Little quiet on the eastern front
In the West, we see Eastern Europe as a place mired in backwardness, where nationalism, corruption, and chauvinism are rife. Yet, the recent history of the East offers some pioneering models of co-existence between different cultures.
The key word is “empire”. When Thomas Grob and Anna Hodel talk about their research, it crops up again and again. They use it in opposition to the term “nation”. The empires are the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, 19th century Russia, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. All have collapsed, all were located partly or wholly in Eastern Europe, and all have been replaced by nation states. However, they continue to exert a powerful cultural influence.
For Anna Hodel, a Slavicist at Basel University, “empire” denotes a spatial construct that “is able to deal in a positive way with ambiguities” such as with multilingualism and the juxtaposition of different cultural and religious identities. This is not a virtue we normally associate with empires; we tend instead to think of them in terms of dictatorship and lack of rights. But this is only one of their features – and one that need not always be present. In Yugoslavia and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, different ethnic and religious groups were able to live together, albeit not without some tensions and difficulties. The “Other” was not rejected per se or made to assimilate.
The modern nation state that emerged at the time of the French Revolution tends to do precisely that. On the one hand, the nation is an emancipatory project. All the citizens who live there are to be free, living from the fruits of their own hands, having the same rights, enjoying the same education, speaking the same language, so they can communicate with one another and form their own judgment on the world.
To bring this about, however, the nation homogenizes and standardizes every area of life, ironing out cultural and social differences. The nation emancipates and disciplines at the same time, shutting itself off and others out. In an era when the nation reigns supreme, empire is an outworn notion with few admirers.
Thomas Grob, Professor of Slavonic Studies at Basel University, and his research team would like to change that. With the support of the Swiss National Science Foundation, they are looking at how the Russian Empire presented itself to its “inner orient” – that is to say, central Asia and the Caucasus – how the rupture of 1917–18, marking the collapse of the “imperial and royal” dual monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, was remembered in Austria-Hungary, and how Balkan writers imagined their political future during the 19th century, when the nation state was in its infancy.
The scholars are concentrating mainly on literary texts, read in their original language: Russian, Polish, Serbian, Slovakian, Ukrainian, and Croatian. For the non-Slavic languages to which Eastern Europe is also home, such as Hungarian, Turkish, Georgian, and the Caucasian languages, they have to make do with translations. They are convinced that literature provides the key to understanding the cultural identities of the respective empires. As Anna Hodel emphasizes, literature is a means not just of perceiving reality, but of producing it.
Thomas Grob makes the point that in the Slavic world literature had – and still has, to some extent – an importance we can barely imagine. Some writers have been leading politicians, while many texts have been the subject of wide debate – and always within a political context. For example, if you talk to a Pole today about his country, the name of Adam Mickiewicz, one of the great poets of Polish Romanticism, is bound to come up sooner or later. Literature is part of Poland’s national identity.
A complex view of nationhood
In these texts, the scholars find writers grappling with notions of empire and nationhood in complex ways. In the 19th century, the idea of the nation was not as exclusive as it is today, Anna Hodel says. That is why, out of consideration for the Serbian section of the population, which it wanted to integrate “into a transnational cultural area,” the Croatian national movement chose as the basis for its new standard language not the Croatian dialect spoken at the time, but one that could also be regarded as Serbian. The national thought of this period is today misrepresented in nationalist terms.
Hodel gives the example of the author and politician Ivan Mažuranić, who died in Zagreb in 1890 and is regarded as Croatia’s national poet; his face even appears on the 100 kuna bill. Hodel sees the interpretation of his work that appears in most literary histories as one-sided. In her reinterpretation of Mažuranić’s works, including his magnum opus “The Death of Smail-Aga Čengić,” Hodel shows that he transcends the bounds of nationhood and Croatian identity. While he appears to be telling the anti-imperialist story of how the heroic South Slavs unite against the evil Ottoman Empire then controlling the Balkans, this is a superficial reading.
If we look at Mažuranić’s poem more closely, we see that it is about Montenegrins, not Croats, and that the author envisages the creation not of a homogeneous Croatian nation but of an “Illyrian” zone, harking back to the Romans and Napoleon, who used that name for the area. For Mažuranić, this zone would have had room for Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians – then called Turks – Bulgarians, and Macedonians.
Mažuranić set the area apart not so much from the Ottoman Empire as from Austria- Hungary – in his poem the Turks can be read as symbolizing the Habsburgs – and yet, Hodel notes, he also inserted it within a supranational Christian context where the South Slavs acted as martyrs protecting Christendom from Islam. His work is a “complex layering of different zones of identity and culture”.
In her interpretation of this classic work, Anna Hodel reveals layers of meaning that were apparent to contemporaries but in the last century have been submerged by nationalism. Compared with early Slavic ideas of nationhood, modern territorial nationalism comes across as rather pathetic, Thomas Grob explains. It is defensive in its insistence on sealing off its borders and keeping its territory pure. For Grob, it is no coincidence that in Switzerland today the best literature is often written by migrants, who have had the experience of crossing national and cultural boundaries.
The scholars cite Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslav politician and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, as another example of “plurinational identity”. Today, Serbia and Croatia are at pains to claim this writer, who died in Belgrade in 1975, for their respective nations. Yet Andrić wrote his works in Serbo-Croat. Born a Catholic in Bosnia, where he grew up, his mother was a Croat. Vienna and Cracow were among the cities where attended university. After the First World War, he helped establish the kingdom of Yugoslavia, while after World War II he became a member of the Communist Party. Ivo Andrić’s life, like his literature, cannot be limited to one nation in the way we understand that today.
Empires are not just transnational and multicultural. Thomas Grob identifies another surprising similarity between the empires, for all their differences – the waves of nostalgia often set off by their collapse. Yugo-nostalgia is still around, Soviet nostalgia – exploited by Putin – has returned, and after the First World War there was nostalgia for the dual monarchy. Perhaps, Grob suggests, this nostalgia is one way in which the rich experience of empire lives on.
Anna Hodel is a doctoral researcher in Slavic Studies at the University of Basel. She deals with spatial poetry beyond borders and translates southern Slavic contemporary prose into German.
Thomas Grob is professor for Slavic and general Literature at the University of Basel. In cooperation with Sabina Horber he published the book “Moskau: Metropole zwischen Kultur und Macht” in 2015.