When Eastern Europeans fight Russians they capture the sympathies of the West, and are celebrated as the valiant defenders of democracy against authoritarianism. This was so in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is so today in Ukraine, which, to be sure, is making an even greater sacrifice.
But there is an opposing view of Eastern Europe, which, if the past is any indication, survives such periods of solidarity. A prejudice I call ‘Eastern Europeanism’ conjures up the image of a desperate, destitute region rife with exploitation by a corrupt elite, where most people will do anything for a euro or a dollar. This demoralised population, moreover, seems culturally inclined to support autocratic governments. They appear to be congenitally antisemitic, Islamophobic, homophobic and racist.
Eastern Europeanist prejudice functions as a binary divider, with Eastern Europe pictured as the direct opposite of the West. It also functions as a gradual distinguisher, with each country to the East in Europe imagined as progressively less Western, including in their own minds. Eastern Germans see themselves as more Western than Czechs, who in turn see themselves as more Western than Slovaks, who see Ukrainians the same way, until we get to the ultimate Eastern Europeans, the Russians. When people in the region say they are ‘Central Europeans’ they mean that they are not like the Russians and want to be seen as more Western. But the West won’t always listen.
Prejudices thrive on even the minimum of apparent evidence. As the world was trying to comprehend the brutal Russian attack on innocent Ukrainian villagers in Bucha, Hungary’s illiberal leader, Viktor Orbán, celebrated an election victory so huge that he joked it could be seen from the moon, and certainly from Brussels. Central Europe has, in the last decade or so, clearly been the site of a revolt against liberal democracy. But attributing that rebellion to an inherent Eastern European cultural character is gravely wrong. Authoritarianism and intolerance are not an inherent part of the Eastern European or of any people’s psyche. Musings about the distinctiveness of Eastern European culture and character provide the wrong explanation of the illiberal ascendancy in Central Europe. Worse, they are one of its causes.
In my new book, White But Not Quite: Central Europe’s Illiberal Revolt, I show that the anti-liberalism of Central Europeans is in large part a reaction to their exclusion from privileges reserved for the core Western countries of the North Atlantic. Their rebellion needs to be seen not as an Eastern European cultural idiosyncrasy, but in the global context, where illiberalism has everywhere become a powerful if misguided response to the unfettered neoliberal globalisation of the nineties. We see the illiberal revolt on all continents, but the Central European case is one of the many where the protagonists are white.
It may be unusual, perhaps provocative, to speak of racism by white people against white people. But we know today that racism is not always a matter of colour. There is scholarship that maintains that racism is in fact a necessary element of capitalism. Liberal democracy is a precious human achievement. Yet, in the historical context of capitalism, it has not lived up to its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity. The chief proponents of liberal democracy in the core West never really meant to extend that promise to others. Racism appeared at the dawn of the colonial adventure to differentiate between those deserving full rights – white people – and those not, racialised as people of colour. The white population of the core colonial countries became the beneficiary of wealth accumulation. The rest were used as purveyors of raw materials and providers of cheap labour. In this sense, the privileges of wealth, and of power associated with wealth, were, as they still mostly are, a form – a major form – of white privilege.
But the divisions essential to capitalism are not limited to race. White privilege has itself never been granted to all white groups equally. In every core white-majority country such as the United States, England or France today, there are groups of white people who have not enjoyed the prosperity achieved by some during the triumphant period of neoliberal globalisation in the nineties. The less educated and those living in rural areas, for example, though white, continue to be excluded from the glamour of the major ‘world cities’.
In Eastern Europe, too, a few stylish neighbourhoods in Warsaw or Budapest have come to enjoy the good life. But on the whole, having survived the brutal ‘transition’ from communism, Eastern Europe has remained a white periphery, comparable to the depopulating countryside and the rustbelts of the West, where – there too – some people support illiberal leaders, such as Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump. These people are angry that their access to white privilege is being frustrated by the ‘elites’, some of whom are, increasingly, not even white.
What is even more infuriating in the eyes of some Eastern European whites is that they should find themselves in a position comparable to the postcolonial world. For, like the former colonies, Central Europe has never truly been meant to rejoin, as an equal, the capitalist West. After communist rule ended, many Central Europeans became providers of cheap labour for Western companies, at home or, as migrants, in the core countries of the West. Others who established independent businesses faced unequal competition by the multinationals. Viktor Orbán is one of the local leaders who has complained that the West treats his country as a colony. Sadly, instead of expressing solidarity with the Global South, this has only led him to reinforce rhetoric about Hungary’s ‘Christian European’ – read white – character.
But most Eastern Europeans are not illiberal racists. Eastern European racism is too often ‘Westplained’ in terms of various theories of Eastern European insufficiency. All of them outsource guilt to the East, forgetting that there are plenty of illiberal racists in the West as well. That is simply racism against racists. It is worth asking, instead, to what extent Eastern European obscurantism is less the result of pre-existing East–West differences, and more of Western policies that, rooted in racial capitalism, insist on the unsurmountable difference of the East.
This stubborn mistrust of Eastern Europe has the gravest of consequences. Why did NATO decide, at the Bucharest conference of 2008, not to admit Ukraine? Why, in spite of its impassioned demands, has Ukraine still not been admitted into the European Union, and perhaps never will? Russian pressure was certainly the main factor, but Eastern Europeanism must also have played a role. The result is known to all.
Ivan Kalmar is Professor in the Department of Anthropology and at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He has written widely on race, religion, and politics, including in Central Europe.
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