Wednesday, 12 June 2024 04:39

What the left and right get wrong about imperialism

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Campus leftists in the West and nationalists in the global south never tire of pointing out the evils of imperialism. Yet few include the Soviet Union on their list of villains. This is odd: the Soviet empire stretched over 11 time zones, oppressing its vassal states so egregiously that all declared independence the moment they had the chance.

Airbrushing this history makes it harder to understand the present, when the man with the world’s fourth-largest army is trying to reassemble a version of that empire, minus the Marxism. When Vladimir Putin described the liberation of the Soviet Union’s former subjects as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, he was expressing a worldview shared in previous centuries by Spanish conquistadors and ruffians of the British East India Company: that strong nations should rule weaker ones, regardless of the wishes of those who live there.

Two new books offer first-hand accounts of how that feels for the colonised. In “The Language of War”, the author himself is the eyewitness: Oleksandr Mykhed is a Ukrainian writer who lived through Russia’s invasion of his country and is now serving in the Ukrainian army. In “Revolusi”, the author is a historian who gets his boots dirty. From remote Asian islands to Dutch nursing homes, David Van Reybrouck has tracked down eyewitnesses to Indonesia’s colonial period, producing the definitive account of a neglected epoch.

Both books demolish the simplistic takes that dominate debate on social media today. Imperialism was not, as some on the left argue, simply a Western sin. But, contrary to the splutterings of the nostalgic right, it was a grave one.

The colonial history of the archipelago that is now Indonesia is convoluted. From the 1500s the Portuguese ruled parts of it, then the Dutch, France, Britain and the Dutch again. After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Japan “liberated” its colony and proceeded to enslave, starve and behead the locals. When Japan surrendered, the Dutch assumed they would take back control, but their former subjects had other ideas. In August 1945 Indonesia was the first of a wave of ex-colonies around the world to declare independence.

For four years the newly liberated Dutch fought to keep their colony subjugated, sending boatloads of conscripts to face an army of guerrillas wielding sharpened bamboo sticks and looted Japanese rifles. The Dutch used what Mr Van Reybrouck calls ‘“the Westerling method”, which involved rounding up villagers, asking them where the local guerrillas were hiding, and shooting them if they failed to provide useful intelligence.

Dutch pride in the imperial past is still strong. As recently as 2006 a conservative Dutch prime minister urged a revival of the can-do “mentality” of the Dutch East India Company, a slave- and spice-trading outfit. In a YouGov poll of eight ex-colonial powers in 2019, the Dutch were the most likely to say that their former empire was “more something to be proud of than ashamed”, with 50% agreeing and only 6% expressing the opposite view.

Mr Van Reybrouck offers evidence that such pride is misplaced. He chronicles brutal plunder in the 17th century, forced labour in the 19th and a racial caste system in the early 20th. He tracks down perpetrators, such as Goos Blok, a conscript who describes having to inflict electric-shock torture on teenagers. Indonesians explain how at first they welcomed the Japanese, until they saw them behaving even more viciously than the Dutch. As one of them concluded: “Colonialism is colonialism.”

Mr Mykhed’s book is more personal. He lived in Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv with an airport that Russian special forces tried to capture at the start of the invasion. Thus Mr Mykhed’s block was overrun on day two, by Russians who forced people from their homes, pointing guns at their heads. He and his wife managed to escape.

“The Language of War” brims with horror. Girls are pulled out of a basement by their hair and raped. A 96-year-old survivor of Nazi concentration camps is killed during the supposed “denazification” of Ukraine. The deliberate murder of 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war is made to look like an errant mortar.

Mr Mykhed wields a skilful, angry pen. He sees motorcycles melted by the heat of battle, “like puddles of solidified metal left over from the evil T-1000 robot from ‘Terminator’”. He describes how soldiers look forward to haircuts, just to “feel the warmth and care of a woman’s hands”. He records how Russian invaders, like the crudest burglars, habitually defecate on the beds of homes they loot.

The author’s rage against the invaders is entirely justified. But he spreads it too broadly. He says no Russian film, book, artwork or TV show should be shown, sold or streamed. “Russia must be silenced,” he writes, regardless of whether the writers and artists are anti-war, anti-Putin or long dead. A Russian acquaintance, who hates Mr Putin and fled, texts Mr Mykhed’s wife to ask how he can help. She tells him that he, too, is responsible for the war. “You are all guilty,” Mr Mykhed says.

This is myopic. Russians who choose exile because they do not want to be drafted to kill Ukrainians share an obvious common interest with Ukrainians who do not wish to be killed. The same goes for Russians who yearn for a democratic, post-Putin Russia. To refuse to make common cause with such people may be emotionally satisfying, but it is strategically daft. The notion that guilt is collective, regardless of individual actions, is a recipe for unending strife, and not just in Ukraine.

Yet Mr Mykhed’s testament is valuable, since Mr Putin fights with lies as well as bullets. One of the first things Russian forces do when they occupy a town is to purge libraries of “harmful” books and dismantle any monument to Soviet-era crimes, such as those marking Stalin’s starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. As Mr Mykhed puts it, “My faith in the power of literature is being restored by the…occupiers’ fear of our books.”


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