What is “Orientalism” and why it matters today
In 1978, Edward W. Said published “Orientalism,” a book that became a milestone in post-colonial studies and essential reading for anyone interested in studying Asian (and especially Muslim) countries. E. W. Said effectively exposed the flawed way in which the West understands the “East.” Among other things, he pointed out that Western commentators consistently looked (and look) at the Orient as an entity incapable of evolving, stuck in an endless past of decadence and backwardness.
Even more importantly, according to Said, the “East” was (is) constantly portrayed as an invariably passive subject, unable and unworthy of being an active subject in its own way. Western colonial and post-colonial stereotypes see it as a sleeping, passive entity, subject to the action of a West believed to be the one and only entity worth of the dignity of an active subject.
Today, the Ukrainian crisis is revealing the existence of a strikingly similar prejudice. This time, though, the victim is not the Middle East, but Eastern Europe. Pro-Russian comments that appeared in Western media over the last few months all provided jaw-dropping, blatant examples of this stereotype, to the point that one can’t help but wonder what prevented the authors – some of which I know personally – from pausing for a moment to think before writing.
This happened on a large number of English-speaking comments, including some from highly prominent experts, but it’s equally obvious in other Western European countries where anti-American feelings historically run high, such as Italy for example, but also France and Spain in many cases. An analysis of the core arguments used by pro-Russian commentators immediately exposes the methodological weakness of these analyses.
…authors accusing the West of “causing” the Ukrainian chaos by “provoking” Russia in its strategic interests and wounding its pride of great power write from a distorted, hierarchical and, ultimately, orientalist (if not outright racist) perspective on the small countries of Eastern Europe.
Pro-Russian arguments generally work along two directions: a “whataboutism”-based one and a more “geopolitical” one. The one based on whataboutism defends Russia’s actions by appealing to the well-known principle of “yes, but what about…” Russia occupied Crimea? Yes, but what about Iraq? Moscow promotes separatism in Eastern Ukraine? Yes, but didn’t the Americans do the same in Kosovo? And so on and so forth. It is not necessary to spend any time to criticize this line of argument, as it actually nothing more than a logical fallacy (argomentum ad hominem) devoid of any value per se: a cleverly-used, effective fallacy, but a fallacy all the same.
The “geopolitical” line, however, has a slightly superior value. This line defends Russia’s actions by accusing the West of “interfering” in the business of a region where it does not have any right to operate, or expresses understanding for Moscow’s preoccupation about the enlargement of NATO, the erosion of its sphere of influence, the actions of EU and NATO in its “near abroad,” and so on. And it’s exactly in this field that “Orientalism” comes to play a role.
A huge methodological and analytical distortion
Practically all those who defend Russia in this debate fell into this trap. Reading many of the articles that accuse the West of “causing” the Ukrainian chaos by “provoking” Russia in its strategic interests and wounding its pride of great power, it’s clear how the authors write from a distorted, hierarchical and, ultimately, orientalist (if not outright racist) perspective on the small countries of Eastern Europe.
When a commentator claims that Russia feels threatened by the advance of NATO in Eastern Europe or Ukraine’s approach to the EU, he’s basically implying that Russia does indeed have an inalienable right to claim rights in the region, as if Eastern Europe was nothing but a tool to compensate Russia’s unresolved inferiority complexes. Pro-Russian commentators implicitly deny Ukraine the very dignity of active subject in the whole issue, thus even denying its relevance as an independent state.
The idea that Russian actions are legitimate reactions to the interference of “outsiders” in a region seen as “Russian” is nothing but a 2.0 expression of the same imperialist mentality with which Europeans empires split the Middle East. This is all the more surprising as it often comes from people who embrace ostensibly anti-imperialist positions in any other context. In their writings, Eastern Europe is a passive object on which Moscow is the only one actor (in the Latin sense of “doer”) entitled to operate, with no concern for smaller, local figures.
How to explain, otherwise, the way in which Russian ethno-historical arguments about Crimea or Eastern Ukraine are being accepted without any criticism? Commentators have accepted Putin’s ridiculous historical argument that Crimea was a sort of a Russian Jerusalem, or that Ukraine is some kind of lost Holy Land of the Russian nation. The Ukrainian version of the same events has never been seriously considered, or was downplayed as an expression of nationalism of a gang of history-less peasants. Very few experts havepointed out that Russia’s “motivations” are based on butone interpretation of Eastern European history, developed to serve the purposes of state legitimization of Czarist as well as Soviet Russia.
Russia: the only noble nation of Eastern Europe?
Like all historical interpretations, Russia’s reading of Ukraine’s history is based on a selection of facts and meanings that acquired a precise function due to specific political priorities. Nobody should be able to seriously argue that Crimea/Donbas/Ukraine/[…] should be Russian because Russia sees it as part of its history: in order to do so, one has to first give for granted that Russia’s interpretation of history is for some reason intrinsically superior to any other, which is of course nonsense.
But that’s not the end of it. For pro-Russian commentators, the fact that Crimea was non-Russian for thousands of years doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was Russian for less than two centuries – which is nothing in historical perspective. The Russian vision and experience of this territory-object is automatically seen as more important, more “noble,” and therefore more significant than millennia of non-Russian history of the region. The tragedies of other peoples – which, incidentally, greatly contributed to making this region more “Russian” – become completely irrelevant.
All the rest, all the non-Russian peoples, occupy that massive “neutral” space between Russia and “the West.” All of these nations are of course the result of a construction of historical experiences and traditions. But this is exactly the point: these identities are as “artificial” as the Russian one. And there is no reason to believe that the Russian identity should be regarded as being on a different level, ordained with some sort of a-historical nobility.
We (Western and Eastern Europeans alike) all come from a process of creation of identity, and so does Russia: its perceptions, feelings and understanding of history didn’t descend from heaven: they developed (or, more precisely, they were developed) as a result of precise events, strategies and agendas. They don’t deserve more respect than any other. Unfortunately, pro-Russians bestow on them nobility that they deny to any contending interpretation. The result is the nonchalant, “orientalist” use of the idea of “spheres of influence,” a concept that they would correctly reject in any other case.
Ignoring “the rest”: old habits die hard
The practice of denying the dignity of active subjects of non-Russian peoples of Eastern Europe is a long story. We Western Europeans regularly accept the idea that this part of the World falls within Russia’s “sphere”or should just be Russian. This generates appalling ideas that Russia is right in interfering in Ukraine because it already “had to give up” the Baltic States in the past and “the West” really shouldn’t “deprive” it of other countries, or that Ukraine is too important for Russian national identity because of the Kyivan Rus, as if this was enough to ignore the desires of the millions of people who had (and have) to suffer to allow Russia to freely define its identity.
For far too many Western experts what really matters is the Russian feelings. Everything else, what Ukrainians, Poles, Moldovans, Balts, Georgians, Armenians may think, is much less significant, because it’s just the feeling of “others,” subaltern subjects, unworthy of the dignity of actors, at best reacting victims of an orientalist interpretation of history that Westerners apply far too often to their Eastern European neighbors.
The disproportionate attention for Russia’s feelings, the solidarity for the Russian “tragedy” of losing its empire and the insensitivity to other peoples’ priorities become possible only if one places the Russian nation in a hierarchically superior position, applying the orientalist misconception that only a former power can have the dignity of an actor. European colonialists saw the East as a mere object they could play with. Pro-Russian commentators see Eastern Europe in the same way: Russia can do as it pleases, for this is seen as part of the natural geopolitical order.
Eastern Europe as a dummy: incapable of action?
Pro-Russian commentators’ orientalist thinking emerges in the way they portray Ukraine as a country incapable of action on its own initiative. They invariably see Eastern European countries as objects manipulated by the West. This follows what was described above: if Russia is seen as the only state worth of the dignity of “actor” and Eastern Europe as a passive, hierarchically subordinated object, it’s then inevitable that any independent action by any Eastern European state must be the result of a Western interference.
Unsurprisingly, pro-Russian commentators almost never speak in terms of “access of Eastern Europe into NATO,” but of “NATO/EU expansion in Eastern Europe.” The “East” is seen as a land of conquest – by nature subordinated to Russia – in which “the West” engages in dangerous games against its “legitimate” owner. Local actors are insignificant: their role in the whole NATO/EU enlargement process is ignored. Former communist countries are seen as victims of an inclusion in Western security structures carried out against their will.
This is of course nonsense: the integration of Eastern Europe in Euro-Atlantic security structures happened in two directions, with a very intense activity from Eastern actors that Western actors have often found far too pressing. In pro-Russian analyses, though, nothing of this appears: Eastern European states are denied the dignity of actors in the process and the very idea that tens of millions of people in the region may have wanted at many points in history to change their alignment is ruled out completely.
This is not just post-Soviet nostalgic thinking: it’s outright racism. If Eastern Europe looks west, this must be due to “Western interferences,” “pressures,” “NGOs” or whatever scapegoat pro-Russians can come up with to make sense of Russia’s failures. There must be something “Western” in action that “destabilizes the Eurasian space”; they refuse to accept that there may be genuine local interests among Eastern European peoples to realign their own countries and that, if anything, it’s actually Russia who should be held responsible for destabilizing the region with its opposition to the desires of its former imperial subjects. It may be interesting for pundits who talks about “the West destabilizing Eastern Europe” to think from this perspective for a second and see if their position still holds.
Eastern Europeans as marionettes: are we not being racist?
This orientalist approach leads to deny the sincerity of any pro-Western protest in Eastern Europe. No one with a bit of knowledge of Eastern Europe could seriously think that Brussels or Washington may really mobilize millions of people in countries such as Ukraine. No matters how much support there can be from “outside,” it’s internal factors that at the end of the day mobilize people, especially when there’s a risk of getting killed. It’s absurd to think that someone would risk getting shot just because a bureaucrat in Brussel told him to do so.
It is therefore racist to think that nobody east of the EU may want an order of things in which Russia doesn’t dominate, as if we “Westerners” were the only ones worth of, or capable of fighting for, things like rule of law, human rights and so on. These beliefs play a reassuring role for Russia itself: better to pretend that Eastern Europe’s inclusion in NATO/EU results from an anti-Russian conspiracy rather than recognizing the failure of one’s own model and the fact that, simply put, numerous countries in Europe still fear Russia’s intentions.
Why we should get rid of “Orientalism”
The main victim of these stereotypes is our ability to correctly understand Eastern Europe. Western influences cannot be ignored, but it is deeply wrong to see the Ukrainian pro-democracy movement as a detour from a supposedly “natural,” inevitable order of things in which we don’t even consider Ukrainians as worth of dignity of active subjects and nation.The risk is to lose the ability to understand the role of local actors, their choices and their feelings.
It’s fascinating to focus only on great powers’ strategies, seeing Eastern Europe as a chessboard over which two players face each other. However, no matter how enjoyable grand strategies may be for pundits and general public alike, Eastern Europe is not a football pitch and we as Westerners should seriously stop looking down at the small nations of Eastern Europe as a bunch of subaltern realities, while seeing Russia as the only nation worth of consideration and dignity. Ridding ourselves of these misconceptions should be the first, compulsory step for anyone who wants to comment on Eastern European affairs.
Coming from a different starting point, Anton Shekhovtsov has briefly argued along similar lines in a very good article published while this contribution was undergoing final revision. I am grateful to him for raising the topic and I hope my contribution will add more to the debate.
To get an idea of how absurdly simplistic and misleading this concept is, I suggest reading the chapter about Ukraine in Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations.Originally from Italy, Fabio Belafatti has been living in Lithuania for the last three years and a half. Previously he lived in Latvia and Tajikistan among other places. He works as a lecturer and Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies at Vilnius University’s Centre of Oriental Studies