Colonialism and Peter the Great

Any attempt to present a narrative of the traumatic past of a people depends upon resurrecting fragments of historical discourse which are often forgotten, ignored, disclaimed as fantasy, or denied as true. The dominant discourse of Ukraine and its people has been largely written by its historical oppressors, and it is only within the last 20 years that the veracity of émigré accounts of the past has been confirmed by scholars who have been granted access to archives. The approach of the literature review is to engage in an archaeological resurrection of images of the oppressive history of the Ukrainian people, a history essentially unacknowledged by the mainstream. The inspiration for such an approach is grounded in the works of Michel Foucault who notes that this endeavor is an abandonment of a dominant power discourse with the intention of foregrounding discourses of specificity and histories of oppression.

Foucault’s archaeological analysis complements James Hillman’s (1975) concept of  notitia. In the practice of depth psychology, noticing has been historically limited to subjective psychological states, and to the description of affect and behavior of individuals in relation to the external world.  For Hillman, notitia moves beyond subjective affect and engages images.  Just as a therapist initially feels clueless when starting to work with a new client, Hillman’s imaginal psychology necessitates constant noticing, slowing down, and patient listening until images, metaphors, and representations begin to appear. Through the practice of notitia, one sits with images and fantasies of sickness leaving them uncured and untreated allowing the root metaphors and archetypal principles to come forth.

The literature review is designed to blend an archeological unearthing of past images with the soulful practice of notitia in three domains of the psychosocial history of Ukraine: 1) the period of Russian imperialism and the colonial conquest of the Ukrainian people, 2) its extension during the Soviet period and acts of genocide, and 3) expressions of social resilience and collective pathologies.

Images of Russian imperialism and colonialism

The history of imperial Russia presents two distinctly opposing narratives: the dominant narrative of imperial expansion and enlightenment, and the narrative of economic impoverishment, misery, illiteracy, despair, and unbridled violence. Scholars have tended to prefer one story over the other, and it is of little surprise that the heroic narrative of Russian imperial brilliance has been given precedence. Alexander Etkind in his groundbreaking work Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (2011) states that the two narratives need to be read as one, i.e. as a montage of images which resulted from internal colonization. He attributes this insight to Vasilli Kliuchevsky, a historian who in 1904 stated that Russia is “a country that colonizes itself” (p. 2).

Traditional discourse on the topics of imperialism and colonialism are grounded in images of geographic separation, distance, and exoticism: colonizers utilized naval fleets to travel across oceans in order to “discover” new worlds and conquer indigenous peoples with the fantasy of  enlightenment, civilization, and salvation, but the reality was one of  subjugation, enslavement, and economic exploitation. Certainly, the lack of oceanic distance notable in Russian imperialism distinguishes it from its Western European counterparts. However, the assertion that Russian colonization is essentially internal (Etkind, 2011) betrays a perspective which simplistically identifies Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians as one ethnic group.  It also overlooks the colonization of dozens of ethnic groups located in the Asiatic portion of the empire. Perhaps it is far more appropriate to frame this in terms of a colonization which began with the formation of a Russian imperial self-identity aggressively realized during the early 18th century through policies which co-opted Western European culture.

Peter the Great.

The historical image of Russian imperialism and colonialism was undeniably embodied by its first emperor, Peter the Great.  Robert K. Massie’s (2012) biography of this physically and politically towering figure is replete with images which abundantly constellate the archetype of the hero figure. In tracing Peter’s life course, Massie extensively foregrounds significant details which other historical biographers pay scant attention to.  For example, during Peter’s childhood his favorite toy was a model sailboat.  After his father’s death, Peter and his mother were effectively exiled to a country estate where the young Tsar created and built an imaginary fortress and conducted battles with playmates assigned to keep him company. A few years later, he discovered a decaying sailboat on the grounds of a lake near the estate and requested that a boat builder be summoned from a German suburb of Moscow to restore the boat. The Dutch boat restorer not only renovated the boat but apprenticed the young Tsar who learned the art of  building sailing vessels, navigation, and using a sextant. Peter’s youthful soul was stoked with naval and military images which would later set him on a life course of imperial conquest.

This education compensated for Peter’s lack of a formal education which his half-brother and sister benefited from. He was not tutored by scholars in grammar, classical studies, and foreign languages. But his intense curiosity in armaments, military and political strategies, architecture, and models of imperial governance fueled incognito trips to the capital cities of Western Europe where he would study and learn from the best. These trips also became the rationale for Peter’s insistence that Russian aristocrats shave their beards, adopt European dress, abandon their native language for French, and for moving the Russian capital to the newly constructed city of St. Petersburg named in honor of the apostle Peter, but understood to have been named in the honor of the Tsar himself (Massie, 2012).

In her work on the Russian symbolist Aleksandr Blok (1996), Nina Berberova makes notes of Peter the Great’s contribution to Russian culture which “lagged a century behind… (and that) he was everywhere at once, never stopping to consider the consequences of his thoughts and actions” (pp. 1-2). For historians who laud his heroism, the building of St. Petersburg was a crowning achievement. However, it was built on the marshlands of the Neva River by over 540,000 serfs, many of them the Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s Cossacks, who lost at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 to free Ukraine from Russian imperial rule. Most of the slave laborers died of malaria, scurvy, or froze to death during winter (Fedynsky, 2003). The tragic legacy of the construction of this city was the topic of a news article report on the G8 summit which was held there in 2006 reminding readers that under the fashionable boulevards and palaces lay the skeletons of its builders (Osborn, 2006).

The image of Peter the Great remains ambivalent. His embrace of Western Europe placed Russia on equal footing with other imperial powers. His rule as absolute monarch drove a wedge between himself and his subjects, and the subjugation of Ukrainians and the Baltic peoples solidified his image as tyrant. The imperial goal was expansion and colonization, but this required that Peter acquire the technology, diplomatic skills, contacts, and support needed to do so. The imaginal perception of Peter in the courts of Europe  who would assist him in this enterprise was of a “monarch of a vast, remote, semi-Oriental land” (Massie, 2012, p. 187).

Massie’s (2012) description of Peter’s territory as “semi-Oriental” situated the Russian imperial imagination within the gaze of a growing western outlook on eastern expansionism and confirms Edward Said’s (1994) reference to Michael Doyle’s definition of empire as a relationship in which one political entity asserts power over another group through the mechanisms of economic, political, social and cultural domination.  Peter’s embrace and mimicry of western imperialism helped define his political trajectory as “colonizer,” but also suggests that in his adaptation of Western dress, language, and even the usage of tobacco (which he introduced in Russia) he himself was also “colonized.”  Etkind’s (2011) assertions on Russian internal colonization may stem from this image of Peter the Great. The complexity of this figure does allude to the polarities of Said’s (1978) orient and occident, and the binary relationship of Memmi’s (1967) colonizer and colonized.





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