When Colonial and Soviet Mentalities Mesh: FEMEN in Paris

When people live under a colonial domination for centuries, they develop what is knows as “colonial mentality.”  Here is what it entails:

  • —Success, power, intelligence, culture are associated with foreigners. Everything domestic is seen as inferior
  • —Everything foreign (goods, products, education, culture, etc.) is more highly valued by default
  • —Racist and xenophobic attitudes become interiorized
  • The suffering of foreigners is experienced by the natives as more poignant and tragic than their own

Ukraine was a colony of Russia from 1665 to 1991. Since it achieved its de jure independence from the colonizer, Ukraine has been a de facto colony of Russia in terms of its economy and culture*. The colonizers engaged in a propaganda campaign that stretched across centuries and that aimed to convince Ukrainians that being Ukrainian made them inferior, low-cultured, stupid, and dirty by default.

This campaign continues today. It isn’t specifically organized by anybody, of course. It has simply become something that people do. Whenever a Ukrainian character appears on a Russian TV show or in a Russian movie, s/he is presented as a greedy, messy, coarse idiot. This is nothing new: colonizers have the habit of associating the colonized with dirt, disorder, inferior intelligence, and unbridled, almost animal-like sexuality. I hope I don’t need to explain  the reasons behind each of these tropes. Tragically, Ukrainians have absorbed this vision of themselves and it will now take forever to get rid of it.

In Ukraine, we have the grave misfortune of suffering not only of the colonial mentality but also of the Soviet mentality. The Soviet mentality is a worldview developed by the Soviet people in response to the social experiment that was conducted on them. This world-view is extremely cynical and posits that the acquisition of money and material goods is the only goal a human being should pursue. This goal is worth every sacrifice because the only thing that should cause you shame is not having money.

The Ukrainian pseudo-feminist group FEMEN is the perfect example of what happens when colonial and Soviet mentalities come together.

Recently, FEMEN moved to Paris to engage in their struggle against sexism there. If you are driven by a desire to defeat sexism, moving from Ukraine to Paris to fight it makes about as much sense as leaving Congo in order to battle the rape culture in Canada. Of course, the rape culture in Canada should be combated. But a supposedly feminist organization that leaves the suffering women of its own country to battle a much less severe situation in a much richer country is a shining example of colonial mentality.

Now FEMEN is joining the struggle against anti-gay bullies in Paris. Like any colonial subject, FEMEN is very good at identifying the needs of foreigners and exploiting those needs for financial gain. They are the perfect example of what is known in post-colonial studies as “mimicry“:

Colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say, that the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.

FEMEN is giving the richer and more powerful foreigners exactly what they want. FEMEN pretends to care about all of the issues that a good Westerner is supposed to care about: women’s rights, gay rights, tolerance. At the same time, it mimics in a way that preserves the Ukrainian difference and makes it look non-threatening, entertaining, and slightly pathetic.

If FEMEN cared even remotely for gay rights, the horrifying and tragic homophobia of its own country would provide enough work for the organization to exist for a very long time. Instead, FEMEN’s members create a cute little spectacle that the Westerners will enjoy. In the process, the image of Ukrainians as weird, somewhat ridiculous, and always ready for sexual consumption is reinforced. This is where the Soviet mentality comes into play. Making money is the only goal a human being should have, and no sacrifice is too big to achieve it.

* If you don’t know how neo-colonialism works and what I’m on about, see this article.

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11 comments on “When Colonial and Soviet Mentalities Mesh: FEMEN in Paris

  1. I’m always really interested in your views on the former Soviet Union and, in this case, its feminist correlations. I agree with you that Femen’s move to Paris was bizarre. Of all the places they could have gone to, they had to choose the city with perhaps the liveliest feminist scene I have ever encountered. We have so many active associations and communities here, who do amazing work and actually get things done. That is not to say we can’t use more supporters, but what is happening with Femen is that foreign press actually misattributes feminist successes here in Paris to Femen’s protests, when really what it took was tireless lobbying, promoting, gathering signatures etc. Kudos to them for taking the bullet for outing the homophobic bullies for what they truly are – I grant them that – but other than that I do not particularly care for what they do.

  2. Three completely off-topic, but hopefully* interesting links:

    This is scary.

    if this pans out, it could be pretty awesome.

    This is a Damn good question. Although I haven’t examined the methodology, I’m skeptical of the answer, if only because in my experience, the analysis behind many similar claims usually turns out to leave much to be desired.

    *Question for Clarissa: As a language tutor, do you consider this usage of “hopefully” acceptable?

    • “Question for Clarissa: As a language tutor, do you consider this usage of “hopefully” acceptable?”

      - It grates on me because I’m a frumpy boring person :-) but I use it this way too because I’m lazy.

    • I agree about the slaves widget. I thoroughly dislike this kind of widget because their only purpose is to titillate the jaded sensibilities of the 1st world people. Their educational value is nil because they offer no knowledge of the world.

      • Ah, linguists! Those folks whose job is to engage in navel-gazing and who despise teachers of language.

        I’m kidding, I’m kidding. My own father is a linguist. And a language teacher.

      • I’ve never heard of linguists despising foreign language teachers*. In the US many do despise the practice of some English teachers but that’s because a lot of what they are forced to teach is nonsense with no relation to the realities of English grammar.

        Generally, language education for English speaking children is among the worst in the world. The ‘traditional grammar’ model is dysfunctional but can’t be replaced for political reasons. This is one of the reasons anglophones have a bad reputation in learning foreign languages.

        By way of contrast, the models of grammar taught to L2 English learners is much, much better.

        *at least not more than they despise anyone else

  3. “Making money is the only goal a human being should have, and no sacrifice is too big to achieve it”

    Is that part of the Soviet mentality or the post-Soviet mentality (or a hybrid, part of what destroyed the Soviet Union and which guaranteed that the successor states would have lots of problems)?

    I’m curious, do you speak Ukrainian? The marginalization of the language was a big part of the colonial program (and one of the most successful).

    I tend to think of FEMEN roughly the same way I do about PETA. They manage to enunciate positions I agree with (to a point) but in a way that I absolutely cannot agree with.

    I remember their antics before Euro 2012 and wondering what was going on. I couldn’t imagine a reality in which a person could imagine they’d ever be able to advance a cause by acting that way (unless the cause was to make people confuse the categories ‘feminist’ and ‘attention whore’).

    • I never had anybody to speak Ukrainian to, unfortunately. I know the langauge, of course, but the knowledge has always been passive. My mother, who grew up speaking Ukrainian, came to interiorize the belief that speaking it made you inferior and low-cultured. So she learned Russian and almost never spoke Ukrainian at home.

      You are right, this was a highly successful strategy that did work. Many Ukrainians – especially in the Eastern part of the country – have repudiated their own culture and now resist any efforts by the government to see Ukrainian taught in schools.

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