Imperial colony: Dmitry Glukhovsky’s speech for the first Boris Nemtsov Forum


I am thirty-seven years old. I was born in 1979, twelve years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The years that followed the fall of the USSR are often referred to as the years of a free Russia.  This definition obviously contains a certain paradox.  When one of the former Soviet republics marks the anniversary of its freedom and independence, it is clear that it celebrates its deliverance from the former mother country.  But what does the mother country break free from?

Does it break free from its colonies-republics?  But if fact, no matter how much colonies might seem like a burden, the collapse of an empire signifies its failure which would be a foolish thing to celebrate. Perhaps, it was assumed that we would be celebrating the deliverance from our own past, or from the future that had been intended for us, or from ourselves?

One can say that the Russians had been keeping the Latvians, the Ukrainians or the Kazakhs prisoners.  But who had been keeping us – the population of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union that was unquestionably an empire in itself – captives? Who had been keeping us in bondage like slaves?  In fact, we had been doing this to ourselves.

Serfdom in Russia was abolished only four years before the final abolition of slavery in the United States.  However, while White Americans enslaved and brought to America representatives of a different race, language and religion whose dehumanization slave owners justified by their multi-century civilizational delay, we were enslaved by people of the same race, faith and culture.

Kolkhozes became a new form of serfdom for peasants.  Tens of millions of innocent people sentenced and sent to labor camps under false or ridiculous accusations became real slaves of the state.  The economic rationale of Stalin’s Terror consisted in using free slave labor while keeping prisoners in complete submission.

I understand why the regime, regardless of its name, has always treated us like stupid cattle by putting blinders on us, by flogging us, using dogs to herd us like sheep and keeping us locked in corrals.  There has always been a logical explanation for such practices which came down to the regime’s desire to maintain its authority and enjoy the fruits of being in power.

The intoxication of the peasantry with the idea that the supreme ruler was chosen by God; the Church’s selling its soul to the state and serving the tsarist regime for a percentage of income from slavery – these are the elements of a deliberate economic activity.   The use of indiscriminate purges to terrify and bring the population to an unquestioning submission for the purpose of reclaiming and industrializing Siberia and Russia’s Far North is yet another characteristic of a consistent economic activity.

What is wrong with us?  Why had we been putting up with all this?  Such a degree of acceptance and submission seems completely unimaginable and meaningless.  Why had we been settling for being owned by monsters? How had we been convincing ourselves that our owners were not that bad? Why hadn’t we tried to escape?  Hadn’t we cared for freedom at all? Why on earth would other peoples care for it but not us?

We have been living in a new free Russia for twenty-five years now. We freed our colonies but we cannot and do not even seem to be willing to free ourselves.

I watch news on the Russian TV that over the last few years has completely turned into an instrument of mass disinformation used to mislead, confuse and psychologically manipulate the population and to control people’s thoughts and feelings.

I observe how blatantly and shamelessly we are being lied to; what simple tricks are being used to deflect our attention from actual political processes; how we are being pitted against each other and being turned against the West.  I ask myself: How come people believe all that?  They have access to independent and comprehensive information so why do they keep their blinders on?  Don’t they feel sore from wearing them?

I read the results of polls according to which the majority of the population supports all kinds of bans and restrictions in the interests of so-called morals, spirituality or security and I ask myself: Can it be possible that all those who support the above mentioned things do not care at all for freedom?     Why do they desire so much to flog themselves?

When three years ago tens and hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Moscow’s streets, Sakharov Prospect and Bolotnaya Square, it seemed like people had finally seen through all the lies and realized that they were wearing blinders and a yoke. It seemed that people finally wondered where they were being led.     People demanded respect and independence.

But then Crimea happened, and it served as a real blackout of the collective consciousness. Many of my friends who had protested against election fraud suddenly joined the mass exultation of those who believed that the annexation of Crimea had put the historical record straight and served as a proof that Russia had finally gotten up off its knees.

Berdyaev in The Russian Idea says that no other national idea or ideology fits Russia so well and elicits such an unanimous support as the idea of territorial expansion. He also argues that Russia is condemned to be a police state regardless of the name of its ruling regime because there is no other way to keep such an enormous territory together.

We had to pay for Crimea soon after its annexation. For example, any attempts at even discussing the status of the peninsula as a part of Russia falls under the anti-extremism article of the Criminal Code as calls for separatist activity. The regime now uses various excuses to punish public condemnation of the war Russia is pursuing in Ukraine and Syria.

Chaos that Russia is now eagerly creating in the world is being served to us as evidence of our country’s growing strength and proof that our empire is coming back to the world arena.  However, empires create order – not destroy it. On the outside, Russia is trying to be an empire. On the inside, however, it looks increasingly like a colony.

Meanwhile, it appears that only a pitiable minority feels slighted. The rest of the population willingly trades freedom of speech–and basically of thought–for an illusion of Russia’s imperial comeback.  Furthermore, the proverbial 86 percent of the population as good as unequivocally support the regime including in the most questionable matters. Few people truly care for freedom of speech–that is freedom to criticize the government.

Meanwhile the state keeps insinuating that it can deprive us of all freedoms. Thus, the provision on banning those suspected of extremism – or in other words involved in opposition political activity – from leaving the country was removed from the “Yarovaya package” basically at the last minute.   However, the possibility of such a ban is being regularly discussed.

Who needs the freedom of movement though? Two-thirds of Russians do not own a passport for international travel. Three-fourths of Russians have never been outside of the former Soviet Union.

What about freedom of expression? Less than one-third of the population of the central Russia voted in the most recent parliamentary elections.

The regime tries to chew away even at freedom in private life which is probably the biggest conquest of ordinary people in modern Russia.  The government ostracizes homosexuals, threatens to ban abortions, blocks access to adult websites and is just about to begin regulating the consensual sexual practices of Russian citizens.  The government already knows how to tap our phones and read our messages. It is now working on cracking encryption in all messenger apps. However, no one seems to mind.

Do we really need this freedom? Or is it something else we need?

We have always considered justice a much more vital topic and a much more significant value.   Peasant revolts in tsarist Russia, the 1905 uprising, the October Revolution of 1917 were all fueled by the feeling that the government and its representatives had been carrying out oppressive and unjust practices with regard to ordinary people.

The pursuit of justice served as a key vital emotion that supported and justified the implementation of the socialist and communist project in Russia.  Votes for leftists of all kinds in Russia are votes in favor of social justice.   Meanwhile, for several years now, the idea of freedom has not been able to gather enough support to cross the electoral threshold.

The image of the USSR sweetened by official propaganda and senior citizens’ nostalgia is being offered as an example of a justly organized state.  As for Russia’s imperial comeback and the country’s imaginary rising up off its knees, these ideas speak to people’s hearts because people believe that in this way the historical record is being set straight.   Russia is getting back what it is entitled to. It is making up for the humiliation it has been suffering, and this is why its most outrageous actions on the world stage are being supported by the majority of the Russian population.

We left Egypt twenty-five years ago. After walking a bit in the desert, in its oil-rich sands, we felt nostalgic for the Pharaoh’s bondage and daunted by so much freedom. We felt wistful for the erection of pointless pyramids, and so we are now voluntarily returning to Egypt.   Those who were born in the desert learned to love Egypt at their mothers’ knee. Thus, it is understandable when special forces veterans masturbate to Stalin’s portrait. But how come thirteen-year-olds see him as their Che Guevara?     Meanwhile, there are a lot of Stalinists among Russian teenagers.

Could it be that people miss feeling united by one common purpose? Or could they get nostalgic about the hive-like structure of life in Soviet Russia? Or else about indifference and irresponsibility with which the Soviet Union awarded them for giving up their freedom?  They want to be children–not citizens. They want their parent-state to take care of their worries and to shelter them from the necessity to deal with the complexity of existence.   With freedom comes responsibility for one’s life and the life of one’s family members.  We, however, are still afraid of responsibility. We have not grown up in twenty-five years.

Could it be that our Asian side with its collective thinking is stronger than individuality of the Western civilization? Maybe Russians find it more appealing to belong to a collective body instead of being free and thus independent from others?  Maybe one side of our medal says “freedom” while the other says “loneliness.”

Are we Europeans or has the love of freedom been entirely eradicated in Russia?

Every time I criticize the regime in my articles or public speeches about the situation in the country, even when I just call things by their proper name, I know that my parents, not to mention my two still living grandfathers, will be calling me afterwards to ask me not  to stick my neck out. They will say that I do not understand how dangerous it is to speak the truth nowadays. They will ask me to go with the flow.  Meanwhile, I am not engaged in any political activity, and in fact I am not even an opposition activist.

In the 1920s, my great-grandfather was dispossessed and exiled to Solovki.  Although no one else in my family suffered from repressions, my parents are still afraid. In the twenty-five years of freedom, the generation of today’s sixty-year-olds has not come to believe in it while it certainly believes in the possibility of yet another terror. Our elders are very sensitive to any signs of the restoration of a repressive system and consequently, they are prepared to roll over and play dead even before the government asks them to.

The government knows this and uses this knowledge to manipulate the population by hinting at the possibility of such a scenario.   One of Putin’s favorite mantras is his statement that we are not in 1937–an annoying incantation that makes one think about the possibility of traveling back in time.  Sometimes his hints become truly obvious. For example, there is an initiative to rename the ever-strengthening FSB into Stalin’s  MGB.

Could it be that fear is to blame?

Besides, do we sincerely seek uniformity?

The regime discourages us from thinking by blatantly and ingeniously manipulating us; by constantly making up new enemies; by making us talk in terms of war and constantly forcing us into new–not imaginary–wars. We have been living under wartime laws for years now surfing TV channels from the sense of danger to the feeling of euphoria from fighting. We have been getting used to tolerate and to endure anything. We have been getting out of the habit of arguing and asking questions. By descending into animal existence, we are becoming like cattle.

The government demands unity and uniformity from us. Any demonstration of dissent or any other form of “otherness” in this apocryphal wartime is seen as a sign of treachery.     Loyal cogs in the regime gather under the auspices of the All-Russia People’s Front while dissidents are being branded foreign agents.

During such times, one wants to be like everyone else  and do what everyone else does. One wants to blend in with the crowd and go with the flow.  It is for a reason that our current regime, that appears to be the same one we have always had, has been subjecting the population to decimation.  Under our Zara and Brioni suits we are still the same Soviet people.

Of course, one still has the right to literally choose between remaining a Soviet man or becoming a European one  by fleeing to the West. Out of my thirty classmates with whom I had graduated from high school in Moscow’s Arbat district seven made their civilizational choice by moving to Europe and the United States.  Hundreds of thousands of active young people leave Russia.

This forum is being held in Berlin because in Russia, this auditorium would be besieged by provocateurs-Red Guards, clowns in green garrison caps and Cossack army uniforms simulating patriotism and spy-mania before the cameras of the propaganda machine.

They would be merely faking their outrage of course, because this quasi-patriotic flag-waving in Russia obviously relies on government coffers,  and people engage in such activities for money  – the same reason that prompts them to display quasi-Orthodox spirituality or to play the Cold War.

The problem is that the effigy of war can come to life; the figurative language of war can become a spell that might trigger it. We saw this happen in Europe a century ago.

The trouble is that being afraid to assume responsibility for our lives, we often voluntarily give power over ourselves to random people who get drunk with so much authority and begin seeing us as cattle due to our submissiveness and speechlessness. Thus, our tragedy repeats itself over and over again.

The trouble is that while dreaming of justice and consequently continually suffering injustice, we somehow fail to realize that we can truly achieve justice only by taking control over our own destiny.

The problem is that we fail to realize that the path to justice which we so desire to reach lies through freedom.

Only by refusing to march in lockstep and leaving the file; by sticking our necks out and going against the flow; by overcoming our fear to be noticed and marginalized; only by choosing individuality can we truly aspire to freedom and justice.

However, such behavior demands more and more bravery in our country.

I understand people who march in lockstep. I understand people who bury their heads in the sand.  Everyone wants to live and no one wants to perform heroic exploits. Heroic exploits are the domain of daring people – people with a benumbed sense of danger or those few for whom ideals and fidelity to oneself are more important than wealth or safety.

There are very few such people, and I have no idea where they come from.  We can all see, however, where and how they depart.

But it is thanks to such true individuals, such genuinely independent and brave people as Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov  that we realize that one can live differently.  We are afraid to share their fate.  We feel ashamed of being afraid.

I have said so much today about our peculiarity but we are obviously the same people as the German, the French, the British,  The Chinese or the Korean.  We are all born free and unique. The only question is what and for the sake of what we subsequently give up.

I do not want to believe that my country is truly condemned to be an imperial colony.

Russia can maintain its present-day immense borders and be a modern state at the same time. My country’s geographical vastness can be the space of freedom and justice.

However, we will have to earn this freedom.


The translation was made by Free Russia Foundation