Welcome to Eastern Spaces, a project that has been set up by students of the University of Leeds. Our aim is to explore cultures of the ‘East’ – that is, the cultures of Eastern and Central Europe, Russia and Central Asia. The aim of our journal can be articulated through exploring the title – Eastern Spaces.
There is no simple, unproblematic way to group the area with which we are concerned. Although we have used ‘Eastern’, this word is not without issues; it is vague, often used in the West to describe anywhere in the vast area of the globe from Central Europe to the furthest reaches of South East Asia. In such a context, it gives little thought to the complexities and individuality of the immeasurable cultures that exist in this space, reductively grouping them all as one false and illusory space.
Eastern Europe has historically been seen as a separate from Western Europe. In his 1994 book Inventing Eastern Europe, Wolff outlines how during the Age of Enlightenment, many travellers viewed the European boarder as existing between Prussia and Poland, despite it being thousands of miles further east. Travelling east, the explorer felt they had “moved back ten centuries”, while the return to Western Europe was “welcoming and embracing”. Divisions between Europe East and West have remained throughout history, and were as strong as ever during the second half of the 20th Century. The “iron curtain” remains a pertinent metaphor of this division – interestingly it was approximately located in the same position as the border between Prussia and Poland which signified the ‘edge’ of Europe for many explorers.
However, with the end of the Soviet Union, the ‘othering’ of Eastern European cultures within Western media has not stopped. In contemporary society, this is reflected in the recent return of the idea of Russia as a threatening enemy, while, somewhat paradoxically, the people and cultures are subject to mocking.
The fear of the Eastern European other grew during the run-up to the EU Referendum, which sought to demonize of the EU migrant. This fear is becoming more and more evident in the post-Brexit landscape. The numerous attacks on Polish communities last summer highlights society’s newfound readiness to treat Eastern Europeans as ‘others’. This is a narrative that disregards the unique histories and cultures of these countries. Instead, they are often grouped into one large ‘post-Soviet’, or even ‘Russian’, mass. This makes it easier to distance oneself from these cultures – if the Soviet Union was our enemy, to what extent can the post-Soviet be our ally? Self-identification is not an option for these communities. Although these countries may view themselves as Western, this is not how they are seen in contemporary Britain.
This issue is worsened by many journals whose focus is a global, contemporary culture. Many former-Soviet countries, particularly the smaller Baltic states, are often seen through the lens of their “crumbling Soviet past”. Since 1991, changes in the country are ostensibly ignored: what these countries seem to offer to a global contemporary culture is their past – a decaying village disco captured by an American photographer who is “fascinated by all this debris of a dead empire.” Post-Soviet history is disregarded; pre-Soviet history is forgotten. The 50 years of Soviet occupation often define these countries today.
Equally problematic is the complete disregard for the cultures of Central Asia. For many people, knowledge of Central Asia does not go beyond Kazakhstan, which is frequently informed by one particular film: Borat. The problems in the presentation of Kazakh culture in this film are obvious, and while it is meant to be satire, it has unfortunately shaped public understanding of the area. Such films present the East as ‘backward’ and ‘uncivilised’. Our aim is to counteract the false understanding that these cultures are as ‘backward’ as this film suggests.
The exploration of ‘Eastern’ spaces from a Western perspective carries further issues, namely the Western gaze’s glamorization and sexualisation of the East. Although this Orientalist view was originally spoken of in relation to the Middle and Far East, much of it is echoed in the image of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asi in Britain today. Our journal will seek not to romanticise, distance and other, but instead to examine in a more balanced and personal way.
It is only by realising the above issues, and actively trying to counter them, that movements can be made to alter the climate. It is though attempting to alter the semantics of a word with such connotations that perceptions can be changed. Through the title, this reconsidered ‘Eastern’ label forms an omnipresent backdrop to our writing. This reconsidered approach to engaging with these spaces is more important than ever today.
The domineering nature of the Soviet Union, in both geopolitical terms and in the Western narrative, means that countries that were once under the Soviet sphere of influence are often misleadingly grouped together. While exploring these cultures in one online ‘space’ can be seen to be perpetuating the issue, it is through conscious recognition of this fact that we are able to overcome such reductive simplifications. The plurality of the title helps to address this issue: we are not engaging with one ‘space’, but instead with an infinite number of ‘spaces’.
‘Spaces’ carries an inherent sense of multiplicity, ambiguity, and infinity. This exactly mirrors our vision of the area; an ambiguous title is the only way in which this journal can be named. It is a region with multiple languages, multiple ethnicities, multiple cultures, multiple spaces.
Further implicit in the term ‘spaces’ is a sense of instability and fluidity. This is crucial in a part of the world where international borders have been completely redrawn relatively recently. The arbitrariness of borders is reflected in Alexander Veryovkin’s 1 second equals 2.31 meters in the real world, at IX International Month of Photography at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.
Veryovkin’s aim was to drive along a scaled outline of the Russian Federation in a field. Although his chosen route appeared on a map as a big, flat field, mirroring the route turned out to be impossible, with obstacles such as a military training ground, ditches and hedges preventing him from following his planned movements. The result is a randomly shaped outline with no resemblance to today’s borders of Russia. This immediately underlines the arbitrary and unstable international boarders in the region, a key issue since 1991, which has become particularly prominent since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Veryovkin displayed the outline of his journey on a map next to a video of his movements. The static physicality of the map, which objectifies Veryovkin’s journey, contrasts with the accompanying video, which shows that there are stories in the spaces beyond lines on maps. It draws attention to the way in which borders can reduce a nation’s dynamic ‘journey’ to a single moment in time. This in turn detracts from complex historical and ethnic issues which are involved in the foundation of a country’s borders. Eastern Spaces thus aims to be the ‘video’ to the mainstream media’s static ‘map’, sharing the dynamic spaces beyond the simple lines.
So this is our project – Eastern Spaces. It is an exploration of the infinite spaces of the East – Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia. We shall attempt to do so away from the pervading media narratives of these countries as being post-Soviet, part of a powerful new existential threat, or as objects of ridicule. There will be difficulties, particularly in avoiding orientalist objectification of these spaces; however, realising this potential is key in overcoming it. We aim to be involved in a dialogue with these spaces, avoiding preconceived ideas, writing what we find, as we find it. These Eastern Spaces are dynamic, contradictory, infinite and ambiguous.
The Eastern Spaces logo was designed by Benjamin Warner.
Many thanks to SlavSoc for their support in setting up the page.