Political-geographical image of Eastern Europe and Orientalism


When it comes to the concept of Eastern Europe, as the rule, no explanation is necessary on what we are dealing with: the image that appears in the mind carries a certain and very specific meaning. However, there is no uniform understanding of the boundaries of the concept that can be called Eastern Europe in either social sciences or in practical politics. In fact, before the dissolution of socialist bloc countries in Europe (the Comecon and the Warsaw Pact), Eastern Europe was understood as the former socialist European countries, relatively speaking the territory east to Churchill’s Stettin-Trieste line between the West and the countries that in 1946, according to former British Prime Minister, was behind the Iron Curtain[i]. Gradually in 1991, in the official discourse of foreign policy departments, the concept of Eastern Europe was replaced by Central or Eastern and Central Europe.

The uncertainty and the vagueness of the concept of Eastern Europe is largely due to its dual nature. On the one hand, it is constantly used in modern international politics, in international and domestic political practice. On the other hand, it is used as the theoretical concept in the scientific debate. Sometimes the term ‘Eastern Europe’ is used to represent countries in Central Europe. To denote this space the terms such as ‘MidiEurope’, ‘Dimidal Europe’, and ‘Viskal Europe’ are used too.[ii] As the debate on the term’s meaning becomes more severe, it allow us to suppose that even the region name itself is not neutral, being filled with a variety of meanings, and, depending on the choice of a particular name, one meaning or the other is approved. In terms of geopolitics, it is necessary to understand that its geopolitical function, to comprehend the meaning of the geographical image that lies behind the concept of Eastern Europe. As the contemporary American geopolitical analyst D. Sloan notes, the most important component of the geopolitical approach is the ​​geographical notion of the imaginary spatial interrelation.[iii] The mental map has high priority that is projected onto a geographical map then, which, as A. Dugin noted, “emphasizes the geopolitical sociological nature.”[iv]

In this context, the term ‘Eastern Europe’ can be correlated to D. Zamyatin’s theory of national geography as the geographical image[v] affecting the action as foreign and domestic actors. This image is part of the mental map, image, created by man, of the surrounding space, reflecting the world as the man imagines it[vi], i.e. the social representation of a specific portion of space.

The political-geographical or geopolitical connotations are crucial for Zamyatin’s terminology. The geopolitical dynamics can often be described as geographical image dynamics. Moreover, if we divide the geographic image of the discursive component, it is easy to see through the example of specific images as they perform as rulings, i.e. discourses prevalent in the public consciousness starting to fulfill the power and control of political function.

Studying the geographical images, the Russian researcher A. Miller notes that in western geographical and socio-political thoughts, the appearance of such a direction of “Mental Mapping”[vii] is incarnated. Representatives of the social sciences are interested in the mental cartography, in the processes of the formation of these maps and the geographical images existing in then. In other words, if we use the terminology and methodology of M. Foucault, it is about a discursive practice of the geographical space through various schemes of formation and providing of certain parts of certain characteristics.

In addressing the history science, A. Miller mentions that before writing about the history of Central or Eastern Europe, the "discourses on Central Europe must themselves be the subject of historical or, if you will, historical and political scientific studies, especially in the history of the field. Only by finding out the variety of interests and “tendentiousness” associated with the various concepts of Central Europe, can historians use the concept of Central Europe as a tool of historical research. Otherwise, the tendentiousness, even without the researchers’ will, can enter into their work together with the concept itself”[viii]. We think that this claim is relevant not only for historians, but for sociologists and political scientists too, and especially in International Relations, when dealing with Eastern Europe and other geographic regions.

Similar problems of the concept of Eastern Europe were mentioned by the American scientist Larry Woolf in his famous work Inventing Eastern Europe, the map of civilization in the minds of the Enlightenment. In this quite famous book, he shows how to create the discourse on Eastern Europe and designed the geographic image, noting that Eastern Europe ever since the moment when this concept was included in the language of political science has always been seen as something miserable when compared to Western Europe. Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans hold up immaturity, aggression, insecurity, underdevelopment and inconsistencies of the common European social, political, cultural and economic standards. They cannot remove them, only because the process of creating an Eastern Europe image was accompanied by giving then these characteristics. Such a geographic image is similar to Edward Said’s consideration of the East as the Western Europeans constructed reality, which hides the colonialist intentions of the West.[ix]

The author of the Orientalism concept, Edward Said, in his book Orientalism. The Western concept of the East argued that the notion of the East is an exclusively western concept imposed on the Asian and non-Western countries in general. One of the purposes is to create an image of the East as a mysterious region, but backward and in need of assistance of the civilized and enlightened West, to justify Western colonialism. The second purpose is the construction of the image of the “Other” world comparing to the West. Thus, by creating the concept of the East, the West claimed itself as non-barbarians, the center of education, legitimizing mentally the relations of inequality, colonial supremacy or putting forward the claim for such dominance to those countries that are regarded as “oriental”.

From a methodological point of view, it is interesting that Said directly understands the geographical image and its political function, accepting de facto the statement of D. Sloan and showing the role played by geographical image in geopolitics. According to Said, there are two spaces: One is the real, geographic; second one is shaped. First, it creates the image of the East as the intellectual space, which is then projected onto the reality and is used as the control element of political manipulation.[x]

Said’s concept, in relation to the Eastern Europe geographical image, was developed by Larry Wolff. Orientalism itself, says Wolff, is the style that the West uses to re-shape and subdue the East.[xi] A. Miller, in the preface to the Russian edition of the American scientist’s book, summarizes the main idea of ​​the work by noting that “Woolf describes the creation of the Eastern Europe image as the project of semi-orientalization, which is the main characteristic of that part of continent societies, a kind of transitional state between the civilized West and the barbaric East, when the West absorption is superficial, and the foundation of society is barbaric.”[xii]

Wolff shows that the Eastern Europe image was created as one of the by-products of Orientalism. Since the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and the creation of the East image, the image of the geographical area was created, located between the pure East and the pure West. This area is named Eastern Europe, and in relation to it, they started to adopt strategies similar to the orientalization strategies.

If, before the Enlightenment, the border between civilization and barbarism in the minds of Europeans was between the North and the South, and the image of the cultural Mediterranean opposed the barbaric Germanic North, from the early modern period, the appearance of Orientalism’s discourse in the minds of people in the West has significant changed, allowing them to place the image of the meaningful ‘Other’ in the East. That ‘Other’ is, as is noted by Woolf and the Norwegian sociologist Iver Neumann, the Ottoman Empire and then Russia.[xiii]

Wolff’s historical background is very interesting and important when attempting to understand the concept of Eastern Europe. It is “discovered” as it was at the beginning of the XVIII century, at first, perceived as the “internal East” or “East Europe”, close to the Ottoman Empire and Russia. It seems that the elements of East European discourse still dominate the consciousness of Western people, from century to century dividing Europe into two halves. Indeed, in the XVIII century, the idea of ​​Eastern Europe as “the barbaric region” and "Sclavenia" territory with a predominantly Slavic population appeared and then never disappeared. Caused by Rákóczi's War of Independence, the interest in Hungary from French crown supporters, and its geography, from the side of the scientists who supported the Habsburgs, creates the formation of the image of the continent’s eastern edge and the contradictory idea of ​​the primordial wildness, “Asiatic” elements and the freedom of local people, seeking to break the slavery shackles.[xiv]

Interestingly, created back in 1720 in Amsterdam, French Atlas Historique in addition to the aforementioned points showed another important element, which is entrenched in the Western Europeans representation, and later Americans, on Eastern Europe. The comprehension of it as something archaic and backward, East Europe seemed to concentrate on the past, which the West overcame. The regional territories, in contrast to Western Europe, were necessarily signed by both modern and ancient, Latin names in this “atlas” (for example, Hungary and Pannonia, Bulgaria and Moesia, Wallachia and Dacia). Such an indication and reference serves to stress the archaic Eastern Europe. According to Wolff, such combinations, however, were entirely appropriate on the map of Eastern Europe, which itself was somewhere between the ancient and the modern world; Bohemia isn’t an ancient name; it must be invented, even by warping the Latin language.[xv]  The fact is that the Eastern Europe idea has not only not been overcome, but it continues to be cultivated by Western media and cinema, as the Russian scientists’ studies show, for example, the work of N. Klochko, the Images of Europe in the modern national discourse (based on the example of anthropomorphic metaphors)[xvi] as well as the Western researchers and their Eastern European colleagues’ publications, particularly Bulgarian and American researcher M. Todorova, Belgian geopolitical and political philosopher R. Steuckers, Albanian sociologist A. Gёzim etc.…

Referring to the discourse analysis, Wolff (not so intensively) and Said (more intensively) follow M. Foucault by aiming to reveal the discourse’s power, constitutive relations of domination and subordination.[xvii] The discourse is not innocent speaking, as the modern English researcher Thomas Diez notes, but a political act, fitting a certain issue in a political context.[xviii] The discourse on Orientalism or Eastern Europe, separating the lower from the higher, “civilized” and “savages”, establishes specific power relations, which the East Europeans always have the prepared role of slaves, those who submit, become civilized, risk to be never civilized, whilst the discourse remains.

The other discourses may, on the contrary, “Europeanize” the different cultures and countries. In Eastern Europe, the characteristic example is the discourse on Greece Hellenism, which helped Greece to be outside this geographical image. As Martin Bernal shows in his interesting study of the Black Athena: The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, this intellectual tradition, by contrast, comprehensively eliminated from European Greece all traces of the Eastern, Asian and even African influences, not only in modern Greek, but in Ancient Greek culture. [xix]

[i] Churchill W.S. The Sinews of Peace. A Speech at Westminster College. Fulton (Missouri), 5 March 1946. Fulton, 1995. P. 4.

[ii] Savin L. The project of Intermarium and geopolitics of regional risks // Geopolitics. 2011. #10. P. 45.

[iii] Dugin A. Geopoitics. Moscow. 2011. P. 130

[iv] same

[v] Zamyatin D. The phenomenology of the geographic images // Social researches. 2001. № 8. P. 12-21.

[vi] Wolff L. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. 2003. P. 5

[vii] same

[viii] same

[ix] Said E.

[x] Savin L. Orientalism, occidentalism and intellectual terrorism / Dugin A. (edt.) Leviathan: Geopolitics/Geostrategy seminar material. Moscow. 2011. P. 35

[xi] Wolff L.

[xii] Wolff L.

[xiii] Neumann I. Uses of the Other. The 'East' in European Identity Formation. 2004

[xiv] Wolff L.

[xv] Wolff L.

[xvi] Klochko N. Images of Europe in the modern national discourse (based on the example of anthropomorphic metaphors // Budaev E. Chudiniv A. Modern political linguistic. Ekaterenbourg. 2006. P. 213-226

[xvii] Foucault M. La Volonté de savoir. 1996. P. 49-95

[xviii] Diez. T. Europe's Others and the Return of Geopolitics// Cambridge Review of Internationall Affairs. Vol. 17. Number 2, July 2004. Pp. 319-335.

[xix] Bernal M. Black Athena: Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.