Russian Identity, Nationalism, Colonialism and Postcolonialism

Ewa M. Thompson, Professor of Slavic Studies, Rice University

This document is excerpted from chapter one of the author's Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism, which the author and her publisher, Greenwood Press, have graciously shared with the readers of the PoCo Web.

The English words "Russia" and "Russian" translate more than a dozen Russian terms and expressions. The Russian language has the word Rossiia, or the Russian nation and state (this word was given prestige by Nikolai Karamzin's History). The Russian language also has the more ancient word Rus', the state that existed in Kiev before the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century. The word Rus' is sometimes used in Russian in a poetic way, to embrace all East Slavs -- it may include Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians; in some cases it designates Ukrainians and Belarusians only. In this last case, Rus' echoes the old English word "Ruthenia," which designates contemporary Belarus and Ukraine taken together but not "Muscovy," or Russia. Thus, to translate the word Rus' as "Russia" is fraught with ambiguities, yet this is routinely done by American historians.. . . It is also important to remember, as Edward Keenan recently pointed out in a seminal article, that there existed no consciousness in Muscovy of being a continuation of the Kievan state. There is no indication that Ivan the Terrible or his predecessors had ever considered Ukraine or Belarus (then under Polish-Lithuanian rule) as a Muscovite patrimony. Thus, the notion of "reunification" of the three East Slavic nations advanced by Russian ideologues of the eighteenth century was an invention of the late seventeenth century, not an integral part of Muscovite perception in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.. . .

Unlike Western colonies, which have increasingly talked back to their former masters, Russia's colonies have by and large remained mute, sometimes lacking Western-educated national elites and always lacking the encouragement of Western academia that foregrounding issues relevant to them would afford. They continue to be perceived within the paradigms relevant to Russia, the objects of Russian perception rather than subjects responding to their own histories, perceptions, and interests.

In that connection, the perception of postcolonialist commentators that history is "the discourse through which the West has asserted its hegemony over the rest of the world" is incorrect. The world has never been divided into two neat compartments, West and non-West. The bilateral vision disregards the fact that Russia engaged in a massive effort to manufacture a history, one that stands in partial opposition to the history created by the West on the one hand, and on the other to the history sustained by the efforts of those whom Russia had colonized. In doing so, Russia has successfully superimposed portions of its own narrative on the Western one, either blending the two or including its own voice as a kind of universally acknowledged commentary or footnote. Entering Western discourse through a side door, as it were, reinforced Russia's invisibility as a third voice.

Other Excerpts


Ewa M. Thompson. Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Postcolonial OV discourseov

Last modified: 15 June 2000