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.

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.

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.