With the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, the premises of what is publicly negotiated and debated in Western Europe have changed fundamentally and at a dizzying pace. The resilience of Ukraine’s armed forces and the ways and means of supporting their effort, the war crimes against the Ukrainian population committed by Russian soldiers, the fear of a further escalation of the conflict, even the threat of a nuclear strike—the geopolitical implications of the Russian aggression are dominating newsfeeds. Western governments, as far as existing dependencies allow them to, are opposing Russian dictator Putin with a new-found fervor and support Ukraine, at least rhetorically, financially, and with military equipment.
All of a sudden it feels like as if this country, which the European West previously located on its most Eastern periphery, occupies the middle of Europe, and thus, not only its historical, political, and military character is receiving attention like never before. Ukrainian arts and artists are also suddenly very present in Western European media, cultural institutions, and events. But why, one might ask, only now? Why has Ukraine – and to a certain extent also other Eastern European countries – been such a blind spot in European culture and art circles?
We asked the Ukrainian curator Kateryna Botanova, who lives and works in Switzerland, to provide possible answers to these questions from her perspective. In a three-part essay, she tries to work out the historical and political framework for this lack of Ukrainian and Eastern European presence, and she describes the consequences for its art and culture in particular. In the first part, she outlines the basics of Eastern European identity politics caught in a paradoxical race to catch up between coming to terms with the past and a neoliberal imperative to reform. From her point of view, one thing is clear: the West has indulged in a colonial-style arrogance, denouncing Eastern Europe peoples’ attempts of coming to terms with history as nationalistic – and thus depriving them of agency.
In the war diary Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze draws and shares via Instagram, there are stories about her life with her husband and their three dogs and a cat in the village of Muzychi near Kyiv. Muzychi was repeatedly shelled. Russian troops were stopped just 5 kilometers away after they went over Bucha, Irpin’, Vorzel’—towns most people probably had never heard of just a couple of months ago but now will never forget. Kakhidze s drawings are visual comments on news she wants to be remembered. There also are stories of real and imagined debates with Russian and Western artists and intellectuals about the nature of the war, the role of the West, and the responsibility of Russia and Russians beyond Putin’s regime.
At the onset of the third month of the war, she drew a response to an open letter from German artists and intellectuals to chancellor Scholz published in the controversial German magazine Emma. The letter called for a stop of the recently approved delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine. The caption of the drawing reads, “I could imagine Katharina Fritsch’s next sculpture—the Earth is supported by elephant and Bundestag on it…” And indeed, the drawing shows the iconic elephant of the well-known German artist, which opens Cecilia Alemani’s exhibition in the Central pavilion of the current Venice Biennale, with a flat Earth supporting a slightly tilted German Bundestag on its head.
One could call this drawing ironic, but Kakhidze is known for her blatant and disarming honesty that often makes people extremely uncomfortable—as well as her dedication to facts. The facts in this case: Katharina Fritsch was among those who signed the letter; the Earth is not flat; there are more buildings (as well as countries, peoples) than just the German Bundestag—and leaving Ukraine without weapons means leaving the entire country to become another Bucha massacre.
There’s bitterness and utter fatigue in this drawing by Kakhidze. She is bitterly tired that on the third month of this brutal, murderous, unjust war she still needs to explain simple and obvious facts to a Western audience whose names have a much higher value (both in the symbolic and in economic sense) in the art world than her own. It is this value that allows them to be both influential and negligent, elevating their stereotypes above the needs of the lives of millions.
Neither the Russian war against Ukraine nor these stereotypes and forms of Western virtue signaling come as a surprise. The power structures supporting these societies are rooted in two ruptures in recent history—1945 and 1989/1991. The first one cut the continent in half, dividing East and West. It de facto legitimized the existence, imperial attitudes, and totalitarian practices of the Soviet Union, clearing the West of any moral responsibilities for whatever atrocities were happening behind the Iron Curtain. The second one opened the path for the reunification of Europe on economic and social terms set by the West.
The paradox, however, was that the collapse of the Soviet state did not mean the collapse of the Russian empire. Neither did it lead to an equal and democratic Europe for most of the newly independent nation-states that arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia kept the title of the winner of WWII (as well as its nuclear arsenal) while the West kept feeling superior as the sole winner of history (confirmed by Francis Fukuyama, among others). The countries in Europe’s East were still in-between Russia and the West, immersed in what Habermas so aptly and ruthlessly called “catch up revolutions.” Those in Eastern Europe, it appears, had to shuttle back and forth in time: on the one hand to rediscover and restore their lost histories, but, on the other, to catch up to the present in order to get all the goodies that neoliberal democracy had in store for them.
Histories in the Shadow of a Falling Wall
The events of 1989 and 1991 created a cascade of different, often contradictory time ruptures. They led to a crack within the communist realm, where before only the edited, redacted, rewritten, censored, and imagined version of history was allowed. The images of the Berlin Wall collapsing under the hammers and crowds of people flowing over and through it, cheering and crying, were too good not be taken as an omnipotent symbol of the end of an era. Everything from that moment on should have been post-communist, post-ideological. It was more than just the victory of one political system over the other; it was supposed to be the victory of Western temporality: Western modernity replaced its Eastern rival.
Newly formed or reinstated Central and Eastern European nation-states made a triumphant return to European history on the back of glorious ‘velvet’ revolutions and democratic referendums. They were finally liberated from their oppressive pasts. But what kind of past was left? What could fill the opening void? The Western history of the 20th century was already a done deal; it was complete; the ‘right’ and the ‘normal’ version of history where democracy and liberal values steadily gained ground, reinforced by powers of capitalism. There was no space for other histories in it.
In his seminal work on the horizontal history of the European avant-garde, the Polish curator and art historian Piotr Piotrowski pointed out that in debates on overcoming historical and political isolation and restoring ‘normality’ in the eastern part of Europe after 1989, ‘universal’—an important word in a newly acquired vocabulary—always basically meant ‘Western.’
However, what did this desired ‘normality’ mean? Since Western liberal democracy already had everything in place—value systems, institutions, an uninterrupted, linear history, pre-war and post-war arts—all Eastern Europeans had to do was just to copy that framework as close to the original as possible. Political historian Ivan Krastev called it ‘the imitation imperative.’
The problem with this imitation, though, even if it is done full-heartedly and with diligent fervor, is that it is always secondary. Democratization, modernization, integration, liberalization, Europeanization—all these notions out of the developmental aid vocabulary basically meant the same. They put Eastern Europeans that just moment ago were heroes who had bravely shaken off the repressive shackles of communism on a school bench to learn the ABC’s of their new lives. Of course, it was the West who was their teacher and who measured their success.
Moreover, for some of the Eastern European states, the perspective and then the reality of joining the EU, as well as the vague promise to others that they would be able to do so too, still kept them as outsiders. There were rules to follow, changes to implement, norms to adhere to, but still the wages were lower, the institutions were weaker, the quality of life was incomparable with the West. And whatever they did, they still were Polish plumbers, Romanian strawberry pickers, Ukrainian prostitutes in the eyes of the others.
A European Orient
The result of the imitation imperative is unsurprising: emotional fatigue, a feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, loss of cultural identity, constant self-criticism, and, finally, resentment. In his thinking on shame and guilt, the French author Didier Eribon refers to the feeling of ‘insultability by social order,’ of the condition of expecting or anticipating insults and humiliation, of being incomplete just by belonging to a certain, marginalized, social group. Can there be insultability by geopolitical order?
For Eastern European countries, this feeling wasn’t new. It already existed under Soviet conditions, induced by the way the Soviet empire treated its loyal subjects, making them inferior to the center but, most importantly, taking away their histories, their identities, erasing their temporalities.
In the aftermath of 1989/1991, reclaiming cultural identities was seen as an intrinsic democratic rights. Eastern Europeans were regaining political sovereignty and subjectivity, they were opening archives and reaching out to anything that was banned or censored before—language, religion, traditions. Regaining agency could not be complete without knowing who you are and where you come from. The jump from the constructed history of the Soviet world into the ‘real history’ of the real world could not be complete either without rediscovering lost memories or an attempt to make a history out of them.
The perspective of (re-)discovering and maybe even (re-)writing your own history was thrilling. It also had a much-needed therapeutic effect, healing wounds of the past, mobilizing a newly-found dignity and power for the present. It helped to overcome inferiority complexes and promised a chance to become truly ‘normal’ Europeans—with roots and ancestry, heroes and great inventions, war sufferings and victorious revolutions.
The problem there was that from the perspective of the West, this quest to (re-)discover a cultural identity was deeply tainted. It saw (ethno-)nationalism as one of the reasons for Nazism. The core myth of the EU revolves around the post-national character of the union itself—and thus of its members. Eastern flirtations with nationalism could be tolerated as long as they were just hiccups on the path to political and economic liberalization. Tolerance came to an end after the wars in Yugoslavia, when nationalism made a comeback as the root of all evil.
After the Balkan wars, the process of what the Ukrainian historian Tatiana Zhurzhenko called ‘new Orientalization of Eastern Europe’ was completed. In a way similar to the ‘Orientalization’ of Asia, described by Edward Said, the West deprived Eastern Europeans of their agency and reality. They were imagined as a homogenized entity incapable of dealing with their own economies and political institutions. Moreover, they definitely were not capable of learning history’s most important lesson: That true democracy was just not compatible with nationalism.
Another side of the orientalizing gaze on the East and the triumph of the Western version of modernity was the sense of alienation fostered by the communist history of the previous half-century. Communism was seen as an externally imposed barbaric order. Fused with the strong internal wish to distance oneself from the painful experiences of the past, the pursuit of Western models created a postcolonial phenomenon of the search for the roots of the lost and abused identity in the past beyond the immediate one.
In this sense, Eastern European nationalisms were predominately cultural, desperately trying to stitch their European identity together, following up on the Czech writer Milan Kundera’s metaphor of Eastern Europe as ‘kidnapped West.’ They referred back to the interwar period after the fall of major empires when most of now post-communist states gained or attempted sovereignty.
However, in the eyes of the West, the transition to democracy, this jump to an already existing reality was to be primarily focused on fitting the economic capacities of these newly emerging countries into the global market. Liberal—or rather neoliberal—policies had no interest in identity quests or what Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe, referring to the similar processes in postcolonial African societies, described as the “realization of a shared project: to stand up on own’s own and to create a heritage”.
A few years ago, at the onset of the conservative turn in Poland, the Polish intellectual Slawomir Serakowski called the cultural clashes ‘a sublimation for economic fears.’ Yet two decades earlier, it was rather the opposite: brutal economic reforms displaced cultural needs. It was a certain sublimation of the fear to be seen as lesser, incomplete, not normal peoples of Europe.
When the label of ‘cultural nationalism’ casts a shadow over the process of cultural attention, care, and learning, when the latter is denied as a tool of introspection, of knowledge production, when it is dismissed as a glitch and not accepted as a contested realm of doubting and questioning the given paradigms and normative Western narratives, it gains potential to turn into a powerful myth-producing factory.
In the last thirty years, artists from Eastern Europe and Ukraine, in particular, went over various stages of ‘normalization’ and ‘localization,’ attempting to visually and discursively fit in Western art institutions and the Western art market while at the same time trying to deconstruct the power structures behind it. And the war in Ukraine has made it painfully clear: the fight for regaining agency is far from being over.