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.

2 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    June 03, 2016

    I have received a response on Twitter on this article. It is great opportunity to expand on the article and clarify possible issues. Obviously, the Twitter format is not a great tool for a meaningful discussion, so I am posting here instead.

    The critique goes as follows:

    “omg, on how many levels this stuff is wrong.
    The most obvious: 1. kicking a dead horse. 2. horse been dead for 27 yrs. 3. retroactive anticommunism. 4. shifts b/w USSR and EE
    5. forgets west is the univ. source of racism. 6. silent abt Eurowhiteness. 7. unaware of legacies of socialist internationalism
    et cetera 8-|”

    “omg, on how many levels this stuff is wrong”

    First and foremost, I attempted to put forward an argument. The simple version goes as follows: The unity of the CEE in response to incoming asylum seekers is an expression of racism, no matter how much it attempts to explain itself through cultural or economic motivations. This “I’m not a racist, but…” attitude and its resonance across much of the CEE region is not accidental. The roots of this phenomenon should be sought in the shared experience of this region with state-socialism, a regime that managed to conflate anti-racist rhetoric with a translation of racism into its particular modernization narrative.
    The argument can be wrong, but the particular criticism does not really address it.

    As for the particular points being raised, I shall take them on one by one:
    “1. kicking a dead horse. 2. horse been dead for 27 yrs. 3. retroactive anticommunism. 4. shifts b/w USSR and EE. 5. forgets west is the univ. source of racism. 6. silent abt Eurowhiteness. 7. unaware of legacies of socialist internationalism.”

    1. The horse that is being kicked is the racist response of CEE countries to asylum seekers.
    2. The horse is alive and well. Now, I do trace back the horse to the state-socialist past. Not in order to argue that the state-socialist past is responsible for the current situation (surely, this is not a phenomenon with a single cause), but in a attempt to understand what distinguishes the CEE region from the attitude (often no less racist) of other European countries, where racism can be more blatant (even if veiled in PC language). Besides, I think that when it comes to construction of social and political subjectivities, calendar years tend to be a tricky measure. E.g. India has been decolonialized for almost 7 decades, but I still consider its experience of colonialism to be an important category in the analysis of its current predicaments.
    3. I consider the critique of state socialism (a term that is not very helpful, I admit) to be a necessary component of advancing communist agenda. I am not sure about how to understand the charge of retroactivity, but historical considerations are something that I see as a trademark of any kind of Marxist-inspired approaches.
    4. The broadness of the brush with which one paints can always be subject to criticism. In my argument, I consider the race (in both its rhetoric and translated forms) to be one of the central tenets of state-socialist governmentality (this is, in fact, essential to the argument) and thus spanning the entire realm of the Soviet bloc.
    5. The West is hardly alone in using ethnical categories to organize politics and culture, but I agree that after the West’s global takeover, its modern biological form of racism has become dominant. In my article, I am trying to argue that CEE, through its state-socialist (or, if you wish, state-capitalist) modernization has tweaked this form to match its own needs (which included the anti-racist rhetoric and critique of the West).
    6. This is pretty much covered above. Yes, Eurowhiteness is an important concept and a useful one to understand the current displays of racism. But my question was different and it could be rephrased as “how has Eurowhiteness attained such a strong hold in CEE despite its experience with a regime that had systematically denied racism”.
    7. Socialist internationalism is actually a possible way out of the present conundrum and its most exemplary manifestations, like the defence of the Spanish revolution in 1936, are remarkable historical events. In contrast, the socialist inter-nationalism practiced as a geopolitical strategy and a tool for enlarging the Soviet empire, was actually a manifestation of racism translated into the language of state-socialist modernization – taking away the agency from colonized peoples, supporting the creation of nation states, and engaging in ethnical conflicts in exchange for political affiliation.

    I hope this clarifies things somewhat.


    • Avatar
      July 13, 2020

      Excellent original article, explanation and commentary! Perhaps the above Twitter commentator is struggling with the same kind of denial of problem that an alcoholic engages in as you mentioned. As long as you are benefiting from a system, regardless of how subtle the persuasion may be and the fact that you are not (yet) on the victimized end, it is difficult to acknowledge a need for change since guilt of conscious has long since evaporated and the time of useful consciousness is long past. Denial of a problem is an unfortunate characteristic of our flawed human nature until the inevitable breakdown of the situation occurs. We are heading for dangerous times. It’s sort of like the “straw that(will break) broke the camel’s back” and as we all know “pendulums do swing”. What will that look like, I wonder?