FT: Russia’s Colonialism


From Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times:

Putin’s Colonial Exploitation “What they are offering us is obviously a vestige of colonial thinking,” was Russian president Vladimir Putin’s bizarre assessment this week of continuing British calls for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi. “They must have forgotten Britain is no longer a colonial power, there are no colonies left, and, thank God, Russia has never been a British colony.” Mr Lugovoi is the Russian agent suspected of killing Alexander Litvinenko, the dissident exile, by poisoning him with radioactive polonium-210 last autumn. Polonium-210 is manufactured in significant quantities only in the Russian town of Sarov. British investigators have found it not just in the Pine Bar of the Millennium Hotel in London’s Mayfair, where Mr Lugovoi met Mr Litvinenko last November, but also in pretty much every place Mr Lugovoi visited in the course of his short trip to Britain – aircraft seats, hotel rooms, public lavatories and waiting rooms. What was striking about Mr Putin’s remarks was not their intransigence. That has been a feature of much of Mr Putin’s rhetoric for the past year. He has bemoaned the end of communism, attacked US interventionism, wrong-footed the west as it attempts to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme and called on Britain to extradite his opponent and former ally, the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. No, the strange thing was that Mr Putin reached for the term “colonialism” in the same breath that he admitted there was no longer any such thing as a colony. Somehow the concept of colonialism has survived the age of colonies. Anti-colonial rhetoric thrives in the world of power politics just as “post-colonial theory” does in the academy. Why? What is this “colonialism”? It differs from the “imperialism” for which the US has lately been faulted. Where “imperialism” describes the political and military interactions between strong countries and weak ones, “colonialism” today describes their economic interactions – whether actual empires or colonies are involved or not. In an age of economic globalisation, colonialism is bound to be the more important phenomenon. Any country that is rich or progressing fast can stand accused of it. In France in recent years, entire books have been published that chalk up various modern injustices – class systems, ghettos, low wages – to colonialism. The term “neo-colonialism” has been frequently used to describe China’s relations with Africa, particularly its development of the Angolan and Sudanese oil industries. Whether Chinese exploitation of African copper constituted “colonialism” became a key issue in the Zambian elections of 2006. So did the allegation that China was dumping consumer goods on the continent. Popular though “post-colonial studies” may be in US and European universities, it is not really a new field of study. The story of subjugated peoples regaining their autonomy is an old one. What is new about post-colonial studies is the tendentiousness with which that story is told. Post-colonialism implies an ongoing obligation on the part of the coloniser towards the colonised. While the victim of imperialism needs only to be set free to go his own way, the victim of colonialism needs to be made whole. There are generally two pillars of post-colonial ideology. First, the coloniser was only ever interested in ripping off the colony’s natural resources. Second, there exists a colonialist “discourse”, usually involving rules of decency and fair play, set up to disguise the coloniser’s covetousness. To the extent that the coloniser imposed these rules, he has wrecked the ability of the colonised to think straight. The response of the colonised is not (as one might assume) to declare himself, through no fault of his own, unfit for self rule. It is to declare corrupt all inherited concepts of right and wrong. You can see the appeal of this ideology to academic philosophers. You can also see its appeal to authoritarians. Mr Putin follows both post-colonialist tenets in ruling Russia. He believes, first, that rich countries care only about Russia’s oil and gas; and second, that the west’s professed values are disingenuous eyewash, meant to divert attention from the impulse to plunder. There is always a grain of truth in such observations. Mr Putin’s treatment of Russia as a post-colonial problem seems to have been vindicated mightily. Russia has fared far better economically under his strong hand than it did under the tutelage of western economists. Its income a head has doubled since the turn of the decade. Mr Putin’s approval rating rests between 70 and 85 per cent. But Russia’s parallels to newly decolonised nations are not all positive. They include capital flight, rapid atrophying of economic sectors outside its major exports, cronyism, arrests of political opponents, lack of transparency and an intentional blurring of property rights. As for human rights, it is true that the doctrine is sometimes misapplied, but it ought to be possible, whatever your source of values, to distinguish between the case for extraditing Mr Lugovoi (a suspected killer) and the case for extraditing Mr Berezovsky (a regime opponent). Mr Putin’s view that the west is interested only in Russia’s energy is getting truer all the time. But he deserves part of the blame for that. He has built an economy based on resource extraction, to the exclusion of other things. Even when Mr Putin is not shutting off oil shipments to Lithuania or gas shipments to Ukraine, Russia relates to the world through its natural resources. For now, with oil around $80 a barrel, this means relating to the world from a position of strength. Mr Putin seems like a visionary to his citizenry. He does have a visionary side. Indeed, he has brought to life the spectre against which he sermonises. The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard