineal, and national destiny. After all, the main theme of Fieldwork is that of the survival of the (national) family.

However, in Yuri Andrukhovych’s Recreations the colonial and totalitarian experiences are expressed through a bifurcation of each of the characters, who look to the past and attempt to replay that past somehow, to repeat it, to re-embody themselves in it, in order to restore a full- value and full-blooded identity of one’s own “I,” stolen by history. That long-gone history—  the Austro-Hungarian melancholy of pre-war Lviv, the ancestral sonority of the pre-Soviet Galician village — all this reflects in Recreations the traumatic experience of Andrukhovych’s wandering hero-adventurers. The "recreations," then, are at the same time both a break and a renewal, to which the heroes aspire, but which they are unable to attain. They are attempting not only to vanquish the experience of colonization, but are also themselves colonized by their own past. Colonization by a stolen and divided past locks into a circle of repetitions and simulations. Such is the fate of the postcolonial subject. In Moscoviada this subject is already trying not so much to restore his own “I” as obtaining revenge on the empire, by fragmenting it and inverting the “top” and the “bottom,” the center and the periphery, and also by engaging in voluntaristic-aggressive renaming of toponyms in the metropolis, in this manner assaulting the already powerless late-Soviet body of the empire at its very center. Doubtless, it is precisely the postcolonial world view that feeds these first post-Soviet Ukrainian novels appearing in the 1990s.

In general the construction of a postcolonial consciousness in the post-Soviet space presents itself as an especially interesting process. In particular, the late 20th century Ukrainian postcolonial consciousness, marked by an overcoming of cultural provincialism and marginality, is infected by an imaginary revanchism and resentful emotions born of anti-colonial protest. It is precisely literature that became the means of revising such postcolonial mental models and trying out various forms of cultural identification. The newest Ukrainian literature of the 1990s is engendered by socio-cultural reflection aimed at trying to understand the relationship between the metropolis and the colony, “one’s own” and “other,” the governing and the governed, the personal and the social, male and female, mono- and polycultural, authentic and stylized, and on the whole signals a new situation: entry into the zone of postcolonial dialogue.


[1] Mark Lipovetsky, Alexander Etkind: “Vozvrashchenie tritona: Sovetskaia katastrofa i postsovetskii roman.” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2008, No. 4. Accessed at http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2008/94/li17.html

[2] Alexander Etkind: “Russkaia literatura, XIX vek: Roman vnutrennei kolonizatsii.” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2003,No. 59. Accessed at http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2003/59/etk-pr.html

[3] Alexander Etkind. “Fuko i tezis vnutrennei kolonizatsii: postkoloniial'nii vzgliad na sovetskoe proshloe,” 8. http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2001/49/etkind-pr.html

[4] Andreas Kappeler maintains that the notion of “internal colony” was employed by Ukrainian economists of the 1920s (Volobuev, Slabchenko, Yavorsky), and was later adopted and more widely developed by Michail Gechter in his work Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 (Berkley, 1975); see Andreas Kappeler, “Mazepintsy, Malorossy, Khokhly: Ukrainians in the Ethnic Hierarchy of the Russian Empire.” Culture, Nation and Identity, 178-179.

[5] Review of conference materials, see Heinrich Kirschbaum: “Konferentsiya ‘Vnuternnaia kolonizatsiia v Rossii’.” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2010, No. 105. Accessed at http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2010/105/ge46.html

[6] For more detail about the dual (“amphibian-like”) identity of the Ukrainian elite at the end of the  19th century, see “‘Kotliarevshchyna’: koloniyal'nyi kich” in Tamara Hundorova, Kich i literatura. Travestii (Kyiv: Fact, 2006), 92-122.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka