Mykola Riabchuk | Kundera’s Fallacy, or the Tragedy of ‘Central Europe’ Three Decades Later

The paper attempts at a critical re-reading of Milan Kundera’s seminal 1985 article “The Tragedy of Eastern Europe”. At the time, the passionate claim for the ‘European belonging’ of the Soviet-occupied nations andfor theirlegitimate right to ‘return back’ into the free European family overshadowed the author’s essentialist view ofthe West and exclusivist stance vis-a-vis the rest. By closely tying the claim for freedom with the notion of ‘Europeanness’, the text established, implicitly and probably unintentionally, some hierarchy of ‘more’ and ‘less’ European nations and therefore more and less freedom-loving and deserving of immediate (or not-so-immediate) liberation. Kundera’s concept, as Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko aptly remarked, “may have been liberating for central Europe, but for the Europe situated further east it was disastrous. Instead of breaking down the wall between East and West, it simply shifted it further eastwards.” Today’s developments in the Central Europe –the alarming growth of nationalism and authoritarianism, the repulsive reaction to the refugee crisis, the startling indifference towards anything happening further eastand striking lack of solidarity with others’ ‘tragedies’ –arecertainly not a result of Kundera’s fallacy but rather a reflection of the same local mentality, samecultural traits and ethnic stereotypes,that were internalized even by the great writer and made him to fail. 

Tomasz Zarycki | Polish Europeanness as non-Russianess

In the proposed paper I will develop a thesis which was already present in my earlier works, in particular in the book “Ideologies of Eastness in Central and Eastern Europe” (Routledge 2014), namely that modern Polish identity is firmly based on the attitude towards Russia as the key negative point of reference, in particular for defining the Europeanness of Poland. Being Polish is thus clearly defined, at least from 1918, as being Central/Eastern European but not Russian or a “non-Russian”, which also involves an assumption of Russia being non-European. This compensatory construction of Polish identity, which relies on attempts at playing on the Western orientalization of Russia and Eastern Europe, involves efforts at firmly placing the border between symbolic East and West on the Bug river. One can point to the diverse effects of this general mechanism shaping the identity development mechanisms in modern Poland. They involve reinterpretations of Poland’s history with the assumption of Russian in all itsincarnations as the incarnation of universal evil. Another effect is an emphasis on “freedom” as one of the critical components of Polish identity, which is a direct reference to Poland’s opposition to the supposed innate “un-freedom” of Russia. As I willargue, in the context of the current structure of the political scene in Poland, we can talk about two competing ways of imagining Polishness as non-Russianness: liberal and conservative. The liberal orientalism rejects Russia as the incarnation of evil nationalism, authoritarianism, and anti-Westernism. The conservative orientalism rejects Russia as an opponent of Catholicism and specific Polish traditions of democracy. It also often links Russia to Germany, both in historical and cultural visions as wellas in terms of contemporary geopolitics. The conservative Polish orientalism often produces diverse geopolitical visions of Central Europe as a unique zone defined by its location between Russian and Germany and its love of freedom (e.g., intermarum) which shape thinking in this political camp but are usually skeptically viewed by the liberals. These mechanisms make any alliances between Poland and Russia almost impossible, even if one can note considerable homologies between the structure of the Polish and Russian fields of power (in particular similarities conservative criticism of Western Europe in both countries). In any case, as I will be arguing, from a structural point of view, orientalization of Russia is an inevitable aspect and mechanism of legitimization of the dependence of Central and Eastern Europe. Thus, I will also try to ask the question to what an extent the orientalization of Russia is primarily a cultural (discursive) phenomenon and to what an extent its “otherness” can or should also be recognized in the political and economic dimension. In other words, I will try to reflect to what an extent the debate on the identity of Poland and other Central European identities can be reduced to cultural dimension, and to what an extent it must be seen in the broader context of geo-economic and geopolitical structures of this part of Europe. 

Olesya Khromeychuk| Political Violence as a Route to Europeanness

‘We are Europe!’ ‘Wir sind Europa!’ ‘L’Ukraine c’est l’Europe!’ These and similar slogans were omnipresent at the Maidan protests in 2013-2014. To the protesters, this seemed like the moment when Ukraine, at least symbolically, joined the ‘real’ Europe.The message of the protesters to the rest of the world and to their compatriots in Ukraine was clear: we are no longer the grey area between the West and Russia, a buffer zone, a no man’s land; we are Europe. The protests were framed as standing for what were perceived to be European values—freedom of speech and assembly, protection of human rights, etc.—and even if Europe itself was beginning to forget its own values, Ukrainians were ready to fight and even die for them. The war in the Donbas region that followed the protests and the annexation of Crimea was framed in a way not dissimilar to the Maidan protests: Ukrainian officials were keen to emphasise that the hostilities which were claiming thousands of lives were happening in the middle of Europe,and that Ukrainians were dying not only for their own state but in order to defend the rest of Europe. Thus, in both the Maidan protests and in the war in Donbas, the engagement in political violence was an opportunity for the state and parts of society to reinforce the Europeanness of Ukraine in domestic as well as international representation of events. This paper will trace the ways in which the role of Ukraine as a European nation has been emphasized in popular cultural products that appeared sincethe Maidan protests and the start of the war, including museum exhibitions, films, theatre productions and essays written by intellectuals. It will examine the difference between the place awarded to Europeanness in state-endorsed representations of war and in those that were produced independently of the state. The paper will assess what this reimagination of Ukrainians as a European nation in the context of political violence meant to the way Ukraine is perceived in the West, and to the way Europe is perceived in Ukraine.

Daniel W. Pratt | Region Contra Nation: Silesia in Contemporary Polish Literature

In recent years, nationalism has had a resurgence in Central Europe, from PiS in Poland to Orban and Fidesz in Hungary. Two Polish authors, Olga Tokarczuk and Szczepan Twardoch are bucking this trend by focusing on Silesia, the former duchy with slippery borders, complex national allegiances, and linguistic diversity, now split between Germany, Poland, and Czechia.In this paper, I examine how Tokarczuk and Twardoch have used Silesia to dispute the dominant historical narratives in Polish history. On one level, the two authors could not be more different in tone, with Tokarczuk writing in fragmentary, feminist prose, and Twardoch using traditional narrative structures in overtly masculine writing. However, both portray Silesia as a multinational, multilingual, and multiethnic space, challenging the idea of a monocultural Poland. Both Tokarczuk and Twardoch have been criticized for their perspectives. In 2015, a member of the Sejm accused Tokarczuk of “contradicting established Polish political history,” thus insulting the Polish nation, a crime under Article 113 of the Criminal Code. Twardoch has courted controversy with his involvement in the Silesian independence movement.Tokarczuk, Twardoch, along with Andrzej Stasiuk in the Beskids and Paweł Huelle in Gdańsk complicate the historical narratives of Poland. For them, the peripheries retain the complex identities and history of East-Central Europe, rebelling against the idea of a unified Polish nation, or any nation, and rewriting the historical narrative in the process.

Larson Powell | Parables of Neighborhood: Andrzej Stasiuk’s Eastern Europe

The  travel  writings  of  Andrzej  Stasiuk  (b.  1960),  such  as Jadąc  do  Babadag(On  the  Road  to Babadag,  2004)orFado(2006),  promote  a  determined  rejection  of  the  European  Union  and  its Westernizing pressures.  Many of the topoiand tropes Stasiuk deploys to characterize his half-idealized, half-ironized Southeastern Europe (roughly,the territory of the former HabsburgEmpire, or oftenGalicia) have a long pedigree, dating to the “invention of Eastern Europe” in the Enlightenment.  Stasiuk is not trying to turn back the clock of history, but escape from history altogether, into a timeless space for which his provincial Europe is finallyan analogy–yet what he chronicles are still the ghosts of that history.My talk will explore thepoetics of Stasiuk’s writing as a parabolic variant of travel narrative. 

Uilleam Blacker | Pursuing Europe’s Traces in post-Soviet Ukrainian Urban Literature

Many intellectuals in post-war central Europe felt that their part of the continent had, under communism, been discursively and politically consigned toan impoverished existence as a second rate ‘eastern’ Europe. Being European, thus, became a much more urgent concern here than it was in the West. One way in which this ‘loss’ of Europeanness was explored –but also resisted –was through a literary engagement with urban space. After World War II, cities across east-central Europe were radically changed: the European architectural heritage was damaged or destroyed by the war and radical communist modernisation. Reacting against dominant communist and nationalist narratives, writers turned to local micro-mappings of urban space in order to find ways of processing the traumas of the mid-20thcentury and to re-imagine their part Europe. One of this trend’s most interesting iterations can be found in the literature of Ukraine. This paper will examine the different phases of post-Soviet Ukrainian literary urbanism. It will focus on attempts by writers to ‘re-Europeanise’ Ukrainian culture and identity by recovering the elusive traces of a forgotten European past in Ukrainian cities, yet at the same time, the paper will identify a distinctively playful, ironic and even sceptical attitude among writers towards the very endeavour of reimagining the Ukrainian city after-communism.

Benjamin Paloff | Whose Concentration Camp Is It, Anyway?: Instrumentalizing History on the Global Stage

When then-US President BarackObamamade a passing reference to “Polish death camps” in a 2012 speech, it provoked an international debate that culminatedsix years later in controversial amendments to Poland’s Act on the Institute of National Remembrance. This episode colorfully illustrates a contemporary challenge to historiography in Central and Eastern Europe that was largely unknown to historical representation in the Communist era. Before 1989, historical memory in the regionwas not only instrumentalized, usually to bolster state power, but also teleological, conforming to a peculiarly Soviet interpretation of Marxism. What has changed in the three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall is not simply a liberalization of historical truth regimes; indeed, throughout the region we find that state authorities and allied institutions are no less invested in managing a public historical consciousness now than they had been before. There is, however, a notable difference in the publics such authorities seek to control. Whereas official history before 1989 had been directed toward the domestic population, shaping national identity and political consciousness, it is now increasingly directed toward an international audience, effectively broadcasting the national narrative outward. And whilehistorical understanding within and outside the Soviet Bloc had effectively constituted parallel, at times starkly divergent universes, today we see an effort among formerly Communist states to normalize international historical consensus to domestic national perspectives.This paper examines the designs, unforeseen complications, and epistemological implications of such action, not as an effort to rewrite history, but as a program for reshapinghistoriography. Among the questions I consider are: What does it mean for a nation to “own” a former concentration camp? How can such a site function simultaneously as a “German camp” anda “Polish museum”? Is the nationalization of historical memory inherently suspect? And what does it suggest when public commentary is held to a higher evidentiary standard than academic analysis?

Eneken Laanes Soviet Holocaust? Negotiating the Memories of Soviet Mass Deportations in Baltic film

In the endtitles of an award-winning experimental feature film In the Crosswind (2014) about the Estonian experience of the Gulag the director Martti Helde controversially dedicates it to the “victims of the Soviet Holocaust”. The dedication while making reference to the Holocaust as a global icon (Assmann 2010) to construct a frame of reference for the film internationally, also raises important political and ethical questions. Since the disintergration of the Soviet Union Eastern European countries have on the political level sought recognition for their particular histories of the Second World War and Soviet terror by using the Holocaust as a template and by putting their demands in universalist terms as an attempt to construct a common European memory of its totalitarianisms (Mälksoo 2014). Despite universalist claims, however, the demands for equal recognition have sometimes led into fierce comparative and at times competitive discourses about the past.

This paper will ask what is at stake in these kinds of comparisons in cultural terms by  taking a look at a new wave of Baltic feature films, documentaries and animations that address the local legacies of the Gulag such as already mentioned In the Crosswind, Audrius Juzenas’s The Excursionist (2013), Viesturs Kairišs’s The Chronicles of Melanie (2016), and Ülo Pikkov’s Body Memory (2011). The paper shows that these films negotitate the Baltic memories of the Gulag in the context of the global memory cultures and often use memorial forms developed in that context to make local history known globally. The paper argues that cultural representation of the past and the debates they provoke may offer more productive comparative and translational approaches and help to untangle the most recalcitrant nodes of confrontational political discourses.

Neringa Klumbytė | Post-Soviet Dystopias: Testimonies of Historical Tragedies in Russian and Lithuanian Children’s Books   

After 2014, the new war frontiers have reshaped Eastern European societies (see Klumbytė 2019, Wanner 2019, Ozoliņa 2019). While the Baltic states remain strong allies of NATO and the EU, the undeclared but anticipated war have materialized in sovereign uncertainty, and relatedly, militarization, polarization of society, divisive historical justice politics, and challenges to liberalism. In my contribution to the conference I will analyze two books, Russian “Блокада Ленинграда. Детская книга” (“Leningrad Blockade. Children’s book,” 2019, Григорий Пернавский) and Lithuanian “Sibiro haiku” (“Siberian haiku,” 2017, Jurga Vilė and Lina Itagaki). Eighty page “Блокада Ленинграда” is introduced by its publishers as “The first book for children in Russia, which narrates the heroic and tragic history of Leningrad blockade during the Great Patriotic War” (https://5rim.ru/product/blokada-leningrada/).  The first book for children on Gulag, two hundred forty page “Sibiro haiku” was selected as Lithuania’s children’s book of the year 2018 (https://www.knygos.lt/lt/knygos/sibiro-haiku/). Both books represent a new graphic, informative, and documentary genre on history, which through the language of images and text translates historical tragedies to children. These books visualize historical-national norms of the post-Soviet period by focusing on tragic national past, historical injustices, and people’s suffering. While post-revolutionary children’s books on communism narrated Soviet utopias, I explore whether “Блокада Ленинграда” and “Sibiro haiku” communicate about post-Soviet dystopias of the new war frontiers in post-2014 Europe. 

Mitja Velikonja | The New Folklore: Neo-Traditionalism as the Cultural Logic of the Post-Socialist Transition

One of the most frequent intepretatations of cultural changes in post-socialist Eastern Europe is that it is going through the multi-sided and multi-layered retraditionalization. Following the ideological maxim of the end of the history, meaning the global triumph of neoliberalism, when any other future is inimaginable, main cultural trends turn to invented past of our true roots, faith of forefathers, unspoiled old times, autochthonous heritage, lost values  etc. So what we are experiencing now is not a simple return to the past as once existed, but in fact the process of neo-traditionalization  of the cultural sphere. Ambition of the presentation is to critically examine this radical shift with examples of such regressive re-essentialization in popular culture and media discourses in the broader context of profound political, social and ideological restructuration in the past three decades.

Anita Starosta | Nationalist Pastiche: Multiple Temporalities in the Countries of Degraded Form

In 2013, less than a year before Euromaidan and the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych remarked that the Other Europe is full of ruins—for him, “the perfect material for new combinations… an element in telling yet another story.” They are “a chance to create new images of the world.” While this hopeful possibility remains open, many of the images of the world created in post-89 Eastern Europe are instead ambivalent at best, with ruins most visibly recruited to bolstering insurgent far-right nationalisms and populist politics. Within the contemporary cultural landscape, the Other Europe now more than ever appears littered with remnants of history: fragments of narratives by turns amplified or reified in a nationalist pastiche; and symbols of past struggles and attachments (anti-fascist, nationalist, anti-Soviet, religious) marshaled in the service of new, reactionary politics.  Within the dominant national discourse of many Eastern European countries, this weight of history functions as an anchor for a maturing but still unstable state. To left and elite intellectuals and artists, by contrast, it appears both burdensome and necessary to examine. And, throughout the region, Western Europe—and with it, the Enlightenment tradition—appears to have lost its significance as an object of aspiration or emulation, and become an object of contestation. Starting primarily with observations on Poland, I ask whether there is indeed a single present to speak of—and whether thinking in terms of two or more temporalities at work in this present, or in terms of this present’s internal non-synchronicity, would not be an apt way to characterize the Other Europe’s contemporary culture. “Post-dependence” as a label would then carry more explanatory value than “post-Soviet.” And Witold Gombrowicz’s terms “secondary cultures” and “countries of degraded form”—though invented in the 1960s—may still retain their critical edge, even as I want to reconsider them in light of the newly populist official cultures. 

Petra James | The Spectre and the ‘Haunting Past’: Literary Representations of Central European Dictatorships of the 20th Century

The article analyses various literary representations of one of the common features of twentieth-century dictatorships and totalitarian political regimes: the ‘enforced disappearance’. The study focuses on several Central European novels and short stories (German, Czech, Slovak and Polish) published after 1989. The methodological framework adopted here is that of cultural memory and trauma studies that have lately received systematic scholarly interest in Central Europe (Kratochvil eds., 2015; Lysak eds. 2015). The study draws on the works of Paul Ricoeur, Michel de Certeau, Jacques Derrida, Berber Bevernage, Alexander Etkind, Esther Peeren and Stef Craps, especially on the way they define and interpret trauma and the ‘work of mourning’. The mechanisms of the ‘work of mourning’ function also on a collective level and are one of the ways of dealing with a traumatic past.

Dirk Uffelmann | Encountering the Other (of) European Migration 

My paper will be devoted to the negotiations of “Other-Europeanness” in literature by East European migrants to Western Europe. For the sake of narrowing down the corpus, my investigation will be centered around the recent (post-2004) Polish migration to the British Isles. This selectivity, however, does not result in reducing the scope to a mono-national (Polish) or bi-national (Polish-British and Polish-Irish) trajectory (Finkelstein 2016). Quite to the contrary: I am interested in the literary depictions of interactions between Polish work migrants and representatives of other ethnic groups, both those stemming from different East European regions (especially from post-Soviet countries such as Latvia and Ukraine) and from earlier waves of postcolonial immigration to Britain (Kovačevič 2018, Veličkovič 2019). With this twist against methodological nationalism (Wimmer, Glick Schiller 2002), or else against intercultural bi-nationalism, I make a case for taking into account the “super-diversity” (Vertovec 2007) produced by global work migration as it is reflected in literature by and about Polish migrants. The corpus consists of post-EU-accession texts and includes, among others, books by A.M. Bakalar, Gosia Brzezińska, Grzegorz Kopaczewski, Daniel Koziarski, Adam Miklasz, Jarek Sępek, and Daniel Zuchowski on the one hand, and Marina Lewycka and Aleksandrs Ruģēns alias Vilis Lācītis alias William B. Foreignerski, on the other. Given that the authors in question draw on diverse—Polish, British, Ukrainian,Latvian, and other East European—traditions of cultural and/or economic Othering, this paper scrutinizes both the mutual Orientalizing (and to some degree self-Orientalizing) tendencies and the transnationalizing trajectories involved. My working hypothesis is that the various inter-ethnic triangles imagined in the literary texts—be they Latvian-Polish-Pakistani, Ukrainian-Polish-Malawian or Polish-Ghanaian-Pakistani—induce intriguing complexity into the inner-European binary of Britons or Irish vs. Poles, for good or for bad. What I hope will arise from this transnationalizing perspective is a more differentiated panorama of the—also intrinsically super-diverse—other Europe. While the legacies of postcommunist and the postcolonial migration interact aspost-Soviet and inner-East European animosities and alliances revive, the only seemingly never-changing “colonial matrix of power” in the decolonial world” (Tlostanova, Mignolo 2012) is deprived of any universal ethical matrix.

Aniko Imre | Continuity in Disruption: Postsocialist Media Networks 

At a time when digital communication is nearly borderless and consumers have access to an unprecedented amount of content, a large part of the postsocialistpopulation has been retreating into protective, nationalistic enclaves reinforced by centralized, propagandistic news media infrastructures. This presentation tracks the historical reasons for and future implications of the relationships between these apparently contrasting phenomena. I examine how the communication and media networks of the late socialist era of the 1970s-80s have been deployed and reconfigured in the 2000s to provide material and ideological conditions on which to secure political control for right-wing, nationalistic, semi-authoritarian parties that have come to power in the post-socialist region following the global recession of 2008. I focus on the enduring purchase of nationalism and the historical and political circumstances that have made nationalistic discourses available for rebranding in a corporate environment; the effects of lingering linguistic isolation and fragmentation; of ambivalent or discriminatory EU media policies; of the role of high-cultural elitism; and the synergiesbetween socialist legacies and neoliberal ideology. I also want to comment on the proliferation of digital media and communications services and the significance of transnational corporate investment in Eastern Europe, which have turned East European capitals into global production centers. I zoom in on Netflix’s attempts to conquer the East European market and on HBO Europe’s local operations in Prague and Budapest, particularly on the ways in which their more diverse, liberal and Europe-facing approach has incorporated local histories, themes and characters in creating a cosmopolitan quality brand and navigated the political divides, cultural differences and policy initiatives that have shaped the (Eastern) European media sphere since the 1990s.