In 2006, Esther Cooper Jackson, the renowned Black civil rights activist, social worker, and leftist thinker, underlined at a community event in Harlem that, “more and more of us need to become internationalist” by getting involved in struggles worldwide and making ties with oppressed people.[i] As a queer feminist activist from Belarus, I reflect on Cooper Jackson’s statement and feel the urgency of her message for transnational anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist feminist organizing and solidarity today. How might feminists draw upon the histories of Black feminist internationalism to both understand and respond to Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine? Indeed, the war against Ukraine raises important questions of transnational solidarity against imperial warfare. However, the east/west Cold War binary lives on and influences the perception of the political situation in Eastern Europe. This logic erases histories of global solidarity against capitalism, imperialism, and racism and precludes a complex understanding of the war, the positionality of Eastern Europe, and thus the routes of possible solidarity. Transnational and postcolonial feminists have long critiqued the “three-worlds” metageography which separates the globe between a first, second, and third worlds, emphasizing in particular the operations of western imperialisms and the unequal power relations between the so-called separate worlds. Yet, as many scholars and activists emphasize, it is often unclear how to situate Eastern Europe and Eurasia within this critical inquiry. Black internationalist women’s engagements with and care about the former second world while forging interconnections against racial capitalism between communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are inspirational in how feminists may address multiple imperialisms and connect across differences and distant geographies.
In the absence of a critical interrogation of multiple imperialist formations and racial logics that operate in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, the former second world is seen by the west as a homogenous semi-alterity desperately trying to join the first world. Within this context, it is not surprising that the western media calls for empathy and support for Ukraine on the grounds of its proximity to Europe and the “civilized world.” Likewise, the clinging to an east/west binary pushes many in Eastern Europe to follow the narrative of a “return to Europe” that foregrounds the precarity of some communities but erases the capitalist oppression and racialization of others. Understandably, many transnational and postcolonial feminists express concerns about the special media attention given to the war in Ukraine because it reveals an imbalance of coverage and solidarity expressed to the people in Ukraine and communities in the Middle East and Africa long struggling against Euro-American and Russian military aggression. For sure, western media representations are illustrative of how racial and colonial logics determine why help and support may be offered, to what extent, and to whom. Within this context, western aid to Ukraine, while vital and instrumental in many ways, still allows the west to maintain its status as the source of democracy and freedom, allowing only certain subjects to join this “freedom archipelago.” However, the hypervisibility of the war against Ukraine does not signify a genuine engagement with the root causes of the war. Instead, it appears that this hypervisibility may obscure the operations of imperialist geopolitics by expressing “deep concerns” and enacting some sanctions but leaving many racist, exploitative, and colonial politics (that maintain smooth operations of global capitalist relations) intact and unaddressed. For instance, opening the borders for Ukrainian refugees does not challenge the violent migration policies that keep European borders closed to refugees from the global south. Fleeing the war, many people of color, including citizens of Ukraine, experience racial discrimination and profiling in Europe.
Furthermore, the sudden hatred in Europe towards citizens of Belarus for the state’s support of Russia simplifies the context of the authoritarian regime in Belarus and obscures the long years of Russian and western maintenance and contribution to this regime. Stuck between two empires, the people in Belarus have tried to attract attention to state violence for many years. Nowadays, some western universities are putting a hold on relations with Belarusians, refusing to support scholars and students, even those fleeing authoritarianism. Many Belarusians who migrated to Ukraine trying to escape persecutions and violence in Belarus now must flee the war in Ukraine. Yet, they are not provided the necessary legal status to stay in the EU. This emerging trend neglects how the west, with its “deep concerns,” for years kept its business as usual with Belarus, thus contributing to the militarization of the Belarusian authoritarian regime. The lack of real engagement with anti-authoritarian activism severely weakened Belarusian political dissent. The absence of concern for activism in Belarus is coupled with a deficient understanding of Russian imperialism and neglect of its positionality within the global capitalist relations past and present. The urgent critique of Russian imperialism is often detached from the explorations of how this imperialism is situated within global capitalist relations and entangled with western imperialisms. This negligence allows the west to construct itself as a beacon of freedom hiding its own atrocities and the violent operations of liberal capitalism. However, even some radical thinkers and activists in the west, while trying to overcome this binary thinking and to point out the hypocrisy of western imperialism, still refuse to recognize Russian imperialism and its colonial legacies towards diverse communities that inhabit Eastern Europe and Eurasia. That said, I do not mean that questions of accountability and responsibility for racism and colonial mindsets should not be discussed in the context of Ukraine, Belarus, and Eastern Europe itself. I suggest that these questions require a feminist internationalist approach unhinged from the east/west binary and attuned to anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist commitments.
While rightfully critiquing the conscripts into whiteness in Eastern Europe, many at the same time neglect how Eastern Europe itself became a space under the pressure of diverse entangled imperialisms. As such, the war against Ukraine is not a conflict between equal entities, but imperial warfare. A critique of multiple imperialist formations – Russian and western simultaneously – looks like an impossible task at times. However, their entangled interrelations maintain colonial relations, justify occupied territories, sustain capitalist growth, and denigrate racialized communities. Specifically, post-Cold War binary logic aids the spread of exploitative global capitalism and bolsters Euro-American and Russian military interventions made possible by the resurgence of far-right political movements as well as state surveillance and police violence against racialized people in the US, Europe, and Russia. The west, preoccupied with the “backward” violence of former state-socialist spaces, simultaneously builds a prison-industrial complex and border protections to stop and punish people coming from the global south and territories colonized by Russia (e.g., Chechnya). Russia maintains its borders by erasing its colonial histories and suppressing numerous peoples and indigenous communities that inhabit its territory. Imperial geopolitics support not only capitalist extraction of resources but also bolsters people from Central Asia to migrate to imperial centers in Russia to fill a niche for cheap and precarious labor. Within this context, the war against Ukraine is a tangible outcome of the imperialist clash. Russia’s imperial aggression collides with the alleged impossibility of the west (once again) to come up with viable anti-war solutions due to its own imperial geopolitics and capitalist interrelations. While Russia aims to (re)establish itself vis-à-vis the west and extend its physical, economic, and symbolic borders, western officials also search for such solutions that will maintain a façade of democracy and freedom that preserves their imperial geopolitics and economic interests in Latin America, Africa, Middle East, and Asia.
Many feminist scholars and activists in the region (Eastern Europe and Eurasia) raise concerns about a western gaze that inhibits local knowledges and visions of freedom. However, often, this important critique sidelines direct confrontation with Russian imperialism, including military assaults in North Caucasus and Syria, to name a few. Postsocialist feminist engagement with postcolonial and decolonial scholarship has attempted to generate alternative anti-capitalist theories of empire attuned to the operations of Russia but also other imperial formations operating in the region. These interventions remain peripheral in both mainstream feminist inquiries in Eastern Europe and Russia and transnational feminist studies in the U.S. and Europe and are only partially recognized in the specialized “areas studies” field.
This uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.
We can also learn from internationalist women of the past whose anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist activism geared toward collective survival, transformative imagination, and political solidarity between distant communities delinked from imperial and Eurocentric modes of thinking. Such Black internationalist women as Eslanda Goode Robeson, Claudia Jones, Thyra Edwards, and Louise Thompson Patterson facilitated connections between diverse peoples in the Soviet Union and the global south in a joint struggle against the entangled operations of imperialism and racial capitalism. While foregrounding the uniqueness of U.S. anti-Black racism and capitalist exploitation of Black women in their activist and intellectual work, these Black women also participated in transnational conversations about the global operations of power. Committed to anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist struggles, they criticized Ethiopian war and supported the struggle of the Ethiopian people against fascism and Mussolini’s invasion, traveled to Spain during the civil war to express solidarity with the anti-fascist struggle, protested the Korean war and other U.S. military invasions in Latin America. These Black women, like many others, emphasized the interconnections between imperialist geopolitics, capitalist growth, global spread of fascism, and local manifestations of racial and colonial thinking. Through internationalist practices, they aimed to generate radical collectivity against entangled operations of colonialism, racism, gender subordination, economic exploitation, and imperialist aggression.
For example, in her essay, “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace” (1950), Claudia Jones, a prolific Black Communist activist and writer, encouraged marginalized women of color, Black women, and working class women in the U.S. to outcast “the influence of the agents of imperialism” and nurture “their sense of internationalism with millions upon millions of their sisters the world over.”[ii] Jones suggested to learn from and support diverse anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and anti-fascist women’s movements in Greece, Spain, Argentina, South Africa, and China. Likewise, in the Soviet Union, Black women attempted to connect with non-European non-Slavic peoples to learn from and share their struggles against Russian imperialism and capitalist exploitation. Opposing imperialist warfare and capitalism, Jones emphasized that instead of fighting wars for peace and democracy, people should defy authoritarian state regulations and fight for jobs, relief, better housing, and better health conditions. For Black women, internationalist anti-capitalist practices were an important part to defy imperialist confinements that aimed to restrict movement and interconnection between marginalized and oppressed communities. These visions inspire us to expand and explore how past and contemporary practices of Russian imperialism are interconnected with western imperialisms and jointly maintain the smooth operations of global capitalist relations. The alleged east/west binary overshadows crucial entanglements and interconnections between diverse empires that sustain the logic of racial capitalism.
In this regard, solidarities against the war in Ukraine can be seen as a continuation of historical anti-capitalist struggles against imperialist warfare. Black internationalist women emphasized that struggles against imperialist aggressions should be interconnected with the struggle against racial capitalism and colonial occupation that maintain oppressive sexual logics globally. Internationalist feminist solidarities challenge the hegemonic politics of belonging in order to underscore transnational connections of non-state actors. Alternative anti-capitalist solidarities attuned to complex operations of entangled imperialisms require a certain work of reflection on recognizing transnational operations of difference and cultivating ethical obligation on how to regard one another. We can learn from radical internationalist struggles of the past to see how our critique of imperialist warfares should enable intersectional and decolonial anti-capitalist visions. Within this approach, struggles in Ukraine as well as Chechnya, Belarus, or Syria should not be seen in isolation. They should be contextualized as interconnected global struggles attuned to diverse imperialisms and their interconnected capitalist operations.
Furthermore, the forms of solidarity Black internationalist women suggested to generate foregrounded interpersonal relations and micro relations that prioritize marginalized perspectives of oppressed groups, community relations, and place-based networks. For example, in the mid-1930s, some Black internationalist women went to Spain to support on the ground organizing against Franco’s fascist troops. Specifically, Thyra Edwards, a Black social worker, journalist, labor and civil rights activist, and communist, participated in organizing in support for refugees who were evacuated and relocated due to the war. The explorations of anti-capitalist internationalist histories are often limited to macro-politics, political institutions, and meta-narratives of superpowers that valorize masculine domination and/or white universality and specific geographies of transnational solidarity that privilege imperial centers. However, these perspectives occlude how imperialism and warfare affect gender norms and sexual regimes in local contexts and facilitate the rise of militarism. Military interventions contribute to the normalization of violence that negatively affects sex and gender relations and targets women in particular ways. In this sense, Black internationalist women foregrounded how anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles should incorporate the fight against patriarchy. At the same time, they also envisioned labor for caring and mutual aid as important parts of political struggles.
Nowadays, Russian war against Ukraine resulted in the extermination of local populations and the destruction of the economic and communal relations. With the war against Ukraine, we could also witness how the existing feminist networks of mutual support developed for many years by activists from different regions of the former Soviet region and beyond have been mobilized to support Ukrainian refugees and address different needs of the most marginalized communities along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and citizenship. Under conditions of severe economic, health, and political crises that unfolded in many parts of the former Soviet spaces, women’s and queer people’s long-lasting experience in grassroots organizing and mutual aid in diverse feminist organizations and transnational collaborations contributed to the creation of infrastructures and transnational networks of interpersonal support. Now these networks are mobilized to struggle against the imperial warfare but also alleviate the consequences of capitalist regulation manifested in cruel migration politics and limited substance support. These support networks may remind of past internationationalist anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist solidarities that feminists may expand but also learn from today.
[i] Conversation with Esther Cooper Jackson. DVD. 2006. Produced by the Organization of Women Writers of Africa.
[ii] In Davies, Carole Boyce, ed. 2011. Claudia Jones Beyond Containment: Autobiographical Reflections, Essays and Poems, with an Afterword by Alrick X. Cambridge. Banbury: Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, 91.
Tatsiana Shchurko is a researcher and queer feminist activist from Belarus committed to transnational and intersectional feminist theorizing and activism. Tatsiana’s research focuses on critical genealogies of transnational feminism, specifically centering on the connections between Black women’s internationalist activism and Eurasian knowledge production. Her work is situated within anti-colonial and anti-capitalist feminist theorizing with a focus on multiple imperialisms within and between Europe, Eurasia, and the United States.