Not Colonial but Not Much Better: Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization

While colonial empires strove to emphasize the difference between the “ruler” and the “ruled”, modern mobilizational states sought to homogenize the entire population. Modern mobilizational states, such as that of the Soviet Union and to the Kemalist regime, dealt directly with their citizens through destroying traditions and “micro-managing” society. Both the Soviet regime and the Kemalist regime emerged in the disorganization following WWI and both pursued “shock modernization” programs which involved radical and intense intervention in society and culture, including the spread of literacy, secularization, and the integration of women into public life. In the Soviet Union, local nationalist groups were allowed, such as the Jadids, as long as they fit into the structure of the soviet regime. In regards to the “emancipation” of women, both the Jadids and the Bolsheviks attacked the paranji-chachvon (a long robe and veil that completely covered Muslim womens’ bodies) as a health hazard and a means of oppression, and encouraged women to abandon and burn the garments. This campaign against traditional Muslim garb is comparable to the Kemalist regime in that the veil was considered a sign of backwardness and similarly linked to health hazards. The Kemalist regime and the Soviet Union stood at odds to traditional ideas of colonialism in that both regimes attempted to wholly transform Muslim gender norms and the social order, as opposed to simply condemning the norms in order to legitimize their imperial order. In the Soviet Union in particular, there were considerable efforts to deploy state power in order to remake society, an effort towards transformation that was not synonymous with colonial powers. The victims of the cultural revolution were not one group of peoples or a specific ethnic group but the traditional ways of life in general. Although the the Soviet and Kemalist states professed a civilizing mission similar to that of colonial empires, their power was utilized not to exclude people but to force them to participate. Such a goal of integration conflicted with that of colonial empires. However, the seemingly less harmful and often well-intentioned effort to homogenize society did not make the Soviet or Kemalist states any less brutal, aggressive, or invasive than colonial empires. For example, the Kemalist regime brought all education under state supervision and into a secular agenda, banning religious teachings in attempt to coincide the individual’s thinking with national ideals. Such actions, even though the focus is on integration as opposed to segregation, forced people to abruptly abandon cherished traditions and ideals, inevitably encouraging resistance and outrage. While colonial empires employed intermediaries to transform their colonies, modern mobilizational states cut away intermediaries to directly focus state power on transforming the whole of their society, forcing change upon all individuals, not just the “colonized”, and therefore surpassing the ruthlessness of a colonial empire.

One thought on “Not Colonial but Not Much Better: Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization

  1. Your last sentence states an interesting point. That fact that the Soviets were targeting mass change across the Russian population rather then using less direct rule to maintain colonies makes their efforts seem more extreme and larger scale. But, it is also important to keep in mind the scale and views of the Russian population during these changes. Did more people in Russia benefit from the socialist changes compared to people who did not benefit? You also mention how the socialist movement in Russia aimed to homogenize the Russian population. Is this possible without backlash? Did these efforts hurt more people than it helped? Russia was such a diverse empire so it seems hard to find a middle ground socially, culturally, or economically without hurting certain cultural groups of people.

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