War in Ukraine: European imperialism?

Imported violence, brutal annexation, imposition of the language of the winner, but also desertion of enlisted soldiers: can we compare Russian aggression in Ukraine to the colonization policy led by Westerners in XIXe century?

Tramor Quemeneurlecturer at the universities of Paris 8 and Cergy, is a member of the Memoirs and Truth commission set up following the Stora report. He is also a member of the Orientation Council of the Palais de la Porte Dore National Museum of the History of Immigration (MNHI). He has written around ten works, the last of which is Living in Algeria XIXe At XXe century (New World, 2022). His thesis, carried out under the direction of Benjamin Stora and defended in 2007, is entitled A war without “no”? Insubordination, desertions and refusal to obey during the Algerian War (1954-1962).

The Life of Ideas: As a researcher and historian of the colonial fact, how would you define the war in Ukraine?

Tramor Quemeneur: Russian imperialism is fundamentally different from its Western counterpart on one point. As much as Western countries have planned all over the world to colonize territories, essentially XVIe At XIXe century, as much as Russian imperialism has always functioned by adding neighboring territories, as if in oil stain. This is how Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, the countries of the Caucasus, and even Afghanistan were under Russian supervision or almost were.

Once the territory comes under Moscow's control, an intense policy of Russification begins. Thus, the Russian language is imposed, school textbooks modified (as is already happening in the Ukrainian provinces recently attached to Russia). In this sense, it is indeed a colonization policy comparable to that which Westerners have carried out.

Let us think of the Algerian case: XIXe century, existing educational structures have been abused, leading to more than 90% of the Algerian population was illiterate when the war of independence broke out in 1954. After restricting the possibilities of traditional education in Koranic schools, the Third Republic did not put in place the educational structures necessary to educate all children, hence these statistics dramatic.

The Russians practice similar and even more authoritarian policies. In Ukraine, in 1876, they banned books in the Ukrainian language. In Poland, they banned teaching in Polish in 1885.

The Life of Ideas: During the colonial wars of XIXe and XXe century, how does mobilization take place in European arms?

Tramor Quemeneur:: In France, in XIXe century, the universal system of conscription has not yet been put in place, and recruitment is done among the poorest sections of the population who, moreover, do not really have a choice. Criminal offenders are also enlisted. This is particularly the case in the Bat d’Af, the African battalions, officially called the light infantry battalions of Africa (BILA). In these units were the most recalcitrant soldiers who were sent to the pipe breaker, but who were also the most resistant to authority. It is no coincidence that, during the Algerian War of Independence, it was in these units that deserters were among the most numerous.

Concerning XXe century, we must mention the forceful mobilization of colonial soldiers for the two world conflicts. While conscription has just been imposed in Algeria and general mobilization begins, movements of disobedience exist. For example, in the region of Tlemcen, in western Algeria, even before the First World War, some Algerians preferred to go into exile rather than perform their military service. In Algeria and Morocco, forced recruitment led to revolts, notably in the Aurs in 1916. For the Second World War, the mobilization of soldiers from the colonial empire was essentially the same as for the Great War.

The Life of Ideas: How did European powers ensure that soldiers obeyed well??

Tramor Quemeneur: Isolation from the original environment is an essential component to guarantee discipline. But the framework also plays a role. Previously, the fate reserved for the disobedient could not have been more summary: the death sentence, with or without a trial. Desertion was synonymous with cowardice. This concept was still in force during the First World War. This is the reason why the shot for example were so numerous during the first two years of the conflict.

The only American soldier executed during World War II, a man named Slovik, was condemned for his cowardice in front of the enemy. He had been brought out of oblivion, notably by Modern times during the Algerian War. Gradually, over the course of XXe century, desertion became politicized: it came closer to the notion of betrayal. But, here too, it takes on a character of particular gravity. Betraying the group means moving forward in disguise while working for the success of the enemy.

These two notions of cowardice and betrayal coexist in current Russia. For a long time, Vladimir Putin has held virilist values, considering on the contrary that Western democracies are decadent, and he has justified his special operation in Ukraine by the fight against an imaginary Nazi enemy. All this explains why Russian deserters are promised a dire fate if they are caught.

The Life of Ideas: During the Algerian War, were there desertions in the French army??

Tramor Quemeneur: Yes. I counted 900 within Algerian territory, which is few. But we also have to take into account the desertions that took place before leaving for Algeria. However, these, probably more numerous, are not precisely quantifiable at the moment. Finally, we must also take into account other forms of disobedience, namely conscientious objection (that is to say the refusal to bear arms) and especially insubordination, which is the failure to respond to the call to take up arms.

In all, there were 12,000 disobediences, perhaps 15,000. This is small compared to the number of soldiers sent to Algeria (1% approximately). Nevertheless, there were significant protest movements within the army during the years 1955-1956, at the time of the massive call-up to the flags. A bit like the mobilization in Russia currently.

The second moment of protest took place a few years later, in 1960, when clandestine movements of disobedience were organized, with the support of intellectuals. It's the manifesto of the 121, signed in particular by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Signoret, Marguerite Duras, Andr Breton, etc. This manifesto constituted a thunderclap in the political and intellectual landscape, by legitimizing the right to disobedience in the Algerian war for young French people.

The situation is different in present-day Russia, in that critical intellectuals have already been censored and repressed, and others are an integral part of the regime, organic intellectuals according to Antonio Gramsci's term. Nonetheless, there are fault lines in the regime that could allow for such calls for disobedience from within the regime, or even from without. This is what happened with the colonial wars led by Portugal during the 1960s, with numerous disobediences.

Note that the Ukrainians carry out propaganda via the Internet aimed at Russian soldiers which seems effective. During the Algerian War, propaganda through leaflets from the FLN destination for legionnaires had also borne fruit, with the establishment of repatriation channels to the legionnaires' countries of origin (in particular Germany).