Decolonizing Family Metaphors in the Context of the Russian-Ukrainian War and Beyond

By Illia Ilin

The recent history of Ukraine can be metaphorically described as a journey to break away from the abusive “triune Russian people” family and reconnect with the democratic “European peoples” family. This long process of decolonization has been ongoing for over 30 years and signifies the reclamation of Ukrainian territories, history, and identity by the Ukrainian people. However, decolonization itself is not merely a metaphor; it entails a profound transformation of social and environmental relations. Furthermore, the very concept of Ukraine’s decolonization requires re-examination within the context of joining a new “family,” given the orphaned and impoverished nation due to its colonial past—a past not fully overcome even in modern unified Europe. This article will explore the family metaphors of (de)colonization of Russia and unified Europe in relation to Ukraine, and the potential for their expansion and decolonization.

Russian neo-colonial ideology frames the relationship between Russia and Ukraine through the metaphor of “brotherly peoples,” imposing the obligation on Ukrainians to respect the so-called “shared history” with the Russian people, their interests, and to not distance themselves from Russians (A’Beckett, 2012; Khaldarova, 2021; Ilin and Nihmatova, 2023). Consequently, the Russian-Ukrainian war is not referred to in Russia as a war, but rather as a “civil war” between “brotherly peoples,” or more precisely, a “special military operation” aimed at bringing “brotherly” Ukraine in line with the interests and desires of “brother” Russia. This is a form of “punishment” for “unbrotherly behavior,” including Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West. In this context, the metaphor of “brotherly peoples” perpetuates Russia’s colonial narrative, which views Ukraine as an integral part of Russia with significant demographic and economic resources, conquered and exploited for ages. The war waged by Russia against Ukraine since 2014 is thus seen as a colonial war (Boryczko, Nowicki, and Ciriano, 2023, p. 122).

It is crucial to note that familial metaphors in international relations often serve as discursive tools to justify the necessity of colonization, to exhibit condescension towards other nations, and to legitimize the need for their “disciplining,” “civilizing,” and “paternal caring” by imperialist countries (Bocking-Welch, 2018, Chapter Three; Buettner, 2016, pp. 175-176; Jansen, 2015, pp. 149-150; Emberley, 2007, p. xvi; Temin, 2023, Chapter Two). Vrushali Patil (2008) even coined the term “kinship politics” to describe the colonial discourse and policy of hierarchical relationships between nations and countries based on defining these relationships as akin to those within a patriarchal family (pp. 17-21). Such metaphors enable the affective mobilization of the populace in imperialist countries, making acts of aggression by their nation perceived as morally justified and even necessary for restoring peace within the “family.”

However, within the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Ukraine’s European allies also use a familial metaphor to describe the inevitable completion of Ukraine’s integration into the “family of European nations.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that “Ukraine belongs in the European family” (Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, 2022). EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell modified this phrase slightly, saying that Ukraine “belongs to our European family” (VOA News, 2023; italics mine – I.I.). The European Council (2023) provided the full context of this metaphor: “All Ukrainians deserve to live in peace and choose freely their own destiny. Ukraine is part of our European family. Ukrainians have expressed their wish for a future within the European Union and we have acknowledged that by granting Ukraine the status of candidate country. The choice of the people of Ukraine is one of peace, democracy, rule of law, respect for fundamental rights, and prosperity.” Thus, it is evident that Ukraine is considered part of the “European family” by its own voluntary request and conditional acceptance by the “European family” (granting candidate status for EU membership), as well as the recognition of shared values and principles of coexistence. Consequently, while Russia’s colonial familial metaphor implies the destruction of Ukraine’s people, infrastructure, and environment, as well as the annexation of its territories, the EU’s decolonial familial metaphor suggests the need for Ukraine’s transformation and alignment with European standards and values.

Garry Knight. Photos taken at the London protests against war in Ukraine. Flickr. CC0 1.0 DEED

Decolonization of Ukraine is not merely a metaphor, even though it is often expressed through familial metaphors. It involves a reversal of the colonization process: reclaiming territories, rebuilding infrastructure, and ending deprivation and hardship in all aspects of life, not just adapting to new standards of living and coexistence (see Ntombela, 2020, p. 82; Park, 2023, p. 406; Kothari et al., 2024, p. 242). However, the decolonization process can be hindered by the persistence of colonial practices even in postcolonial contexts. Masturah Alatas (2022) discusses the concept of a “captive mind,” characterized by “mental bondage or dependency after political imperialism” (p. 39), which is very relevant to our topic. Ukrainians, despite their desire to be part of the “European family,” risk perpetuating the norms of abusive, Russian “brotherly relations” by ruthlessly exploiting human and non-human (environmental) resources, increasing inequality, pursuing a forced monocultural, monolingual, monoethnic, monogender transformation of their society, and potentially becoming an authoritarian state. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warns Ukraine of this danger: “Winning on the battlefield will prevent Ukraine from becoming part of Russia; winning the war against corruption will keep Ukraine from becoming like Russia. [It is] important that Ukraine keeps taking the difficult steps to strengthen and consolidate your democracy” (Atwood, Forrest, & Picheta, 2024). Not becoming like Russia means avoiding actions that Russia takes against Ukraine and Ukrainians. This includes rejecting monologic, far-right, nationalist solutions to societal problems in favor of dialogue, and avoiding further “colonization” of their own citizens and the non-human life forms within Ukraine. It means listening to and protecting their interests. This idea resonates with Katharina Monz’s concept of “decolonizing decolonization,” discussed in the context of postcolonial monolingualism and multilingualism in Mali: decolonizing the language issue does not mean reproducing monolingualism, as it was and remains a tool of colonial power that divided people by language and marginalized or eradicated indigenous languages. Russia has sought to assimilate Ukrainians through the Russian language. Therefore, decolonizing Ukraine cannot involve assimilating Russian-speaking Ukrainians and those speaking other languages, including in temporarily occupied territories like Luhansk, Donetsk, Crimea, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia, into one Ukrainian language, as this contradicts the Constitution of Ukraine and democratic norms, as stated by the Venice Commission (European Commission for Democracy through Law, 2019). Thus, when discussing the metaphorical reconnection of Ukraine to the “European family,” it is crucial to understand this process in a broader context. This raises the question: Are Ukrainians ready to transition to a new “family” without bringing their old, colonial habits, potentially increasing the popularity of far-right, xenophobic movements in Europe?

At the same time, it is necessary to expand and decolonize the very metaphor of the “European family.” According to Bruno Latour (2022), the history of Europe is one of colonialism, characterized by the brutal extraction of resources from other countries. Therefore, Europe’s territory effectively extends into the lands of other states, resulting in devastating consequences for the soil and the people of these countries. Let us note that the transformation of Ukraine into the “breadbasket of Europe,” as well as the industrialization of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions (the so-called Donbas) during Russian colonialism, along with maintaining this status in independent Ukraine, has led to soil degradation, desertification, and deforestation of significant areas of the country. Ukraine has continued its neo-colonial status as a source of cheap agricultural raw materials for the global market, including Europe (Lyalko et al., 2023; Moldavan, 2023; Koliadenko, 2020). In this context, Latour argues that Europe’s fight against Russian ecological and territorial colonialism is partial and inconsistent: saving Ukrainians is considered important, but helping India and Pakistan, former colonies suffering greatly from high temperatures due to climate change—partly caused by European colonialism—is not a priority. Helping Ukrainians in the war is necessary, but the Russian-Ukrainian war is not regarded as a European war. Sanctions against Russian oil and gas are imposed, but many loopholes for profitable interaction with the aggressor remain. Latour believes that Europe does not fully acknowledge the connection between the ecological and territorial, as it continues to separate these two spheres, remaining out of harmony with its colonial past. He sees contemporary ecological-territorial crises and wars as an opportunity for Europe to finally recognize the interaction between soil and territory, taking responsibility for those from whom it extracted resources, conducted territorial wars, and destroyed the environment. It is noteworthy that a small number of white men from developed Western countries in the Global North continue to dominate the global economy, appropriating the wealth and resources of billions of people, a fact confirming the unresolved legacy of Western colonialism (Oxfam International, 2021; Oxfam International, 2023). In our opinion, the “European family” has long extended into Ukraine, at least because it uses cheap raw materials from Ukraine (including organic agricultural products) and benefits from migrant workers who provide cheap labor for European countries (Vakhitova and Fihel, 2020; Polkowska and Filipek, 2020). Thus, Ukrainians and Ukrainian land not only can but should be included in the “European family” due to the “European family’s” dependence on Ukraine and Ukrainians. Successful decolonization of Ukraine implies the decolonization of Europe, which means incorporating other countries, previously colonies or currently used as sources of cheap resources, into its social and ecological project, as is the case with Ukraine.

Garry Knight. Photos taken at the London protests against war in Ukraine. Flickr. CC0 1.0 DEED

In this context, the metaphor of the “European family” itself needs expansion, extending beyond Europe, because Europe has long existed beyond its geographic boundaries. Successful decolonization of Ukraine is impossible without a broad emancipatory movement. The concept of “family” must be broadened beyond not only a Eurocentric but also an anthropocentric perspective. Family can then signify kinship, an inherent connection between all forms of life. In this view, decolonization means ending deprivation not only imposed by colonizers on people but also on non-human actors, which have been treated as objects of exploitation and considered inferior. Decolonization implies that liberation from colonization in minds, hearts, and practices is intertwined with decolonial ecology, an understanding of the link between the current ecological crisis and other crises, including the Russian-Ukrainian war (Ferdinand, 2021, pp. 13-14). Ukraine’s integration into the “European family” should occur within the framework of a global decolonization process addressing worldwide ecological-political crises. This means forming a global “family” free from all forms of colonial deprivation.

But how can we decolonize the metaphors of “brotherly peoples” and “European family”? To achieve this, it is necessary to overcome the foundations of all forms of colonization, which bring deprivation of growth and prosperity opportunities for both human and non-human life on Earth. Walter D. Mignolo (2011) writes that decolonial cosmopolitanism is only possible “if the reign of economic capitalism ends” (Chapter Seven). It is precisely the relations of private property under capitalism that lead to social and ecological degradation, as they turn any form of life and matter into a commodity, thereby seeking to reduce production costs through intensified exploitation, the search for cheap labor, and the ruthless appropriation of the Earth’s “free” natural resources (Temin, 2023, Chapter Four; Meghji, 2023, Chapter 3; Maringe, 2023, p. 8; Rākete, 2023, p. 144). This is why true decolonization entails “a post-globalist, post-neoliberal, and post-capitalist pluriversal future” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2020, p. 33). This involves a collective, dialogic coexistence of multiple identities interested in mutual coexistence based on the recognition of their interdependence, the necessity of sustainable treatment of non-human life forms, and a non-utilitarian approach to people. It means creating a planetary “family” through the efforts of global and local social movements of the oppressed and their representatives (the working class, indigenous peoples, feminist movement, environmental movement, etc.). The Russian-Ukrainian war can act as a catalyst for a just, sustainable, post-capitalist decolonization process, as it exposes the failure of the neo-colonial Russian project and, at the same time, the limitations of Ukrainian decolonization within the framework of European integration.

Thus, the decolonization of Ukraine is situated, figuratively speaking, between two geopolitical metaphors – the Russian neo-colonial metaphor of “brotherly peoples” and the European partially decolonized metaphor of the “European family.” A complete departure from the military, political, and mental space of the “brotherly peoples” metaphor implies the cessation of colonizing practices in Ukraine concerning its own population and nature. However, entering the space of the “European family” metaphor also implies further decolonization of the colonial legacy of united Europe, which is evident in its treatment of Ukraine and other former colonies around the world. Nevertheless, even this decolonization proves insufficient, as the metaphor of the “family” must be expanded to encompass all forms of life, including non-human, and to overcome the capitalist horizon of contemporary human civilization on the path to recognizing the multiplicity of oppressed human and non-human actors (the very 99% of Earth!) and the need for their solidarity to form the conditions of planetary coexistence.


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About the Author

Illia Ilin is a multifaceted academic, holding a PhD and serving as an Assistant Professor at V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University, specifically within the Philosophical Faculty. With a diverse range of interests, his primary focus lies at the intersection of Marxism, corpus linguistics, and social philosophy. Through his career, he has honed a unique approach, utilizing corpus-based methods to analyze philosophical texts and communication within social movements. Ilin’s research delves into the intricacies of reading, drawing from the critical perspectives of figures like Karl Marx and Louis Althusser, while also exploring post-critical theories advocated by thinkers such as Bruno Latour.

Citation: Illia Ilin, Decolonizing Family Metaphors in the Context of the Russian-Ukrainian War and Beyond, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.06.2024,

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