The opening up of Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 has changed all that. Though assumed to be secular, due to a half-century of communist rule, their religiosity persisted and remains poorly understood in the West.
In the second and final instalment of our conversation with journalist Maxim Edwards, The Battleground learns why most Western reporters get this wrong, and what political significance it has for all Europeans, today.
Battleground: Few articles on identity politics in Europe have received as much attention as your article last month for Haaretz. The title is a perfect entree to discuss why: Ukraine Just Elected Its First Jewish President. Here’s Why It’s Not an Issue.
What sets Ukraine apart in your analysis from its neighbours? One could never imagine a Jew filling Putin’s shoes, in Russia, or those of Jarosław Kaczyński, in Poland.
To wit, the day before your article came out, on Good Friday, Poles burnt an effigy of a Jew as part of an annual Easter ritual, and the US Ambassador was lambasted for wishing Poles a Happy Passover on Twitter by a Polish MP.
Maxim Edwards (ME): I was surprised by the response, though I worry that my point was misunderstood. Paradoxically, I think Zelensky’s Jewish background is one of the least significant things about him. Most Ukrainian voters appeared to agree, but their indifference also doesn’t mean what some commentators interpreted it to.
It certainly doesn’t signify that they were “deeply conscious” of his Jewish identity as Anshel Pfeffer wrote for Haaretz. I genuinely don’t think many voters cared either way. That might seem counterintuitive to a diaspora Jewish readership who are acutely aware of Ukraine’s central role in Ashkenazi Jewish life for centuries, but it’s true.
Zelensky certainly isn’t from the Ukraine of the diaspora imagination. He’s from an industrial city, from a family of Soviet, Russophone, secular intellectuals. To my mind, the relevance of Zelensky’s Jewish identity is more what it can tell us about a bilingual and multiethnic vision of Ukrainian nationhood juxtaposed to the nationalist tubthumping of Petro Poroshenko’s re-election campaign.
But of course, there is symbolic importance to Zelensky’s victory given that accusations of antisemitism have become political football between Ukraine and Russia; I imagine this result could be embarrassing to those Russian pundits who still claim that Ukraine is overrun by marauding bands of Nazis. Still, disproving those claims is low-hanging fruit.
A Jewish president won’t spell the end of antisemitism in Ukraine, even if the problem there is less acute than other Eastern European countries. Of course, secular Jewishness is rarely seen as an issue until antisemites decide to make it an issue. I do worry that we could see more antisemitic language if Zelensky fails to bring the new politics so many Ukrainians hope he represents.
Battleground: Hence your insistence on playing down the cultural significance of Zelensky’s victory.
ME: What Ukraine shares with many of its neighbours is a small but dangerous far right with an increasingly visible street presence. Their activities are at the very least tolerated by some parts of the political establishment, where they have a degree of influence. The speaker of the parliament Andriy Parubiy is clearly on the far right.
Sure, as many western commentators like to point out, the extreme right in Ukraine doesn’t do too well at the ballot box. But then again, that’s not how the far right accrues power in the first place: historically, they go for the interior ministries, the security services, the police, the armed forces. In a strange twist of fate, this doesn’t make Ukraine uniquely vulnerable or reactionary among European states; that well-grounded fear is probably evidence that it’s undeniably European after all.
In any case, I don’t see much analytical use on measuring support for the far right in polls about xenophobic views. In Ukraine, the far right is a readily mobilisable force of angry, combat-ready young men available to the highest bidder, oligarchs or otherwise. And they thrive in Ukraine right now because Ukraine is in a state of armed conflict.
So how does that compare to diversity and racism in Russia? Well, Russia has a very complex relationship to ethno-nationalism which certainly couldn’t be termed progressive but is far from far-right.
As you say, I’m not sure I could imagine a Jewish head of state of Russia, but then again I don’t think I could imagine any other ethnic minority as Russia’s leader.
The head of Russia’s national bank is an ethnic Tatar; the Minister of Defence is a Tuvan. But given the authoritarian political context, I don’t know if that representation means as much as we’d think.
Battleground: What is the status of Russian nationalism, then?
ME: Some of Vladimir Putin’s recent steps certainly appealed to Russian ethno-nationalists; think of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and subsequent moves against the autonomous republics and the teaching of minority languages. But there’s also a long history of the Kremlin co-opting these ethnonationalists, neo-imperialists, Eurasianists, or whoever, and discarding them when they’ve performed their purpose (remember the fate of some of the early pro-Russian separatist commanders in the Donbas.)
Explicit Russian ethnonationalism still remains a fringe movement; nationalist demagogues like Vladimir Zhirinovsky make excellent opponents in choreographed elections, against whom Putin can play the cool-headed moderate.
The bigotry they whip up is largely directed at migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia; the hatred towards them is really potent, and non-systemic opposition politicians like Alexey Navalny are no less guilty of it.
But if Putinism means anything, it’s derzhavnost, roughly translating to “statehood”: a loyalty to the paternalistic Russian state and its institutions which supersedes narrow ethnic nationalism.
In contrast, a really dominant trope which surfaces in a lot of “western” writing about the post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe holds that real democratisation went hand in hand with a fully fledged national reawakening. To some degree, that was true. But in Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova the nation-building programme of post-Soviet national elites was by no means widely accepted, leading to concern that it had “stalled.”
Its application was fraught with contradictions concerning linguistic rights and historical memory; neither of which could simply be explained away as a “Soviet mentality” against pro-European progressives. These questions were never that politically salient in Poland, Slovakia, or Romania to the West, which were largely monoethnic by the end of the Second World War.
I often wonder the degree to which this “national awakening” carries some implicit hostility towards multiculturalism; albeit a very imperfect multiculturalism which from Stalin onwards was largely carried out on the terms of the Russophone majority and federal centre in Moscow. The “brotherhood of nations” clearly had a bigger brother. So understandably, there was resentment.
Understandably, you had a large section of society, Ukrainian speakers, who really feared the disappearance of their native language, and remembered times in living memory when the use of Ukrainian was strongly policed outside narrow social boundaries.
Battleground: Is that Zelensky’s true significance, then?
ME: Zelensky, for perhaps the first time, represents an anti-establishment movement in Ukraine that doesn’t constantly reopen those divisive questions of language or memory politics.
Admittedly, in that he’s been helped by the loss of several million more pro-Russian voters in the Donbas and Crimea, and the fact that overtly pro-Russian politics have become politically toxic in government-controlled Ukraine.
But more broadly, over the past 20 years many Ukrainians have come to terms with the fact that Ukrainian is the state language, even if they don’t speak it well. They’re less concerned with the survival of Ukrainian cultural distinctiveness and language, and that realisation hit Poroshenko very hard since he had staked its reputation on the idea that both were under threat.
So in Ukraine after 2014 you now have a Russophone identity which is not merely not pro-Russian; it’s often strongly pro-Ukrainian and pro-European. You could even call it the decoupling of shared linguistic ties from political loyalty to Moscow.
The situation in Belarus and Moldova is far more complex, and I suppose there is a stronger association between linguistic identity and geopolitical preference, but nonetheless something similar is happening in both countries.
Who knows, maybe within the condescending term “unfinished nation” are the seeds of something genuinely emancipatory or even post-national? We should be provocative here; Eastern Europe is far more than a graveyard of failed utopias; both the state socialist and the neoliberal.
Battleground: Clearly, the surprise that greeted your analysis is framed by over-the-top racism like this. Particularly in Israel, where Eastern Europe equals antisemitism. Why is antisemitism worsening in Poland, when it is declining in Ukraine? There are almost no Jews in the country.
ME: These days I don’t think there can be a meaningful relationship between the numerical strength of a minority and the strength of popular conceptions about them; in some ways the absence actually reinforces negative stereotypes, which these days are frequently trans-nationalised and disseminated online (and not just in Eastern Europe.) So even if Poland is now almost monocultural, Poles are deeply imbued with a troubled collective memory about The Other and ethnic Poles’ relationship to them, or their failure to build one.
Yes, there are almost no Muslims in the country, but that doesn’t stop Poles from having strong opinions about them; one study a couple of years ago showed that Poles believe on average that the country’s Muslim community is 7% of the population (the real figure is closer to 0.01%).
It’s not just about Jews. There’s a suffocating atmosphere of hate in Poland at the moment, and the scapegoats are everybody: communists, Brussels, Jews, Muslims, gays, “crazy leftists,” Germans, liberals, feminists, anybody who supports or is seen to support refugees. It’s a worldview in which there can only be heroes and traitors; it’s linked to the idea of the “unfinished revolution” which was popularised in right-wing circles in central and Eastern Europe, according to which the changes of power in 1989 were not fully complete as communists or “crypto-communists” were left in positions of power. Removing them was, for example, one of the justifications for the PiS reform of the supreme court.
So anti-communism is very much the oxygen of central europe’s right-wing backlash. What is not remarked enough is that there is also a deep strain of antisemitism to some of those anti-communist narratives. There’s even a word, Zydokomuna, for the widespread conspiracy theory that socialism was some form of revenge by Jews against Poles. It’s very ugly.
Battleground: When Poland first fell afoul of the European Commission, over refugee quotas, and its government officials began deriding Islam, many Polish intellectuals explained it was rooted in the country’s lack of experience of diversity and that it was never a colonial state. Do you buy that? Weren’t there two million Jews in the country before the Nazis invaded?
ME: They’re right in the sense that Poland didn’t have the same experience with large-scale immigration from the former colonies or the southern European periphery (think Moroccans in the Netherlands or Turks in Germany.) But while migration slowed to a trickle during the socialist period, there were demographic changes: many central and Eastern European states have small but well-established Vietnamese communities who moved during that time.
More recently, while the PiS government was fighting migration in Brussels, Poland received one of the largest influxes of labour migrants in its history: from Ukraine. There are now between one and two million Ukrainians working in Poland; at various points, Polish officials tried to misrepresent Ukrainian labour migrants as refugees in their dealings with Brussels over the quota issue.
But yes, as you say, interwar Poland was a hugely alien society to the country we know today; as well as its large Jewish and German populations, its borders also extended far east into what is now Lithuania, western Belarus, and western Ukraine. Its experience with that multiculturalism was complex; during some periods there were quotas on Jewish students at universities, during others there were small-scale experiments at cultural autonomy and representation for Belarusians and Ukrainians.
But the implication to your question is that Poles have “forgotten their past,” or at least the lessons of it. And my question back is: whose lessons?
This is a country saturated in a politics of memory which treats the twentieth century as a near miss for the annihilation of the Polish nation. With a history like that, “lessons of the past” can just as easily be taken to mean “homogeneity means sovereignty, diversity means discord” as the western and central European understanding that ethnonationalism is a slippery slope to fascism.
Also remember that post-socialist Europe has some of the most depopulating countries in the world and there are now very strong labour migration linkages to the UK, France, and Germany. So many Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians do experience more diverse societies while they work overseas, which is almost a rite of passage for many young people from the region. But the standard liberal idea that exposure to multiculturalism shatters xenophobic stereotypes doesn’t seem to work here. In fact, we have young Poles and Hungarians returning home as “experts” on the “Islamised reality” of Western Europe and reinforcing those stereotypes.
So we have a very strong trope on the European far-right being reproduced again in East-West divisions; the idea that Eastern Europe is the “pure” half of the continent where Christian values are kept “undiluted.” For example, you can see this rhetoric reproduced in both liberal and conservative nationalist Polish politicians’ responses to migration: the first castigate migrants for bringing intolerance and misogyny, the second for weakening national cultures.
But again, let’s not let the West off the hook here. As I’ve written before, the rise in bigotry across the continent doesn’t fit so easily into these simplistic divides. You can’t understand the strength of Eastern European attitudes towards refugees without understanding the place that part of the continent has in cultural geographies of “Europeanness.” Attila Melegh’s On The East-West Slope really changed my perspectives on this, summed it up neatly when he wrote that white European racism is conceptually “lent” to Eastern European societies to rhetorically justify their place in the hierarchy of western-ness.
When the latter do so, they inadvertently provide “evidence” which is used by Western European liberals as proof of their Eastern European “backwardness.” The attitudes towards diversity are conditioned by a “semi-peripheral” place of Poland within the European project; one which endures and is keenly felt however many times the country is placed in Central rather than Eastern Europe.
Battleground: The only other central European country which seems as prejudiced as Poland right now is Hungary. How do we account for the parallel? Not all nationalisms are the same. The Hungarian issue seems tethered to Orbán’s conflict with Soros. Does it run deeper?
ME: Hungary has one of the larger Jewish communities in Central Europe, and it’s one which has become much more vocal in recent years. It’s a more diverse country than Poland in a lot of ways, and quite a bit poorer. If I remember correctly, some Hungarian officials openly protested that the country had enough “outsiders” to integrate without receiving refugees from the Middle East. They were talking about Hungary’s Roma.
Of course, the anti-Soros campaign has some deeply sinister anti-Semitic overtones about which the Hungarian Jewish community themselves have protested. But it doesn’t end with George Soros. Only last year, Figyelő, a business weekly linked to the government, ran a front cover showing Andras Heisler of the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities surrounded by banknotes.
A former owner of the magazine is Maria Schmidt, a government-favoured historian whose exhibitions about the Second World War have proven controversial (she’s also now helping plan a new Holocaust museum in Budapest called the House of Fates.)
Hungary has a very chequered relationship with Holocaust remembrance; Remember Orbán’s statement that Admiral Horthy was an “exceptional statesman”. The Orbán government seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for identifying enemies of Hungarian society; recently it was the homeless. Now there are discussions of a new pro-natalist programme which could have implications for women’s rights.
Once again, Orbán and Netanyahu’s alliance isn’t surprising in this regard; Netanyahu’s Israel is enticing for Central European elites who feel that liberal democracy has stymied their attempts to lurch towards a more explicit ethnonationalism. They see in Israel a state which is permitted to engage in the same explicitly ethnonationalist policymaking, with open securitisation of demographics, that they want to indulge in.
I imagine Netanyahu sees in them a “version” of Europe which will be more amenable to his right-wing agenda. Local Jewish communities such as that in Hungary which have protested against the Orbán government’s deafening dog whistles are thereby thrown under the bus; in doing so you could argue that Israel is behaving as the ideal type European nation-state, putting its own interests firmly at the front. Given the political shifts among diaspora Jewish communities in North America, that’s probably a natural trend.
I sometimes feel that what we’re observing in Central and Eastern Europe is a clash of two cultures of political memory. It’s been said that Holocaust commemoration is a ticket to “civilised society” in Europe today. It seems to me that Hungary and Poland are caught in limbo between that impulse and the culture of memory which nationalist populism demands: “we’ve shed our tears for the minorities for whom liberal democracy has such touching concern; now it’s time for the majority to mourn. And mourn without interruption.”
Battleground: My last question, which in some ways could also be my first, is that each of the countries we’ve spoken about today was communist for over half a century. Why is identity politics so virulent in this sphere, when socialism was supposed to have secularised everything?
ME: There are many explanations but as your question is about the communist period, I’ll focus on the historical ones. The lived experience of socialism for Eastern Europeans was profoundly less “multicultural” than the interwar period.
After the Second World War, not only were the ruling communist parties of countries like Romania or Poland were very different in ethnic composition than they had been, but also the borders of the countries they ruled had changed drastically. Most of Eastern Europe had become more homogeneous than at any point before in its history, due to ethnic cleansing and the many mass population movements between Eastern European states after the war, which are now often forgotten.
So whatever left-wing symbolism may mean to different people in Eastern Europe, it often doesn’t mean what western leftists assume. State socialism in Eastern Europe also meant a “national reawakening,” particularly in latter decades when various state socialist regimes in Eastern Europe fell back on nationalism to buttress their power once the promises of socialism began to abate.
The Polish state post-1945 openly relied on nationalist tropes around regaining Poland’s medieval borders when it took over West Prussia and Silesia. In Albania, Enver Hoxha pursued a particularly ruthless form of ethnic nationalism, while Nicolae Ceausescu increasingly turned to Romanian nationalism throughout the 1970s. Bulgarian strongman Todor Zhivkov had a very largely forgotten population movement in the late 1980s when the state tried to assimilate the large Turkish population.
Battleground: But there was some degree of secularisation, wasn’t there? Industrialisation must have had some cultural impact. In Central Europe, fascist intellectuals like Martin Heidegger were especially sensitive to the impact of technology on religion.
ME: I think that secularisation was an inevitable consequence of modernisation and urbanisation. I suspect that rejection of religion in Eastern Europe was also less linked to the “individualism” of the 68’ers in the West. The marked divide between religiosity in Eastern and Western Europe which we see today in opinion polls is more a reflection of institutional belonging and personal faith.
Sociologists distinguish between a so-called believing without belonging in the West versus belonging without believing in the east. Pew Polls recently showed that Eastern European states were some of the most God-fearing in the world, but their church attendance is customarily very, very low.
The conservative “identity politics” in vogue in Eastern Europe, particularly among younger people, is at least partly a consequence of the harsh realities of the transition to market capitalism.
A common complaint on the populist right in Western Europe in recent years has been that politicians and human rights activists lavish attention on minorities and disadvantaged groups at the expense of the “silent majority”.
These politicians then promise to defend workplaces and welfare from migrants or a local, often racialised, underclass; thus we have a political formation in Western Europe which blends xenophobia and social conservatism with a defence of the remnants of the welfare state (albeit from outsiders.)
That formation has only really risen to political prominence in Western Europe over the past decade since the 2008 financial crash, when welfare states could be defended *from* the migrant other. But it was the norm in many Eastern European states since long before then.
There was one key difference: the strong link between welfarism and social conservatism was often sold as defending “ordinary people” against the ravages of the new free market.
This kind of “proto-populism” is frequently beneath the banner of nominally left-wing parties in Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Russia, and Ukraine; meanwhile avowedly left-wing parties which try to work minority rights and defence for individual freedoms into their political programmes are met with blank stares at these foibles of an out-of-touch “liberalism”.
Western European journalists have been conditioned for 25 years to see the region as one in transition to an ideal type which their own societies represent. I think that as the EU is increasingly rocked by internal disputes, that paradigm is changing.
The autocracy of an Orbán or Aleksandar Vučić is quite supple and avant-garde in a lot of ways. So this is one of several reasons why I keep saying that Eastern Europe is ahead of the curve.
Photograph courtesy of Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.