Research Notes

My View of the West: the avant-garde for Russian and Ukrainian social movements

Olga Baysha

The West or, rather, the image of the West as constructed by Russian and Ukrainian social movements for democratization, occupies an important place in my research. The narrative of unidirectional progress, employed by all the social movements I have analyzed, presents the West as the avant-garde leading humanity toward the “normal” modern condition in which no cultural or historical differences matter, and where all societies ultimately look the same. Whether in Gorbachev’s USSR, Putin’s Russia, or Yanukovych’s Ukraine, the discourse of unidirectional progress always presumes an inexorable movement of humankind toward an advanced Western condition where the ultimate truth, hitherto obscured, can finally be unveiled.

In the presentation of many Ukrainian and Russian activists for social justice, whose discursive constructions I have analyzed, the West emerges as an undeniable moral force with the right to judge, pass verdicts and impose punishment. Aligning themselves with the “civilized” West, these activists present themselves as “educated people,” “people who stand for their dignity,” who are “very motivated,” “goal-seeking,” “smart,” and “responsible.” Often, they imagine their struggle for “democratization” as an attempt to jump out of the dark medieval ages – the premodern state of human development – to the era of the Enlightenment. This struggle is conceived as an attempt to breach the new iron curtain that separate Ukraine and Russia from the condition of the highest modernity as represented by the West. The social condition of the contemporary West is presented to be a norm against which those who are thought unfit could be judged.

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This grand simplification of social and political realities, which are always much more complicated than the simple duality of “good/progressive vs. evil/backward,” develops into a tendency among “democratically minded” activists to see all opponents – not only those in power – as “jackals,” “the bootlickers of the regime,” “traitors,” or just “weak and demoralized people.” Because of their “inadequacy,” or “abnormality,” to put it in Michel Foucault’s terms, the opponents of democratization equated to Westernization are seen not as human beings or citizens whose opinions deserved to be taken into account: They appear as “idiots,” “sovoks” (derogative term to denote the Soviet condition), or “serfs.” The latter, in the opinion of many activists for “democratization,” have a chance “to become Human Beings”– they just needed to take their “progressive” stance.

The problem with the modernizing mission of the social movements with a West-centric imaginary is that all of them end up undermining democracy rather than promoting it, as they diminish and marginalize their presumably underdeveloped compatriots, and colonize them by excluding their voices from deliberation on important issues of societal transformations within “progressive” public spheres. As I argue in my recent book Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Ukraine, this West-centered imaginary is internally antagonistic.

Establishing a solid, impermeable barrier between activists pushing forward the agenda of universal globalization and “others” who oppose it, the discourse of democratization equated to Westernization creates the conditions for a “maximum separation,” when “no element in the system of equivalences enters into relations other than those of opposition to the elements of the other system,” as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe famously argued. It does not allow for a democratic exchange of opinions between the two antagonistic camps within a symbolically shared space.

The author (Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder) is an Assistant Professor at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (Moscow, the Russian Federation). Her research centers mainly on political and cultural aspects of globalization with an emphasis on new media and global social movements for justice and democratization. Dr. Baysha is especially interested in analyzing inherent anti-democratic tendencies of the discourses of Westernization employed by post-Soviet social movements. Dr. Baysha is the author of two books: The Mythologies of Capitalism and the End of the Soviet Project (Lexington, 2014) and Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Urkaine (Lexington, 2018).

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

The Shadowy Boundaries of East and West: Russia in the British Enlightenment Geography

By Oili Pulkkinen

Displacing East and West

We are prone to think that Russia, throughout modern European history, stood as the gate between Europe and Asia, the West and the East. Russia has represented otherness, inferiority and underdevelopment, and probably provided Europeans with a first pattern of backwardness against which they could measure their own civilizational achievements.

However, “east” and “west” (and “western”) were merely spatial concepts in eighteenth-century geography, devoid of specific political or cultural connotations. Nonetheless, it was the case for the Europeans, for whom ”Europe” and ”European” were synonymous with cultural, economic, political, technological advance and superiority, and more broadly, with the whole process called modernity. The representations of the East, by contrast, were more blurred and ambiguous. On the one hand, the East was seen as cruel, uncivilised and underdeveloped. On the other hand, it looked attractive because of its aura of mystery, and its flow of luxury items. Moreover, one must not forget that the Biblical Eden was situated in the East.

Further, the shift from a three-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa) to a four-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America) after the discovery of America has been problematic for the Enlightenment geography which was based on a division of the globe in two continents (in modern terms “tectonic plates”): the Eastern and the Western continents, that is, Europe, Asia and Africa located on the former, and America on the latter. This division corresponded to the contrast between “The Old World” and “The New World”, which was an elementary part of the new Newtonian, scientific geography. Thus, Europe, Asia and Africa were situated in the geographical “east” rather than  the geographical “west”.

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The eighteenth-century globe was divided into the Eastern and Western Continents in William Guthrie A New Geographical, Historical and Commercial Grammar, 1799 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online ECCO, Gale).

The Russian Empire

Russia and the Russians were characterised and depicted through European standards. For example, the Orthodox religion was seen as the Catholic religion without the pope, while Russian workers were held to be as good as Scotsmen, strong and robust. Nonetheless, from the European perspective, Russia was not only perceived as inferior; it had rich natural sources, commercial connections with the East, and excellent water routes (rivers) for this purpose, as well as good development prospects.

Even though Russia and Europe were located on the same continent, Russia was culturally different from the other countries of the continent, especially France and Britain. One indication of this was the poor status of Russian women. The stereotypical depiction of Russians as binge vodka drinkers was a commonplace, and even the number of vodka shops were recorded in the entries on Russia in geography books of the time. Russia, and especially Russian environment and nature were described as more “Nordic” than “Eastern” part of the Continent, snowy and cold.

Compared with the other European empires (especially Britain, France and Spain), the Russian Empire was a massive landmass. Europeans subdivided it into large parts, European Russia and Asian Russia in Asia, and smaller units, like Moscovite Russia and Tartary. Before the emergence of ethnographic research in the late Enlightenment, a couple of Russian minorities were mentioned, but the distinctions between various minorities living in Russia and between these and the Russians were not explained. Usually minorities were simply named ”Tartars”.

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The map of the Russian Empire in Atlas to Guthrie’s System of Geography, 1800 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, ECCO, Gale). Russia was generally pictured in two separate maps of Russia in Europe and Russia in Asia, but in this map the vast empire is pictured in one map.

Russians had not always been “Russians”. Although geography and history were distinct areas of scientific knowledge in the eighteenth-century, historical details were recorded in the geography books. Since the origin and history of nations was a crucial element of nationhood (not yet nationalism), it was important to explain the origins of geographical terms and names. For instance, several different origins, each bearing a different connotation, were attributed to the name “Europe”. Similarly, it was assumed that ‘Russia’ originated either from russus, meaning a dispersant, and a wanderer, or from the ancient Croatian Prince Russus.

According to the Russians’ historical narrative, the conquered Russians had become the conquerors. The heart of real Russia had been Moscow, and it still was, despite the fact that Peter the Great founded a new capital, St Petersburg. By contrast, official modern historical narratives tell that (Orthodox) Russia originated from Kievian Russia, but according to the eighteenth-century geography, Kiev had been, and remained, the Russia of the Cossacks, rather than the cradle of Russia.

Russia, the largest empire in the world in spatial terms in the 18th century, if it not appeared entirely strange, certainly looked very different from (other parts of) Europe according to British Enlightenment geography, on the cultural level no less than in its geographical setting.

The author has a PhD in social sciences (political science) at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her research interests include the Scottish Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century geography and the conceptual history of politics. She is currently preparing a research project on critique of democracy. This text is based on the author’s article ‘Russia and the Euro-Centric Geography During the British Enlightenment’ in the special issue on the Nordic Enlightenment  in Transcultural Studies (Brill) 2018(2), 150–170.

My View of the West: The Colorful History of European Nationalisms

Marja Vuorinen

I started my study of European nationalisms by looking at the period when nations were busy creating themselves. The time was the second half of the 19th century, and the place the Finnish Grand-Duchy where a conflict between the aspiring commoner intelligentsia and the declining nobility had emerged.

During that time, nationalism as an ethno-linguistic-cultural project was particularly popular among the minority nations of the four multinational empires – the Russian (of which Finland was a part), Prussian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman – making up the eastern half of Europe. By the end of the century, progressive nationalists promoted democratic politics, meritocratic principle in recruiting bureaucrats, educational reform, social and gender equality, and land reform.

To justify the takeover of governance by popular forces, the commoner stratum created a powerful enemy image. The nobility were presented as the enemy of the People, Equality, Peace, and Progress – a parasite class of supranational aristocracy, clinging to royal traditions, exploiting peasantry, leading men to war, growing fat on taxes and forbidding female emancipation, particularly the marriages of their daughters to commoner men. My dissertation, titled An imagined nobleman: Nobility as an enemy image and in-group identity in nineteenth-century Finland (transl. from Finnish) dealt with the story of this mainly print-media-borne battle, but considering the viewpoints of both sides.

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After WWI, the former separatist minorities emerged from under the collapsed empires as independent nation-states, most with republican constitutions. However, the great Western narrative of emancipatory small-state nationalism soon landed on its belly, swamped by the hard-core nationalistic, military ambitions that led to WWII. The ensuing division into two Blocs eventually came to an end, and, by the millennium, Francis Fukuyama had tentatively declared the End of History, while Samuel Huntington prophesied a Clash of Civilisations.

In the 2010s, nationalistic strivings are back with a vengeance. For a historian of political conflicts, enemy images and aggressive rhetoric, things seems to have returned rather to business as usual.

The author is a PhD (Social sciences), and acts as a researcher at the Department of Political and Economic studies, University of Helsinki. Her current project focuses on Finnish hate speech throughout the ages. Her other research interests range from the ideological trends within the 21st century neo-nationalist far right to the local cultural history of her native town of Lappeenranta.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

My View of the West: Mining the Soviet-era archives to study art exchange

Simo Mikkonen

Last month, I wrote about my key research interest, art in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the West. What follows, is a quick glance at what kind of activities I have been engaged in regarding the topic.  For about ten years, I have been searching through archives, especially in Moscow. Some of the political archives contain reports, decisions and correspondence of Soviet officials between different domestic actors as well as foreign actors. By contrast, the other archives I have been investigating have more cultural content, including materials produced by artists and artistic organisations, and detailing their foreign activities and attempts to interact with their colleagues.

My interests have focused both on the official level, including cultural diplomacy and the use of culture as part of Soviet foreign politics, and on the lower levels of organization. When we look at the interaction of individual artists and artistic organisations, foreign politics play a much smaller role compared to the more official level. The emphasis is more on the transnational networks, the making of art, and attempts to overcome political and ideological divisions in doing so. At the same time, the borderlines of these different layers are far from clear.

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Quite often, my research falls into what is called the study of the cultural Cold War. This concept is elusive; therefore, I found it important to participate in defining it in a volume called Entangled Histories of Cold War Europe I edited for Berghahn in 2015. After editing this volume, I wanted to focus more on Soviet cultural diplomacy, which resulted in Music, Art and Diplomacy (Routledge 2016). Finally, in Entangled East and West (2018), which I edited as part of the Rethinking the Cold War series by De Gruyter, I examined the concept of cultural diplomacy and especially how it can be supported through empirical research.

Today, my research on the topic continues. Through interviews with artists and administrators as well as by examining new archival material, I aim to gain a better understanding of how interactions with the West influenced Soviet art. Furthermore, issues that I feel require further research are the nature of the interaction of artists and how they experienced contacts with the West.

The author is Finnish Academy Research Fellow (2014-19), Docent of Russian History, and Senior Researcher (on leave) in University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

Soviet Art and the West during the Cold War: A Constant Dilemma?

By Simo Mikkonen

From the Russian Revolution onwards, the West presented a problem for the Soviet Union (“Soviet Russia” until 1922) and its key ideologues. It became an adversary, but also a competitor and a point of reference. The West was something that the Soviet Union strove to not only catch up to, but surpass, with the primary foci being economic and technological development. The Soviet Union tried to stand out from the West in terms of political thought, social order and culture, which caused a dilemma about how to deal with the West.

As per Marxist theories, the West should have been in decline, but it was clear that the West was constantly ahead of the Soviet Union, especially in technological and economic development. Throughout its existence, the Soviet Union was forced—either willingly or unwillingly—to address advances in Western countries. In culture, the situation was not simple. The world of art, which is my key interest, underwent many changes during the Soviet years as connections with the West increased and decreased but never ceased altogether.

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Soviet cultural event in Messuhalli, Helsinki. Artistic program was joined with political speeches supporting communist incumbents for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Behind, pictures of Soviet leaders. (Photo courtesy of Helsinki City Museum, N153651, photographed by Väinö Kannisto, 23.2.1945.)

In my doctoral dissertation (2007), I examined the development of Soviet music policies in the 1930s. I used music as a window to Soviet authorities’ perception of music, and to the demands directed at composers and music professionals by the Soviet power. Notably, the arts were given an important role in the ideological and political education of Soviet citizens. Artists were made a part of the Soviet elite yet were expected to align with the ideological and political demands of the system.

During the Stalin era (c. 1930–1953), the West was portrayed as a clear enemy, and everything Western became ideologically undesirable. In the arts, this meant the rejection of contemporary (post-1918) Western artistic developments. Socialist realism, even if it never was a clearly defined concept, became a template for all areas of the arts. The cornerstones of Stalin-era art were the people (art must be understandable), Soviet ideology (art must support the Party), realism (art must be representational) and anti-Westernism. Conversely, pre-revolutionary classical Western art was warmly embraced. The music of Mozart and Bach and the plays of Shakespeare and other classics became the key building blocks of Soviet art.

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Enter Soviet delegations at the (socialist) Youth Festival arranged in Romania. (Photo courtesy of The People’s Archives, KansA101284, photographed by Yrjö Lintunen, 2.8.1953.) 

The world of art is by default international and cosmopolitan. The arts have always shunned national borders, and the mobility of artists has been quite natural. Thus, before the First World War (1914–1918) and the Russian Revolution, artists of the Russian Empire were in close connection with the West through traveling and often living in European metropolises, such as Paris, Rome, London and Berlin. After the Revolution, many artists left Russia. By the 1930s, the Soviet Union had begun to systematically cut its ties between Soviet artists and their Western colleagues. Although these cuts were never completed, a generation of Soviet artists essentially grew up in a void, where Western influences were kept to a minimum.

Stalin’s death in 1953 began a new era of openness towards the West. Most artists embraced the change, but were given few chances to interact with their Western colleagues. When contacts between the Soviet Union and the West were revived, performing artists (versus creative artists) were allowed to travel the most. For example, in the area of music, instead of sending Soviet composers abroad to promote their works, the Soviet Union sent its world-class musicians all around the world. Typically, they would play Western (and Russian) classics rather than Soviet-era works.

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Mikhail Khomizer, Olli Alho, Dmitri Hintze, Igor Bezrodny, Väinö Starck, an unknown woman and Dmitri Bashkirov at Jyväskylän Kesä (“Summer of Jyväskylä”) festival in 1968. Encounters between Soviet and Western artists increased gradually in places like Jyväskylän Kesä. (Photo: Courtesy of Jyväskylän Kesä archives, June 1968, photographer unknown).

The Soviet Union had ideological reasons to engage the West after a quarter-century of voluntary isolation: Soviet leadership wanted to challenge the capitalist West and prove Soviet superiority in culture, economics, the military and technology. By sending its best artists and troupes abroad, it wanted to appeal to Western audiences. By winning over the Western populace—or, at the very least, proving that the Soviet Union was also a cultural superpower—the Soviet Union wanted to increase pro-Soviet sentiments and decrease the appeal and outreach of anti-communist forces.

This approach was not new; rather, the target of the capitalist West was a novelty from the mid-1950s. After the Second World War, the best Soviet artistic forces were sent all over Soviet-occupied Europe to astonish and charm the local populace, which was sometimes quite wary of Soviet objectives. There was also one country that, while not occupied by the Soviet Union, nevertheless received many Soviet artistic visitors throughout the first post-war decade: Finland. From the mid-1950s onwards, this approach was broadened to the rest of the capitalist West and to developing countries. It was also significantly expanded.

The author is Finnish Academy Research Fellow (2014-19), Docent of Russian History, and Senior Researcher (on leave) in University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Cold War Feminism

By Katri Kauhanen

Cold War history is no longer simply history of great powers, diplomacy and war. Women’s and gender history has rapidly paved the way for gendered interpretations of the period that greatly shaped the way the world looks today.

The Cold war era included multiple feminist manifestations and womanly imaginaries. On the one hand, we have the conservative 1950s and the domestic ideal of housewife that Betty Friedan described in her Feminine Mystique (1963), on the other hand the late 1960s witnessed a severe outburst of women’s experiences on gender inequality, sexual harassment and power oppression. The United Nations celebrated 1975 as the International Women’s Year and in the 1980s female figures as different as Madonna and Margaret Thatcher showed what women can be and do. How did the Cold War influence these events and many more?

In my PhD dissertation I study the concept ‘Cold War feminism’ by asking how feminism was interpreted in the context of the Cold War. Cold War feminism refers not only to the idea of gender justice but to the multiple explorations and explanations how feminism could be practiced and how gender equality could be achieved. Cold War feminism is by nature understood as a transnational project. Transnational history of global feminisms complicates the idea of wave feminism and makes visible how feminist projects in different parts of the world emerged and resonated with each other. Furthermore, it challenges the idea that feminisms always originates from the West.

In my work, I examine more closely how Cold War feminism was practiced in South Korea from 1950s to 1980s. To do so, I look at the relationship between a South Korean women’s organization, the Korean National Council of Women, and its international head organization, the International Council of Women. In other words, my approach focuses on the activities of women’s organizations on national and transnational levels. International Council of Women was one of the organizations that received a consultative status at the newly established United Nations and became active participant in the discussions at the Commission on the Status of Women. Through its involvement in the International Council of Women since 1960, the Korean National Council of Women became a mediator between the global movement to improve the status of women and the local conditions in quickly modernizing South Korea.

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The Cold War drove also the women’s organizations into a war with each other. The old organizations, like the International Council of Women, got challenged by a new-comer, the Women’s International Democratic Federation that represented leftist feminism against the liberal one. The women’s organizations rivaled each other in the United Nations but also in competition over the hearts of women in decolonizing Asia and Africa where both organizations rapidly expanded during the Cold War. How South Korean women were affiliated to the International Council of Women is part of this story where not only geographical but ideological leanings played a major role.

The West-East division is an interesting issue in the framework of Cold War feminism.  The West and the East do not match with the conventionally held geographical areas here, yet there are multiple assumptions on the belonging of different actors to either side. For example, South Korea’s position in the Cold War located it to the Western camp along with Japan. The organized women’s activism in South Korea took a strong anti-communist stance while all leftist ideas were regarded as dangerous to the state. Being anti-communist was no problem for the International Council of Women that, on the contrary, was busy criticizing the women part of the Women’s International Democratic Federation for being political, or in other words communist.

It was also believed that communism was located in the East and feminist endeavors there were buried under the state’s agenda.  In other words, it was viewed that the West-East division divided also feminisms into free and unpolitical in the West and state-controlled and political in the East. The recent scholarship on the Cold War feminisms has had to work hard to resolve these assumptions and the task is only at the beginning.

The author is a doctoral candidate in at the Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS) of University of Turku, Finland.

My View of the West: Russia, Turkey and Western influence

Toni Alaranta

While I was reading Igor Zevelev’s report Russian National Identity and Foreign Policy (2016), I realized how similar is the close association of foreign policy and national identity in my own research topic, Turkey. Only recently, I have started to better understand how profoundly challenging task the combining of Western influences with own traditions has been in Turkey – and, as I can now see, in Russia as well. These observations lead to the question why all this anxiety? Why is the ability to define and then protect the national identity such a fundamental endeavour? Even though the central role and the need for ‘we’ structures is duly acknowledged in scholarly literature, it seems that the collectively upheld anxiety if these ‘we’ structures come under challenge is even stronger than previously thought.

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Thinking about the last 150 years, one can argue that the problem of how to combine one’s own and Western culture has not for a second ceased to occupy the intellectual class in Russia and Turkey. Further, the current national discourses in these countries are overheated due to this anxiety. All this creates profound turmoil in the current international system. At least partly similar processes of redefinition, or renegotiation, of national identity take place in several other countries, including the Western nations, and these have their repercussions in the international level. However, it feels fair to say that in the case of Russia and Turkey, the idea of own, allegedly authentic (civilizational) national identity under threat now results in a foreign policy transformation where stakes are much higher compared to various other state actors.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow at Finnish Institute of International Affairs. 

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.