How Russia uses ‘equality’ as a tool of domination

Editor’s note: Natalia Antelava (@antelava) is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Coda Story, which reports on the roots of global crises, including historical revisionism and propaganda wars. He is a former BBC reporter. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


“Tbilisi is full of Russian refugees,” read the 18-year-old woman’s diary entry. Soon after it was posted on social media in Georgia, it went viral, summing up the popular mood.

The most striking of these words is written in 1920, by a writer whose diary is a record of a time of uncertainty and hope. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 finally gave little Georgia a chance for independence from the Russian Empire. It also became a refuge for thousands of Russians.

“They are fleeing the Bolsheviks and they are all coming here,” wrote Maro Makashvili as Georgia’s fledgling liberal democracy opened its doors to thousands of Russians fleeing the revolution and resulting civil war. “We accommodate them, we accept them.”

A century later, Russians are once again fleeing tyranny for safety in their former colony. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens, mostly men, lined up for days to enter Georgia after President Vladimir Putin announced partial mobilization for the war in Ukraine. 50,000 Russians were being followed in the weeks after the invasion of Ukraine in February.

Today, as I walk beneath the carved balconies of Tbilisi, many decorated with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, all I hear is Russian. Moscow’s hipsters flock to the city’s bars, a friend’s Pilates class has just switched to being taught in Russian, and for the first time since Soviet times there is demand for Russian language schools.

For Georgians, the mass influx of Russians has, confusingly, produced much-needed economic growth as well as a sense of deep, historically rooted anxiety about another Russian takeover.

Like Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians, Kazakhs or anyone else who has been on the side of Russian colonialism, they generally see it as the main cause of the war in Ukraine. But not the rest of the world.

As the story of the Russians in Georgia shows, the story of historical oppressors seeking refuge in their former colony does not fit well with established narratives of migration and colonialism and challenges understanding of both.

“They are victims,” ​​argued a British journalist friend covering the Russian exodus at a recent dinner in Tbilisi. “They are, but they are also authors,” said the host.

The confusion stems in part from the nature of Russian colonialism. For centuries, while European powers conquered overseas territories, Russia ran a land empire that absorbed its neighbors. While the Europeans thought their subjects were “different” from them, the Russians conquered them using a different device: “equality”.

“The Russians chose ‘equality’ as a tool of domination. The message of Western colonialism was: ‘you cannot be like us’, while the message of Russian colonialism was ‘you cannot be different from us,'” Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko explained to Coda Story at the recent Tbilisi Storytelling Festival (ZEG). organized, the editorial office that I direct.

The idea of ​​”equality as an instrument of domination” also explains why most well-meaning Russians I know are strangely unaware that they regard their country as a colonial master.

“They are finally reaching a place where they have suffered because they have chosen to join the imperialist ambitions of their government,” says Kristo Talakhadze, the owner of the popular Ezo Tbilisi restaurant.

Angry with the Georgian government for refusing to introduce a visa regime for Russians, Kristo, like many other business owners, has taken it upon himself to filter out his Russian clients, giving them a history lesson.

Every table outside has a “manifesto” in Russian, reminding customers that Georgia has been the victim of Russian aggression for centuries, that Moscow engineered and fomented separatist conflicts in Georgia just as it does in Ukraine today, and that Russia invaded. Georgia occupied 20% of the country’s territory since 2008.

Are they listening? He doesn’t think so. Over the years, many Tbilisi restaurants, including Ezo, have been subject to cyber attacks, with Russian citizens grouping together to post negative reviews accusing the owners of “Russophobia” and lowering the restaurant’s ranking on Google.

There are, of course, exceptions. Like the Russian journalist Andrey Babitsky, he told me how a few months after coming to Tbilisi he went to dinner with friends from Moscow and found that after a few months of being here, not one of them knew how to say “sorry”. georgian

“I’ve read my fair share of colonial studies, but seeing colonialism play out in front of you with every cup of coffee you buy at a local counter is another matter.” he wrote

But in my experience, even the most liberal Russians I know are completely disinterested in dealing with the issue of colonialism.

“We are not colonialists!” said the editor-in-chief of a famous Russian television station currently in exile. He seemed genuinely upset by my suggestions that the war in Ukraine was an opportunity to finally present the issue of Russian colonialism to his liberal, Russian audience.

“When British and Indian journalists talk to each other, their history is the context of their conversation. When will the context become ours?’ I asked him.

“Why should he? I don’t believe in collective responsibility,” he shrugged.

One reason why the discussion of colonialism is missing from Russian liberal discourse is because Russia is missing from the discussion about Western colonialism. According to Yermolenko, the Ukrainian philosopher, in relation to colonialism, the intellectual elite of the West is from one end to the other in the 21st century.

“They went from saying ‘we are the best and no one can compare to us’ to ‘we were the worst and no one can compare to us,'” Yermolenko said at a ZEG panel discussion.

Georgian historian Lasha Bakradze argued that at the heart of this inability to understand, accept and analyze other forms of colonialism, “paradoxically, the West’s own colonial mentality”. “This is really where the skeletons of Western colonialism are buried,” he said.

For two decades, these self-imposed limits on the Western debate on colonialism have given the Kremlin a huge propaganda advantage, allowing Putin to falsely position Russia as an anti-colonial power, and himself as the champion of all the victims of European colonialism.

The war in Ukraine severely damaged the Kremlin’s narratives, but did not break them. Therefore, throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa, where the Soviet Union was associated with movements to free itself from European colonialism, Russia continues to work hard for its image as an anti-colonial power, reaping benefits through UN votes. and trade agreements.

At the same time, while kamikaze drones kill civilians in Kiev, many Western intellectuals feed the Russian state propaganda machine as they continue to debate the rights and wrongs of NATO’s expansion, not a sovereign country’s right. away from their colonial masters.

“At last my poor country will be blessed with freedom,” wrote Maro Makashvili before Russians began pouring into the country, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, in 1918. In the following years, he documented the birth of one of the most liberal. Europe’s most progressive democracy, women could vote and minorities were given rights.

But few knew about Georgia’s ambitious democracy, or how tragically it ended.

Maro died, along with thousands of others, when the Red Army invaded Georgia in 1921, occupying Georgia for the next 70 years. Today in Georgia, he is a national hero. But unless his story becomes part of the global anti-colonial narrative, Putin or whoever he represents in the Kremlin will continue to win.