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‘Not decolonization but self-isolation’ How the Kremlin’s purported fight against ‘neocolonialism’ is destroying Russian science
One of the many forms of global inequality is inequality in the production of scientific knowledge. Countries in the Global South, many of which are former colonies, have tried to solve this issue by “decolonizing” academic processes: for years, intellectuals and scientists from non-Western countries have been asserting their autonomy and challenging the West’s “intellectual authority.” Sociologist Ivan Kislenko, a visiting scholar with the Dimensions of Europeanization project at Austria’s University of Graz, believes that Russian scientists and researchers could learn a lot from their colleagues in postcolonial countries. In this essay for Meduza, he explains that for all of the Russian authorities’ talk of wanting to take part in decolonization — and even to lead it — they’re actually doing the exact opposite. The Kremlin is burning the very bridges that would allow Russian public thought to prove its value and gradually take its rightful place in global intellectual life.
Vladimir Putin has mentioned the fight against Western “neocolonialism” in the past, but in his speech at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 27, 2022, he brought the topic to the fore. This surprised some political analysts — and surprised researchers even more. Putin spoke about decolonization, criticizing Eurocentrism and Western dominance, but his words sounded dissonant coming from the mouth of a leader whose country is waging war for the sake of restoring its former dominance over its neighbors. In the speech, the Russian president didn’t denounce his ambitions to dominate other countries; it’s clear that the Kremlin has no plans to do what several European colonial powers did in the late 1950s and earlier 1960s and give up its colonial claims. In that period, many colonies in Africa and on other continents won independence.
Ideas related to the topic of decolonization usually concern the social sciences — a field that’s faced serious challenges in Russia since February 24. On top of longstanding problems associated with pressure from the government, it’s become much harder for Russian social scientists to work with their foreign colleagues, and many have been forced to withdraw from collaborative projects. The general orientation has shifted towards traditional Russian subjects as the authorities have pushed academics to stop relying on Western models.
Parallels can be drawn with the decolonial aspirations of non-Western intellectuals and their dreams of a science free of Western modes of knowledge production. Against the backdrop of Putin’s anti-colonial declarations, regardless of their sincerity, it’s worth looking at the sources of similar ideas and seeing how much they correspond to the real state of affairs — and whether any of Russia's initiatives can really be considered decolonial.
Decolonizing science in the Global South
The dream of emancipation from Western ways of knowledge production have long informed academic discussions. These ideas first arose among intellectuals in the Global South when it was beginning the project of getting rid of European powers’ colonial influence. University classrooms were temporarily empty after the departure of colonizing powers, and local scientists felt an acute need to describe themselves in their own terms rather than continuing to use the language of people studying their homes from the outside. These projects have often included the following:
- Devoting attention to local problems
- Assigning a special status to local values
- Using a country’s own, non-English terms
- An overall desire to counter the “collective West” in science
Many people are responsible for the current recognition non-Western countries’ intellectual contributions to world culture is beginning to receive.
One of the most notable attempts to draw attention to the forgotten traditions of the Global South was made by Australian researcher Raewyn Connell (born in 1944). In her book Southern Theory: a Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science, she not only revealed the content of ideas from “traditionally non-sociological” regions, but also showed how they became that way.
Another person who tried to reconcile local traditions with Western scientific methods was Iranian sociologist Ali Shariati (1933–1977), who tried to bring revolutionary Marxist practices into Shia Islam. Shariati was popular among students, though due to political pressure, he was forced to flee Iran shortly before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Nigerian sociologist Akinsola Akiwowo (1922–2014) made the case in a number of works that local concepts taken from Yoruba poetry and the Yoruba creation myth could describe sociological processes taking place in West Africa more accurately than Western tools.
Indian thinkers have gone to great lengths to make sense of colonialism and subjugation. Scholars from the Subaltern Studies Group have authored multiple papers outlining these ideas in their entirety. The works of Gayatri Spivak (born in 1942), Ranajit Guha (born in 1923), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (born in 1948), who wrote the book Provincializing Europe, were especially popular.
For a long time, these ideas and ones like them didn’t penetrate the debates taking place in the Western world. It’s no mystery why: Western scholars didn’t assign importance to local research in fields where they considered themselves the indisputable authorities. This, however, just highlighted the unequal distribution of academic resources between the Global North and Global South. Only in the late 20th century and early 21st century have Western scholars with “academic power” begun paying more attention to the non-Western world. Thanks to these changes, the idea of decolonizing curricula now occupies a significant place in the social sciences — both in the Global South and in the Global North.
In other words, the creation of an intellectual language independent from Western influence and understandings of social problems that don’t exist in Western cultures is no longer limited to the Global South but is part of academia worldwide. The scientific and intellectual lives of non-Western cultures is not isolated; it’s gradually finding a place in intellectual centers throughout the rest of the world.
How Russia is 'de-Westernizing' science
Complaints that Russia has received insufficient respect at international social science conferences, discussions about a “fault line between those who believe that reading Western books is more important than Russian ones and those who believe the opposite,” and talk of “foreign values” have existed in the Russian scientific and intellectual community for years. These complaints themselves are comparable to the requests for independence and recognition made by academics from the Global South.
Academic literature that attempts to break the neocolonial structures of Western academia pays particular attention to the power of publishing houses (for example, Springer or Taylor & Francis), which don’t pay academics for their publications, despite charging readers for access to them. Scientific indexing systems are the target of similar complaints. Russia’s Education and Science Ministry, as if to echo the discontent, imposed a moratorium this year on the availability of scientific publications indexed by the international databases Scopus and Web of Science; in other words, it no longer takes them into account when evaluating research. This isn’t a ban on publishing one’s work in Western publications, but essentially a step towards rejecting a policy that has existed for years. Moving forward, Russian science will likely be guided by a list of journals recommended by the Higher Attestation Commission under the Education and Science Ministry, or by the “white list” of academic journals that was recently published.
Nonetheless, in many former colonies of Western countries, the main path was the gradual integration into the global context. In particular, the creation of scientific institutes based on Western standards of academic work. Until recently, the same thing was happening in Russia. Continuing the development in the same direction would be the best response to the discontent at the status of Russian academic thought in the wider world.
But in practice, in the social sciences, the exact opposite path has been taken.
Authorities have been trying to revoke the accreditation of the European University at St. Petersburg and the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences (MVShSEN), two of the main private universities in Russia with social science programs. MVShSEN even worked for a time without issuing Russian diplomas, instead giving its graduates diplomas from the University of Manchester. Liberal arts programs have been the target of close scrutiny from Russia’s Attorney General. The liberal arts program at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) was declared to be in violation of the Russian Constitution and the country’s National Security Strategy, as well as to be “destroying Russian society’s traditional values and distorting history.”
St. Petersburg State University’s liberal arts and sciences department was forced to end its partnership with Bard College after the American school was declared an “undesirable organization” — and the department was later largely dismantled. Russia’s Coordination Council of Nonprofit Organizations, which works closely with the Kremlin, sent a statement to the Attorney General’s office asking it to investigate claims that the department had ties to “foreign NGOs that are controlled by George Soros and are conducting destructive activities on Russian territory.”
And then came February 24.
In addition to the terminations of partnerships with foreign institutions and the exodus of scientists from Russia, symptoms of a more protracted isolationism began to appear. All of the new Western foundations that finance social science research have been banned, from the Oxford Foundation and the Institute of International Education (which runs the Fulbright program) to the German Friedrich Naumann Foundation and Heinrich Böll Foundation (which was declared an “undesirable organization”).
In May, Russia exited the Bologna Process, a series of agreements intended to ensure compatibility between higher education institutions in various European countries. The future of the Erasmus program, too, which gave many Russian students the chance to study in Europe, is in doubt: some Russian universities are currently still accepting applications to the program for the spring 2023 semester, but the Education and Science Ministry has said it doesn’t recommend institutions work with the program anymore. Meanwhile, the EU has stopped funding all partnerships that involve Russian government agencies.
Isolation instead of decolonization
All around, intellectuals outside of the Global North are seeking freedom from Western-centric means of knowledge production, educational models, and the commercial power of large publishing houses. But those who have managed to create scientific knowledge outside of Western institutions have sought integration, not isolation. These scholars want to bring recognition to diversity, not to hide the spiritual riches that the West allegedly wants to steal.
But that’s not how Putin sees it:
The West is prepared to do whatever it takes to preserve the neocolonial system that allows it to essentially act as a parasite, plundering the world at the expense of the power of the dollar and its technological dictate, collecting a true tribute from humanity, and extracting its main source of unearned prosperity: rent paid to the hegemon.
These kinds of statements are only nominally related to postcolonial thought. The forced “purification” of the academic space has little to do with the decolonization of knowledge and liberation from academic dependence. Supporters of decolonization generally reject violence as such, because it was through violence that colonization in various spheres of public life was conducted.
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How effectively intellectuals of the Global South have undermined the “academic power” of the Global North and created something new in its place is up for debate. But at the very least, it’s been an honest and longtime pursuit. Russian ideologues, declaring war on the West’s scientific hegemony, care more about negating something than creating something new. Though they talk about the uniqueness of the local context, the importance of scientific publications in the national language, and the special values that exist on certain territories (all of which is consistent with the spirit of decolonization exhibited by the Global South), they deny the need to focus on external scientific samples, thus breaking with the scientific method both in the West and beyond.
Russian authorities are destroying the mechanisms that have allowed Russian scientists to integrate their knowledge with Western scientific practices. This is being done in a “top-down” manner — on the level of organizations, structures, and agreements. At the lower levels, in today’s Russian scientific space, Western scientific standards persist and are unlikely to disappear. But spokes have already been put in the institutional wheels, and they’re only going to make it more difficult to conduct science in Russia. In nine months of war, Vladimir Putin has set Russian scientific life not on a path to decolonization but on a path to self-isolation.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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