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].

Postcolonialism – Key Terms

Since these terms can often be hard to pin down, I’m giving some quick definitions of words I may use every so often. Note that this is me writing from my phone, so I apologise for any mistakes made.

Alterity

The ‘alternate’, someone/or a group of peoples that are in a state of being different. This is usually in contrast with the West, or colonial powers; the ‘Other’ is defined by its outsider status.

Ambivalence

How the colonised, and coloniser view each other. The colonised is often seen as inferior yet exotic, and uncivilised (see noble/ignoble savage), ideas used to justify colonialism. The colonised often saw the coloniser as an invasive and destructive force.

Essentialism

The practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. Often used through race, culture, religion, or ethnicity. Differences are overlooked. Essentialism can also be used by the colonised, as a means of fighting coloniser discourse.

Hybridity

A contested term, it can often simply mean ‘cross-cultural exchange’. Some writers, such as Bhabha, highlight the interdependence between master and subject in colonial power relations, which is important in the development of hybridity.

Post colonialism

The study of the effects of colonisation felt by cultures and societies. Post-colonial states are best seen as ‘post-independence’, from their colonial masters.

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.