The Logic of Empire

Athenian:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Melians:

You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.

Athenian:

Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.


How we see Russia

Daniel Treisman, an ‘area studies’ scholar on Russia, wrote of two methods that people use to write about Russia.

The first approach is to focus on the country’s dark side, to present Russia as a land of deformity. … From sixteenth century European travelogues, one learns that Russian peasants at that time were drunks, idolaters, and sodomites. Seventheeth century travellers report that the country’s northern forests were a breeding ground for witches. Then come the famous denunciations of the Marquis de Custine, along with the jeremiads of Chaadaev – a homegrown convert to the idiom – who, just as Pushkin was publishing Eugene Onevin , chastised Russia for failing to contribute anything to human civilisation. Russia, he charged, was a “blank” page in the intellectual order,” which existed only to “teach the world some great lesson.” Much journalism and historical writing shares this preoccupation with the country’s dismal side.

… Most of the sinister features that upset the critics are, sadly, typical of countries at similar levels of economic development. Russia is unique, but in the way that Belgium, Argentina, and Malaysia are unique – no more, no less.

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled “Russia takes a step backwards”

The second approach is:

to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic. Russia, it is said, is unique and unknowable. It hides its secrets from social scientists and statisticians. … Its roads are Möbius strips; its parallel lines cross many times. Such talk usually progresses to speculation about the Russian soul, itself conceived as a jumble of contradictions. Russians, wrote the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev,a re Dionysian yet ascetic, violent yet gentle, ritualistic yet hungry for truth: “In the Russian soul there is a sort of immensity, a vagueness, a predilection for the infinite, such as is suggested by the great plain of Russia.” In short, an easy place to get lost.

Whilst mystification and vilification are no way to study a country, Treisman goes on to say:

a generation of work by social scientists from both Russia and the West has shown that the country’s economic and politics are perfectly susceptible to careful observation, measurement, and reasoned interpretation. The apparently chaotic surfaces of political and economic life often turn out to conceal quite intelligible patterns that are in many ways similar to those found elsewhere.

Furthermore, there are patterns of foreign policy that are reasonably unique to Russia. The obsession with the ‘near abroad’ (bordering countries that were former parts of the Soviet Union/Russian empire) and ‘great power’ status, as well as Russia’s independence from foreign powers are obvious, and there have been attempts within the field to explain them as political narratives/myths unique to a country’s identity.


Orientalism in the Polish Borderlands Culture

The “Borderlands” are a region to the East of Poland with a longstanding mythology in Polish discourse. Being at different points in history part of the Polish state, they are a central place of political confrontation and national identity. The very term hints that they are part of Poland, albeit not in the centre. Speaking vaguely, they can form a part of ‘Greater’ Poland, constituting the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which I have written about already .

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Looking further into the word, it symbolises an ‘Otherness’ of the area’s inhabitants, who are defined only in their peripheral location from the Polish centre, which lowers their position in Poland. They are also ‘orientalised’, made exotic and uncommon to the Polish norm.

In 1996, at the ‘Borderlands Conference’ in Warsaw, Ryszard Kiersnowski slammed the then Polish Pope for talking about Lithuanians of Polish origin, but not about repressed Poles. Using the word “Borderlands”, Kiernowski isolated these Poles from Lithuania as their homeland. Kiernowski’s views are not an anomaly, and according to many who talk about the “Borderlands”, they are to be exclusively Polish. At around the same time as the conference in Warsaw, the Catholics of Przemyśl (a multi faith city), closed the doors of one of their churches, when their highest Earthly superior within their belief, attempted to hand the shrine to Ukrainian Catholics for the sake of good relations.

In many post-Soviet countries, there has been an idealisation of the past. In Russia for example, the pomp and grandeur of the former Russian Empire, together with its emblems and the might of the Orthodox Church, has seen a strong revival. In Poland, however, a cult has been formed around the lost lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and ‘greater’ Poland in general.

Many of those within the “Borderlands” react strongly against the Polish discourse, and it can easily be seen as a Polish Orientalism. Polish views on the Borderlands , exclude those who do not identify as Polish but who live in the Borderlands, such as Ukrainians, Ashkenazis, Belarusians, Lithuanians, etc. In this respect:

Orientalism was more susceptible to the influences of the culture that had created it than to the supposed aims of its research, also created by the West; hence its history shows both cohesion and clear connections with the culture dominating in its surroundings. [Said 2003, 57, also see 56].

In summary, the concept of the Borderlands in Poland is harmful to outsiders, and bears many similarities to colonial discourse. The assumption of the Ukrainian borderlands as pastoral, idyllic, and backwards (implicitly inferior), creates many problems and prejudices (Beauvois 2005, 8-13), and is a barrier to better neighbourly relations. As Said says, “culture [is] regarded as politically and even historically innocent; in my opinion exactly the opposite is true …” [Said 2003, 63].


The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Szlachcic na zagrodzie równy wojewodzie.

The noble on his estate is equal to the voivode .

This is a Polish proverb, part of the legacy that came with the Commonwealth, that basically means that no free man would think of himself as less superior than anyone else.

The Polish-Lithuanian was one of the early republics, and experienced a time of prominence in the mid-1600s. A huge state, ( see this map ) it had over 8 million residents. Germans, Armenians, Jews, Poles, etc. all lived together. However, whilst there was freedom of religion and many different faiths, Catholic was predominant under the constitution. The constitution, for that matter, was made up of all parliamentary legislation – ranging from the obligation of farmer tenants to wartime taxation.

Many would disagree that the Commonwealth was a republic, as there were still enserfed peasantry and privately controlled cities, and additionally, politics was limited to the szlachta (upper class). Those who held seats in the Senate could also only be Catholic, as was the case with the elected King of the Commonwealth.

Comparing the Commonwealth with its close neighbours, though, illustrates the importance of the progress it had made so early. Rights of self-determination to regional councils and a Parliament of the Commons made in the Commonwealth contrasted with the victory of absolute and central rule in Russia over Zemskii sobor ( assembly of the people ).

Furthermore, whilst in the Commonwealth, libertas and the rule of law was the guiding principle of the state, in Russia autocracy alone symbolised the principles of justice, salvation, and the state structure. Additionally, the Catholic King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was actively ‘monitored’ by the country’s politicians, who often blocked key decisions.

Overall, the Commonwealth is an interesting example of what some might class as a democracy, at a time where this was certainly not the norm. It would be worth looking more into this.


Mapping Eastern Europe, a Postcolonial Narrative?

The EURASIA PROJECT , formally unveiled two years ago by Vladimir Putin, can be described as ‘essentialist’ in postcolonial terms. Essentialism is the practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. In a previous post I spoke about the alterity assigned to those in the post-Soviet space by its outsiders:

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe … is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Eurasianism as a contemporary foreign policy concept has been around since at least Gorbachev’s “New Thinking”, speaking as an alternative for those who see Russia as having a special place in world politics. As Russia is not imbued in a disadvantaging colonial power relationship, it was able to create a ‘grand narrative’ surrounding itself and the near abroad. A grand narrative, or ‘metanarrative’, claims to be a truth concerning the way the world works, and creates a story that explains and merges local or native narratives.

English: Ethnic map of the European part of th...

Ethnic map of the European part of the Russian Empire

Whilst Eurasia can be a simple geographic term, it can also imply a lot of political meanings and ‘truths’, referring to the historical and ‘legitimate’ influence over the territory of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet sucessor. The term encompasses widely different ethnicities and cultural groups, from Karelians and Chukchis to Moldovans, Chechnyans, and Tatars. The unifying narrative, enforced through colonial education of the ‘Slav’, the ‘Soviet’, or ‘Eurasian’, has only a Greater Russia as a common denominator.

The resurgence of these narratives can reflect hidden political threats and the new capabilities of certain groups. The alterity (state of being different) given by the pro and anti West that divides all these different ethnicities and countries domestically, unites them as a whole with an identity crisis. Eurasianism gives the new Russia historical legitimacy in its quest for regional influence, and discursively unites key actors within the post-Soviet space. Furthermore, it discursively neglects the pro-Europe within its near abroad, nurturing instead a pro-Russian elite.


Poland & the Postcolonial

Poland has, for hundreds of years, been surrounded and conquered by its neighbours. Recent history up until the very late 20th century has been no better, with Soviet-imposed massacres and brutal repression. Colonialism has evidently been a great part of Polish history, being a land between great powers, yet there is a reluctance in postcolonial literature to include colonial presence in Eastern Europe.

Yet some have recognised Ireland as a postcolonial country, with Eastern Europe as an unknown:

only one European country has thus far been exempted from the binary ‘First World-Third World’ model now governing post-colonial studies. This is Ireland which is, as Seamus Deane remarks, ‘the only Western European country that has both an early and a late colonial experience’ […] Deane is careful to distinguish here between East and West; [which] remains terra incognita in recent theory. [Cavanagh 2003, 63-64].

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe (and Poland, which Cavanagh references), is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Colonialism, as well as cultural and geopolitical dominance, have played large roles in Eastern Europe. Numerous states have attempted (and at times succeeded in) exercising full or partial control over other countries, others have even occupied with settlers, and it is certainly not rare for there to be a system of economic exploitation. It is not that this has been confined to the history books either, Soviet presence being the greatest example, but also the aims of different groups during periods of ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

‘Outside’ influences such as that of the Turks in South-Eastern Europe, or that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are underreported in postcolonial studies. German cultural dominance imposed in Poland, for example, still holds sway over local elections even (see below).

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish railway infrastructure.

Polish railway infrastructure.

However, this is not to say that Poland was always the oppressed. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was a force to be reckoned with, and whilst it didn’t quite have the same level of brute as other European powers it still made efforts to assimilate other cultures and civilisations. This is also not to say, that colonisation of Poland, and colonisation outside of Europe are in any way equal. The point of this post is to highlight how postcolonial studies can overlook colonial discourse and events purely because of current affairs.

To further confuse those who delve deeper, there are also efforts to rehabilitate Eastern Europe away from the “Other”. The Economist states that the term has “connotations of “poverty, marginalisation, and weirdness” which is for most states there, “anything but.”  Membership in Schengen, the EU, NATO, and the reemergence of Russia in world politics as an ally of the West all play to the narrative that Europe is no longer divided. A video that plays with the concept of Eastern Europe, and attempts to think up new terms,

Cavanagh , C., 2003, Postkolonialna Polska. Bia ł a plama na mapie współ czesnej teorii, “Teksty Drugie”, No. 64; 18-19. Quotations taken from other sites, which in turn quoted Cavanagh’s English version.

Comments & Curios V

Who did you rape in the war, daddy? (a question for veterans that needs answering)

A well-written article about the ‘Other’ in warfare, and how easy it is to glorify war. The title is not in reference to a child asking their parent the question, but related to a story heard from a Vietnamese grandmother who was raped by a GI with his rifle – that the GI (if he survived) is unlikely to have told anyone of the experience, much less their own children.

Six steps to fix a broken Mali

the French-led military intervention in Mali has at least brought the country back from the brink of disaster, and opened up a space in which Malians can finally begin to chart a way forward for their nation. If I were advising the people who hold Mali’s fate in their hands — not only Mali’s interim president, but members of influential donor governments in North America and Europe — here’s what I’d recommend …

Welcome to Palestine: What’s Your Faith?

Maysoon Zayid explains what he would show Obama on his visit to Palestine, and why.