What is a Colonial Empire? The Misclassification of the Soviet Union

In his article, Adeeb Khalid, describes the distinct differences between colonial empires and modern mobilization states and argues that confusing the two different polities leads to the misinterpretation of modern history. Colonial empires and modern mobilization states have different overall goals and methods. Colonial empires were based on the difference between the rulers and the ruled and therefore destroyed any possibility of the natives being part of ‘civilized’ society. Whereas, modern mobilization states wanted to homogenize and sculpt their citizenry into an ideal in order to achieve universal goals. However, classifying governmental systems as either of these polities is rarely clear and often confusing. Khalid argues that Soviet Union is an example of a system that has previously been labeled as a colonial empire, but in reality it was a modern mobilization state. The continued comparison of the Soviet Union to oversea colonial empires such as Britain, leads to a biased Eurocentric view of their history,

To illustrate the differences and similarities between modern mobilization states, Khalid compares Early Soviet Central Asia with the Turkish Republic. The main common tie between the Soviet and Kemalist states were their mission to transform culture and reshape their citizenries. Both states reformed their language and adopted a latin based alphabet in order to distance themselves from the old backward traditions. Both states emphasized education, separated the state from religion, and exercised state power of all citizens to achieve their goals. The major difference between the two was that the Kemalist state’s leadership of the economy differed from the complete abolition of private property in the Soviet Union. The Kemalist state decided against a direct assault on religion, unlike the Soviet Union, and chose to subjugate all religion to the state. But the crucial point that Khalid argues is that because the Soviet civilizing mission was not targeting a specific group, but rather the old traditional way of life it can not be categorized as colonial. The absence of the racial or ethnic superiority of one group over another contradicts the basis of colonial empire.

Modern Mobilization

What makes a regime a modern mobilization state and not a colonial empire? Adeeb Khalid answers this question in Backwardness and the Quest for Colonization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective. Khalid states that empires, such as Britain, France and the Netherlands “were based on the perpetuation of difference between rulers and the ruled”, where as modern mobilization states “homogenize populations in order to attain universal goals”. Examples of modern mobilization include the Soviet Union and the Kemalist regime in Turkey. These two modern mobilization regimes both emerged after World War I after the collapse of the European political order, and both regimes pursued shock modernization in an attempt to quickly modernize and create a universal culture. Modern mobilization worked to transform the citizens of the regimes to create unification and equality for all, but in the attempt to equalize citizens many rights were taken away from different groups. In the Soviet Union ideas on new government were being spread through propaganda. Many were attracted to these new ideas quickly replaced the old transforming the life’s of citizens.

Quest for Civilization and the Question of Colonialism or Modern Mobilization

In his article “Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective,” Adeeb Khalid addresses the problematic use of colonialism when discussing the government of the Soviet Union. Khalid argues that the Soviet Union’s control over its territories in Central Asia should not and cannot be discussed in terms of colonialism. Using the Turkish Republic as a comparison, Khalid demonstrates that in both cases the state wielded its power to create a universal standard within the nation’s culture that forced all citizens into a new, modern era. The states of the Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union sought to universally civilize their people, where as the colonial empires focused on perpetuating the differences between themselves and their newly conquered peoples.[1] As with any nation building exercise, language and education played a central role in the mission of these “modern mobilizational states,” as Khalid refers to them.[2] It is the Soviet Union and the Turkish Republic’s nationalizing efforts that separate them from contemporary colonial empires, such as Britain and France.

However, how different are colonialism and modern moblizational states? Both oppress ethnic groups under their control and impose their own culture onto the conquered populations. Is one policy better than the other?

The question of the Soviet Union’s role as a colonial power or a modern mobilizational state is of great importance when determining its historical legacy. As Khalid shows, the Bolsheviks did not want to only modernize Russia proper they also sought to create a universal culture and nationality amongst all of the territories under Soviet control. In order to do so, they established secular, state operated schools and Latinized all languages within the Soviet Union. They imposed their radical notions of language, women’s rights, and legal operations onto those indigenous peoples of Central Asia. By bringing all cultural institutions under the control of the state, they collectively modernized the Soviet Union and its territories in Central Asia. They created a standardized culture and ideology throughout the Soviet Union that served as the foundation for the country’s new nationalist identity. In contrast, colonial powers allowed their conquered peoples to retain aspects of their traditional culture while infusing it with their own ideology. This led to the establishment of a separate national identity from that of the colonial power. In this fundamental way, modern mobilization differs from colonialism.

The question still remains, is one policy better than the other? Should they even be compared?

[1] Abeed Khalid, “Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective,” Slavic Review, 65.2 (2006): 232, 250.

[2] Ibid., 232.


Grand Experiment of Social and Cultural Revolution Early Soviet Central Asia

What stood out in Khalid’s article is the thinking and the desired outcomes behind the Soviet Revolution and that of the Russian colonial empire. Russia before the revolution was less concerned with assimilation of the native population. The Russian government like most imperial powers looks at economic gains and has little interest in cultural issues. Russian even went so far as to allow for a measure of autonomy among various central Asian counties under its control. The question I would pose is whether Russia or any of the other major colonial empires valued or at least had a measure of respect for indigenous cultures, or perhaps realized that allowing people to keep that, which defines them their culture unmolested, makes it easier to control and exploit them?

The example of the way in which the socialists after the February Revolution looked at these people is quite different from the tsarist approach to these same peoples. The article mentions the idealistic views of some socialists immediately following the revolution that, national identity would remain in place for these peoples. Within two years, Stalin already determined to subjugate and assimilate the indigenous people. As Khalid points out “Much about the national cultural form had to be transformed if backwardness were to be overcome.” ((Adeeb Khalid, “Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective” Slavic Review 65 no. 2, (2006), p. 238)) Unlike the conquests of colonial empires the goal of the “Soviet project was one of cultural revolution” ((Adeeb Khalid, Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective) Slavic Review 65 no. 2, (2006), p. 238))). It is truly amazing that the socialists considered their view of society and human thinking superior to 6000 years of human history. To say that another culture is backward or not progressive in comparison to one’s own shows the mindset, not one of a revolution for equality, but rather it manifests the latent imperialist thinking permeating even the pragmatic socialists leaders of the revolution. The Soviets “sought nothing less than the remaking of human nature” ((Adeeb Khalid, Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization: Early Soviet Central Asia in Comparative Perspective) Slavic Review 65 no. 2, (2006), p. 239))). The Soviets turned socialism into a religious movement that imposed it unyielding thinking upon the people much the way the conquistadors imposed Christianity on the indigenous people of the America’s. The socialists like all other governments quickly lose touch with their ideological thinking and revert to human nature of man dominating man to his injury.