Whiteness, Christianity and capitalism: Troubling the concept of Western values

By Pia Mikander

In his traditional New Year’s speech on January 1st, 2019, the Finnish president referred to democracy, equality and freedom as European values. These are often regarded not only as European values, but also as encompassing the larger, more ideological unit of ‘the West’. (See Mikander 2015 for further discussion on how Europe is also an ideological unit, not just a geographical one, but the idea of the West is primarily ideological.)

Exporting European values has changed into defending them on home ground. And are we seeing attempts to import values alien to us? We know what the opposites of democracy, equality and freedom are.  (Niinistö, 2019.)

The concept of Western values is used extensively in texts ranging from news reporting to politicians’ speeches. Finnish school textbooks, which form the object of my PhD thesis (2016a), also refer to the concept. Here, my suggestion is to discuss the idea of Western values and Western identity not from the perspective of democracy, equality and freedom but through some very different lenses: whiteness, Christianity and capitalism. I think that a way to approach the idea of the West is through the following questions: Who can claim a Western identity? Who is considered as encompassing Western values? I will propose an example:

Suppose that a penniless woman, Rohingya Muslim, who was flown from a refugee camp to Helsinki as part of the quota refugee system, would show up in Finnish language class and talk endlessly about how she believes in democracy, equality and freedom. Would she be considered to be representing Western values and a Western identity to a larger extent than her fellow Helsinkian businessman with a Lutheran background who voted for parties with anti-democratic agendas, debated against same-sex marriage and thought that the recent Danish suggestion to imprison migrants on a deserted island was a good idea? Or would he, despite opposing these examples of democracy, equality and freedom, be considered as more naturally connected to Westernness, complete with a Western identity and Western values?

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Whiteness is not Westernness – but it can help us understand it

The concept of Western values can benefit from theoretical tools departing from critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness scholars analyze the hegemonic power structures that work to benefit people who are racialized as white (Ahmed, 2011; Mattson, 2004). Alastair Bonnett (2004), however, reminds us that West is not simply a euphemism for white. First of all, there is an inclusivity connected to Westernness that is not part of whiteness. The Finnish president could be said to refer to this inclusivity when mentioning the “Exporting European values”. More people can thereby come to be part of this European/Western community of values.

Perhaps it is theoretically possible for anyone to be a part of Westernness, while not anyone could identify as white. As according to Bonnett, the concept of the West includes a set of values that could theoretically be open for anyone to embrace; at the same time, however, it seems that the inclusiveness is not genuine: the whole world cannot become “Western.” The idea of Western values requires a counterpart, and without it, there would be no need for it as an identity category. The concepts of whiteness links to corporeality and embodied experiences, such as being able to pass through security gates and seeing representations of oneself in positions of power, while Westernness is considered an ideological identity. Still, they bear a certain resemblance.

Westerness and whiteness are often used in different contexts but are at least to some extent both socially constructed categories that work to include and exclude people. The distinction between the two is not a simple one. There has been and still is plenty of ideological meaning given to the embodied concept of whiteness. Mattson (2004, p. 124), for instance, considers there to be a “globally embedded imagination” including the idea that white people are connected through their ideological sameness. Whiteness would then be considered connected to more than corporeality.

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This suggests that whiteness connects to an ideology of being Western. The woman in my above-mentioned example might thus have to prove her values and identity as a Westerner in ways that the man in the same example would not. People could frown upon hearing about his fascination with anti-democratic parties, but they might be less likely to question his Westernness. This, to me, is one example of how the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness between the concepts of Western and white works. Studying the concept of Western values from the perspective of whiteness helps examine the concept of the West in a less neutral light. As I argue in my PhD thesis (p. 28), concerning the socially constructed categories of whiteness and Westernness:

One major difference between the categories “white” and “Western” is the extent to which they are politicized. The concepts are perceived and used very differently. This includes mainstream media and to a lesser degree some of the academic debate, where “West,” “Westerners” and “Western values” are used extensively (Bonnett, 2004). Whether these concepts are defined, for instance, as including democracy and human rights, or simply left without definition, they mostly pass without much notice, not raising much concern. If, let’s say, democracy or human rights were referred to as “white values,” or if the news media reported about threats to the “white world” in the same ways as “Western values” or the “Western world” are mentioned today, most people would probably react with dismay. Yet there are rarely any such reactions towards the frequent references to Western values and Westernness.

The ease with which Western values are referred to, and the absolute unease the idea of white values would awake, suggests that the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness has not been completely dealt with. Few people would consider the concept of Western values problematic at all. My argument is that they perhaps should. One reason why whiteness as a concept is so much more uncomfortable than the concept of Westernness is, obviously, to be found in Europe’s long history of race theories and racism. The concept of whiteness brings this history to mind perhaps more easily than the concept of Westernness does.

Christianity as an ambiguous basis for Western values

Before European, let alone Western, was an identity, there was a notion of Christianity as an ideological unity. According to Bonnett (1998), modernity brought along the idea that there was a linkage between whiteness, Europeanness and Christianity. Christianity is an identity connected to values in a direct way, even if there is no absolute agreement over what these values stand for. Valuing democracy, equality and freedom has not always been the first priority of the church – still, politicians in Finland, like in the rest of Europe, might suggest that Finnish migrant policy should favor Christian refugees since they could easier integrate into Finnish society. This is to suggest that one key to being part of what is Western is to be a Christian.

Many have considered there to be a link between Christianity and Westernness as entities of value and identity. Others, however, would argue that Christianity is not at the heart of what is commonly understood as Western values. In fact, people who oppose furthering equality in concrete political measures, such as the freedom and rights for sexual minorities, often refer to Christianity for arguments. To this debate, it is worth considering that Bonnett (2004) sees the historical relationship between the concept of Western values and Christianity as shifting dramatically in the last century.

During the early 20th century, with rising socialist parties that denounced religion, atheism was discursively constructed as the height of Westernness. When the Soviet Union later became the antipode of the West, a Western identity went back to including religiosity in the name of Christianity. After the fall of the communist anti-West, when the religiously coded Arab or Islamic world came to be what a Western identity distanced itself mostly from, a skeptical attitude to religion became a more integral part of the discursive constructions of what it means to be Western and adhere to Western values.

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There are many potential ways of approaching the relationship between Christianity and a Western identity. One is to look at the differences between the countries considered as Western and the role Christianity plays in their societal contexts, such as on different sides of the North Atlantic. Europeans might consider US political references to God as confusing. However, within Europe, too, Christianity is displayed very differently in different countries and regions. Speaking of Christianity as a fountain of European values often ignores Europe’s violent history of war between different Christian denominations and how differently Catholic and Protestant cultures have been constructed.

The significance of Christianity in society varies greatly between countries considered Western. There are several examples of this, on a structural level as well as on a more discursive level. An example of structural differences is how differently religious education is taught in schools between and even within countries. From the French policy of laïcite to Irish schools with Christianity as an integral part of primary education, and Finland where students are taught their own religions within public schools – the only pattern to be found is that of a diversity of ways of connecting the teaching of religions values within nations. Germany, and the USA, serve as examples to show that there can be plenty of variations also within nations regarding how religion is taught in schools. On a structural level, it is hard to find consistent patterns of what Christianity means to Westernness.

On a discursive level, I would suggest that there are similar distinctions between how the concept of Western values connects to values regarded as Christian. Christianity is referred to in order to make value judgments of a wide range. Consider the differences between statements such as “Being a Christian, I oppose gay marriage” and “Being a Christian, I oppose deportations”. Christian activists in Europe and the USA might base their actions on their religion whether they target abortion clinics or help undocumented migrants hide from authorities. Although Christianity is often constructed as an integral part of Westernness, it is hard to single out what it means in concrete terms today.  

Capitalism, wealth and Western values

The connection between capitalism and the concept of the West is not self-evident. The Cold War is over, many countries far away from the “West” are based on market economy, and several countries considered Western have social democratic solutions that constrain capitalist economy. One reason why the woman in my initial example might not be seen as representing Westernness to the same degree as the businessman is not simply that she would not be considered white, or having a Christian background, but also because she is completely broke.

In my analyzed Finnish school textbooks I found descriptions of Western values and what is typical for the West. In addition to the often cited democracy, equality and freedom, there were some interesting views related to wealth. A geography book suggested that part of Western culture is that people have the right to a high standard of living. Another geography book suggested that a high standard of living is typical for the European continent. (see Mikander, 2015).

Above, “culture” and “typical” have important meaning. It is not simply to state that much of the wealth of the world today is gathered in pockets of people who represent countries considered Western (most of the richest 1%, who own half of the world’s wealth still live on either side of the North Atlantic, even though the percentage of Asians in the group is growing). No, the textbooks could be considered to reflect the idea that being wealthy and having a high standard of living is more than a coincidence, it is part of what is constructed as Westernness.

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Sometimes capitalism is used as an argument regarding conflicts of values. When I studied the textbook descriptions of 9/11 in New York and the following Afghanistan and Iraq wars (Mikander, 2012), I found a history textbook with the following description:

The attacks led to the death of 3,000 innocent people, people from many different countries belonging to several religions and language groups. But the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world. Within the economy, “business as usual” still rules. Even though the aerial industry suffered hard losses, stricter control made it safer to fly. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 267.)

In this history textbook for grade 8, it is suggested that the attacks might have caused the aerial industry hard losses, however, the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world, since the economy was not destroyed and business as usual could go on. Crushing the Western world would thereby first of all have meant to destroy the economy, not the idea of democracy, equality or freedom. This can be seen as a response to how the same book describes the connection between capitalism and Westernness at an earlier stage:

It was not with the help of weapons that the Western world became the winners of the Cold War. It was the Western economic system, capitalism, or the market economy, that turned out to be stronger than the communist planned economy system. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 161.)

When describing Westernness and capitalism or the accumulation of wealth, it is worth noting that social studies textbooks arbitrarily or even seldom make connections to colonialism and its ongoing legacy, even though colonialist ventures have had such a fundamental impact on the economies in Europe and the USA.

Where to look for Western values?

Nowadays, there is a simultaneous worry about population growth far away and fewer babies in many European countries, for instance. The idea often cited in nationalist discourse is that Western populations need to be stimulated by Western women having more children, not by increasing immigration. In this sense,  Western values and Westernness are seen as inherent, not acquirable. If the woman of my example above chooses to have babies in her new homeland, it is not necessarily considered a gain for Westernness, no matter how much she teaches them about freedom, equality and democracy.

Recently, I compiled a list of leaders and their political profiles in the world’s thirteen most populated countries. I realized that the majority of the leaders on the list were right-wing populist, and thereby not particularly famous for being spokespeople for freedom, democracy or equality – in the sense that all human beings are entitled to the same rights. The clearest exception on my list was the Ethiopian president who through his belief in religious dialogue had helped end the decade-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

And it struck me: during times when European and US border politics might not be characterized by democracy, freedom and equality – maybe we should lift our gaze and look for these values on a larger scale? Maybe we will keep looking for the values that the Finnish president refers to, and end up realizing they were never merely Western?

The author is a senior lecturer in history and social studies didactics at the University of Helsinki. Follow Pia on Twitter here.

References

  • Ahmed, S. (2011). Vithetens hegemoni. Hägersten: Tankekraft förlag.
  • Bonnett, A. (1998). Who was white? The disappearance of non-European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21 (6), 1029—1055.
  • Bonnett, A. (2004). The Idea of the West. Culture, Politics and History. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mattson, K. (2004). Vit rasism. In K. Mattson & I. Lindberg (Eds.) Rasismer i Europa – kontinuitet och förändring. Rapport från forskarseminariet 5 november 2003. Stockholm: Agora, 108—141.
  • Mikander, P. (2012). Othering and the construction of West: The descriptions of two historical events in Finnish school textbooks. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices 6(1), 31—45.
  • Mikander, P. (2015). Democracy and Human Rights: A Critical Look at the Concept of Western Values in Finnish School Textbooks. In K. Hahl, P-M. Niemi, R. Johnson Longfor & F. Dervin (Eds.). Diversities and interculturality in Textbooks. Finland as an Example. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 107—124.
  • Mikander, P., (2015) Colonialist ‘discoveries’ in Finnish school textbooks, Nordidactica – Journal of humanities and social science education, (4): 48–65.
  • Mikander, P., (2016a) Westerners and others in Finnish school textbooks, Thesis (PhD), University of Helsinki.
  • Mikander, P. (2016b). Globalization as Continuing Colonialism: Critical Global Citizenship Education in an Unequal World. Journal of Social Science Education 15(2), 70—79.
  • Niinistö, S. (2019). President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s Speech on 1 January 2019.

Schedule (tentative)

The conference will take at University of Jyväskylä Main Building (+ Building P)

Day 1, WEDNESDAY (June 5) 

12:00 Registration (Entrance Hall, Main Building)

13:20 Welcome

13:30 Keynote by Prof. Cecelia Lynch followed by comments

15:00 Coffee Break

15:30 Panels

17:30 Coffee Break

18:00 Panels

20:00 Reception (Entrance Hall)

Day 2, THURSDAY (June 6)

9:30 Registration (Entrance Hall)

10:30 Panels

12:30 Lunch

14:00 Keynote by Prof. Riccardo Bavaj followed by comments

15:30 Coffee Break

16:00 Panels

18:00 Free time

19:30 Dinner (downtown Jyväskylä)

Day 3, FRIDAY (June 7)

10:00 Panels

12:00 Coffee

12:15 Round Table

13:30 Conclusion

14:00 Lunch Cruise

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.