Postcolonial Theory and Aesthetics

The article “Towards a postcolonial aesthetics” by Bill Ashcroft approaches the idea of a postcolonial aesthetics from the point of view of the transformative exchange that occurs in the “contact zone” of the transcultural text. Debates about aesthetics revolve around its status as either an ideology or a stimulus, universal or culturally specific, elitist or quotidian. However, postcolonial texts — visual, auditory and written — produce an aesthetic engagement in which both producer and consumer are transformed, one that may force us to revise our understanding of the utility of aesthetics for postcolonial cultural production. The article contends that a non-cognitive quality referred to here as “material resonance” opens the way for a transformation of the field of aesthetics by postcolonial notions of cross-cultural engagement.

The article “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity” by Achille Mbembe is a chapter of Achilles Mbembe’s book “On Postcolony” (1992). The author examines the concept of “banality of power” referring to the elements of the obscene and the grotesque that Mikhail Bakhtin claims to have located in “non-official” cultures. Mbembe argues that these elements in fact are intrinsic to all systems of domination and to the means by which those systems are confirmed or deconstructed. In his opinion “obscenity” should be regarded as more than a moral category. It constitutes one modality of power in the postcolony but at the same time it is one of the arenas in which subordinates reaffirm or subvert that power.

The article “On Literary and Cultural Import-Substitution in the Third World: The Case of the Testimonio” by Fredric Jameson was published in the collection of essays “The Real Thing. Testimonial Discourse and Latin America” (1996) where the authors analyze the testimonio, its history, and its place in contemporary consciousness. Fredric Jameson analyses how the form of literature has been changed over the time and suggests that in the return to storytelling and a literature of wishes and of daily life, and in the experience of History “anonymously” the intersections as well as the radical differences between First World postmodernism and the cultures of the various Third Worlds can most fruitfully be explored.

The North from a Postcolonial Perspective

In the article “Dualistic Colonial Experiences and the Ruins of Coloniality” Kristín Loftsdóttir studies the “ruins” of Icelandic colonialism, which are embodied in Iceland’s dual position as a colonized country and a colonizer. The manifestations of this duality can be traced, in part, in the contemporary mobility of the population — people moving from Iceland and to Iceland. As far as the question of the meaning of the idea of “Europeanness” is concerned, the author also turns to the colonial experience of Scandinavia and countries in Southern and Eastern Europe.

The article “Women in the Arctic: Gendering Coloniality in Travel Narratives from the Far North, 1907—1930” by Silke Reeploeg is dedicated to the complex web of gender and colonial relationships in biographical writing. The author’s main focus is on publications by two women of high society who traveled through the colonial North in the early 20th century, Danish Emilie Demant-Hatt (1873—1958) and Scottish Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889—1982). An analysis of these textual and visual works allows us to see how they made a contribution to the colonial project, while undermining it at the same time, and how colonial femininity combines obedience and disobedience.

In the article “‘Little America’: The (Post-)Socialist Realism of the Indigenous North” Klavdia Smola studies Russian-language prose of the northern indigenous minorities (Evenks, Nenets, Khanty) as a postcolonial phenomenon. The period studied is from the late 1970s to the mid-late 1990s, before and after the creators of local varieties of socialist realism experienced a radical reassessment of values, finding themselves at the intersection of opposing values: the recently exposed communism and the ideology of a small paradise lost in the process of modernization. In the 1990s, Siberian ethnic writers — the children and grandchildren of shamans, fishermen, and hunters — began to “speak the truth” about deportations, destroyed natural resources, and the merciless extermination of entire languages and cultures. At the same time, the stage had long been set for this change in worldview within the confines of soft, “village” socialist realism, which allowed for relative ambiguity in interpreting Soviet reality. Next, the author traces how from the late 1980s on, artists of the North themselves embraced postcolonial categories and global ecological knowledge, while the creation of their postcolonial image also spread to other countries.

The article “Inuit Literature, Postcolonial Criticism, and Problems of Translatability” by Leonid S. Chekin compares literature in the Inuit and Yupik languages from Greenland to Chukotka from the perspective of translation and perception by postcolonial audiences, both within and outside of the Arctic. Works by Markoosie Patsauq, Niviaq Korneliussen, and Zoya Nenlyumkina, and the use of the Naukan language in Aleksei Vakhrushev’s filmmaking, are discussed in more detail.

Central Europe: Postcolonial Optics

The article “(Self) kidnapping in Central Europe. Formation and Legacy of the Communist Regime in Czechoslovakia: Postcolonial Perspective” by Alexander Bobrakov-Timoshkin raises the question of the possibility to consider the relations between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union after the World War II as “colonial”. The author examines the genesis of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, paying special attention to the role of internal factors that contributed to its establishment and consolidation. The very history of the communist regime of Czechoslovakia is divided into three periods. Only the first of them, the period of Czechoslovak Stalinism (1948—1953), can be characterized as having the colonial features in certain aspects, not only from a political, but also from a cultural perspective. In the author’s opinion, Liberalization of the 1960’s and “normalization” after the Prague Spring represent specific sociopolitical systems, the creation and development of which relied more on internal rather than external factors. It does not exclude the application of postcolonial theory to the analysis of the history of Czechoslovakia.

The article “Between Imitation and Criticism: Postcolonial Studies in Central Europe (The Case of Poland)” by Anton Saifullayeu reviews the background, origin and development of postcolonial theory in Central Europe. Special attention is given to the example of Poland. The article also analyzes the main directions of criticism of postcolonial theory in the internal context of the Polish humanities field.

Poland: In Search of an Imagined Community

The article “Zbigniew Herbert: Postcolonial Antiquity and Defensive Nationalism” by Dirk Uffelmann is an attempt to analyze the socialist-era poetry of Zbigniew Herbert from a postcolonial perspective. References to ancient history, mythology, and biblical allusions are interpreted as allegories of the political culture in the Polish People’s Republic. In his poems written between 1956 and 1990, Herbert depicts communism as a Russian attempt to colonize Poland; moreover, in key texts of this period, he talks mainly about how this colonization affected the consciousness of Poles themselves. Drawing a parallel between communist Moscow and Ancient Rome, Herbert paints the picture of a translatio imperii from an anti-imperial position. In conclusion, it is this trans-historical perspective of Herbert’s poetry that allows for the connection of Herbert’s anti-imperialist mindset with defensive nationalism, and it is proposed that postcolonial interpretations of Polish history formulated by right-wing scholars (Ewa Thompson et al.) may serve as a key to understanding Herbert’s civil position during communism.

The role of the West in discourse about Polish identity can be called dual-natured. During the Soviet period, the West transformed into an idealized object of desires and aspirations in the minds of Poles, the evidence of which can be found both in high and mass Polish culture. It played the role of an illusion that served as an intuitive “compass,” the needle of which persistently pointed toward the Western element of Polish identity in a time when Poland was sensing a potential threat from Eastern hegemony (the Soviet Union). As several proponents of postcolonial theory believe, after the fall of communist regime, the role of a “new state hegemon” was added to illusory image of the West. This is made especially clear in arguments about modernization in Poland, the participants of which have been split into two main camps: “liberals,” who have perceived modernization as an imitation of Western models, and “conservatives,” who have proposed that local political traditions should be maintained during the process of modernization. In the article “The Imaginary West, Postcolonialism, and Perspectives of the Modernization of Poland in the Post-Secular Era,” Dariusz Skórczewski suggests a way out of the current conflict, developing the ideas of Marek Cichocki’s 2018 book Półoc i Południe (“North and South”). Solving this problem in the post-secular era requires turning away from the opposition of “East and West” in favor of “North and South.”The collision of these two systems, which Cyprian Norwid once depicted in the image of “Rome” as an apocalyptic source of Polish cultural identity, which can contribute to positive cultural development and thus be beneficial for the current discussion on prospects for the restoration of a cohesive society.

The Baltic States: Between Fury and Nostalgia

Laulupidu, the Estonian Song Festival, has flourished for 150 years and shows no signs of old age. The essay “The Long Roots of the 2010s: Decolonial Continuities and the Estonian Song Festival Tradition” by Epp Annus examines this postcolonial phenomenon, whose role and popularity can only be understood in relation to the history of decolonial power struggles in the Baltic region. The tradition of national song festivals in the Baltics dates back to the 1860s and continued throughout the late Tsarist era, the independence period, and the Soviet era, culminating in the late-1980s “Singing Revolution,” and it continues to this day. The author also pays attention to the particular generational dynamics that singles out teenagers (and especially older teenagers) as largely unsusceptible to the allure of decolonial traditionalism.

The article “Orientalism Against Empire: The Paradox of Postcoloniality in Estonia” by А. Lorraine Kaljund shows how the same pernicious Eurocentric discourses and ethnic value hierarchies, which are so often mobilized to validate empire-building, can be used as tools of resistance against imperial domination. Weaving evidence from interviews and historical sources together with two vignettes of Estonians performing temporal and ethnic others at themed costume parties, it demonstrates how the belief that Estonians are more civilized and better than Russians has shaped Estonian experiences of late socialism and the post-Soviet years. An author argues that this common-sense notion of Estonians’ relative superiority to Russians is animated by the same Eurocentric logic that is routinely used to legitimize and justify Western imperialism. Yet in the Estonian context these ideas have been used to delegitimize, resist, and subvert Soviet-cum-Russian imperialism.

The article “Latvian Multiculturalism and Postcolonialism” by Benedikts Kalnačs discusses the specific features of the Soviet colonial empire and its statist version of modernity from comparative perspectives and in the context of EastCentral Europe and Latvia. It proceeds with the problem of marginalization of the local population, a process that took place from 1940 on, and discusses to what extent it changed the structure of society in the Baltic littoral. More specifically the article pays attention to literature as a source of multidirectional memory. The primary example here is the work of contemporary Latvian author Inga Ābele, with a special focus on her most recent novel, Duna (Drone), published in 2017.

The article “Vectors of Postcolonial Critique in Studies on Latvian Literature: Global Context and Local Interpretations” by Maija Burima presents an overview of the formation of postcolonial critique in Latvian literary studies. It characterizes the major external impulses of the assimilation of methodology and its transfer to Latvian literature, highlighting the local content of concepts used in postcolonial theory. The article examines in detail the key positions in research by Benedikts Kalnačs, Pauls Daija, and Zanda Gūtmane, who study the processes of history of the literature of the Baltic and Latvian space from positions of postcolonial critique, highlighting the cultural and ideological dimension of literature and analysis of discursive manifestations of power. This overview contains conclusions about the growing tendency of constructing postcolonial ethnicity in Latvian literature, as well as manifestations of the complexes of postcolonial society, particularly traumas of postcolonialism, for which uncertainty and gradual self-cognition in another context are characteristic.

Belarus: The Вorders of Nationhood, Lacunae of Identity

The article “How to Grow out of Nothing: The Afterlife of National Rebirth in Postcolonial Belarus” by Serguei Alex. Oushakine reviews main ideas and principles of the post-Soviet version of postcolonial thought formulated in the works of Siarhei Dubavets and Valiantsin Akudovich, two leading figures of the Belarusian national Rebirth (1988—1995), an intellectual and social movement that aimed to restore the Belarusian national identity. In his program of “rational nationalism” Dubavet insisted on the necessity to intellectually reformat Belarusian history and culture in order to link together soil, nation, and language. In turn, Akudovich’s writings about systemic “stylistic absence” of Belarusians foregrounded historical lacunaes and discontinuities, reading them as signs and symbols of the purposeful non-presence of the oppressed. Multiple publications of these two authors demonstrate well how practices of distancing, forms of absence, and zones of silence became distinctive characteristics of postcolonial thought during the fall of the USSR. Apophatic nationalism, with its emphasis on the negative cartography of the past and present, emerged as a crucial tool for affirming the idea of a nation-state.

The article “The Borderline State: Belarusian Postcolonial Discourses after the Molotov—Ribbentrop Pact” by Elena Gapova attempts to take a look at the discussion around the Molotov— Ribbentrop Pact, one of the results of which at the time was a doubling of the national territory, from the point of view of the local (Belarusian) community. Such decentering view comes from the perspective of “provincial Europe,” proposed by postcolonial theoretician Dipesh Chakrabarty, which questioned the seemingly universal concepts of Western knowledge and categorization. The authors are interested in figures of escape, means of presenting and absorbing space, and strategies of legitimization that are implemented under situations that have been declared postcolonial, after the transformation of several previously nominal divisions into formal external post-Soviet borders.

By analyzing a half-forgotten poem by Czesław Miłosz and its translation into Belarusian, Yaraslava Ananka and Heinrich Kirschbaum in the article “At the Limit of the Empire: Anxiety Transfer (Miłosz — Khadanovich)” attempt to demonstrate how Central European anticolonial writing works. The conceptual plot of the poem is built upon the (in) possibility reconciling a personal recollection with centuries-old collective memory of imperial repression. The colonial subject matter outlines its liminal abandonment. Memory gaps are expressed in hiatuses of anti-hegemonic speechlessness, with macaronic words from the empire’s language inserted into the texture of anti-colonial anxiety. The Belarusian translation enriches Miłosz’s testimony with a related experience of anti-colonial affects.

The article “The ‘Partisan Republic’: Colonial Myths and Memory Wars in Belarus” by Simon Lewis delves into trauma- and postcolonial theory in the study of memory (and antimemory) in post-war and post-Soviet Belarus. The author argues that the Soviet myth of Belarus as the “Partisan Republic” displaced trauma, attempting to delimit the contours of memory but only deferring the painful process of coming to terms with the past. In addition, the article examines the creation of a monolithic image of Soviet Belarusianness based on the memory of the war, i.e. the construct of the “Partisan Republic”, as a form of colonial discourse a means of imposing hegemonic identity norms on a dominated population. Both the Soviet-era resistance to this myth and the unmaking of the edifice in the post-Soviet era are analyzed in terms of postcolonial theory through discussion of the works of several Soviet and postSoviet authors, musicians, and artists. Special attention is paid to the hybrid approach, which some of these creatives apply to rethinking Belarusian identity, often recurring to pastiche and parody.

Ukraine: The Boundaries of Language

The article “The ‘Asian Conquistadors’ by Mikola Khvylovy and Proletarian Messianism” by Tamara Hundorova discusses the project of the “Asian Renaissance” by Mykola Khvylovy in the aspect of post colonial orientalism and the cultural ideology of “The Decline of Europe” by Oswald Spengler. The study demonstrates instrumental and constructive nature of the ideas of “psychological Europe” and “Asian conquistadors” and reveals the “Westernized” character of the “Asian Renaissance” and its Marxist orientation.

The article “The Space of the Language and its Boundaries in Panas Myrny’s Prose” by Ksenia Gusarova examines the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian languages in Panas Myrny’s novels, which is regarded as an attempt to subvert the power dynamics between the imperial “centre” and its ethno-cultural “periphery”.

The article “‘We Will Never be Brothers’: Ukrainian and Russian Poetry of the Maidan in Kiev” by Inna Bulkina contains several observations on the poetry, both spontaneous and professional, that was generated by the events in Kiev in the winter of 2014. Russian and Ukrainian poems are examined as a common text, the plots of which sometimes directly correlate and interact, and sometimes do not coincide, but, one way or another, can be read both in terms of media and post-Soviet and post-colonial stereotypes. Moreover, the presence of such stereotypes in one group of texts and their absence in another has significance. “Occasional” political poetry with topical pretext coexists here with the traditional genre of the folkloric “lament,” media subjects are often superimposed on biblical ones, and online “sharing” is akin to oral transmission mechanisms and the particular characteristics of the way popular “handwritten” literature is circulated.

The Politics of Memory

Today the expression “Soviet colonialism” is already relatively well-established; however, going forward, its use will run into an important counterargument: The national policy of the USSR in many cases had a character of “positive discrimination,” that is, support of national minorities. Several components of Soviet cultural policy, however, were in fact reminiscent of classical colonialism, especially from the second half of the 1930s, when the most “authentic” representatives of the majority of the “peoples of the USSR” in the public space were artists from the folkloric genres — singers, storytellers, dancers, etc. An archaization of the public images of the cultures of national minorities occurred. This policy was partially compensated for in 1960s, but in the 2010s, as Ilya Kukulin in the article “Russian Literature At the Head of “Younger Brothers” (An Episode of Contemporary History of Russian School Education)” shows, this arrangement of contemporary culture “older brother” vs. the folklore “little brothers” was unexpectedly reborn during the creation of the “list of 100 books” for Russian schools, compiled by philologists and staff of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation.

The article “‘Copper-Faced Sons of the Fatherland?’: The Problem of the Representation of Bashki Cavalymen in the National Memory of World War II, 1940–1960s” by Gulnaz Galeeva examines the problem of the representation of Bashkir cavalrymen in the memory of World War II. Under conditions of the necessity of the creation of the image of a unified Soviet people and the simultaneous “indigenousization” of the Red Army, Bashkir horsemen were depicted as “others” in mobilization texts. The exoticizing language was adopted by the Bashkir writers and veterans in works that immortalized the Bashkir division, the hierarchy between Soviet nationalities, and references to colonial relations.

It is almost an established consensus among historians of Kazakhstan nowadays that the most important actors in the process of “imagining” the Kazakh nation were Kazakh intellectuals, who also happened to be members of the Alash party founded in 1917. The lives of many of them were tragically cut short in the purges of the 1930s, and the majority of them were rehabilitated and recognized as national heroes only in the late-Soviet period. This led to their full canonization and romanticization in the subsequent post-Soviet period. The romanticizing nationalist discourse, however, neglected to mention their historical colonial hybridity, Russian and European orientation in both personal styles and aspirations, and their frequent detachment from the hopes of the regular people “on the ground.” In the documents and texts from the early 20th century, we often find “grassroots” criticisms of the Russian-educated intellectuals, particularly of their distance from the people and their lack of understanding of the people’s desires. As Benedict Anderson noted, in the colonies of European empires, nationalism traditionally was the project of bilingual intellectuals. The first Kazakh intellectuals were no exception to this “paved” schema of the conception of nationalism in the bosom of the empire. First and foremost, they were “translators” of the European enlightenment matrix and European culture into “local” language, as champions of modernization. Understanding that in order for negotiations with imperial structures to be successful, they needed to speak with them in the “common language” of enlightenment and modernization, many Kazakh intellectuals, as Alima Bissenova and Assel Mukasheva show in the article “Colonial Intellectuals: Caught between the Enlightenment and Representation of their People,” fell into the trap of “colonial mimicry” described by Homi K. Bhaba.

Artistic Interpretations of Colonialism

Based on the study of nineteenth-century travel accounts, the article “Finland as a borderland in the Russian Empire” by Nathanaёlle Minard-Törmänen examines the place of Finland within the Russian Empire in a postcolonial perspective. After several wars against Sweden, Finland was annexed by Tsar Alexander I in 1809 and remained part of the Empire until 1917. Despite its proximity to St. Petersburg, the country remained virtually unknown to Russians at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and travellers’ first impressions durably influenced the place Finland would be given on the imperial imagined geographies. As a borderland, Finland was described within a typical (post)colonial narrative: considered as uncivilised and wild, its supposedly ahistorical character supported imperialistic claims and justified its annexation by a greater power. Travellers themselves actively participated to the cultural appropriation of Finland by providing itineraries and creating remarkable sites that upheld these imperial tropes. However, there was some ambivalence in Russians’ feelings regarding the country. The Vyborg governorate, also known as “Old Finland”, was seen as a natural extension of Russia, similar in religion and customs to St. Petersburg’s backcountry. On the other side, the western and southern coasts felt more foreign and closer to Western Europe. Yet, as an imperial possession, Finland was generally not depicted in strong antagonistic tones but, on the contrary, as an idyllic space and a refuge from the increasing difficulties of Russian elites to combine the imperial and national projects.

Colonial discourse is presented in the article “Locus amusos: ‘Own Way’ of Colonial and Postcolonial Discourses in Soviet Film” by Vadim Mikhailin as one of legitimate rhetoric strategies of Stalinist film. Radical shift in propagandist dispositions of the Thaw times results in changing accents: empathy being biased to the «non-civilized» side. Since late 1960s we see a rise of an aggressive traditionalist film discourse which worked as a specific Soviet substitute for a postcolonial one. Rather a peculiar trend is to be found in some late Soviet films with an attempt to overcome the essentialist nature of both colonial and postcolonial discourses.

The article “Silenced by Postcolonialism: Religion, Violence, and Agency in Chechen War Fiction” by Olga Breininger provides a critique of postcolonial theory, in particular, as it is applied to the cultural production in the North Caucasus during the period of the Chechen Wars. The paper suggests that postcolonial framework is ill-suited to discuss complex actor networks, and religious and power relations going beyond the dichotomy of “colonizer-colonzed” mode; and that warfare, as the mutual use of violence challenges some of the premises of postcolonial theory. The paper also raises questions of distrust between language and representation, characteristic of the Chechen War fiction, and concludes with discussing the symbolic capital of colonialism, and whether postcolonial narratives endow or deprive their subjects of the agency and the right to speak their way.

The article “The End of Sunny Georgia!: Coloniality in Novels about Georgia Post1991” by Mirja Lecke is dedicated to the analysis of colonial relations in literary works written in or about Georgia. Drawing on the conceptual works of Walter Mignolo, Cristina Șandru and Madina Tlostanova, the author analyzes the novels “A Trip to Karabakh” (1992) by the Georgian author Aka Morchiladze, “The Russophone” by the Russian writer Denis Gutsko (2005) and the German author Nino Haratishvili’s “The Eighth Life” (2014). All three texts reflect (post-) coloniality, albeit in strikingly different ways, displaying overlapping and interwoven colonial gazes.

Anthropology of the Other

The political tradition of imposture has a rich history and permeates Russian culture, beginning with the Time of Troubles, after which the Tsardom of Muscovy, expanding its borders to the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates, Siberia, and part of Livonia, was faced not only with an internal state crisis, but also with the culture of the Other. The entanglement of different forms of domination (social, economic, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and epistemological) characteristic for the Russian Empire allows for the placement of the phenomenon of imposture in the analytical frame of postcolonial theory, while making a number of conceptual adjustments to framework itself. The historical material used for the analysis in the article “‘To Have No Screen Between This Part He Play’d, And Him He Play’d It For’: Impostors and the Dialectics of Empire” by Ilya Kalinin is Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773—1775) and its subsequent cultural reception.


The article “Travelogue vs. Travel Article: the Russian Version of Postcolonialism” by Evgeny Ponomarev is dedicated to history of travel literature studies in Russia. The old tradition, dating back to the studies of Old Russian literature and pilgrimages, contrasted with the trends of the latest twenty years based on postcolonial theory. The new trends study travel as a special “literature”, an alternative to belles-lettres, and as an autonomous literary process. The article describes the activities of academic schools that study Russian travel abroad and within Russia (two main types of travelogues), and an overview of the latest monographs and collections of articles is given. The interesting phenomena in a related sphere of Russian academia — the study of foreign (primarily European) travelogues — are also mentioned. The main question of the article is how the wide postcolonial influence on Russian scholars avoids the fundamental idea of postcolonialism: the deconstruction of colonial thought and liberation from it.