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Aidana Khabdesh

Why romanticising the Soviet Union obscures its colonial past

As new generations are drawn into leftist ideologies, it’s crucial to remember USSR's violence in North and Central Asia.


28 Feb 2022

If you have ever been on TikTok, then you’ll know how quickly its algorithm tailors your feed. In my case, it didn’t take long for the app to figure out I’m a leftist feminist and for Soviet Union symbols, like the hammer and sickle, to start appearing on my timeline. 

What the algorithm did not know, however, is that I am also an immigrant from Kazakhstan – a Central Asian country that once was a part of the Soviet Union. As I continued scrolling through videos of young Western leftists on TikTok playing the soundtrack of the National Anthem of the USSR and romanticising Joseph Stalin – under whose regime millions of people were killed – I couldn’t help but feel mounting frustration. 

Given the dire state of humanity today, aggravated by the pandemic and disaster capitalism, it’s no wonder that the concept of communism continues to draw in new, and especially, young followers with its radical reimagination of the world order. Why wouldn’t anyone want to foster transnational solidarity that overcomes racial, gender, and class boundaries? 

Yet by conflating the ideals of communism with the complexity of the Soviet Union, many risk adopting a myopic idealistic vision of the USSR that disregards its own history of racism, orientalism, and colonial violence. Although the Soviet Union was ideologically opposed to Western colonialism, it continued to uphold its own colonial practices largely inherited and modified from the Tsarist times. In particular, the story of the discrimination faced by Central and North Asian indigenous populations goes mostly untold. As a descendant of those who experienced racialised violence of the Soviet regime, it’s hard to engage in these sorts of binary conversations, when I don’t believe that decolonial justice has been achieved in these regions to this day. 

“The story of the discrimination faced by Central and North Asian indigenous populations goes mostly untold today”

The history of the Soviet Union’s rule in Central and North Asia (also known as Siberia), has roots in the imperial conquests of Tsarist Russia with some of the earliest conquests dating back to the 16th century. Central Asian ‘khanates’ (empires) were conquered by Russian emperors around the 17th century and their borders were redrawn by the Soviets in the early 20th century to create the five countries that still exist today – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. 

What made these conquests different from the consolidation of Russian power in Eastern Europe, was the superiority prism through which Asian groups (Central Asian in particular) were viewed. Despite its differences from Western empires, Tsarist Russia, and later the Soviet Union, followed the rite of passage of colonial domination by enforcing ideas of modernity and civilisation onto ‘savage’ nomadic tribes whose lands were labeled as ‘virgin’ due to the lack of urbanisation and agricultural development.

After the establishment of the communist regime, the Soviet Union continued to exploit the lands of Russia’s conquests in new ways, including for the construction of an image of the Soviet interethnic “friendship of people” as the pinnacle of communist progress. Some ethnic groups wanted independence at the dawn of Soviet rule but were denied it. Though Central Asian states were technically given more autonomy during the Soviet Era than they were under the Russian Empire, leaders of the USSR still ordered oppressive policies which harmed non-Slavic populations. 

Many Central Asian nations adopted Islam prior to their engulfment in the Soviet Union. Forced unveiling of Muslim women in Uzbekistan in the name of so-called “women’s emancipation” and destruction of madrasas across the region in fear of Islam uniting different ethnic groups show how intrinsic parts of non-Slavic nations’ identity were not only othered, but made to conform. The echoing effects of these processes can be observed today. In my brief time living in Moscow, I found myself in multiple instances of aggression and prejudice directed at my Kazakh identity. From numerous apartment listings only available to Slavic people to the inability to get a white-collar job as easily as my non-Central Asian peers to being profiled by police officers. 

“Though Central Asian states were technically given more autonomy during the Soviet Era, leaders of the USSR still ordered oppressive policies which harmed non-Slavic populations”

Another example is the Russian language policy. In 1938, Russian became mandatory in all Soviet schools. Empowered by the lack of literacy and abundance of resources directed at systematising the teaching of Russian, the Soviet authorities were able to successfully make Russian the main language spoken across Central Asia. I was born in 1994 and my ‘mother tongue’ is Russian as it is my mother’s. The colonial Soviet heritage I speak so extensively about has always been felt in my interactions with my grandmothers, whose first language was Kazakh, and later in my own embarrassment for speaking the coloniser’s tongue in my community. In Kazakhstan, we are only beginning to grapple with language-based discrimination and racist treatment of the Kazakh-speaking population. 

More widely, the revisionist romanticisation of the Soviet Union doesn’t ever seem to address many of its violent failings. One key event that encapsulates the colonial trauma for Kazakhs is the famine of 1932-1933. Deprived of resources and aid, victims of the famine were forced to face death or resort to cannibalism. Its long-lasting consequences include the relatively low population number of today’s Kazakhstan. 

The Soviets also left a horrendous environmental legacy. Kazakhstan’s wide steppe was used as a site for nuclear-testing plant; the Semipalatinsk Testing Site played a paramount role in building the Soviet nuclear weapon arsenal during the Cold War. The population around the site was subjected to extreme levels of radiation, the troubling effects of which can still be observed today. Elsewhere in Central Asia, extraction of cotton from Uzbekistan in the 1950s led to a catastrophic loss of the Aral Sea. These are just two of many examples.

“Our agency is undermined by the hegemonic imperial view of the region fostered by the Soviet Union and reproduced through the ignorance about its institutionalised violence”

Silence is a trusted tool of oppression. By rendering the violent history of the Soviet Union invisible, we contribute to the trivialisation of the Central and North Asians’ contemporary sufferings, many of which stem from its colonial heritage. To my knowledge, an official apology to Central Asians for any of the atrocities caused has never been issued. 

The abuse of power during the Soviet regime allowed for local communist elites to flourish and seize power in the 1990s, depriving newly-independent Central Asian nations of even a chance at democratisation. When we struggle for our liberation today and ask the international community for attention and solidarity, the way many Kazakhstanis did just this January during civil unrests that led to state violence and Russian military intervention, our agency is undermined by the hegemonic imperial view of the region fostered by the Soviet Union and reproduced through the ignorance about its institutionalised violence.

I understand that the naive romanticisation of the Soviet Union is a problem of education rather than a distinct political stance, but I believe it’s crucial to raise awareness about the historical issues central to the indigenous Asian populations of the post-Soviet space. While Central and North Asian ethnic groups may differ in predominant attitudes toward the Soviet era with some erring on the side of fondness, we should encourage new generations learning about the Soviet Union to hold spaces for diverse and critical narratives coming directly from post-Soviet Asian communities, as they undergo the process of decolonisation and bring past colonial traumas forth from enforced obscurity.

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