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University of Basel

The concept of “Eastern Europe” in past and present.

Professor Thomas Grob

It may be a convenient term, but its meaning is fuzzy: “Eastern Europe” is an idea that is continually being redefined.

Undated map from the 18th century This map, printed in Amsterdam, shows the setting for the Russo-Turkish wars, during which Russia conquered the Crimean peninsula and gained access to the Black Sea. (Image: University Library Bern)
Undated map from the 18th century This map, printed in Amsterdam, shows the setting for the Russo-Turkish wars, during which Russia conquered the Crimean peninsula and gained access to the Black Sea. (Image: University Library Bern)

Is there such a thing as “Eastern Europe”? And if so, where does it begin and end? Why do we mainly think of Prague, Ljubljana, and Zagreb as “eastern,” even though they are further west than Vienna – never mind Athens -- just as Serbia is further west than Finland? And why does “Eastern Europe” not sound like the neutral, symmetrical complement to “Western Europe”? These questions touch on core elements of European identity, as our “mental maps” – the geographies we carry in our heads – have a huge influence in a wide range of areas, from culture, the economy, and scholarship, through to practical politics.

Our current understanding of “Eastern Europe” is shaped by the Cold War and the “Iron Curtain,” the term applied by Churchill in 1945 to the Soviet-dependent “bloc”. Seen from within, however, this “Eastern bloc” was always a more diverse space than it appeared to westerners, who recognized only Tito’s non-aligned Yugoslavia as something of an exception.

Just how plural these spaces were beneath the patina of “real socialism” was revealed following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, as the West shed its fixation with “communism,” it also became clear that the image of an “Eastern Europe” had much older roots than the postwar order.

A shift in the cultural axis

The term “Eastern Europe” suggests a self-contained world of kindred regions. This is a fiction, and to some extent we can reconstruct precisely how it originated. It may be founded on older images of Russia, but it goes back primarily to the French Enlightenment.

For centuries before that, the only cultural and political axis of significance had been the north-south divide. Following the Renaissance, the “barbaric” regions north of the Alps sought to appropriate the political and cultural legacy of the Roman Empire. This led to the development – in parallel with colonialism – of competing notions of what constituted the center of the “civilized” world.

The impetus for a shift to a west-east cultural axis came from Paris around the middle of the 18th century, when French Enlightenment thinkers pronounced the orient – which combines the geographical “east” with proximity to the “orient” – to be that region that remained closed to the French or European Enlightenment. In Voltaire, for example, we find the term “Orient de l’Europe”. This refers to an in-between zone that is geographically part of Europe but has yet to benefit from the new philosophy.

This provided a vector for how the differences within Europe were perceived. In his book Inventing Eastern Europe (1994), the historian Larry Wolff showed the extent to which, after Peter the Great’s Europeanizing reforms, Russia became a space onto which fantasies of influence could be projected, as if onto a blank surface.

The east-west axis marked out a descent from the center of enlightened civilization into less and less civilized zones. For travelers, the road to the East, from its supposed beginnings in Poland, Hungary, or Galicia, became a voyage into increasingly Asiatic zones. In the process, perceptions were adapted, sometimes in highly fanciful ways, to fit in with the preconceived expectation of encountering a lower level of civilization. Barbarism was now located in the East.

It was only with the emergence of this idea that outsiders started to view Eastern Europe as a single entity. The “West” asserted the right to define the pre vailing level of civilization in different regions, and increasingly Europe defined itself against the areas to its east. In this context, it was easy to ignore that even the more westerly regions did not consist solely of urban centers of modernization, characterized by refined behavior.

The creation of this scale also led to a competition to establish where the “East” began. Even today we see a tendency for the border to shift miraculously. Putting it rather crudely, for Berliners the East starts at the Polish border, for western Poles in Warsaw, for eastern Poles and Slovaks in Belarus and Ukraine, for western Ukrainians east of Kiev, and for Croats in Serbia. The Czechs vigorously reject the suggestion that they are part of “Eastern Europe,” in any case; given that Prague University was founded in 1348, they have strong grounds for feeling that they are at the heart of Europe. The justification for drawing these boundaries is sometimes historical, sometimes confessional, cultural, or geographical. This mirrors precisely the uncertainties surrounding the concept of Europe itself.

The other Europe and Europe’s “Other”

After 1991, Eastern European specialists realized to their surprise that they had underestimated the importance of regional distinctions in their geography of “Eastern Europe”. This was a potentially explosive issue, as some participants in the debate refused to see themselves as part of Eastern Europe, while the collapse of Yugoslavia saw the re-emergence of an even more contaminated term: “the Balkans”. The “Eastern” question had implications for the legitimacy of Eastern European studies as a whole. Moreover, in the West the Cold War was a problem that seemed to have been dealt with, and it was not immediately obvious to everyone that in the new Europe universities could not afford to ignore the continent’s “Eastern” cultures.

The new geography forced the subjects concerned to re-examine how they worked. How should “Eastern European Studies” be structured in light of the new circumstances? Some universities – where their focus is not exclusively on Russia – have chosen to split up the discipline by language area, with Basel, for example, favoring a supraregional approach. A more important issue for researchers, however, was that the changes had thrown up a large number of highly topical questions that were new or needed to be formulated in new ways. These included links within Europe, transnational traditions, the culture of memory, the Jewish legacy, nation building, relationships between culture and power, and many others. Just as envisaged by the cultural theorist Yuri Lotman, the realm of former peripheries, either real or supposed, had become zones of tumultuous change, of the new, of creativity. This offers a huge amount of scope for objective scholarly analysis.

‹Eastern Europe› was always simultaneously both the other Europe and Europe’s ‹Other›

“Eastern Europe” was always simultaneously both the other Europe and Europe’s “Other,” and in this sense dependent on images produced in the West. Even the new entrants to the EU struggled to shed the tag of “poor relation”. That being the case, there can be no Eastern Europe in an objective sense. The term makes sense only if we use it neutrally, recognizing the diversity that it subsumes.

Experience shows that it can be hard to come up with a suitable regional title for an academic volume on different “Eastern European” regions. However, it is not at all difficult to justify comparative research per se if it is understood within a pan-European context. As different as these regions are, there is much that unites them: the fact they were once part of large empires; a plural ethnic and cultural past; different paths to nation building; communist and post-communist influences; in the case of Slavic cultures, closely related languages and ancient, though contested, cultural ties; and finally, different paths to modernization, which serve also to relativize the exemplar per se, the “West”. Clearly, the field of Eastern European Studies has more problems with its name than with its subject matter.

Anyone who has visited Eastern Europe knows there is something like the European “East”. This East, with both its problems and its inner riches, is always different; yet sometimes also surprisingly the same. These regions – including Russia – are woven into the fabric of Europe and, in their own way, are European. Not only would Europe be a great deal poorer without this East, it can no longer be understood without it. It is no longer possible to be economically and politically active in Europe without having some knowledge of it. In this context, the issue of exactly what is termed “eastern,” “central” or “east-central” Europe, just like the competition between these countries to be as western as possible, is likely to become less important, once we move away from the idea that the “West” has a monopoly on European civilization.

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.

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