A new issue of Nikita Mikhalkov’s author program, Besogon TV, entitled “Thoughts of an occupant” broadcasted on the air of Russia-24 TV channel earlier this week. In it, Russia’s most famous living filmmaker, who is also well-known as an ardent supporter of President Putin, judged ‘white people for striving to prolong their lives and enjoyment at the expense of others’ and spoke out in defense of Africans affected by the racist practice of colonialism by the European colonial powers.
And all anything, yes, just what to do with the fact that last time Nikita Mikhalkov had been saying the exact opposite of what he said this time. I wrote about it in the article ‘How does ‘Hottentot morality’ by Nikita Mikhalkov, Putin’s fervent admirer, fit in with his dislike of non-Whites?’. Nikita Mikhalkov then had been furious that white Europeans in France had found themselves helpless in the face of the danger posed by migrants from Africa because of what he saw as the ideological and political bankruptcy of European authorities. Here are the words addressed to Western political elites that he had said last time: “No one is coming up with the idea of facing the truth. And the truth is that you are cowards, you give out your helplessness [and lack of ability to cope with your problems] for tolerance and multiculturalism. Watch here, where this leads”.
There is no idea what’s happened to him over the last month. What’s clear is that Nikita Mikhalkov now presents himself as a champion of human rights and human dignity of the ones originated from Africa, that is, of those he previously accused of staging riots in France and committing acts of violence against white French people. Perhaps the only thing that has not changed is that Russians invariably turn out to be on the same side with the ones, who have been or are being wronged.
In the first case, he saw things as a representative of the white peoples who once had complete power over the indigenous populations in the colonized countries but now resented the latter ones for not behaving ‘in a proper manner’, and in the second, as a representative of the Slavs, whom the so-called collective West ‘seeks to destroy’. In the first case, those shown by Nikita Mikhalkov as aggressors, are migrants from Africa, and in the second, non-Slavic nations in Europe. Last time, Nikita Mikhalkov spoke – using the example of France – about native Europeans feeling completely defenseless before the aggressive behavior of African migrants. This time, he is exposing the colonial atrocities of the Europeans in Africa, using the example of Belgium. He now, just as it was then, has given himself and his fellow Russians the role of the righteous people. Obviously, it is very convenient to opine from the position of those who always think they are right.
Why the choice by Nikita Mikhalkov, who decided to once again make allegations against the West, did this time fall on Belgium? As far as can be judged, there is nothing surprising in such a decision. Belgium, the way it has been and is now, looks very suitable for the purposes of accusing Europe in its wholeness of its colonial legacy through the example of a particular country. Once it was one of the most brutal colonial powers. According to Cesar Neto, ‘the genocide carried out by the Belgian king resulted in the death of eight to ten million Congolese’. Now, it’s a country whose biggest city is the de facto capital of the European Union and home to one of Europe’s most diverse populations. Belgium has not apologized for its colonial crimes. According to a 2020 survey, half of the country thought that colonialism had had more positive consequences for Belgian Congo than negative ones.
But all that is only one side of the matter related to Belgium in this context. The other side of it, which Nikita Mikhalkov is obviously not ready to see, is that Russia’s history as a colonial power is very similar to that of Belgium. In case of the latter, it is said: the colony of Congo was 76 times larger than Belgium. The Russian, or Muscovy Tsardom, which had been a relatively small state by the beginning of European colonial expansion, that is, in the second half of the 15th century, had been continuously expanded – mainly to the east – over the next three centuries. During this period, the Russians crossed the Urals, incorporated Siberia and the Far East into their state, and then, as subjects of the Russian Empire, began to colonize Alaska.
Over that time, the territory of Russia has increased from 400 thousand sq. kilometers to 17 million sq. kilometers, that is, by 42.5 times. Russia at the time was a country the size of nowadays Russia. Currently, almost 80 percent of the territory of the Russian Federation falls on Siberia and the Far East. The total area of those two Russian regions is comparable to two thirds of that of tropical, or Black Africa (20 million sq. kilometers), where 29 states with a total population of more than 650 million people, primarily made up of native Africans, are situated.
While the number of indigenous peoples in Siberia and the Far East now is a little more than 1 million, that is, less than 1 percent of the total population of Russia. For a huge country, 95 to 97 per cent of whose present territory was once (at least until the mid16th century) populated by just ethnic groups of East Asian origins, that’s quite a tiny number. The Russian Trans-Urals, which includes Siberia and the Far East, of course, cannot be compared with tropical Africa. Yet, before the Russians arrived, the indigenous Asian population had already lived there for thousands of years, adapted to local environments in the same way as Africans did to the tropical climate of Black Africa. The question arises: why is it that there’s so few of them left today?
The Russian narrative on the matter is very simple: prior to the arrival of the Russians, the entire Trans-Ural region (almost 14 million square kilometers) was almost entirely empty, and there were very few people there. But that doesn’t sound very convincing. Especially, when it comes to taking into consideration the following fact: the number of Tungus-Manchus, long-time indigenous inhabitants of the southern part of Eastern Siberia and the Far East, in China, where it is much easier for them to assimilate with the titular population than in Russia, exceeds 10 million, and in the Russian Federation, it does not reach even 80 thousand. The Russian public thought, however, stands its ground: all these Siberian and Far Eastern lands were mostly unpopulated, when the Russians first arrived, and those tiny ethnic groups that then lived there have not disappeared, but survived and still exist only thanks to the Russians. Well, from what the Russians are saying, the picture seems to be as follows: before the arrival of Europeans, even the island of Greenland, that is mostly covered with ice and much less convenient for human habitation, was not empty, while Siberia and the Far East were so much underpopulated that even today there is only one indigenous inhabitant for every ten square kilometers.
With this approach, Mikhalkov and his likes in Russia can easily afford to condemn the Belgians for what they were doing to black Africans during colonial times. “What happened in the heart of Africa”, that had been handed over to Belgium’s King Leopold II in 1885, “was genocidal in scope long before that now familiar term, genocide, was ever coined”, Wikipedia says. Belgium has been accused of being too arrogant to apologize for killing millions of Congolese over a hundred years ago. Despite pressure from his own country’s people along with that of the international community who have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Philippe, the present King of Belgium, has hesitated to take any action other than offer excuses for the last few years. Other European countries with a history as colonial powers went much further. On May 27, 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron asked Rwandans to forgive France for its role in the 1994 genocide. On May 28, 2021, Germany apologized for its genocide against Herero and Nema tribal people in Namibia and offered to launch “projects over a billion euros” as compensation. Even those apologies did not inspire Philippe to admit Belgian atrocities in the Congo.
Anyway, the somber side of the practice of colonialism by Belgium have long and well known across the world. The Belgians live with the awareness that it’s part of their country’s history. As the Independent in 2017 stated, ‘Belgium’s genocidal colonial legacy haunts the country’s future’.
Very different is the case with regard to Russia. The accepted narrative in Russia is that Russians haven’t made to indigenous non-white people in Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East and Alaska anything wrong – on the contrary, the Russians have made to them nothing but good. Yet this apparently is not what it was really like. Here is what Casey Michel, an investigative journalist based in New York City, said in this regard: Russia’s campaigns of conquest and subjugation “were no less bloody for advancing overland, not overseas. Russia never had formal colonies in Africa, Latin America or South Asia. But the idea that the Kremlin avoided colonization projects altogether – that it dodged the ‘bloody crimes’ for which Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese empires were responsible – is as risible as it is ahistorical… Too many either don’t know or ignore that Russia was, and remains, a major colonial power. From the Caucasus to Crimea, from the Arctic to the Amur, from the Volga to the Pacific, Russia’s colonial campaigns conquered innumerable nations – decimating local cultures, bulldozing local sovereignty, and engaging in genocidal practices”.
His piece got a wide negative resonance in the Russian mainstream media because the appearance of such an article in the press having world-wide coverage had been one of those rare cases in which Russia is shown to the world in a way that most of its own non-European (non-Caucasian) minorities have long been accustomed to seeing it. This is a common practice among the Russian political, intellectual and media elites to rush fending off any attempts from outside to expose the falsity of the notion about Russia’s ‘imperial innocence’. So, there is nothing surprising in the fact that those words by Casey Michel, describing Russian imperialism and colonialism in a way that refutes Moscow’s rosy reading of them, have been broadly slammed by the Russian print and online outlets.
The Russians invariably want to see themselves as good and they have been and are doing all they can to prevent the appearance of any talk at the international level about them having done bad things in their history such as treating non-white indigenous people brutally and exterminating them on the outskirts of the empire. And they have been and are being quite good at it.
There is almost no documentary evidence in public domain about any evil atrocities by Russians toward indigenous non-white peoples in Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East like those they committed towards Chinese residents during the 1900 Amur anti-Chinese pogroms (the Blagoveshchensk massacre) and towards North-West America natives during the Russian colonization of Alaska (1763-1766 massacre of Unalaska natives on the order of Solov’ev; 1784 Refuge Rock massacre on the order of Grigorii Shelikhov; Atkan mother and infant beaten to death by Russian hunter in 1805; several Koniag tortured to death by Promyshlennik in 1805; etc). That should raise the question of why this is so. But it’s a separate issue. It may be said in a word, when addressing it, that it is not in the power of Moscow to control what is being said publicly about how badly the Russians treated Chinese and Alaska natives in tsarist times. But it’s quite another thing for the Russian side – to not allow spreading similar information concerning their treatment of indigenous peoples of not only Siberia and the Russian Far East, but also Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan up to the mid-1930s. In such a situation, the only option is to make assumptions about the latter based on a comparison to what the Russians then were doing to Chinese and Alaska natives.
The Russian attitude towards Yakuts, Buryats, Kazakhs and their likes were hardly better than their attitude towards Chinese and Alaska natives at those times. Here are some observations on how the Russians then treated the latter ones.
The following is what Nikolai Matveyev, a Russian journalist who lived in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century in the Russian Far East, said about white Russians’ attitude towards Chinese: “Mugging, robbing a Chinese in broad daylight, killing him was considered to be a trifling matter, something totally unrelated to the notion of sin, like slaughtering a sheep, and the very notion of responsibility for it seemed to be arrant nonsense. In the case of finding a corpse of a ‘Kitayeza’ (a Chink man) somewhere on the road, the ‘good people’ just dragged it aside by the legs and threw it into some [mine] pit, and nothing more than that. It would never occur to anyone to take the trouble of drawing up a protocol and pursuing an investigation on what had happened. No big deal…”
Lev Deutsch, another Russian journalist, Matveyev’s contemporary, noted that ‘in the eyes of our common people, the Chinese are not human beings, but ‘beasts’, ‘animals’.
Now as to what colonization by the Russians in Alaska was like. Here is what William L. Iggiagruk Hensley,a visiting distinguished professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage said in this regard in 2017: “As a descendant of Inupiaq Eskimos, I have been living and studying this history all my life… When Bering finally located Alaska in 1741, Alaska was home to about 100,000 people, including Inuit, Athabascan, Yupik, Unangan and Tlingit. There were 17,000 alone on the Aleutian Islands… By the time of the cession [in 1867], only 50,000 indigenous people were estimated to be left. On the Aleutian Islands alone, the Russians enslaved or killed thousands of Aleuts. Their population plummeted to 1,500 in the first 50 years of Russian occupation due to a combination of warfare, disease and enslavement… Today Alaska has a population of 740,000, of which 120,000 are Natives. As the United States celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Cession, we all – Alaskans, Natives and Americans of the lower 48 – should salute Secretary of State William H. Seward, the man who eventually brought democracy and the rule of law to Alaska”. According to him, Russians numbered no more than 800 at their peak in Alaska. In their 125 years as colonizers, the number of the indigenous population decreased by half. That was the result from the activity of the Russian colonizers whose number never reached even a thousand people in Alaska.
The Russian-Slavic colonizers who had come to the Kazakh steppes, Siberia and the Far East from the European part of the Russian empire in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, numbered millions. There still is no research evidence to show what was the impact of this on the social situation and demographics of the local indigenous populations. It remains to be content with statements that the history of Russia as a colonial power has not yet been written. As for N.Mikhalkov’s reproaches to the Europeans – that in colonial times, non-white people were ‘exhibited’ in the Belgian and other European human zoo for fun, they seem inappropriate, too, when they are coming from the mouth of the Russian filmmaker. Since the Russian ‘fun things’ with regard to, say, Kazakhs in the first third of the 20th century may seem – to judge by what Vsevolod Ivanov, a Russian Soviet writer, wrote in his works (in his short stories, titled ‘A Baby’ and ‘Loga’) – to have been a lot more cruel and inhumane.
In the first short story, ‘A Baby’, he told how the Red partisans had taken a Kazakh baby away from his mother and with special cruelty killed him. The second one, ‘Loga’, was about how a sated Russian guy tortured a hungry Kazakh man to death for fun.
In light of the above, it seems that such treatment with Kazakhs, just like in the case of Chinese in the Far East, was not considered something reprehensible for Russians up to the mid-1930s.