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Discussion on the cultural identity of Eastern Europe in light of the war in Ukraine

Andreas Trossek (2/2022)

Participating in the discussion led by Andreas Trossek were Tiit Hennoste, Linda Kaljundi, Liisa Kaljula and Tanel Rander.*

Andreas Trossek (AT): What exactly is Eastern Europe? The journey from the Baltics to the Balkans? Or is it also a round tour through Russia? The former Eastern Bloc, just with some exceptions?

What goes off in your head when you hear the words "Eastern European art" or "Eastern European culture" more generally, what associations does it set loose?


Tiit Hennoste (TH): I really enjoy these kinds of Wittgensteinian definitions of family resemblance, and for me, Eastern Europe is one such example of a familial concept. This means, for example, that Estonia is a bit like Latvia, Latvia is a bit like Lithuania, Lithuania is a bit like Poland, etc., but Estonia and Poland are already two very different countries. As such, Eastern Europe is not a straight line from Estonia to the Balkans, but more like a family with rather irregular ties.

The second thing is that the heart of this area is in fact the old Austria-Hungary. Interestingly enough, I find this old Austria-Hungary to be completely alive – when I go to these countries and talk with the people there, maybe at a conference somewhere, I can see that this old world continues to live on in their minds.

And the third thing is that Eastern Europe is like a thing in between – with Germany to one side and Russia to the other. We can discuss whether or not Russia is part of Eastern Europe, whether St. Petersburg is part of it but not Moscow, whether Berlin is part of it but not Munich, etc., but for me, Germany and Russia are like two clamps encasing Eastern Europe.

When I now start looking at this Eastern European culture, its art as well, but mainly its literature, it was the area of expressionism. Yes, Russia had futurism, but this was generally heavily influenced by expressionism, with the same authors appearing in both worlds.


Linda Kaljundi (LK1): When I first heard about this discussion, the thing that went off in my head was precisely how there was this new interest in Eastern European identity or defining Eastern Europe that was emerging in Estonia. Indeed, there is no single right way of defining or delineating Eastern Europe, the possibilities are many.

I think it would be interesting to explore how and why we came to this new-found interest in our Eastern European identity and identifying with other Eastern European countries, their history and cultural heritage. Why this kind of Eastern European identity is emerging and growing in the Estonian art and visual field and perhaps also in film? How do we interpret this concept of Eastern Europe from our perspective in Estonia?

It is certainly also a very dynamic process. And currently even more so, with there being a lot of anxiety around interpreting Eastern European identity in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war.


AT: But when was it that this interest in Eastern Europe emerged? Tanel Rander, for example, has been engaged in this topic for a very long time, certainly more than a decade, but what would a more general timeline look like?


LK1: I still see it as a thing of the 2000s. Looking back at Estonia's accession to the European Union and NATO, there were, in a sense, two patterns of identity beginning to form simultaneously: the first had to do with the excitement of joining Europe, and the second with different kinds of anxieties and fears. Asking myself whether I'm really European enough, or feeling the need to resist this and refusing the role of an apprentice – which is so characteristic of a postcolonial relationship – and looking for alternatives in some kind of Eastern European identity.

So it really seems to me personally that this has been more and more pervasive from the start of the 2000s. When the institutional security of being part of Europe was achieved.


Liisa Kaljula (LK2): I would like to take over from here, since I find security a truly important keyword. The longing for Eastern Europe arises at a point where welfare society has, at least in a sense, been achieved – when, for example, young people experience that sense of boredom in which creating or constructing a new identity carries the promise of excitement. And I think that the Eastern European cultural markers that are currently at the fore in our culture in Estonia – things like Slav squats or lurking around abandoned buildings – have to do with the young people in a welfare society feeling bored and longing for a kind of rawness that has now been lost.

On the other hand, it is very interesting to see how this term has been shoved back and forth, because indeed, owing to the rise of welfare here in Estonia, Eastern Europe has started to take on positive meaning. However, if we look at Poland and the Czech Republic, for example, the term has always been rejected and the stance has been that no, we are not Eastern Europe, we are Central Eastern Europe or, in fact, Central Europe. It is thus very clear that we are not dealing with a geographical term, but a highly complex, historical, psychological, psychogeographical term.


Tanel Rander (TR): The comparison that just now sprung to mind is that if Eastern Europe were a river, the source of that river, a quiet natural riverbed, would for me fall between 1989 and 2004. What came before were some kinds of underground reservoirs or stacks of boulders. In a word, memory. But since 2004, this river has been channelled – with dams, locks, etc. Discursively, we know this era as the "former East". And since 2014, this river has been rushing wildly. The topic of Eastern Europe has arisen as something acute.

Perhaps this interest in Eastern Europe that Linda Kaljundi was just referring to was ignited some time in the middle of the previous decade – possibly in connection with the war of information, but also with the emergence of populism, and certainly in connection with the occupation of Crimea.

If we talk about psychogeography, then yes, it is like a kind of mental state that we relate to certain places – and when we talk about Eastern Europe in Estonia, we certainly picture some parts of Tallinn, such as Lasnamäe. We certainly picture Narva. But we do not picture Kärdla or Haapsalu, for example. Where is the Eastern Europe in those places?

Much along the same lines, this discourse has been very broad. For me, the discourse of Eastern Europe included everything that in reality involved Southern, Eastern and Central Europe. Countries of the former Yugoslavia and those in Central Europe that have been most active in generating Eastern European discourse since the 1990s.

But if we were to look seriously at whether Albania is still Eastern Europe or if we were to go and start talking about Eastern Europe somewhere on the Croatian coast... Right now, it looks like no more than an illusion. Eastern Europe is a collective illusion that we all share.


AT: But if Eastern Europe really is a collective illusion – and it seems that we have reached agreement on this, we can now seal the deal – then where does this concept, in all its obscurity, originate from?

I am not even entirely sure it can be called a term, given that the concept of Eastern Europe is so vague in our minds. And the same is true of our interlocutors, because when we communicate, we must first understand what a person means when they say "Eastern Europe".

What is the origin of this concept? Are its beginnings in the political history of the 20th century, the Cold War and the definition of the former Eastern Bloc? Is it purely a historical phenomenon, something driven by various conflicts, quietly arising in the aftermath of the Second World War when the symbolic object that is the Berlin Wall was erected? And when the Berlin Wall falls, is this Eastern European identity somehow actualised?

When I started putting down some keywords for this discussion, I for some reason had the idea of looking at what the Lonely Planet travel guide has to say on this, at what is advertised as "Eastern Europe" to an American tourist that comes here to Tallinn. And it seemed to me that the version presented by Lonely Planet pretty much adhered to the bounds of the former Eastern Bloc, as if to the average American, Eastern Europe still meant Russia as well.

So, is it still the case of having a Western Bloc and an Eastern Bloc? Or like they used to say, there is the First World, then there is the Second World, which was the Communist Bloc, and then the Third World.




Kaisa Puustak
Globe on Newspaper
Drypoint and aquatint,
40 x 59 cm
Photographer Stanislav
Courtesy of the artist
and Art Museum of





TH: Within this Second World, there are usually several more worlds.


AT: Yes, but the American tourist wants to go to Toompea and see the onion domes. Only at some point after that might they stop by Kumu. Modern Estonia, smartphones, Kärdla – ultimately, all these things are together.


TH: An interesting phenomenon here is that although we seem to inhabit the same space, placed together in this space are completely different things. We can take Kärdla or Narva for example, which are two entirely different places.

But to me it seems that this construct of Eastern Europe really goes back as early as the start of the 20th century, when the empires crumbled. It is not like Eastern Europe was instantly regarded in the same way as we talk about it today. This is still the legacy of the Cold War, the kind of partition of Europe that we can still see in the Lonely Planet travel guide, as well as all these travel shows and so on. In these, we continue to be part of Russia even today, many years later.

Additionally, though, there is the dimension of time, in that looking east, Western Europe is still looking at something that is lagging behind. It is one thing to be different, to be the Other. But it is another thing to be the one that is lagging behind, and this has sort of been an Eastern European thing, societies that are in the process of catching up. In that when they emerged, a lot of them – Estonians included – right away tried to catch up.

I have used the concept of self-colonisation to describe this, but in principle it means that societies or cities or even different districts of the same city existing in one physical time are mentally living in different times. I find this is important when thinking about Eastern Europe and the fact that when people come here from the outside, they go and see these different times coexisting in one space. And in fact, being able to see a 12th century building next to a 21st century building is just history.


LK1: I agree that these kinds of regional or cultural stereotypes are deep-rooted. This reminds me of Larry Wolff and his book "Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment" (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), where he emphasises that the East-West axis was a product of the Enlightenment.

Europe has always defined itself through others, and in the past, for example, in the Middle Ages, the North was often the negative point of comparison. But then France becomes the heart of the ideal that is the enlightened and educated civilisation. And the farther east we go, the more it becomes like the Other, through which Europe defines itself as the One. But this can also be taken…


TH: …further, yes. To me, the Enlightenment project also seems terribly significant. After all, much of Eastern Europe is, in my view, the result of two things: the Enlightenment and romanticism. They have nicely been merged here. In some ways, they are opposites, but together they have formed this strange world of ours.

The side of romanticism leads to an exoticising, which was discussed extensively during the 19th century. Someone from Japan, Africa or some other remote place, is regarded as exotic in Western Europe. But the trouble with us here in Eastern Europe is that sometimes we are not quite exotic enough, we are somewhere in between the two, and this creates a very strange relationship between the West and East.


LK1: The same is true for the colonial relationship.


TH: Yes. You almost fit the bill, but not quite.


LK2: Yet in the European context, we are still exotic enough, like some strange furry creatures for the Western Europeans to study. If we look at how Baltic symbolism was taken to Paris in 2018, for example, and the title it was put under at the Orsay Museum – "Âmes sauvages", then it was very clearly our so-called savagery that was sold to the French, and it did manage to catch their interest.

So this need for a distinction between the rational and the irrational constructed during the Enlightenment project and outlined by Larry Wolff has not really disappeared from Western Europe. Most likely, many countries in Eastern Europe already feel European enough and this book may already seem outdated for us.

That said, the world has changed completely as a result of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Many historic contradictions and distinctions are relevant once again. Why has there been such a strong reaction to this war in Estonia? I think it has activated certain vestiges within us: old fears, old oppositions, all of this has suddenly resurfaced.

And, in fact, this war has demonstrated that we continue to be as Eastern European as ever. First, because of the sense of solidarity that we in Estonia share with the Ukrainians, in contrast to the Syrian war refugees, for example, who did not inspire such solidarity in us. In this sense, there is a whole new temporal layer forming in the history of this concept. This concept is certainly the object of historical research itself, and we are currently witnessing this as it reaches a new phase.


TR: I for my part would like to note that, in the current situation, I have completely given up thinking in geopolitical terms coined by large empires. From where I stand, this was done in the so-called previous world that was still comparatively peaceful and where one could follow all those decolonial theories that spoke of the emergence of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – Ed.), the multipolar world order, etc.

I am beginning to think that while this talk of geopolitics is undoubtedly attractive, it is nevertheless a lure – if we reduce things to a psychological level. It is this kind of seductive talk that pulls people along and makes them believe that there really are great empires that take different forms over time. But what if this story is just lies coming from a hypothetically narcissistic man who uses it to manipulate other people?

Psychologically speaking, Eastern Europe has been about "lack". Instead, we could have been grateful for how far we have come. We could have focused on the present, on what we really were, what we had, rather than chasing some delusion. Until now, our psychological state has either been one of trying to "catch up" with the Western standards or providing a "sexy" contrast to them, as we can see here at the main exhibition of XVIII Tallinn Print Triennial.

But in the case of Ukraine, the year after the war started, I was visiting an exhibition there. I was talking to local artists, asking for example whether they were working on the topic of necropolitics, the rise of the war state, and so on. But their answer was no: we are doing what we like and focusing on how to stay human right now, on how to remain healthy psychologically.

When it comes to Eastern Europe, I believe that there should be a self-reflexive turn happening in the handling of this self-colonisation that we have talked about in relation to Eastern Europe.


AT: Maybe Eastern European identity is some kind of fantastical creature marked with an expiry date?

I remember thinking about this during my first time in Finland as an Erasmus exchange student sometime in the early 2000s, and I remember pondering it for quite some time: given our long-standing custom of borrowing from Finland, is it possible that over time we will forget all about Eastern Europe and have it gradually replaced by a Nordic identity? Or, why not even Scandinavian, I thought, since Swedish banks were already here anyway. Although, in fact, not even Finland can truly call itself Scandinavia.


LK2: By the way, Lonely Planet published a book about Scandinavia in 2015 and that book also covers Tallinn, but just Tallinn, not the whole of Estonia or the Baltics. It even made the news here in Estonia back then, Lonely Planet finally making Tallinn part of Scandinavia.


TH: In my opinion, this movement has followed a curved line. Sometimes we are in unison and harmony with the Western side, "breathing the same air", as Henrik Visnapuu once wrote. Then we fall behind again, move to the side or go down a different path, like in the 1930s when Eastern Europe become authoritarian. Then we return again like in the 1960s and withdraw again like in the 1970s and so on.

In that sense, I agree 100% that right now, or rather after the end of the war in Ukraine, is the moment when all this will have to be re-evaluated, there is simply no way around it. But I would rather not start predicting what the world will look like. We have no way of knowing how things will turn out and how we want to think of it later on. What happens is one thing, but another is what we are willing to accept.


TR: I think that there is certainly a need to decolonise the existing decolonial movement and the discourse of Eastern Europe, the idea of Eastern Europe as a great bundle of identities that includes so many different regions. There are the paradigm belts of former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and then of Central Europe. We are, in fact, North-Eastern Europe – perhaps the compromise between North and East could be North-East – and I think that the idea of North-Eastern Europe should be explored on a theoretical level.

It should also follow that our experience of socialism was a colonial experience and that this was not identical for all socialist countries. We have the experience of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was not a European country, it was also an Asian country. A vastly different context.

When I talked earlier of this certain kind of psychological condition, a very good example of this is a text by Boris Groys from 2011, in which he suggests that Russia is the West's unconscious. In principal, this is grounded in the logic that since the unconscious is said to be in control – to have dominion over the conscious – then Russia, being the unconscious, holds a great deal of power.

To me, this sounds like a reluctance to be healed that you might see in a person with strong narcissistic tendencies. And all anti-Western criticism from an Eastern European platform has been feeding this compensation mechanism. In the last decade, this has started to acutely enter Russian channels. And I think maybe the way we could talk about Eastern Europe in the future is how to live with a large manipulative, narcissistic partner as a neighbour.


AT: Since you have spent a long time thinking about Eastern European identity in your art practice, I would like to know if there are also any commonalities to this that instantly come to mind?


TR: Sure there are. You can always find common ground when you talk about the mentality of the 1990s, because we all share the experience, the emotional memories of that time. You can also always find common ground when you start cursing the West, especially in the countries of the former Yugoslavia that will get you far.

At the moment I have also seen a great shift in attitudes towards Russia, after just having spent a month in Slovenia. And I could see that the initial reactions to the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine were very hesitant. People were so used to the possibility of going around saying how NATO was evil, how the European Union was evil – they do nothing but colonise these parts, continuing to spread eastwards – and some people could not immediately shake it off, but kept repeating the same old story.

I don't know if maybe this talk of Eastern Europe is more pertinent to the countries that do not share a border with Russia? Because those who do have a border with Russia may then form a new entity within Eastern Europe, a kind of Frontier East? By the way, one of my latest exhibitions on Eastern Europe was "The Frontline East" (2015) at the LCCA Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. What I am referring to is the third paradigm in Eastern Europe, which began in 2014, when one part of it – us over here – began to be militarised and another part went to war, two developments that are now escalating. We are in a kind of transition period, I am afraid.


AT: But Tanel, please tell us, is there a language that functions as a lingua franca in Eastern Europe between all these identities and different countries?


TR: Broken English.

By the way, I started working on my own broken English while still studying in the English language class at Miina Härma Gymnasium in Tartu, where they taught British English. Out of personal protest. Later on, when I was living abroad, I knowingly acquired a stronger accent. So that everyone would immediately know where I am from. So that I would not use any camouflage…


AT: Did it work or did people think you were Finnish?


TR: I have been told that it sounded like a Serbian accent. And now I can't really seem to shake it.



Tiit Hennoste is a linguist and scholar of literature and journalism, associate professor of Estonian at the University of Tartu, and a member of the editorial boards of several Estonian cultural journals.

Liisa Kaljula is a curator and art historian. She is head of the painting collection at the Estonian Art Museum and a guest lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

Linda Kaljundi is a historian and curator. She is a professor of cultural history at the Estonian Academy of Arts and a senior researcher at Tallinn University.

Tanel Rander is an artist, curator and critic who has been extensively involved in the discourse and decoloniality of Eastern Europe for more than a decade.

Andreas Trossek is the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE.


* The discussion took place on 27. III 2022 as part of the finissage of the XVIII Tallinn Print Triennial at Kai Art Center.

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