Eastern Europe is not Racist, but…

Eastern Europe is not Racist, but…

Radim Hladík

Racism, as such, is not too difficult to find anywhere in Europe. What is peculiar to Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is the adamant refusal to admit racism or even to talk about race. This produces a corresponding weakness of antiracist or multicultural advocacy movements. The difference between CEE and other Western European countries has most recently manifested itself over the course of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’. The former Soviet satellite countries formed an unusually firm political bloc against the proposals for refugee quotas that sought a fairer share of the economic costs of providing for larger number of asylum seekers.

Political conflicts over an EU policy are not rare, nor is it surprising that the former socialist states would find themselves united by advancing common interests. However, more seems to be at stake in this instance, because this is not simply a conflict of narrow political interests – real or perceived – but a clash of widespread attitudes. Attitudinal surveys indicate that, on this issue, the positions of the CEE governments are aligned with the thinking of their constituent populations. The low percentage of positive evaluation of immigration from outside the EU (and the correspondingly higher proportions of people expressing negative feelings) are at odds with the actual experience of most of the CEE countries (with the notable exception of Hungary) concerning the actual number of asylum seekers.

The explanations offered for this phenomenon are various. The social and economic justification depends on the idea that the poorer CEE countries cannot share their limited resources with the incoming refugees. The political explanations revolve mostly around the idea of the EU’s encroachment on the sovereignty of national states and their immigration politics. Some populist politicians do not shy away from citing irreconcilable cultural differences or even, as born-again Christians (in fairly secularist countries, apart from Poland), refuse to accept Muslim immigrants on religious grounds.  In the latter attitude, it is not very hard to detect religion as the weakly disguised proxy for race. Without denying various social and economic motivations, all of these explanations and their multiple versions betray an underlying racism, or a strong tendency to ‘Other’ asylum seekers, whose claims on the rights enjoyed by local populations governments refuse to recognize.

I suggest that the reasons behind this inability to recognize claims and equal rights of immigrants from the Middle East should not be reduced to the more or less coherent rationalizations espoused by CEE politicians. The united front of post-socialist countries on the issue of immigration is hardly a coincidence and the racist undertones, in official politics or public opinion, can be also traced back to the particular colonial and post-colonial experience that these countries have shared as parts of the former Soviet bloc.

Scholars of nationalism have often remarked upon the ethnic basis of nationhood in Eastern Europe, where there had long been a gap between the political state and its population. Communities of language and perceived ethnicity thus became dominant in expression of political union within the state. However, the current manifestations of racism in CEE should not be treated as a return of the repressed, but as a continuation of the modernizing programme of the state-socialist era. The history of state socialism did not signify a complete break with the original ethnic nation-building, an aberration that could possibly weaken the ethnic stance. The home-brewed nationalism managed to merge with the politics of proletarian internationalism in unexpected ways and, I claim, vastly contributed to the current situation and the particular brand of the “I’m not a racist, but” racism.

The emergence of racism out of the professedly equalizing societies of socialist states certainly was not a straightforward process. The rhetoric of a New Soviet Person contrasts strongly with racialized discourses and this new type of human was meant to be not only classless, but also blind to – and herself invisible to – racial distinctions. Yet, a universal humanity based on this ideal failed to emerge. “Contrary to popular understanding, the Soviet Union did not simply suppress such [ethnic and national] sentiment but reified the national principle into a fundamental organizational device, one that contributed to its own downfall. ‘Nationalities’ were both reinforced and created […]. Each major nationality had its own republic, and each republic’s minor nationalities often enjoyed some administrative autonomy” (Chari and Verdery 2009: 17).  It would be a simplification to argue that oxymoronic socialist nationalism came into existence due to a stark disjuncture between the ideology and practice in the actually existing socialisms. Instead, I want to argue that it was precisely the deployment of the very ideal of the New Soviet Person that promoted a spread of racist stereotypes of a particular Eastern-European variety.

As I have argued elsewhere (Hladík 2011), despite effective and often ruthless Russification pressures within its realm, the Soviet Union differed from other colonial empires in that it enabled individuals of various ethnicities and nationalities to participate in the top echelons of administration on the periphery, and, occasionally, even in the metropole. In their survey of the ethnic composition of four generations of the Soviet Politburo, (Lane and Ross 1999: 35) show that the pre-1980 Politburo included 14 non-Russian members out of its total of 33, and despite the subsequent drop in numbers, there were still always around 7 non-Russians out of roughly the same total over the 1980s. Whether this is a lot or not depends on the interpretation. But the permeability of the periphery/metropole borderline for career trajectories distinguishes the Soviet bloc from other imperial administrations. It “only” asked of the ethnic representatives to dispose of any marks of their ethnicity – which they willingly did, apart from the one fatal aspect, that of their racialised bodies. While the ethnic and national minorities strived to (or were forced to) assimilate to the Russians, the latter were preoccupied with becoming the New Soviet Persons.

Despite all the rhetoric, despite the Soviet worldwide interventions in favour of national liberation struggles, state socialism was not colour-blind. But because of the rhetoric and because of its patronage over the claims of colonial subjects elsewhere, the notion of race under state-socialism remained unavailable for a discursive deconstruction and criticism. In this regard, it became more reified a concept than in other parts of the world, where it could become a contested matter.

To understand the workings of rigid socialist ideological language, it is useful to turn to Alexei Yurchak’s (2006) groundbreaking book on everyday life under state socialism, in which he demonstrates that, actually, the late socialist public sphere was a porous environment that allowed for many issues to be brought forth. Yurchak claims that after the demise of a leader figure, embodied by Stalin, who could speak and act outside of the bounds of ideological discourse, the official ideology of the Soviet bloc became petrified and its language became a necessary performative speech act; that is, it became a form with which people had to comply in order to gain access to the public arena. Yurchak argues that the ideological language became a productive tool, one that could be used to advance and carry out various agendas in the public sphere. Life under state socialism, consequently, was nowhere nearly as dull and constrained as it would appear to those who would take seriously (as dissidents did) the language of power. He shows that the citizens of the socialist world were actually able to actively engage in public affairs once they had mastered the way of speaking required by the ideological language. To decry such use of language as morally despicable, as was done most famously by the Czech dissident, Václav Havel, fails to grasp the performative shift that had occurred in the language of power, whose words no longer referred to the world, but served as formulas, genres, ways of speaking rather than as meaningful utterances.

What is missing in Yurchak’s analysis is the consideration of the constraining effects of ideological language. Although it was enabling in many respects, it is the very character of a genre that it is difficult to question the meanings of the  words – however hollow – of which it is made up. The impossibility to discuss and negotiate race in CEE countries during the reign of state socialism hence did not spring from a purposeful marginalisation of the issue, but on the contrary, from its central position among the tenets of the official ideology. Race – and racism – were, actually, often talked about and denounced, but only in connection with other criticisms of the First World.

Race slipped into the state socialist govermentality through a backdoor of a teleological notion of history and modernization imperative; unacknowledged, it served a pervasive power mechanism and a signifier of ultimate difference. At the same time, the delimitation of the public discursive field under the ideological regime of language made race an indisputable concept.  What may appear as a mere hypocrisy – the denial of racism alongside effectively racist policies – is, rather, a contradiction that has been waiting to emerge. To address and redress the problem of racism, CEE countries need to vindicate the vocabulary of race and admit to the racist underpinning of the Cold War ontologies, much like an alcoholic needs to admit to having a problem before undergoing a therapy.

The prospects for this direction, however, are dim. At present, it seems as though the former state-socialist countries of CEE have, at last, reached their quarter of century old goal, to establish political systems on par with their Western European counterparts. However, in 1989 few expected that this rapprochement would take a post-democratic form and the two parts of Europe would be united under a tide of populism eschewing the values upon which the hoped for democratic political programmes was thought to have been built.  Populism’s rejection of debate over fundamental values sits well with the undercover racism buttressed by the state socialist history of Central and Eastern Europe.

Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery. 2009. “Thinking Between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography After the Cold War.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51 (01): 6–34.
Fanon, Frantz. 1986. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Hirsch, Francine. 2005. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Hladík, Radim. 2011. “A Theory’s Travelogue: Post-Colonial Theory in Post-Socialist Space.” Teorie Vědy / Theory of Science 33 (4): 561–90.
Lane, David Stuart, and Cameron Ross. 1999. The Transition from Communism to Capitalism: Ruling Elites from Gorbachev to Yeltsin. Palgrave Macmillan.
Yurchak, Alexei. 2006. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Radim Hladík is a researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, and the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences.