restricted access Introduction: USSR South: Postcolonial Worlds in the Soviet Imaginary
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USSR South: Postcolonial Worlds in the Soviet Imaginary

What could the panoply of relationships have been between the Soviet Union and the colonial and emergent postcolonial world? Even a cursory consideration of this question takes some mental gymnastics, shifting the directionality of our thinking and requiring us to cut across several geographic, political, and historical spaces that have usually been analyzed in isolation from each other. Soviet Union–Turkey, Soviet Union–South Asia, and even Soviet Union–Africa, for instance, have rarely, and that only recently, been taken up by scholars as significant historical or political axes. The work that has been done in this vein has focused, understandably, on the three-world power dynamics of the Cold War.1

On the one side of this equation we have the Soviet Union, in formation between 1917 and 1922 and in formal existence until 1991: a totalistic political, social, and cultural project with universal (and some would say its own internal colonial/imperial) aspirations, in revolution, continual and often violent evolution, and then devolution, throughout precisely the same period as high colonialism in Africa and Asia, and then of decolonization of those continents. The impetus for the “Soviet project,” if indeed there can be said to have existed such a monolith, grew out of Enlightenment thought and the French revolutionary tradition of the nineteenth century and was thus defined in sharp contradistinction to western European capitalism and, by extension, colonialism, even though it was very much part of a larger Enlightenment whole. In serving as a—and often the —world-historical alternative to capitalism and its accompanying forms of extranational domination, imperialism, and colonialism, one would think that various actors in the Soviet Union would have had natural connections to and affinities with colonial peoples and, even more so, a natural tendency to support decolonization movements across the globe. And yet these connections are only now beginning to move out of the realm of assumptions and into that of systematic exploration and scrutiny.

Given that the Soviet Union comprised not just Russia but was made up of no less than fifteen “national” republics, there was certainly a perennial “nationalities question” within the Soviet Union, which could be interestingly compared to colonial projects emanating from western Europe. When looking outward, [End Page 197] however, scholarship has focused much more on the Soviets’ westward gaze, whether it be to Poland, Germany, Britain, or the United States. This is understandable, given not only the ideological and epistemological origins of the Soviet project referred to above but also that the Soviets themselves regularly and officially proclaimed their rivalry with western European capitalism and imperialism as part of their raison d’être, of course.

So far the massive, sophisticated, and fascinating historiography generated on the Soviet Union and between the Soviet Union and Europe has been at the expense of considering the ideals and realities of Soviet connections immediately southward, to Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, let alone to the more distant South Asia and Africa.2 And this thanks in no small part to the configuration of area studies that emerged out of World War Two and the Cold War, whereby Soviet specialists would be thoroughly trained in European history but not at all in the languages or history of the “Middle East,” let alone South Asia or Africa.3 With the area studies paradigm subject to scrutiny for well over two decades now, and with a new generation of scholars starting to transcend these boundaries, becoming versed in Russian and Turkish, Farsi, or Hindi, for instance, it is not surprising that new connections and dimensions of both the Soviet project and the colonial and postcolonial experience are being brought to light.

On the “other” side of this problem, post-colonial studies have generally focused on the—often violent—encounter with and resistance to the usually western European colonizers in Asia and Africa. The lines of inquiry regarding colonial domination, collaboration, resistance, and struggles for decolonization might lead one, and have led many, to a natural affinity with the Soviet project.4 In the anticolonial and postcolonial imagination, that is, the Soviet project may have even represented an inspiring alternative to capitalism...