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It’s High Time to Decolonize Western Russia Studies

Why has it taken a war of conquest for experts to recognize Russia’s nature as a vast imperial enterprise?

By , a member of the Aspen Institute’s NextGen Transatlantic Initiative, and , an advisor at the Ukrainian Parliament.
The beginning of the conquest of Siberia in shown in a 19th-century painting.
The beginning of the conquest of Siberia in shown in a 19th-century painting.
"Yermak's conquest of Siberia," a 19th-century historical painting by Vasiliy Surikov, depicts a Russian attack on Siberian Tatars. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

As a fact of history and problem of contemporary geopolitics, Russia’s nature as an imperial power is incontrovertible. After World War I, the Russian Empire avoided the permanent dismemberment that befell other multi-ethnic land empires, such as the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. The Soviet Union not only reconquered most of the non-Russian lands that had declared independence from Moscow in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan)—but even expanded the empire in the course of World War II, annexing Moldova, the western part of Ukraine, and other lands. Nor did the Soviet Union participate in the decolonization era. Even as the French and British empires were being dissolved, the Soviet Union was expanding its colonial reach, tightening its grip deep into Eastern and Central Europe with bloody crackdowns and military actions.

As a fact of history and problem of contemporary geopolitics, Russia’s nature as an imperial power is incontrovertible. After World War I, the Russian Empire avoided the permanent dismemberment that befell other multi-ethnic land empires, such as the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. The Soviet Union not only reconquered most of the non-Russian lands that had declared independence from Moscow in the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan)—but even expanded the empire in the course of World War II, annexing Moldova, the western part of Ukraine, and other lands. Nor did the Soviet Union participate in the decolonization era. Even as the French and British empires were being dissolved, the Soviet Union was expanding its colonial reach, tightening its grip deep into Eastern and Central Europe with bloody crackdowns and military actions.

Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union into its constituent republics in 1991, Russia set about reestablishing its empire, piece by piece. These efforts included Russian-instigated separatist movements in neighboring countries, military invasions, illegal annexations, mercenary deployments, cyberattacks, manipulated elections, the poisoning of politicians, and massive disinformation campaigns. Inside Russia, which remains a tapestry of lands and peoples conquered and colonized under tsars and communists, these efforts have included warfare and mass atrocities, as in Chechnya.

So why has this fundamental, foundational fact about Russia been all but ignored in the West for so long, including among those who study and analyze the region? Why has it taken a brutal war of conquest for most Western Russia experts even to begin addressing Russia’s nature as a vast colonial enterprise? Many continue to see Ukraine and other former Soviet countries through Moscow’s empire-building lens, despite the obvious nature of Russian aggression since the 1990s and long before.

It’s high time to decolonize Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies—and stop viewing the region through Moscow’s imperial lens.


During the Cold War, Western universities, research institutions, and policy think tanks opened numerous centers and programs for Soviet, Russian, and Eurasian studies in a bid to better understand the Soviet Union and its heritage. However, these efforts had a strategic flaw: Born in an era when Moscow’s control reached far beyond today’s Russian borders, these programs inevitably framed the region through a Moscow-centric lens. Today, even as they dropped “Soviet” from their name, most of these programs have inherited this old Moscow-centric framing, effectively conflating Russia with the Soviet Union and downplaying the rich histories, varied cultures, and unique national identities of Eastern Europe, the Baltic States, the Caucasus, and Central Asia—not to mention the many conquered and colonized non-Russian peoples inhabiting wide swathes of the Russian Federation.

The continuity from Soviet-era area studies matters. For example, George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies lumps together all 15 former Soviet republics. Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia program studies the same countries minus the Baltic States and Moldova, and Leiden University’s Russia and Eurasia studies covers Russia and its former colonies. Even if these larger institutes sometimes created new subdivisions, such as George Washington University’s programs on Central Asia and Ukraine, the effect of studying these nations and regions alongside Russia highlights the latter as the main country to be studied and respected. This unwittingly creates a paradigm whereby Russia’s former colonies are perceived as remaining within Russia’s orbit long after the collapse of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Imagine lumping Algeria into France studies or creating a contemporary Britain and India program—it would emphasize one relationship over others, keep the old colonial framing, and suggest that one country is the logical appendage of another as a subject of study.

Take the case of Ukraine. Only a handful of U.S. universities even offer a Ukrainian history course, despite the fact that Ukraine, a country of more than 40 million people, has a culture, language, and national tradition that has developed differently from Russia’s for hundreds of years. Especially since it regained its independence in 1991, Ukraine presents a coherent set of geopolitical choices signaling to the world that it is an independent state with a European identity and orientation. Yet Western academia continues to shoe-horn the country into the Russian space.

Born in an era when Moscow’s control reached far beyond today’s Russian borders, these programs inevitably framed the region through a Moscow-centric lens.

Worse yet, the label “Eurasia” used today by many university and think tank programs echoes a central tenet of Russian nationalism—that it’s Russia’s destiny to dominate Eurasia from Portugal to the Bering Strait. There is an entire ideology of Eurasianism, whose main advocate is Aleksandr Dugin, one of Russia’s most zealous fascist ideologues. Dugin and his followers promote the creation of a Eurasian state by re-conquering Russia’s former colonies, establishing Slavic and Orthodox dominance, and marginalizing other nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fantastical vision of Russian history and destiny increasingly echoes Eurasianist ideas as well. When Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, or Belarus are placed under the “Eurasia” label, the implicit message is that these are former Russian colonies remaining in Russia’s sphere of influence. For Ukrainians fighting for the existence of their nation and culture against Russia’s genocidal aggression, this label is simply offensive.

In many cases, Western academic programs require students to study the Russian language—often including courses in Moscow or Saint Petersburg—before they have the option of studying any of the region’s other languages, if they are so inclined and if those languages are even offered. A similar problem affects cultural studies, including literature and art, where the many ways Russian works—including the classics read by countless high school and university students—transport Moscow’s imperial ideology are rarely addressed. This only perpetuates the habit of looking at the former Soviet-controlled and Russian-occupied space through the prism of the world’s last unreconstructed imperial culture. Unwittingly, today’s Russia studies in the West still replicate the worldview of an oppressor state that has never examined its history and is nowhere near having a debate about its imperial nature at all—not even among the Russian intellectuals or so-called liberals with whom Western students, academics, and analysts generally interact and cooperate.

Finally, Western academia also presents Russia itself as a monolith, with little or no attention paid to the country’s Indigenous peoples. By now, many who study Russian history are at least vaguely familiar with the Stalin-era genocide of the Crimean Tatars and their replacement on the peninsula by Russian settlers. But why not shed more light on the Russian conquest and subjugation of Siberia, one of the most gruesome episodes of European colonialism? Or Russia’s 19th-century mass murder of the Circassians, Europe’s first modern-era genocide? What have we learned about the short-lived Idel-Ural state, a confederation of six autonomous Finno-Ugric and Turkic republics crushed by the Bolsheviks in 1918? Why not highlight Tatarstan, which proclaimed its independence from Russia in 1990? Nascent efforts to give Russia’s Indigenous peoples a voice have gotten underway, including the Free Peoples of Russia Forum that last convened in Sweden in December 2022—but they have hardly registered in Western academia. Not only are Western scholars’ interests and relationships Russia-centric; within Russia, those relationships and contacts are Moscow-centric. It’s as if Russia’s highly diverse regions didn’t exist.


What should be done in practice to decolonize Western studies of Russia and the region?

First, universities and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic should strike “Eurasia” out of their program names, not least because it is a geopolitical concept straight out of Russian far-right nationalism. There is no shortage of more appropriate terms to designate the countries being studied. For instance, geographical terms such as Eastern Europe, Baltics, South Caucasus, and Central Asia could easily be used.

Second, existing centers of Russian studies should refocus their attention to reflect the history and contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples living in today’s Russian Federation. In an academic world that is everywhere addressing issues of diversity, representation, and respect, this is long overdue and morally right. It would allow the world to see Russia for what it actually is: an empire made up of multiple peoples craving for voice, agency, opportunities, and freedom.

Third, we need to establish and strengthen institutions that study Russia’s former colonies. This would include Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar studies, Belarusian studies, Georgian studies, Moldovan studies, and so on. This will allow academic circles and wider audiences to obtain a better understanding of the region and defy Russian propaganda about “historically Russian lands,” as the actual history of these peoples, states, and national identities finally comes to light in the West. A great example of this approach is Cambridge University’s Ukrainian Studies program.

These efforts are necessary, but they can only be the beginning in removing Russian imperial narratives from the Western academy and mental space. They are a good start toward respecting diversity, upholding norms of peaceful coexistence, learning history, and eventually getting rid of Russia-centric regional studies as we know them. Since language is the mirror of thought, we need to start mending the paradigms that cloud our thinking of what Russia and its neighbors really are.

This article appears in the Spring 2023 print issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Subscribe now to support our journalism.

Artem Shaipov is a member of the Aspen Institute’s NextGen Transatlantic Initiative and a co-founder of the Ukrainian Global University. Twitter: @AShaipov

Yuliia Shaipova is an advisor at the Ukrainian Parliament and a team lead at the Center for Economic Recovery. Twitter: @YuShaipova

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