Instead of looking inward, Russian intellectuals have mostly concentrated on discussing Russia vis-à-vis the West rather than Russia vis-à-vis its own colonial subjects. Even the Russian liberal journalists who interviewed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in March seemed more concerned about Western Russophobia than about Russia trying to take responsibility for Ukraine’s fate.
Over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War, the imperial myth has remained almost untouched in Russia. Any call for decolonizing national historiographies in the post-Soviet republics is received with at best indifference, at worst as an attack on Russia’s own identity. Though liberal elites complain about the lack of democracy under Putin’s regime, they haven’t challenged the imperial paradigm. Anti-corruption activist and dissident leader Aleksey Navalny’s entrenched xenophobia, if not racism, toward ethnic minorities, as well as the Russian liberal intelligentsia’s willingness to overlook it, represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of the inability to challenge Russia’s attitude toward those it has colonized.
It takes a society decades to decenter its imperial mindset: even today, French culture is still largely shaped by memory wars over Algeria. Russia missed a window of opportunity to embark on its own decentering in the 2000s, a time of economic prosperity and internationalization. Revisiting its imperial innocence now, in a period of economic stagnation, deglobalization and reputational damage, is much more challenging. Seeing oneself as the innocent savior helps to deal psychologically with economic hardship and isolation. The imperial myth tells a story of victory, producing feelings of belonging while keeping people passive and uncritical.