Opaque to herself:
in Central-Eastern Europe

Your map of Africa is really quite nice. But my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia, and here... is France, and we’re in the middle – that’s my map of Africa.

Otto von Bismarck, in: Eugen Wolf. Vom Fürsten Bismarck und seinem Haus. Tagebuchblätter. Berlin, 1904

According to some thinkers, there’s an etymological link between the words “Slav” and “slave”. Scholars such as Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein have shown that the part of the European continent East of the river Elbe and inhabited mostly by Slavs was the first peripheral zone of capitalist world-economy in early modern times. The whole block of countries–the Polish-Lithuanian Union being the most prominent example in the area–was pushed into a state of dependency and underdevelopment, forcing its rural populations into serfdom. Thus Central and Eastern Europe could be seen historically as the first “periphery”. In parallel, the erstwhile kingdom of Poland and its nobility played a key role in extending the enslavement of peasants deep into South-Eastern Europe in its attempt to build its own colonial empire by dominating Lithuania and annexing vast areas of Ukraine in the 16th century. These colonial aspirations reached their apex in the 19th and 20th century with the establishment of the Colonial Maritime League. Today it continues to inspire a post-colonial attitude in Poland, hampering a much-needed critical reflection over the country’s past as well as prolonging confusion over its present status.

This complicated picture has just gone through an interesting turn in recent years. The critical tools of post-colonial theory have been often appropriated in Central and Eastern Europe by the nationalist right and in turn used to reaffirm “traditional identities” and “cultural heritage”: both allegedly colonized and dominated by foreign, liberal ideology. It has led to a form of peculiar “perverted decolonization” to use Ekaterina Degot’s expression, where obscurantist attitudes and religious fundamentalism are presented as attempts to preserve one’s unique and endangered way of life. Perhaps even more interesting is that the twisted, anti-critical use of critical concepts has provided a platform for widespread populist uprising. Contrary to the prognoses of 20th century theorists of modernity from Daniel Lerner to Francis Fukuyama, the peripheries seem to be coming out ahead of the populist curve, thereby demonstrating to the center their miserable future. Yet another perversion which we may call “de-modernization” as it directly opposes the relation between the center and the (semi)peripheries. Perhaps the futures of the United Kingdom, France and other developed nations are to be found in Poland, Hungary or Russia, not the other way around.