The Russian “Civilizing Mission” and the Russian War against Ukraine: the 19th-Century Colonial Origins
By Elżbieta Kwiecińska
This article is based on a presentation the author delivered at the European Times Seminar (EUTIM) at the European University Viadrina in April 2023, in which she discussed her doctoral thesis on the colonial concept of the civilizing mission as a cultural transfer in East-Central Europe during the nineteenth century. In this article, her aim is to outline the nineteenth century colonial origins of the contemporary Russian justification of the war against Ukraine as a Russian “civilizing mission”.
The concept of the “civilizing mission”has been generally associated with justification of Western colonialism. In my dissertation, I show how the concept of the civilizing mission – once used in the colonial politics of Western empires – was transferred in various ways to another geographical area, namely to East-Central Europe, both as an intellectual idea and as a tool for legitimizing political power. The main premise of the civilizing mission lies in the conviction that improving the world depends on including as many non-Europeans as possible in the achievements of the “superior Western civilization”. In fact, the main purpose of those who impose their own civilizing mission on others has been often to justify political hegemony and territorial conquest.
The history of Russian civilizing missions to its western borderlands started with legitimizing a territorial conquest of the central and eastern parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As historian Andrii Portnov showed in his paper (in Polish) “How Russia got to know ‘its people’. Images of the lands ‘newly acquired’ as a result of the partitions of the Republic in social consciousness and policy of the authorities of the Russian Empire (late 18th – early 19th century)”, the concept of the Russian civilizing mission aimed at the legitimization of the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and did not result in any “civilizing” attempts. Mikhail Krechetnikov (1723-1793), a Governor-General of the newly conquered area (today Belarus, Lithuania, western Ukraine and parts of Poland) after the First Partition of the Commonwealth in 1772, published a manifesto in 1793, in which he justified the Second Partition (1793) as aimed at ‘keeping peace, silence and freedom in her [Russia’s] neighboring province’. Portnov considers Kretechnikov’s reasoning to be enlightened thinking of Orderliness and Chaos, which was part of the European discourse on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth back then. Kretchetnikov argued that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a chaotic state that lacked state-building capacity and needed the external “mission”. As I argue, Krechetnikov’s thinking (as described by Portnov) was deeply rooted in colonial divisions between a “civilized” metropole and a “barbarian” colony. The civilizing mission was to justify territorial conquest and power of the empire over its colony: Great Britain and France adopted the concept of the civilizing mission and applied it in India and Algeria, respectively. Following the same logic, Russia claimed to “civilize” its Western borderlands: Lithuania, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine. Russia’s justification for its territorial conquest of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the basis of allegedly prevailing chaos and anarchy resembles the rationale of the “failed state” in the twentieth century, that is, a state that supposedly fails to exercise power over its territory and to protect its citizens. The failed state concept, however, has been criticized by postcolonial scholars as a form of neocolonialism.
Deciding what is good or bad for the population that is to be “civilized” is essential to colonialism. Thus, people are objectified and paternalized as “lower culture”, it is claimed that they need to be ruled by a „civilized” ruler. Krechetnikov asserts that bringing “peace” to Poland, Ukraine and other East-Central European countries was for their own good. He supported Empress Catherine II, who was compassionate to the Eastern Christian Orthodox peoples because of their oppression under Polish rule and wanted to save them from a danger of godless rebels in the Kingdom of France, that is, ideas of liberty, equality and brotherhood the French Revolution brought up. Anti-modernist resentment persists also in today’s Russia. Kremlin propaganda underlines Russia’s mission to protect its Slavic peoples’ traditional values. Alleging that “the West” brings decadence is a recurring motif of Vladimir Putin’s speeches, who believes to be defending Russians against same-sex marriages or LGBTQ rights.
Portnov highlights the fact that Empress Catherine II and Krechetnikov did not legitimize the conquest of the eastern parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth by common ethnic or national ties between Russians and other people living there. In a secret letter to Krechetnikov, Catherine II mentioned only historical and religious arguments as ‘those lands have long belonged to Russia, cities were founded by Ruthenian princes and peoples have common origins with the Russians and are of one faith with us’. According to Portnov, the Empress’ s reasoning was only a tactical tool that legitimized her politics. Portnov notes an advice she gave to the Austrian ambassador in 1770: ‘Dig in your archives and you’ll find an excuse to seize something else in Poland besides what you’ve already occupied’. Portnov also describes a story of Eastern Orthodox hegumen Teodozy Lenartowicz from Vilnius who encouraged Petersburg authorities to defend the rights of Orthodox believers with one of the reasons he mentioned being the fertile grounds that the Orthodox believers inhabited: ‘Our Russian state will be able to take 600 versts of the best and very fertile land with countless Orthodox people from the world rightly and fairly from Poles’.
It was not until the 1860s that the Russian civilizing mission merged with modern Russian imperial nationalism and assimilatory politics of Russification in Russian-ruled Poland and Ukraine. In addition to this, Russian ideologues adopted vocabulary of Western colonialism. Its main ideologue was Mikhail Katkov (1818-1887), an influential journalist and editor-in-chief of The Moscow News (Moskovskie Vedomosti). As historian Henryk Głębocki noted, Katkov was impressed by the “German civilizing mission” that justified oppression against Catholic Poles in Eastern Prussia. In defining forced assimilatory politics, Katkov highlighted the importance of Russian literature and language for establishing common “Russian civilization” among all Slavs, again, without asking whether non-russian Slavs wanted to be part of that. In his Note to the editor of the Kolokol , Katkov maintained that ‘the Russian cause is the cause of civilization and mankind, that at the same time we remain within the limits of common sense on earth’. He underlined that the real progress in Russia is possible only on the basis of Russian nationhood and statehood. In other words, only the Russian state and nationhood can provide “civilization”, so other minor cultures of the Russian Empire,like the Polish or Ukrainian one, should be excluded and persecuted as “separatist”, as Katkov called his opponents.
Katkov’s work got republished in 2009 in the series The Russian Civilization under the name The Ideology of the Guard (“Идеология Охранительства”). His nineteenth century articles were restructured into new chapters. The nineteenth century concepts were given new life in Putin’s neocolonial Russia.
A similar logic has been used by Alexander Dugin, the main ideologue of the Kremlin regime. In his text Foundations of Geopolitics (“Основы геополитики”) from 1997, Dugin already declared the future civilizing mission of the Russian people to the whole region of Eurasia with the center in Russia:
The Russian people, unlike many other peoples, has developed as the bearer of a special civilization that has all the distinctive features of an original and full-fledged planetary historical phenomenon. The Russian people is that civilizational constant that served as the axis in the creation of not one, but many states: from the mosaic of East Slavic principalities to Moscow Rus’, the Petrine Empire and the Soviet bloc. (…) Eurasia is predetermined geographical and strategic association. This is a strictly scientific geopolitical fact. Russia must inevitably be at the center of such an association. The driving force of the unification must inevitably be the Russian people. The civilizational mission of the Russians, their universalist ideal, and the logic of the historical formation of the nation and state are in complete harmony with this mission.
Dugin illustrated his view on “geopolitics” with a map where East-Central Europe is shown as a playground between the big powers in Moscow and Berlin.
Similarly, in the publicly called “historical article” by Vladimir Putin On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, the countries between Moscow and Berlin were treated unanimously as an object of trade between Russia and the West. Although Putin claimed “unity” of Russians and Ukrainians, he deprives the latter of any historical agency. Putin considers modern Ukraine entirely as a “product of the Soviet era” whose sovereignty is only possible under the protectorate of Russia. Those who claim different views are excluded as “separatists” (the same as Katkov), “junta” and “neo-Nazis”. Putin as a self-acclaimed historian believes that “there was no historical basis” for Ukrainian separateness from Russians.
Interestingly, Putin considers the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as well. He repeats Empress Catherine II’s reasoning with some modifications. They both underline that the eastern borderlands of the Commonwealth were “the western Russian lands” that share “common faith” and “cultural traditions” with Russia and are opposed to Polish oppression. However, in contrast to Empress Catherine II, Putin anachronistically underlines the language similarity between Russians and Ukrainians at the end of the eighteenth century. Back then, as I have shown above, Catherine II and Governor-General Kretchetnikov used an argument of religious unity under Christian Orthodox Church to legitimize territorial conquest of Ukraine. At the time of Catherine II, linguistic and cultural similarities were not an issue. What defined one’s place in a society was first of all social estate (gentry, peasantry, clergy) and religion. It happened only later in the 1860s that Katkov raised linguistic issues and advocated for discriminatory politics against Ukrainian language and literature what aimed at their assimilation to Russian imperial culture.
Finally, when Putin repeats the arguments for the supposed unity between Russians and Ukrainians at the end of his text, he puts the civilizational argument first, emphasizing that ‘our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources’. By the ‘origins in the same sources’ he means the Kyivan Rus’, a medieval state. The common ‘spiritual, human and civilization ties’ is a reference to a Russian imperial idea of the “Russian world” (“Russkiy mir”) that encompasses all Russian speaking people. In fact, the “Russkiy mir” and ideological roots of the Russian war against Ukraine do not go back to Kyivan Rus’, but to late eighteenth-century Russian Empress Catherine II, her Governor-General Mikhail Katkov and nineteenth-century imperial nationalist writer Mykhail Katkov, who all manipulated the argument of Russian-Ukrainian unity for purposes of imperial politics. As in the past, the Ukrainian objects of this “unity” were not asked permission on whether they wanted to share “the civilizational ties” with Russia, which are now being forced on them by tanks and missiles.
Dugin, Alexandr, Osnovy geopolityki, (Moscow: Arctogeia, 1997)
Głębocki, Henryk, Kresy imperium. Szkice i materiały do dziejów polityki Rosji wobec jej peryferii, (XVIII – XXI wiek) (Kraków: Arcana, 2003)
Hill, Jonat, “Beyond the Other? A postcolonial critique of the failed state thesis,” African Identities, 2005, 3:2, 139-15
Katkov Mikhail, ”Zametka dlia izdatelia «Kolokola»”, first published: Russkiy vestnik, 1862, v. 39, № 6, pp. 834–852.
Katkov Mikhail, Ideologia Okhranitelstva, (Moskva: Instytut Russkoy Tsivilizatsi, 2009)
Katkov, Mikhail, ”Manifest general-anshefa Krechetnikova o prisoyedinyenii zemel’ k Rossii po vtoromu razdelu Rechi Pospolitoy,” 27 marta 1793, In Polnoye cobranye zakonov Rossiyskoy imperii s 1649 goda, v. 23 (Sankt-Peterburg, 1830), p. 410.
Orford, Anne, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
Putin Vladimir ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” July 12, 2021 http://en.kremlin.ru/catalog/countries/UA/events/66181
“Russia: Putin’s Kremlin targets LGBT in new crackdown,” 23.01.2023, BBC , https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64345693
Singer, Barnett and John Langdon, Cultured Force: Makers and Defenders of the French Colonial Empire (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).
Watt, Carey and Michael Mann, Civilizing Missions in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia: From Improvement to Development (Anthem Press: London-Delhi, 2011) doi:10.7135/UPO9780857288301
 Portnov, Andrii, „Jak Rosja poznawała „swoich”. Obrazy ziem „nowo nabytych” wskutek rozbiorów Rzeczypospolitej w świadomości społecznej i polityce władz Cesarstwa Rosyjskiego (koniec XVIII – początek XIX wieku)”, In O ziemię naszą, nie waszą. Ideowe aspekty procesów narodowotwórczych w Europie Środkowej i Wschodniej (Centrum Polsko-Rosyjskiego Dialogu i Porozumienia: Warszawa, 2017)
 Krechetnikov, Mikhail, 1793.
 Krechetnikov, Mikhail, 1793.
 Krechetnikov, Mikhail, 1793.
 See: Watt and Mann, 2011; Singer and Langdon, 2004.
 According to the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, in 2022 the failed states were: Afghanistan, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Haiti, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen. So far, Ukraine was not mentioned there despite its problems with corruption Bertelsmann Transformation Index: Governance (2022) https://bti-project.org/en/reports/global-dashboard?&d=G&cb=00000 The civilizing mission as a colonial concept was also used further to justify military “humanitarian interventions”. It is currently forbidden by international law to claim territory over humanitarian reasons. In the past that was, for example, the United States Occupation of Haiti.
 See, for example: Hill, 2005;
 BBC, 2023.
 Portnov, 2017, 156-157.
 Portnov, 157.
 around 640 km, 1 Russian verst=1,0668 km
 Portnov, 2017, 158-159.
 Głębocki, 2006, 281.
 Katkov, 2009, 170
 “в наших понятиях русское дело есть дело цивилизации и человечества, что мы в то же время остаемся в пределах здравого смысла и на земле ” Katkov, 2009, 361.
 („истинный прогресс в России возможен только на основании русской народности, что русское государство может сохранить свою силу и приобрести желаемое благоустройство только в качестве русского государства, что политика русского правительства может не иначе вести ко благу, не иначе удовлетворять своему назначнию, как принимая все более и более национальный характер.” Katkov, 2009, 361
 Katkov, 2009.
 Dugin, 1997, 189.
 Putin, 2021.
 Putin, 2021.
 Putin, 2021.
About the author
Dr. Elżbieta Kwiecińska is currently a lecturer at the Faculty of History, University of Warsaw. She defended her PhD thesis on the concept of the civilizing mission as a cultural transfer in East-Central Europe in the nineteenth century at the European University Institute, Florence. In April 2023, she was a EUTIM Fellow at the European University Viadrina.
Citation: Elżbieta Kwiecińska, The Russian “Civilizing Mission” and the Russian War against Ukraine: the 19th-Century Colonial Origins, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.10.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49058