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.

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.

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.