Colonialist Comrades

The struggle for post-colonial identity from West Africa to the Caucasus

Demonstrators face police officers outside the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi. 2024. Photograph by Vano Shlamov (Getty Images).

This piece is published in collaboration with Coda Story as part of the Complicating Colonialism issue.

“My issue with the French language,” Khadim said, pouring sticky-sweet, minty tea into my glass, “is that I love hating it.” His words struck a chord: I realized that I had the same relationship with another language. It was dusk. We were sitting on the rooftop of Khadim’s parents house in Amite III, a residential neighborhood in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, where I was spending my study abroad year. I was 20, and obsessed with West Africa, its history, and the tea-fueled evenings with Khadim and his fellow philosophy student friends, who had a knack for stretching my mind beyond its comfort zones. 

It was during those slow, meandering rooftop conversations that ventured into every aspect of our lives—from crushes and struggles with identity to global politics—that I was handed the gift of a Senegalese lens to re-examine and better understand my own story. 

I grew up in the nation of Georgia, where as a child I lived through the violent collapse of the Soviet Union and learned—primarily from my parents—that instability and chaos were a small price to pay for the triumph of Georgia’s centuries-long struggle for independence. Among many contradictions that laced my childhood was the fact that I learned Russian, the Soviet lingua franca, from my half-Polish, half-Armenian mother, who would force me to read War and Peace in the original, but also insisted that my formal education be conducted in Georgian—and that I was to never trust anything that came from an appointed authority, especially one in Moscow.  

It was not until I sat on that Dakar rooftop that I thought of my mishmashed identity as a byproduct of colonialism. Just like me with Russian, Khadim loved all the opportunities that French, the language of his historical oppressor, had unlocked for him. Like me, he had a native-level appreciation for the language of a country he’s never lived in, and a nuanced understanding of a culture he was never part of. But unlike me, he was acutely aware of the price he had paid for that access. “I never thought of Russian in the same way that Khadim thinks of the French, but I think I also have a love-hate relationship with it,” I wrote in my journal that particular evening. “It is weird how it represents oppression and opportunity at the same time.” 

My old journal documents my awe (or was it envy?) at the deep awareness that Khadim and his friends possessed when it came to understanding how the historic legacy of French colonialism in West Africa affected their personal journeys. It is a record of my delight over the similarities I discovered between the Senegalese saint Cheikh Amadou Bamba, who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism, and the Georgian orthodox saint and healer Father Gabriel, who was tortured and sentenced to death by the Soviets after he set a 26-food portrait of Lenin on fire in 1955.

The message of Russian colonialism was: you are not allowed to be different from us.

Today, “colonialism,” with all of its many prefixes and subcategories, often feels like an overused term: there is neo-colonialism and tech-colonialism, post-colonialism and eco-colonialism, settler colonialism and internal colonialism. I could go on—the list is so long, it feels tedious. And yet, no other word at our disposal can quite capture the historical continuity of domination and oppression that is the root cause of so many of the world’s current troubles. 

Every one of us is a carrier of a colonial legacy, either as a victim or the beneficiary—or sometimes both. Colonialism is the system of oppression that our world is built on. As we obsess with decolonizing everything from our schools to industries and corporations, it is useful to remember how easily our understanding of colonialism can be manipulated unless we first decolonize ourselves. 

My story is both typical and telling. My parents may have cherished Georgia’s freedom from Moscow, but somehow I had still bought into a widely accepted myth that the Soviet Union was an anti-colonial power. Both at my Soviet school, and later at university in the United States, I was taught that colonialism was something that Western countries did to Africa, Asia, and the Far East. It was only when I went to Senegal and stumbled upon the depth and ease with which I was able to relate to the anti-colonial part of the West African identity that I began to realize that I, too, was a product of “colonialism.” Until then, the struggle of non-Russian Soviet republics for independence was compartmentalized in my mind as something qualitatively different from the plight of formerly colonized people elsewhere.


Like the Black Lives Matters protests in the United States and the reckoning with anti-Black racism that followed, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 triggered a profound reconsideration of colonialism, including demands for restructuring and amends, from across the periphery of Russia’s historical empire; a backlash from Russia itself followed. 

From Central Asia to the Baltics, from the Caucasus to Poland, activists, academics, historians, journalists, and ordinary citizens were suddenly digging up long-hidden stories of oppression, deportations, ethnic cleansing and “Russification” policies that the Kremlin had imposed on them over the centuries. Their stories were different, but the point they were making was the same: Russia’s war in Ukraine was a quintessentially colonial conflict, part of the centuries-long cycle of relentless conquest and subjugation.  

Across Russia’s former empire, this struggle to break away from subjugation has defined generation after generation. Today in Georgia, the children of those who in 1989 protested against—and helped end—the Soviet Union are out on the same streets, protesting against the current government’s attempts to take their country off its pro-European course and bring it back into Russia’s fold.

“Do not fear! We will win honorably,” read one poster held up by three women who joined tens of thousands of protesters in May 2024 on the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The words are more than a hundred years old and belong
to Maro Makashvili, a young Georgian woman who wrote them down over a century ago just as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution helped end Tsarist rule in Russia. For Georgia, the revolution meant freedom from two centuries of domination by  its northern neighbor and, finally, a chance to write
its own story.

Few know that in those years, Georgia emerged as one of the most progressive democracies in Europe, a place where women could vote and minorities were granted rights. Young Maro Makashvili watched it all and documented Georgia’s ambitious experiment with democracy in her diaries. The experiment ended, abruptly and tragically, when Bolshviks invaded Georgia in 1921, annihilating the country’s intellectual and political elite, violently forcing Georgia into the USSR and rewriting the country’s history to fit the Soviet narrative. 

“To me, Maro Makashvili lives on in every beautiful, strong, smart, young woman protesting in the streets today,” said Tiko Suladze, a Tbilisi resident who held up Maro Makashvili’s portrait at the recent anti-Russian, anti-government demonstration.

Every one of us is a carrier of a colonial legacy, either as a victim or the beneficiary.

The sentiments Makashvili described in her diaries during this time talk of freedom for women—and her whole country. These are ideas that resonate today with those living in the trenches of the long war against Russian imperialism. Ukraine is its current and bloodiest epicenter, but its frontline stretches across Russia’s vast former empire. You wouldn’t know it, though, listening to mainstream media in the West that explain the war through the prism of a geopolitical struggle between Moscow and Washington and, inadvertently, diminish the actual struggle of people on the frontline. This happens, in part at least, because we have a narrow definition of what colonialism is.


The very nature of Russian colonialism doesn’t fit the Western definition of oppression. Over the centuries, while European powers conquered overseas territories, Russia ran a land empire that absorbed its neighbors. While Europeans instilled the notion that their subjects were “different” from them, Russians conquered using another device: “sameness.” In the Russian colonial system, which was subsequently refined by the Soviets, subjects were banned from speaking their language or celebrating their culture (outside of the sterilized version of a culture that was sanctioned by Moscow). In exchange, they were allowed to rise to the top. In 2022, while dropping bombs on Kyiv, Vladimir Putin launched an audaciously counterintuitive campaign that positioned him as the global anti-colonial hero. The Russian Ministry of Culture announced that thematic priorities for state-funded films in 2022 included promotion of “family values,” depiction of cultural “degradation” of Europe, and films on “Anglo-Saxon neo-colonialism.” 

Piggybacking on the Soviet legacy of support for anti-colonial movements, and banking on people’s genuine disillusionment with the double standards of American foreign policy in places like the Middle East, Putin ordered his diplomats in Africa, Latin America and Asia to double down on the anti-colonial message. Using social media, the Russian propaganda machine beamed the same message, targeting newsfeeds of left-leaning audiences in the West, as well as immigrant and Black communities in the United States. 

The tactic worked. In 2023, I found myself at a small conference in Nairobi that brought together a dozen or so senior editors and publishers from across the African continent, a Ukrainian journalist, an exiled Russian editor, and myself. The conference was hosted by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German foundation affiliated with the country’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. The foundation, which despite its association is independent from the CDU, is a big player in media development in Africa. And it was concerned about the growing spread of Russian narratives across the continent, which prompted them to organize the conversation. 

Protestors in Tbilisi, Georgia holding a poster that reads, “Do not fear! We will win honorably.” May, 2024. Photograph by Leli Blagonravova.

In the room in Nairobi, there was plenty of sympathy toward Ukraine and plenty of concern about clearly malicious disinformation campaigns undertaken by influencers across Africa. But there were also compelling explanations as to why Africa is currently finding Moscow’s messages more persuasive than those being pushed by the West.  

Ukraine, my African colleagues explained, was perceived as a “Western project.” Delivered primarily through Western diplomatic and news channels, the Ukrainian message in Africa was met with resistance because of the West’s perceived refusal to account for the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. “You may call it whataboutism, but it is grounded in real questions that no one has answered,” one African editor said. Russia’s message, on the other hand, “lands well and softly,” Nwabisa Makunga, an editor of The Sowetan in Johannesburg, told me at the time. The challenge for her team, she explained, was to objectively navigate overwhelmingly pro-Russian public sentiment and a widespread belief that Ukraine caused the invasion.

During my trip to Nairobi, one of the editors shared an unpublished op-ed sent to him as an email from the Russian Ambassador to Kenya, Dmitry Maskimychev. It read: “If you look at the leaders of the Soviet Union, you will find two Russians (Lenin, Gorbachev), a Georgian (Stalin), and three Ukrainians (Brezhnev, Khruschev, Chernenko). Some colonialist empire! Can you imagine a Kenyan sitting on the British throne? Make no mistake, what is currently happening in Ukraine is not a manifestation of Russian ‘imperialism’ but a ‘hybrid’ clash with NATO.” It is an effective message that lands equally well with many Western intellectuals who continue to argue about the rights and wrongs of NATO enlargement and not the fact that a sovereign country has the right to break away from its colonial masters. 

Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko is among the most prolific voices when it comes to comparing Russian and Western colonial styles. He is also the one who first introduced me to the idea of “sameness” as an instrument of domination. The message of Western colonialism was: “‘you are not able to be like us’, while the message of Russian colonialism was ‘you are not allowed to be different from us,’” he explained at the Zeg Storytelling Festival in Tbilisi in 2023. While there were differences in the way the Russians and the Europeans constructed their empires, the result was the same: violence, redrawn borders, repression of cultures and languages, and annihilation of entire communities. 

The idea of “sameness as an instrument of domination” also explains why most well-meaning Russians I meet often seem weirdly unaware of their country being perceived as a colonial master. There are, of course, notable exceptions, but for the most part even the most liberal Russians I know seem utterly disinterested in engaging on the issue of colonialism with the country’s former subjects like myself.  Soon after the Ukraine invasion, I asked a prominent liberal Russian journalist whether he was going to introduce the topic of colonialism to his equally liberal, Russian audiences. He seemed genuinely insulted by the suggestion. “We are not colonialists!” he said. 

One reason why the debate about colonialism is largely missing from the Russian liberal discourse is because Russia is still missing from the debate about colonialism in the West. Yermolenko believes that when it comes to colonialism, the Western intellectual elite went from one extreme in the 19th century to another in the 21st. “They went from saying, ‘we are the best and no one can compare to us’ to saying, ‘we were the worst and no one can compare to us,’ ” Yermolenko says. 

It is impossible to paint a singular portrait of colonialism.

Georgian historian Lasha Bakradze takes the argument a step further: “At the heart of this inability to understand, accept and analyze other forms of colonialism lies, paradoxically, the West’s own colonial mentality. This is where skeletons of Western colonialism are really buried.” 

For two decades, these self-imposed limits of Western debate about colonialism have given the Kremlin an enormous propaganda advantage, enabling Putin to position Russia as an anti-colonial power, and himself as the champion of all victims of European colonialism. They have also shaped our own, self-imposed, compartmentalized frameworks through which we understand oppression. 

“To this very day, the core of decolonization for me is about being able to learn and tell your own full story in your own words and being able to follow the narrative of your choice,” argues my friend, Ukrainian journalist Maksym Eristavi, whose book Russian Colonialism 101 is a succinct record of one part of Russia’s colonial adventures: invasions. “This means being able to dissect what is authentic in you and what is programmed by the colonizer.”   

But the process of deconstructing your own narratives can be a fraught and deeply uncomfortable experience. Take well-meaning Western academic institutions, for example, which have traditionally taught history and the languages of Russia’s former colonies in Central Asia and the Caucasus within their Russian studies departments. The war in Ukraine triggered a reckoning in American universities, where professors started debating how to teach imperialism and colonialism in Russia. 

Because of the invasion and Western sanctions, some Russian language studies programs could no longer send their students to Russia, and many reached for an easy solution: send them instead to places where Russian is spoken because it’s the language of the oppressor. It is only now that I learn about Americans coming to Georgia to learn Russian that I feel simultaneously angry at the colonial behavior of supposedly liberal arts institutions And embarrassed that at age 20, I did not once question the decision to go to Senegal to study French. 

It is impossible to paint a singular portrait of colonialism. But it is possible and necessary to listen and respect each of their voices. It is only through listening to the multitude of oppressed voices—from Gaza and Yemen, Georgia and Ukraine, American reservations and former slave plantations—that we will begin to understand the systems of oppression and patterns that run through it.

“Colonialism is about trauma first,” says Maksym Eristavi. “The trauma of your identity being violated, erased, reprogrammed. The trauma of losing your roots, figuratively and quite literally. The goal of the colonizer is to make you feel small and isolated. To ensure that you think that your arrested potential is your own fault.”

“At last my poor country will be blessed with freedom,” the young Georgian Maro Makashvili wrote in her diary in 1918. When the Red Army invaded Georgia in 1921, occupying the country for the next seventy years, thousands of Georgians were killed. Among them was Maro. Today, Maro Makashvili is a national hero. But unless her story becomes part of the global anti-colonial narrative, oppressors—in Russia and beyond—will continue to win. 


Natalia Antelava

Natalia Antelava is Coda Story’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief. Originally from Tbilisi, she has covered the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, the wars in Iraq and in Eastern Ukraine and reported undercover from Burma, Yemen and Uzbekistan.

Our 21st volume of Stranger’s Guide takes a new approach. Rather than focusing on a single location, this guide traces the modern manifestation of colonialism all around the world. “Colonialism” can feel like a buzzword these days, but as ever, ...

Related Content