Fabio Belafatti, University of Groningen / Vilnius University
A few days after Vladimir Putin gave his famous speech announcing the annexation of the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia, with all its mind-boggling references to Satanism, not-so-veiled nuclear threats, half-chewed Neo-Eurasianist dog-whistling, I stumbled across this quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, posted on an Instagram page about ancient art:
“You, who are Roman, recall how to govern mankind with your power. These will be your special Arts: the enforcement of peace as a habit, Mercy for those cast down and relentless war upon proud men.” (Aeneid, Book Six, Lines 851-853, Frederick Ahl translation)
Normally, Roman literature is, for me, little more than a long-forgotten high school-era nightmare that I’d rather not think about. Every time I see some Classics quoted in opinion pieces, I cannot help but feel a strong smell of intellectual pretentiousness.
And yet, these verses got me thinking. Not because they are particularly good – after all, going by my high school era memories, the Aeneid was just a poor copy of the Iliad and the Odyssey, garnished with an unbearable amount of bootlicking for the Roman political elite. Rather, they are interesting because of what they tell us about imperial mentalities. And about Putin.
These verses are a celebration of a common line of reasoning in the mindset of leaders and peoples engaged in projects of imperial conquest: Romans, in Virgil’s lines, are a people whose mission is “the enforcement of peace”, who benevolently show “mercy for those cast down”, and who stand up to injustices, waging “relentless war upon proud men”.
This may sound absurd: The Aeneid itself is littered with self-celebratory rhetoric of the magnificence of that very same imperial power that was subjugating whole peoples across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, subjecting some of them to what we would nowadays call genocide, enslaving millions, and wiping out whole cultures and languages across the Mediterranean basin.
And yet, rising, ambitious empires and oppressors in general often like to cast themselves as the defenders of the weak and the punishers of the arrogant, protectors of the underdogs, when not underdogs themselves.
The Rise of “Imperial Liberation”
XIX-XX century American imperialism and white supremacist discourses were especially rife with rhetoric. US imperialist politicians, generals, and newspapers nourished their ambitions with a mythology of self-victimization and constant brooding over past injustices.
“Remember the Alamo!” was the battle cry under which Texas was snatched away from Mexico, resulting in the dramatic expansion of slavery in this former territory of the abolitionist Mexican Republic. “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” was the rallying cry for the Spanish-American War, a conflict that Americans cast as an act of revenge for the (alleged) sinking of USS Maine, and a magnanimous act to liberate Cuba and the Philippines from Spain’s oppressive colonial power – only to then promptly incorporate them into the US’ own colonial possessions, at a massive cost in local peoples’ lives.
Meanwhile, the early Ku Klux Klan justified the oppression of African-American people inside the US by claiming to act in defense of white women and white farmers against the “oppression” of formerly enslaved people, proving the old adage that “to those accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression”.
The Americans were by no means alone. The Belgian king Leopold II legitimized his genocidal destruction of the Congo by claiming that as the sovereign of a small, humble country, he was bringing the freedom of trade to the region, and enfranchising enslaved people across Africa.
Russian imperialism in Central Asia was legitimized with claims that Russian troops were massacring Turkmens, Bukharans, and Khivans to free the (actually very few) white slaves held by Central Asian chieftains and khans.
Nazi Germany’s practice of justifying its wars of conquest by constantly claiming to be protecting “oppressed Germans” around Europe has long entered the public consciousness and is common knowledge of anyone who studied history.
Italian imperialism, which would become infamous for its war crimes against Ethiopian troops and the system of concentration camps and mass starvation in Libya and the Balkans, claimed to be an act of justice: “the Great Proletarian [Nation] has moved”, declared in 1911 an Italian poet, in celebration of his country’s imperial adventures: Acts of justice, in his view, for a destitute nation who deserved better – regardless of the fact that someone else’s death and enslavement would become the foundation for this “liberation”.
Likewise, Mussolini would later present his attempt to rebuild the Roman Empire as an act of historical justice against those, like the British, who denied Italy’s “rightful place under the sun”. In a display of Orwellian doublespeak, fascist troops sang of “liberated Adua” during their bloody conquest of Ethiopia, and while enslaving an entire country, they took credit for enfranchising individual enslaved people in a famous 1930s song, Faccetta nera (“Pretty black face”):
“If you look to the sea from the plateau, Oh black girl who was slave among the slaves, You’ll see, as in a dream, many ships, And a Tricolour waving for you.”
Empires against Imperialism
The period between the two World Wars brought this trend of up-and-coming empires claiming to be “liberators of the downtrodden”, if not downtrodden themselves, to a paradoxical extreme.
By this point, much of the colonized world was rocked by the early stages of struggles for national liberation, which by the 1920s had in some cases led to success (Ireland, Afghanistan, Poland, Finland), to failed attempts to break the shackles of empires (Georgia, Ukraine, and most of the former territories of the Russian Empire), and in many more cases posed the foundation for the future anti-colonial struggles of the post-WWII era.
In this context, the claims of ambitious new empires to be the rescuing hand “for those cast down” morphed: The “relentless war upon proud men” that empires had claimed to be benevolently engaged in since Virgil’s times ceased to be a war against oppressors of specific groups or of oppressed individuals, and became instead a claimed war against other empires and imperialism itself. The arrogant, “proud men” to be cast down by benevolent imperialists were their specular images.
In the interwar period, several countries tried to mobilize the rhetoric of opposition to Western imperialism (as an ideology) and colonialism (as a practice), all while pursuing their own imperialist ambitions.
Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany tried to present themselves as opponents of British imperialism, but this was hardly convincing for anyone outside themselves, for as Aimé Césaire noted, fascists “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for [the colonies]”. There was not much anti-colonial appeal in regimes that were imperialist in Europe itself and that had such an obvious disdain for non-whites.
With their image less burdened by an obviously racialized view of the world like that of Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan were the countries that most successfully pursued this anti-colonial rhetoric while killing millions across Eurasia and Oceania during their pursuit of imperial consolidation and expansion.
But while the Soviets could re-brand the extermination of whole national elites who resented Moscow’s imperial project as a “class struggle”, their acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide as a fight against the “enemies of the people”, and their colonial policies of mass settlement and resource extractions as “building a socialist economy”, Japan was explicitly imperialist: knowingly and proudly so.
Thus, it was with a particular degree of brazenness that Japanese authorities claimed to be really on the same side as the oppressed colonized peoples of Asia, and arguably it took anti-colonial activists in European possessions such as Subhas Chandra Bose a special degree of naivety (or desperation) to buy into this rhetoric.
The trick worked for a bit – as Bose’s or Myanmar’s general and politician Aung San’s biographies attest – but ultimately, anti-Western Imperial Japanese rhetoric was doomed to fail, as it boiled down to a thin simplification of reality in which only “Westerners” could really be imperialists; and if non-Westerners were behaving identically, this could not really be imperialism.
This was never likely to gain mass traction, and indeed, it did not. Today, of course, we know that Japanese imperialism was basically Western imperialism on steroids, with more rapes, more ethnic cleansing, and more enslavement.
But this was already sufficiently clear even in the colonized world at that time, most of which did not buy into the Japanese narrative, and understood that one cannot, as Russia is doing now, simply plead “non-Westernness” to pass as non-imperialist. Mainly because there was nothing really new about an empire claiming to be a liberator. In the words of Cemil Aydin, a scholar on Imperial Japan’s Islamic Policies and Anti-Westernism:
“There was also a more anti-colonial “liberation” discourse in Japanese policies on Islam, one that emphasized Japan’s mission to liberate Asia, including subjugated Muslims. This is again a highly common imperial strategy, Think about how many times Muslims were liberated by the Western Empires such as Britain, France, and America: Saving Arab Muslims from Turkish oppression, liberating Muslim women from the domination of fundamentalist men, or minorities from majority Sunni yoke, and even bringing secularism to save moderate Muslims from the theocratic rule. Somehow, being an anti-imperialist empire was not a peculiarity of Japan. All empires played the game of emancipation.”
The Russian paradox – The Empire Strikes Back
We also now know that the best shot at liberation from colonial empires came, historically, by allying with declining empires against the rising ones, laying paths to national liberation on the ashes of oppressors that exhausted each other. It is how African and Asian countries won independence from Britain and France’s colonial empires, destroyed by their struggle against Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire in WWI, and against Germany (once more), Italy, and Japan in WWII.
It thus comes as a surprise that Putin’s annexation speech, this triumphant statement of intents of a new/old, rising (again) empire, sought to justify his land grab while leaning heavily on anti-Western anti-colonial rhetoric.
His statements should be read in continuity with previous ones of justification of Russian neo-imperialism. Earlier this year Putin shockingly declared that “Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s].”
This statement was mostly seen, at that time, as bizarre megalomania. But the most important implication of this claim is that anything that ever was part of the Russian empire is “rightfully Russia’s”, and Russian imperial power retroactively legitimizes Russian power itself.
For, in fact, most of the lands that Peter the Great snatched away from Sweden in the Great Northern War, Livonia and Estonia, were never even remotely close to being controlled by any state that Russia might have a claim, no matter how far-fetched, of being a successor of.
Russia has always appropriated the history of the Kyivan Rus’ as “its” history, legitimizing (re)conquest on the basis of this historical “continuity”. But even if we pretend to accept this nationalist rewriting of history for a second, the fact is that the spoils of the Great Northern War were never even part of Rus’ – or of any Slavic polity at all.
Yet, for Putin, these were legitimately “taken back” by Russia, because the fact itself of Peter the Great’s conquest of Livonia and Estonia made them into “historical Russian lands”, retroactively. This means that nothing is off the table: anywhere the Russian flag ever flew, no matter the historical justification for its conquest, is rightfully Russia’s.
And if words were not clear enough indications of Russia’s imperial ambitions, the reality of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a war of conquest – a fact that the Russian elite has made unquestionable with their decision to formally annex Ukraine’s territories – should dispel all doubts.
We thus encounter the paradox of a leader that makes potentially unlimited claims of legitimate conquest, and yet, just a couple of months later during the annexation speech, tries to cast Russia as the leader of a global struggle against Western imperialism and (neo)colonialism.
The paradox quickly turned into farce: Putin talked of the crimes of Western imperialism, all while leveling Ukrainian cities to the ground, in an effort to rebuild the 2.0 version of the very same Russian empire that wiped whole peoples in Siberia and in the Caucasus off the face of the Earth, and pioneered racialized genocidal practices against the Circassians that would mirror those later used by the Germans against the Herero, or the US against the Native Americans.
The president of the country that already showed the world, at the time of the Chechen Wars, that it would be the only European empire to refuse to decolonize, stood at a podium claiming that Russia is the savior of the Global South from Western neo-imperialism.
In a discourse filled to the brim with resentment, a sense of past injustices, and claims that Russia is a victim, Putin re-enacted to the detriment of Ukraine a XIX century-style imperial land grab, not unlike those of the US against Mexico at that time.
The dangers behind the nonsense
What to make of the disconnection between facts and declarations?
Clearly, the history of empires claiming to be liberators as a pretext to justify horrible crimes is too rich and too obvious to be ignored, and urges us to look at Putin’s statement not merely as inconsequential hypocrisy, or as vitriolic anger that should only concern the West, but as a global threat.
Putin is not the leader of a global anti-colonial struggle, just as Hirohito or Mussolini weren’t. Russia is not a harbinger of liberation from empires: it is an empire. And the “multipolar” world Putin calls for is not a world free from imperialism: quite the contrary, it is a world partitioned among empires. The XIX century’s age of European high imperialism, when the competing European powers literally split up whole continents, was as complete a realization of “multipolarism” as it gets.
The idea of rising empires as liberators was deranged fiction two millennia ago when Virgil wrote of the conquering Romans’ “mercy for those cast down and relentless war upon proud men.” It remained fiction when Imperial Japan made similar claims before 1945. It is still fiction now that Russia walks the same path.
Ultimately, empires do not build freedom; what they build is themselves, and alongside comes their peculiar sort of “peace”.
Since we opened with a Classical quote, we might as well close with another famous one, this time by Tacitus, who already put in the words of a Caledonian chieftain a clear description of what awaits people in a new empire’s world:
“[There is nothing but] more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, […] neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”Tacitus, Agricola, 30, Sara Bryant’s translation
It is now up to the post-colonial world to decide if they want to fall for this trick.
This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)