Eastern Europe: history of an idea.
It was shaped by the Illuminists, not by the Cold War. And the mental maps they engrained in our collective conscience are still there.
Where does Eastern Europe begin? Where does it end?
According to the European Union's EuroVoc, Eastern Europe encompasses countries located on the European continent that lie east of the Union's current borders and were part of the Warsaw Pact, referred to as "Central and Eastern European Countries." So far, the official definition.
The perception, however, is far from unambiguous.
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Ask a German and they will say that the East starts at the Polish border. Ask an Italian, and they will say Trieste. For some, Vienna is an entry door to the East (for some Salzburger it is already Balkans). And what about Prague? Heart of Europe, like most Czechs will say, or already East?
The matter is that Eastern Europe is not just about geography, and not even only about history. It is a multifaceted concept that reflects culture, linguistic roots, ethnography, economic conditions, religion, politics and personal views shaped from all the above.
The ambiguity surrounding Eastern Europe is partly due to how Europe was divided after World War II and the widespread use of the term "Iron Curtain" to describe the division. This term became widely accepted and reinforced the idea of a clear-cut division between Eastern and Western Europe.
The iron curtain is still in our heads.
For those born until the early 1970s, the term Eastern Europe is closely associated with the Iron Curtain. Winston Churchill's famous quote, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent," sums up this understanding of Eastern Europe.
The term "Iron Curtain" was first used by Goebbels in February 1945 as a reaction to the Jalta conference to describe the territories occupied by the Soviet Union after Germany's capitulation (See: V. Ullrich Acht Tage im Mai - Eight days in May: the last week of the Third Reich).
Churchill echoed this sentiment in a telegram to President Truman a few days after the end of the war, stating that an "iron curtain is drawn upon their front. We do not know what is going on behind."
For decades, the region beyond the Iron Curtain was viewed as a mysterious and unseen realm, dominated by the Soviet Union and characterized as Slavic and Russian-centric. However, this perception was not solely a product of the Cold War.
The idea of Eastern Europe as a dark, lesser, and even somewhat barbaric world has older origins. The mental map we used, and to some extent, still use today, has deeper roots that go back to the 18th Century.
Eastern Europe: an illuministic construct.
In his book "Inventing Eastern Europe" (1994), historian Larry Wolff delves into the origins of the concept of Eastern Europe, which he describes as a project of philosophical and geographical synthesis developed by Enlightenment thinkers.
In previous centuries, the cultural and political axis of Europe was north-south, with Italian cities inheriting the Roman Empire and representing a civilized Renaissance world in contrast to the powerful but still barbaric North.
However, with the shift in politics and economics towards France and Great Britain in the 18th century, culture followed suit and Paris became the center of Enlightenment thought. This led to the formation of a new west-east axis, where the east was seen as lands not yet reached by enlightened civilization.
Explorers, Adventurers, Geographers, Thinkers, and Novelists: Eastern Europe as a land of discovery, study, cultural projects, and fantasy.
Along this west-east axis during the 18th century physically moved travellers, ambassadors, adventurers and geographers: some in pursuit of political missions; others for training; others with a taste for discovery and some charged with mapping places, describing customs, classifying and taking a census.
Equally crucial for developing the idea of eastern Europe were who travelled through thought, whether philosophical or fictional: philosophers such as Voltaire and J.J. Rousseau, writers such as Rudolf E. Raspe (The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
For all of them, the journey, whether real or imagined, was also a philosophical one: through the description of the geographical and human landscapes of the European East, they also defined their identity as Western Europeans: enlightened, advanced, placed at the top of a ladder that Eastern Europeans had only just begun to climb, coming from backward lands that still had pockets of barbarism and norms that accepted violence, serfdom and sexual slavery as natural conditions.
The higher they climbed on this scale, the less Asian and more European they would become: it was the Illuminists in Paris, London and Weimar to define the standard of what it meant to be European.
A space between civilization and barbarism: how Eighteenth-Century Travelers experienced and described eastern Europe.
"The inhabitants of the Ukraine, Russia, the plains of the Danube, in short, the Slav peoples, are a link between Europe and Asia, between civilization and barbarism."
La Comédie humaine, Honoré de Balzac
In 1778, at the age of 31, William Coxe, an English historian and priest who served as a traveling companion and tutor to nobility from 1771 to 1786, took a journey through Poland to Russia. It was while observing the people of Poland that Coxe felt as though he was leaving Europe behind. He wrote:
"The Poles, in their features, look, customs, dress, and general appearance, resemble Asiatics rather than Europeans; and it is clear that they have Tartar ancestry."
In 1784, Count Louis-Philippe de Segur, also 31-year-old, set out from France to serve as a minister plenipotentiary and envoy extraordinaire of Louis XVI to the court of Catherine II in St. Petersburg, Russia. As he crossed the border from Prussia into Poland, he felt as if he was crossing a significant boundary, but could not quite put his finger on what it was. He realized that this place he was traveling to was not Europe, yet it also wasn't Asia or the Orient. It was a sort of intermediary geographical space, a realm that existed between Europe and Asia, and was marked by a stark contrast between opulence and extreme poverty, grand cities and deserts, and civilization and wilderness.
For Giacomo Casanova, a legendary figure known for his sexual exploits, traveling to Russia was a chance to navigate a new society where slavery was a prevalent concept. He discovered the practice of buying young women and learned that the beating of slaves and servants was considered a norm. Despite trying to avoid using the word "slave," he quickly became comfortable with the violence and slavery he encountered, viewing it as a cultural aspect of Eastern Europe. Like Casanova, other 18th-century travelers found that Eastern Europe was a place where beating was acceptable, even desired. They learned to adjust their moral compass according to the "variety of manners" present in those nations.
Russia, first of all, and its Prussian Empress.
2022 has brought to light a concerning reality - that many individuals and governments in the West continued to view Russia as the only significant nation in Eastern Europe, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
☞ This perspective can be observed in the Nord Stream 2 project, which aimed primarily to cut off Eastern European countries from their gas supply from Russia to Germany, yet Germany ignored criticism from these countries for years.
This mindset towards Eastern Europe also has its origins in the 18th century when the Russian Empire expanded southward and westward. Instead of being viewed with alarm, Russia's expansionism was admired.
This admiration was sparked by the leadership of Peter the Great and Catherine, the Prussian-Russian Empress, who were perceived as bringing the ideals of the Enlightenment to Eastern Europe.
The champion of this fascination and vision of Russia as a civilising agent was, most of all, the philosopher Voltaire.
Voltaire, who wrote a history of Russia under Peter the Great and corresponded with Catherine the Great, never travelled to Russia. However, he is considered the 'copyright owner' of the idea of Eastern Europe.
Voltaire formalized his fascination with Russia in his book "History of the Russian Empire Under Peter the Great," which was published in 1759 and 1763. He continued to express his admiration for Russia through his correspondence with Catherine the Great in the 1760s and 1770s, viewing her as the greatest patroness of the Enlightenment.
Previously, in 1731, Voltaire wrote about Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the Crimea in his book "History of Charles XII." In it, he described the Zaporozhian Cossacks as "the strangest people on earth," a "pack of ancient Russians, Poles, and Tartars," with a religion that he referred to as "a sort of Christianity" and an economy based on "brigandage," and a violent political system that elected a chief, only to cut his throat.
The philosopher compared the inhabitants of Eastern European regions to Mexicans before they were discovered by Cortes, depicting them as born slaves, ignorant, and lacking both the arts and industry. He found satisfaction in "discovering" these lands without the need to physically go there, and was proud of mapping them in relation to Western Europe, thus making Eastern Europe more accessible to Western Europeans.
Catherine the Great's Journey to Crimea: a PR Event, a display of identity, and a show.
The only physical journey that Voltaire may have been eager to embark on was the route taken by Empress Catherine in 1787 when she travelled from St. Petersburg to Crimea to visit the newly acquired territories.
She was accompanied by a group of diplomats, writers, noblemen and women, and even emperors, such as Joseph II of Austria, from Kherson onward. This journey from the Baltic to the Black Sea was a grand PR event designed to celebrate Russia's greatness and establish a sense of identity. It was also a memorable spectacle orchestrated by Grigory Potemkin, the governor-general of Russia's new southern provinces.
Catherine the Great set out from St. Petersburg in January 1787. Along the way, she and her entourage stopped in Kyiv, where they had to wait three months for spring and the ice to melt before continuing down the Dnieper. The city was a melting pot of ethnicities, with Cossacks, known for their "indiscipline", and Tartars, who were once dominant in Russia, now humbly submitting to the rule of a woman. The party also encountered nomadic Kirghiz tribesmen and "savage Kalmucks."
Meanwhile, Grigory Potemkin was preparing a "brilliant spectacle" along the river route. Towns, villages, and even rustic cabins were decorated and disguised to appear as magnificent cities and palaces, creating the illusion of a grand, civilized Russia that was now truly part of Europe. Was that true? Behind the "Potemkin villages" were the descendants of the once-feared hordes, and there was poverty, violence, serfdom. But the Empress PR message passed. She was converting half-Asian tribes into Europeans.
Voltaire the ideologist of Catherine?
"I am older, madame, than the city where you reign" (…) "I even dare to add that I am older than your empire."
Letter from Voltaire to Catherine the Great, 1765
Voltaire's wartime letters offered Catherine a philosophical reflection of her military campaigns, in which Wallachia, Poland, Bessarabia and Georgia were constituent elements of a reconceived European geography.
Catherine's reign was a succession of wars of conquest that turned the whole of eastern Europe into a war zone and ended in 1795 with the partition of Poland between Russia, Austria and Prussia.
For Voltaire, mastering Eastern Europe was an integral part of the Enlightenment's programme: to settle regions of Europe immersed in chaos and darkness. In the German Catherine, he found the champion of the kingdom of Reason, that brought arms first and then the arts on her civilisation mission in the East.
"At present, there are French actors and Italian operas in Petersburg. Magnificence and even taste have replaced barbarism in everything.”
Expelling the Turks from European soil, as Catherine did by conquering the Crimea and the Sea of Azov, for Voltaire represented the high point of this mission, which he celebrated in front of the French and 'explained' to Catherine herself in his many years of correspondence.
A conflict of power and thought: Rousseau's Poland versus Voltaire's Russia.
Two Western Europeans discuss the nature and destiny of the nations of the European Orient.
As much as Voltaire admired an empress he had never met and a country he had never visited, Rousseau detested that same empress and her State, contrasting them with the Polish nation.
Beginning with the Social Contract (1762), J.J Rousseau entered the territory of political theory and decided to apply it to the Polish case, a country that at the end of the 1700s would not withstand the appetites of the great empires, ending up devoured and divided between Prussia, Austria and Russia.
For Rousseau, Poland was, like almost all of Eastern Europe, a disorderly and undisciplined country, parcelled out by its nobles. Too easy a prey for the great empires, the only way to strengthen it, according to Rousseau, was to enter into the hearts of the Poles with a strong national idea, stronger than internal political divisions. In his book Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne (1782, Considerations on the Government of Poland), he addressed the Poles directly in a heartfelt manner:
"You may not prevent them from gobbling you up; see to it at least that they will not be able to digest you. [...] If you see to it that no Pole can ever become a Russian, I guarantee that Russia will not subjugate Poland.”
Rousseau, the philosopher of the social contract, develops his political theory in a nationalistic sense and celebrates Polish diversity several times, which he contrasts with the supposed homogenisation of other peoples, the child of imperialism; ☞ in the long run, Rousseau's thought will leave a much stronger mark on East-Europeans than Voltaire's.
"Do exactly the opposite of that much-admired tsar," (...) "Let no Pole dare to appear at court dressed French style."
"A Frenchman, an Englishman, a Spaniard, an Italian, a Russian, are all virtually the same man," (but a Pole) "must be a Pole."
Illuministic anthropology of Eastern Europe: barbarians in ancient history, half-wild and half-civilized in modern times.
Whether they were curious, fascinated, admirers of this or that empress, or eager to promote their philosophical vision and political agenda, it made little difference in how the thinkers of the Illuminism looked down on the land where people lived. What they saw - either physically or through the accounts of others - were unkempt villages, dirty streets, shabby and still rather barbaric people, like their ancestors or the ancestors the historians of the time attributed to them.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), by the English historian Edward Gibbon, summarised the eighteenth-century view of the Roman Empire and the reasons for its fall. At the same time, he made an extensive portrait of the patchwork of peoples and tribes collectively called "barbarians."
In Chapter XLII of his six-volume work, Gibbons surveyed the "State of the Barbaric World" in the sixth century, right after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and introduced the "Tribes and Inroads of the Sclavonians."
He offered a dual classification of the ethnicities, defining two great families: the Bulgarians, more or less identified as Tartars, and the Sclavonians, characterised mainly by their language. Many of the descriptions he offers in his work were of picturesque savagery and - when comparing slavs to the barbarian germans - with an evident pro-german prejudice that saw the Slavs inferior in many aspects. German thinkers would assert that point later with an even more strident pretence of science.
The German view: between a barbarian past, a half-savage present, and a bright future.
In 1790 Goethe made a one-week excursion into Poland, as far as Cracow, summing up the experience in a letter to Herder:
"In these eight days I have seen much that is remarkable, even if it has been for the most part only remarkably negative."
The following year, Fichte moved to Warsaw to work as a private tutor. He traveled through Silesia, at the time a part of Prussia, on his way to Poland after leaving Leipzig, Saxony. The correlation between "worse" and "Polish" was evident in Silesia when he saw "villages uglier than the Saxon ones." Jews were also present, and in the inn, "nothing was like it would have been in Saxony."
Dirtiness was a recurrent theme, as Fichte described streets "full of straw, garbage, and manure." Observing that the towns were crowded with Jews, he also had some reservations about ethnic Germans in Poland:
"They are pleasant, reasonable, obliging, and polite, only unclean, just like the national Poles, and almost more so, since in them it is more noticeable to a German eye." Warsaw did not impress him, either: "The entrance is like a Polish village, huts instead of houses, manure on the street."
It was from those reports that words such as Halbwildheit and Halbkultur emerged to describe that "state in the middle" between fully civilisation and barbarian roots that was, in a sentence, the eighteenth century's idea of Eastern Europe.
With a completely different tone - positive and prophetic - Johann Gottfried von Herder, philosopher of history and language, keen explorer of folklore, developed an optimistic image that not only influenced Pan-Slavic intellectuals but also future generations of Czech, Pole, Russian and Croatian politicians (*).
In the "Outlines of a philosophy of the history of man" (Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit 1784-1791) Herder writes:
“[…] they [the ancient Slavs] followed the working of mines, understood the smelting and casting of metals, manufactured, fabricated linen, brewed mead, planted fruit trees, and led, after a fashion, a gay and musical life. They were liberal, hospitable to excess, lovers of pastoral freedom, but submissive and obedient, enemies to spoil and rapine. All this preserved them not from oppression, nay, it contributed to their being oppressed. For, as they were never ambitious of sovereignty, had among them no hereditary princes addicted to war, and thought little of paying tribute so they could but enjoy their lands in peace, many nations, chiefly of German origin, injuriously oppressed them.”
Herder envisioned a bright future for all Slavs and predicted that their potential would bring forth the "new age of Man", which would replace Europe's decaying culture:
"The wheel of changing Time, however, revolves without ceasing, and as (...) legislation and politic, instead of a military spirit must and will more and more promote quiet industry and peaceful commerce between different states, these now deeply sunk, but once industrious and happy people will awake from their long and heavy slumber, shake off their chains of slavery, enjoy the possession of their delightful lands from the Adriatic Sea to the Carpathian mountains, from the Don to the Moldau, and celebrate on them their ancient festivals of peaceful trade and industry."
Herder developed his understanding of the role of the Slavs and their land in Riga under the patronage of Russian Empress Catherine II from 1764-1769. His "Journal meiner Reise aus 1769" also mentions Ukraine, which he lauded as a "new Greece," as a key element in the coming European cultural renaissance to come.
How many of these visions of Eastern Europe have influenced the history of the last two centuries?
A lot, very much. The whole of the 20th century was one long confrontation between imperialisms, where most Slavic countries and peoples were seen as lands to exploit (the Ukrainian "Kornkammer") and people to enslave.
Western European countries, both democratic and imperial/fascist, put themselves on a pedestal, from which they have not come down even after the end of the Cold War. Therefore, the mental map was still that of a middle world that was to be transformed into western models.
Prof. Wolff recalls that in August 1991, when Gorbachev returned to Moscow from Crimea after the failed coup d'état, the New York Times declared the Russians ready "for the mammoth task of civilising their country", more or less the task that Voltaire had attributed to Peter the Great. In September of the same year, the Neue Zurcher Zeitung headlined "Hope for a European Russia."
Gorbachev expressed in 1987 the need to see the Soviet Union fully recognised as European:
“Some in the West are trying to exclude the Soviet Union from Europe. Now and then, as if inadvetendly, they equate Europe with “Western Europe”. Such ploys, however, cannot change the geographic and historcal realities. Russia´s trade, cultural and political links with other European nations and states have deep roots in history. We are Europeans.. The history of Russia is an organic part of. the great European History.”
Gorbachev, 1987, cit. in The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History, 2004
We should have listened better to what Gorbachev was telling us. Instead, history since 1990 has been a history of models to imitate and imitators.
As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev pointed out in "Explaining eastern Europe" (Journal of Democracy 3/2018), East–West relations changed from a Cold War clash between two hostile systems to a moral hierarchy within the liberal, western system that existed after the Berlin Wall fell. A single imperative of post-communist central and eastern European politics after 1989 could sum up their political philosophy: "Imitate the West!"
While postcommunist reformers called the process many things - democratization, liberalization, enlargement, convergence, integration, Europeanization - the goal remained the same. In order to become 'normal', their countries had to become like the West. Importing liberal-democracy institutions, applying western political and economic recipes, and endorsing western values were all part of this process.
Attempting to emulate a foreign model for economic and political reform, however, had far more moral and psychological downsides than many had anticipated. The imitator's life produces feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, dependency, lost identity.
Thus, xenophobia, authoritarian chauvinism, the political evolution into illiberalism we experience in Hungary, in Poland, etc. are less about politics than psychological factors: they reflect a deep-seated disgust with the post-1989 'imitation imperative' with all its demeaning and humiliating implications.
The rest is the history of today.
On the one hand, the European Union struggles to hold together the reasons of its Western founders with those of the former Soviet bloc countries. However, with the war of aggression against Ukraine, some of these countries have taken a leading part in the reaction to this war.
In the background, perhaps we need to overcome once and for all the mental maps inherited from the 18th century. The only way to speak of Europe and to rethink its identity is to start again from the East and from the reasons of identity that make it possible that - amazingly, and fortunately - Ukraine resists and does not bend, as might otherwise be ascribed to those who believe more in commercial reasons.
The European Union cannot emerge from this war divided, and some countries cannot be placed on top of others. The time has come to emphasise the word 'Union', and to redefine it - thirty years after it took on this name (Maastricht Treaty, 1992) - by giving it a new meaning.
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