Interview 16:22 16 Aug 2023

Yale professor Stanley: Russia will attack Ukraine in 10 years again unless it becomes a democracy

During a hot summer week in Kyiv, we met with Jason Stanley, professor of Philosophy at Yale University and an expert on the study of fascism. It’s not only the weather that makes it hot but Russian attacks with drones and missiles all over Ukraine.

Professor Stanley came to teach a summer school on fascism and colonialism at the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) to more than 300 Ukrainians, delivering the closing lecture on the rooftop of KSE wearing a vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. Though it was only his second time visiting Kyiv, he already plans to return in the fall or winter.

colonialism and Russia

First, let me thank you for coming. It's not every day a Yale professor comes to Kyiv right now. I'm sure you know that the summer school participants have created a chat, and this chat is more intense than the news chats right now because people are discussing what they have heard, sometimes agreeing with you, sometimes not.

You mentioned on the first day of school that the loss of African colonies was a crucial fact for Germany, leading it to wage war. How would you explain why Russia started the war in 2014 and 2022?

There are a couple of reasons, and they're tied together. First, the kind of fascist ideology that Putin has is also tied to colonialism, his desire to create a new Russian empire, and it's tied to his hatred and fear of democracy in Europe and Ukraine.

So these two are linked together. Fascist ultra-nationalism is anti-democratic because it's against equality. So Putin does believe that Ukraine is really his, and he wants to recreate what's rightfully – in his view – Russian, and this idea dominates everything. He would take over Poland again if he could. He definitely thinks of Ukraine as part of "Greater Russia," as it were.

And secondly, he can't tolerate a democratic country next door because if Russians realize that next door to them is a country that can replace its leaders, then that is an existential threat.

The more Russians think of Ukrainians as brothers and cousins, the more dangerous it is for Putin. Before the Maidan, Ukraine and Russia were connected with people's family ties. But once Maidan happened, Putin had to say there was something wrong with Ukraine. And that's why what is going on is what is going on because it's so much better if you can replace your leaders.

colonialism and Russia

And so, my next question would be, do you believe that the war in its current form is anti-colonial?

No two colonial situations are the same, but I think it is anti-colonial. Ukraine is fighting for its independence from a country that wants to dominate it. And so my course at Kyiv School of Economics has been a question. It's been testing that thesis.

What we've been doing – not being Ukrainian and not an expert in Ukraine by any means – I came here to see if this frame would make sense to Ukrainians. One of the things I discovered was that Ukrainians like to say they're European. But today, we talk a lot about analogies. It is sophisticated and intellectual to write in English rather than in Kikuyu (the language spoken by the native population of central Kenya, – ed.). And it was sophisticated and intellectual to write in Russian rather than Ukrainian.

And class after class, Timothy Mylovanov, KSE's president, was talking during one of our classes about KSE alumni building their careers in Moscow.

Yes, I heard what he was saying. He recalled that many KSE graduates had gone to Moscow, Russia's capital, 15 years ago and later. That has changed, of course.

There was a woman in one of our classes. While talking to African leaders, she had heard that white people were still in colonial relations with Africans.

"If you're fascist, then you're colonial"

colonialism and Russia

You mentioned that colonialism always goes together with something else. What is the second component of Russian colonialism?

If you're fascist, then you're colonial. But not all colonialism is about fascism.

So that's why we're reading "King Leopold's Ghost," and we're reading "Imperial Reckoning" in the course of this summer school. We're reading "Imperial Reckoning" because people are like, "oh, British colonialism wasn't brutal."

Well, when you have a counterinsurgency against British colonialists, they kill you all. If Ukraine had just given up and day one and decided that everyone would speak Russian, it would have been a different situation.

But if you're going to resist colonial powers, they're very, very violent in terms of getting back.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o talks about rape. I mean, it is very parallel. For example, in Congo, 10 million people were killed by the Belgians. During school, we watched "Battle of Algiers" – about French colonialism. They tortured, and the methods of torture they used against anyone suspected of being an Algerian rebel were horrific.

There's a particular kind of violence when you own a country or a people, and they rebel.

Jason Stanley

It's really interesting because we don't know a lot about other types of colonialism and the way other colonies are fighting. In what ways is Russian colonialism different from others, or how are others different from Russian?

I think a specific feature of Russian colonialism is that they think Ukrainians really are them.

The British colonialists or the French colonialists, and certainly not the Belgian colonialists didn't think that the Africans they were invading, that they were colonizing, were really them, right? So that's an entirely different structure of colonialism. So the British, in particular, thought the Africans ought to be them, so they annihilated.

In effect, you had a similar situation where everyone had to speak English. If you were caught speaking the native language, you'd be beaten, whipped, and you would have to wear a sign saying "I am stupid" or "I am a donkey." So, that's similar to what Russians would do with the Ukrainian language – but for a different reason, because the Russians think it's like a fake identity.

I think the situation that is similar to that I've mentioned is the Pakistan-Bangladesh war, in which Pakistan killed 300,000 Bangladeshis in 1971. Because they were like, "you're not Bangladeshi, you're Pakistani, you're trying to invent this different identity." I think they speak the same language, though.

We're not talking about physics here, I think it could be that the word colonialism, or the concept, is different. Social reality is a difficult thing to measure.

Maybe Africans are right when they say white people can't talk about colonialism. That's just the racial thing. Look at the Japanese colonization of China. That's not racial. That's one group of Asians, and that was as violent as you can get. So, I think we're still operating with concepts that are social concepts. There are two questions: first, how accurate is it and second, what strategic value does it have? And that has to do with the emotional resonance, the effects of the language.

You're talking about violent domination and violent domination plus mental domination, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, a Kenyan author and academic, says. So I think the word "colonialism" describes a lot of, it describes a lot of the character of what's going on. It describes the attack on identity. You know that it's bad, that it's violent, that there's an ownership sense. If you use other words, I'm not sure whether they're going to capture all of those elements.

So whenever you're using words to describe political reality, you know, it's never a question of fitting like physics fits. It's a question of whether you're capturing the right emotional relations and perspective, and in the case of colonialism, we're talking about domination and the erasure of identity, mass rape. It's the kind of anger of someone who you think you possess – and who is resisting your possession.

colonialism and Russia

A famous Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak – I don't know if you know him, but he is a great friend of Professor Timothy Snyder – who says that Ukrainians should overcome history. He uses that phrase, in a sense, to be a successful state, improving the economy will help us to make this leap to be more European and not to have a mindset of a former colony.

To be more like Korea?

Yes, so it is interesting if other examples show the same.

Korea is a former colony of Japan. It freed itself from colonization quite a while ago. Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya are doing pretty well, and the United States. Other examples of colonies are different. China was a colony of Japan, and Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom. 

I went to Korea in 2006, and it was shocking. It was already fancy and wealthy; now their cultural production, movies, and TV shows are quite famous. Now the country has become quite successful. You need to have cultural production. Ukrainians are making a name for themselves, as Black Americans did in the civil rights movement, with resistance to tyranny and domination. Black Americans are like a colony within a nation, and they are famous now due to their resistance.

There are different aspects of it, economic ones included. Singapore is economically wealthy, but what cultural production do they have? Nobody is listening to music or reading novels from Singapore. Korea is now promoting movies, TV shows, and music. They are everywhere and have become a paragon of powerful political movies.

But Ukraine is going to be emerging from the war. Obviously, you will need to spend a lot of time. You're always going to be next to Russia, that's not going to change. So it's going to be difficult on the economic side because so much will have to go into defense.

But Ukraine has an advantage. Ukraine is already famous – 10 years ago, who had heard of it? I mean, it was like Turkmenistan for many Americans. Or, Belarus is making a name for itself for brutality and evil, but Belarus was quite wealthy for a little while there with tech industry and stuff — but they completely screwed it up.

"The goal is a future where you don't have to think about the Russians"

Speaking about the Russian presence, borders: we call it going back to the borders of 1991, but many people, including those in the military and the political leadership, say that it may not be enough. The discussion is about whether Ukraine should contribute to the collapse of Russia in its current form – because we believe in some other forms, the war can continue in some hybrid format. Do you believe it's the case?

Unless Russia becomes a democracy, of course, it will continue – or Moscow will try to launch another war. That's why there's North Korea and South Korea as a model. Unless Russia changes its political system, it will have to be that, I think.

Jason Stanley

What about the Russian elite? At the beginning of the war, there was a discussion in Ukraine that it was Putin who started the war. Now the public discourse has shifted towards: no, it's Russia's war. What should we do with those? Even some really experienced politicians in the West still think it is "Putin's war."

 I think a lot of Russians believe Putin's narrative that Ukraine is a fake identity or whatever. That's a big problem. I know Russian-Americans who believe that it's a ridiculous belief. I mean, unless you say there are no identities, maybe there are no identities, say no. But Ukrainian is as real an identity as, you know, German. I mean, there was no German identity until, you know, the early 19th century. So, Ukrainian identity is older than German identity. So you know, all these identities are new, they're all new. It's the widespread belief in this ridiculous nonsense about Ukraine.

How can Ukraine eliminate this narrative? In particular, in the US, also interestingly in certain regions in Ukraine currently occupied by Russia – in the east of Ukraine and Crimea – because yes, we understand that actually there are Ukrainians that really believe this, right?

The thing is, you can choose your identity. Nationalism arose when a bunch of people who were living in empires decided that "we speak a different language than those people." And so, these things are temporary. National identities are temporary. Serbian and Croatian sound exactly the same. Now they have a translator between them.

The situation in Rwanda is the most extreme. The Hutu and Tutsi are the same people, with the same religion, history and language. No African country has the same history, religion. It was all created by the Belgians, and that was the worst genocide in history. All these things are fluid, and you don't know what your identity will be in 20 years.

I am someone who thinks people should be allowed to be what they want to be. I care about people's safety, and I think Russia is so violent, and I think you don't want to have people in Russian territory.

What does your research on colonialism say about identity? You mentioned that a Ukrainian identity is anti-Russian. Do you think it's okay? 

I don't want to pretend it's not the case. But it wasn't the case before 2014. The Russians are creating the reality that they're saying is there – and they're intentionally creating that. Who wouldn't be anti-Russian if the Russians attacked you and did to Mariupol or something that they're doing?

But the important thing is that after Ukraine wins and people are secure, you can't focus on Russians anymore. You've got to focus on Ukrainians and focus on your own government and treating your Russian-speaking minorities – well, you can't live with that. It's a wartime identity, and it's completely understandable as a wartime identity.

I find it really galling and absurd when people are asking Ukrainians right now to be empathetic to Russians. I mean, that's not being empathetic to Ukrainians. But once the war ends, Ukraine is safe, it's a different story. You can't have an identity that's just entirely hatred of somebody else. The goal is a future where you guys don't have to think about the Russians.

Now Ukraine is trying to capture the minds and hearts of the global south. What rhetoric do they understand? Some say we have gathered all the support possible.

I don't think that's right. I think there have been some really good aspects of Zelensky's government in terms of their media activities. We've been talking about whether the frame of colonialism is good for that. I was thinking exactly about this, what if I'm calling Putin a warlord? You're a self-governing state being attacked by a warlord — nobody thinks Zelensky is a warlord. 

I don't think the European war is strategic at all to anyone but the Europeans. Maybe you have to say that to get into the European Union or whatever. The war in Europe [framing] feeds into Putin's dialectic that this is an imperial conquest by Europe and NATO, and it doesn't help you with Latin America, and it doesn't help you with Africa, India, or China.

China is an authoritarian country, committing (maybe) multiple genocides at the moment. I think the problem is India is tilting towards genocide. So the problem is you've got these powerful countries doing what Russia's doing, and so you know that it's a complicated situation. They'll never be on Ukraine's side, though.

You could lean into the anti-colonial rhetoric in India, but it would be weird because of how they use it. So, Putin's using anti-colonial terminology, too. He's saying this is a colonial war between NATO and Europe. So, I think it is important to use anti-colonial terminology — because what about fascism here?

I'm told fascism in here just means you're bad. It doesn't mean something more specific than that, but you know, it should mean something more specific. It should mean a far-right-wing extremist, anti-democratic dictator. And the United States supported anti-colonial movements — just around Russia, but never anywhere else.

I mean, obviously, I'm here because I like the phrases colonialism and fascism for this situation. It seems to be that Russia is fascist, and they're doing a fascist takeover of other countries like Poland. They're doing the same thing the Nazis did with Poland. The Nazis said ethnic Germans in Poland were going to be genocided by the Polish.

"If you tell people in Russia that Ukraine never existed, and you don't tell them about the Holodomor of 1932-1933, they'll support the war"

You mentioned that "Schooling for Fascism" is the tentative title of your new book. Could you tell us more?

It's a book about how education systems, including those in Russia, are changed to make people susceptible to fascism.

If you tell people in Russia that Ukraine never existed, and you don't tell them about the Holodomor of 1932-1933, they'll support the war.

So in the United States, they try to extinguish indigenous [Native American] identity by these boarding schools where they just teach people – essentially what the British did in Kenya – to be white with African and Black Americans.

They had schools where they taught them that white people did everything and Black people had no accomplishments. It's about the way you craft schooling to create a subject that does what you want and thinks the way you want.

It's just like my book "How Fascism Works" — I look internationally at different examples. It's interesting to see who is alike, who is good, who is, and who can be compared to whom. I will look into Russia, the US, and Turkey: all countries with some fascist agendas that they're trying to impose. 

In your Guardian article in February 2022, just two days after the full-scale invasion started, you mentioned that Dugin (a Russian far-right political philosopher and propagandist, — ed.) and others in Russia had an influence on Putin, on his kind of decision-making. Do you think it was the Russian society that kind of started all this and Putin just has found the right time and the right way to like to make an instrument of it? 

Putin changed the education system. There's the Soviet education system that eliminated so much history. And then Putin's Russia changed the education system further. So, you know, when you ask what about the Russian people, aren't they affected by the ridiculous education they've had that makes them not know history? Of course, they are.

"People have to be part of something bigger, and if they're not part of something bigger, they'll go back to the past"

Jason Stanley

How should Ukraine deal with the syndrome of inferiority? Does it really make things worse in terms of the mindset of the people, nation-building, and how should we overcome it? I am from Mykolaiv, once the center of shipbuilding, both in Russian and Soviet times. People there really liked having the feeling of belonging to something great and unique, like shipbuilding. People remember the time when half of the city was working on the yards and factors. What should be done with those sentiments? 

That's a great question. I don't have an easy answer for that. This is a challenge. I think the democratic theorists would say you need to give everybody a common purpose and see that they're a part of something, that there are these things they need to do together, they're working on a big project together.

So rebuilding the country is such a project and if people are rebuilding the country, well then it is manufacturing, it is various things that involve factories… And so, rebuilding the country is a joint project that could create a democracy.

People have to be part of something bigger, and if they're not part of something bigger, they'll go back to the past.

Another dilemma that we have heard in Ukraine is that we can win the war but lose the peace. Do you see the chance of that?

There are several ways. If Ukraine wins, the military takes over, the people become hostile to LGBT, they become like the Chechens or something, and there's immense violence on the street from returning soldiers. If Ukraine becomes what Russia says they were all along, if the far right wins. When you are surrounded by far-right authoritarian countries if an autocrat takes over.

That's the worry because what happened in Haiti with Toussaint L'Ouvertur was an anti-colonial war, where you had a whole country of enslaved black people who rebelled and beat the French. Not just beat the French, but they beat them twice. They killed 20,000 French soldiers and Toussaint L'Ouverture was the leader, and he was one of the most humanitarian leaders ever. Later he went to France willingly, thinking they would receive him as an equal. And they arrested him, and he died in prison. After that Dessalines took over, he was the general, and he was an autocrat and a warlord. And Haiti is what Haiti is because of that. So that could easily happen. You're in a neighborhood of countries with some nasty warlords.

Zelensky is not like that. But what if Zelensky had a closer relationship with the military, who knows? But so that's the future you have to avoid. I was talking to a friend who's from Lebanon, and I told her I was worried the military might take over after the war. And she says the military is the most trusted institution. In Lebanon, people always hope the military takes over. There are a bunch of ways Ukraine could lose the war, win the war, and yet lose the peace.


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