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N 13 / 1998 (Ukr.)


Mykola Rjabchuk

The Fence Of Metternich’s Garden

When in 1946, Konrad Adenauer stated that “Asia stands on the Elbe”, he just rephrased, consciously or unconsciously, the nineteen-century joke of his Austrian colleague, chancellor Metternich, who used to say that the very place where Asia began was just behind the fence of his Vienaise garden. For both of them, “Asia” was just another word for something hostile, barbarous and threatening the very existence of their (Western) civilisation. For Metternich, implicitly, all the space east to Vienna was culturally inferior and suspicious; as many Westerners of the time, he believed that “the frontiers of civilisation did not extend beyond the territorial aspirations of the more timorous Carolingian monarchs”.

But Adenauer hardly shared this view; in any case, he knew that there was Eastern Germany east to Elbe and that eastern Germans did not differ too much from their western compatriots, at least at that time. What he meant by “Asia standing on the Elbe” was certain political reality brought as far as to his own country by the Soviet troops and imposed on Eastern Europeans by brutal force, blackmail and political trickery. “Asia” meant for him not just another civilisation – however inferior and alien it might be, as in Metternich’s view, – but rather lack of civilisation, “anti-civilisation” which threatened the most fundamental values of Western world.

The Western perception of Eastern Europe, after 1946, had consisted of various combinations of both feelings, the “Adenauer’s” and the “Metternich’s”. On the one hand, the Westerners recognised that to the east from the Elbe and to the Metternich’s garden there was also Europe, even though poorer and despised. They knew that this Europe did not accept its “Asian” status voluntarily and that she tried desperately to get rid of it – by all possible means. But, on the other hand, they felt that something was wrong with this part of Europe since she allowed to be swallowed up and since she had been victimised so often and heavily throughout her history. Probably, she was guilty herself; she was predisposed and, in fact, doomed to be raped permanently because she was not European enough, she was not “like we”, lucky and happy, she was inferior. As under-Europe, or semi-Europe, she had equal chances to grow up to the true Europeanness or to dissolve into the entropic Asiaticness. She has lost the first chance that was gifted her after WWI, and now she must pay for it. There are nobody to blame except herself.

A guilty conscience is extremely inventive. The Metternich’s approach provides Westerners with a good rationale for their behind-the-fence status, it perfectly reconcile them with Munich and Yalta, with “non-interference” in the Soviet “internal affairs” – whether it was destruction of Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian independence in the early 1920s, or invasion of Budapest and Prague in 50s and 60s. This approach was reflected in Lloyd George’s remark on trading even with cannibals, as well as in Roosevelt’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Russia in 1933, exactly when six to eight million Ukrainians had been starving to death by some Kremlin cannibals, willing to trade.

This approach was expressed quintessentially in the following statement of the British Foreign Office: “The truth of the matter is, of course, that we have a certain amount of information about famine conditions in the south of Russia (sic), similar to that which had appeared in the press... We do not want to make it public, however, because the Soviet government would resent it and our relations with them would be prejudiced.”

But still there is another side of the problem. Eastern Europe is not as remote territory as Chechnia, or Georgia, or Armenia, or Kurdistan. Its appearance had been troublesome, its complete disappearance may have been disastrous. The common enemy, threatening from the East, had united Western and Eastern Europeans much more than any common cultural heritage; “Asia”, the powerful “other”, to a large extent determined the common identity of the Westerners and the Easterners. Even though the Westerners knew that the “true” Europe began somewhere at the Elbe and Vienna, they saw clearly that “Asia” was coming and that the not-so-true Europe, under these circumstances, should be preserved as a more preferable neighbour. Yeah, after Yalta it had been ceded to Stalin but it still could be maintained somehow as, at least, not-so-true Asia.

Hence, the Western attitude towards the Easterners had always been ambivalent if not ambiguous. On the one hand, the Westerners firmly believed that the Easterners, to a different degree, deserved their destiny (any people, finally, have the government they deserve!); but on the other hand, the Westerners felt that the Easterners who resisted the “Asia’s” advance, did deserve (to a different degree) their sympathy and support. And indeed, the Easterners had enjoyed this support – to the extent described above by the statement of the British Foreign Office: not to iritate the Soviet government and not to deteriorate the relations with them. In other words, not to mar the trade with cannibals completely.

Of course, there have always been some intellectuals in the West who perceived Eastern Europe as a true Europe, and even more of it. They demonstrated at Soviet embassies and organised various committees to defend eastern dissidents with non-pronounceable names; they signed petitions and published articles; they visited East European capitals and smuggled subversive literature; sometimes they became more native than the natives themselves; they were involved, engaged, and enchanted. Many of them enthusiastically believed that “this part of the Continent was once a near-paradise of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic multiplicity and compatibility, producing untold cultural and intellectual riches,” and that despite totalitarianism or, even, because of it (in response to its pressure) Eastern Europe was a country of “wonderful spiritual tension.” This view, however reasonable it might be, had never spreaded beyond the narrow circle of specialists on the area and members of East European Diaspora.

In general, Western ambiguous attitude toward Eastern Europe has been largely determined by the geopolitics, i.e., by cold calculations and age-old principle “charity begins at home.” It is quite reasonable and hardly blameworthy. What is really reprehensible, is a kind of “liberal-democratic” hypocrisy on the Western side and double standards usually applied to different countries and to themselves. It looks as if a Western gauge has had various calibrations in various cases. Unfortunately, many Easterners have been seduced and deluded by these tricks; they have always expected more than the Westerners could and wanted to offer them, and have been often aggrieved as deserted lovers.

Not so rarely, this disappointment resulted in zealous anti-Westernism, nationalism, xenophobia, isolationism and autarky. Indeed, the question whether the Western civilisation is superior to any other civilisation, is not so simple, and the apostles of post-colonialism have debated it very seriously. But I would like to avoid this discussion, at least here. Eastern Europe is a part of Europe and, moreover, it is a part of the modern world. My major assumption is that modernity is unavoidable since the humankind entered it. One may regret, and complain, and condemn it, but there is no way back. It is like the Fall, the lost innocence, the bygone childhood. We may dislike our adult life but it is the only life to live. We may find the Western civilisation ugly and arrogant but any other civilisation today is much worse, and any attempt to alter modernity with some kind of pre-modern or anti-modern utopia proves funny at best, or bloody and exhaustive at worst – as we might see elsewhere in the world.

Our attitude to the West, therefore, should be neither hyper-positive nor hyper-negative. The West bears relative, rather than absolute goodness. For East Europeans, who are sandwiched between the West and Russia, it means that the West is a lesser, much lesser, evil. This ambiguous attitude, I feel, is an appropriate answer to the Western ambiguity. There are no permanent friends in the international relations but there are permanent interests. The East Europeans’ interest is to survive, the Western Europeans’ interest is to survive either. Of course, it is not the same for each of them. East Europeans are closer to “Asia”; their democracies, economies, military forces are weaker; their escape from the “Asia’s” sphere of influence still is questionable, and their independence is vulnerable in all possible terms. Hardly surprising then, that they want to remove the fence of Metternich’s garden as far to the east as possible. And hardly surprising that the Westerners do not understand this haste and nervousness. For the Westerners, “Asia’s” return is neither so plausible nor so dangerous. They have more time to prepare themselves for any surprise, and they have more means to encounter it.

Thus, the East Europeans can really rely on their Western neighbours but only to the extent to which their interests coincide. Sometimes they coincide significantly, sometimes not. But in no time, the Easterners should rely on their Western “allies” completely. At any time, the Western attitude may suddenly change because of some higher reasons, some whimsical calculations – or misreasons and miscalculations, it does not matter. What really matters is that any moment the East Europeans may be betrayed again, and sacrificed, as it has happened not once in the history.

All their advantages notwithstanding, they have neither military nor economic resources of Russia. And they will never be as attractive, promising, disappointing, concerning, disturbing, menacing as their Eurasian neighbour. In these terms, the Western approach towards Eastern Europe will always remain as it has always been, utilitarian and instrumental. Charity begins at home, keep it in mind.

So what can Eastern Europe offer to the West? Geopolitical stability? Yes, to a certain degree, but the major concern still is Russia, and world’s security and stability depends mostly on developments there. Of course, Eastern Europe may assume again the role of cordon sanitaire, if it was stable itself (the Balkans are major yet not only problem), and if this role (a “linchpin of the new post-Cold War Europe,” in S. Talbott’s words) has not shifted eastward, to Ukraine. Then, maybe Eastern Europe can attract the West economically? Hardly so. There are no important natural resources there, and there no goods which may compete on the Western markets. And the cheap labour force from the East is even less needed in the West than the cheap Eastern goods. Perhaps only some problems of economic as well as political transition may draw attention of Western specialists — as a material for esoteric books, articles and Ph.D. dissertations.

Then, what about the culture, the last fortress where East Europeans retreated after numerous historical blows and where they cherished their imaginary statehood, their imaginary Europeanness, their inner freedom? Indeed, they have much to offer in this field; the last decades of the communism witnessed an enormous revival of various forms of cultural activity, both in the legal framework and underground. “Soviet Russia [Adam Zagajewski wrote in 1984] has created some very strange things in our part of Europe. It has created informants, liars, censors, and bums who don’t feel like working. But at the same time, without wanting to, it has produced wonderful things in people who by grace of God are stronger, and somehow more noble. It has aroused in them a wild hunger for truth, freedom, dignity, books, paintings... for Europe. And this exactly how Europe exists in Central Europe – as a Europe of the imagination, of delusion, of hope, of hunger... The enormous cultural longing felt so strongly in our part of Europe is one of the paradoxical consequences of ‘Sovietization’.”

But again, it was a high culture which could hardly affect anybody except the narrow circle of the intellectuals, both in the East and in the West. Of course, the favourable political conjuncture of the 1970s and 1980s largely facilitated the influx of East European books, films, fine arts to the West. And some East European names became really fashionable — not so much, however, from their major works as from their op-ed articles and interviews featured in the major Western newspapers and magazines. In 1989-1990, when this vogue reached its climax, Tony Judt complained that “the whole subject remains in the hands of the Zivilisationsliterati, of East and West alike,” but he also quite reasonably assumed that “after all, the fashion will pass, but it will at the very least leave in paperback translations a library full of works by authors, living and dead, of whom the Western reader was hitherto ignorant.”

In the West, however, ignorance is quite compatible with the best libraries, full of whatever works. I have met a lot of university students in the U.S., who had never heard names like Goethe, Faust, or Gogol, so I was not surprised that only a few of them knew who was Milosz, Brodsky, or Kundera (Havel proved to be better known because he had one more occupation beside a playwright). But even this, very dubious, “success of the Easterners” in the West will probably fade in the nearest future, since on the one hand the Russian tanks are not coming so there is nothing to be discussed in op-eds, and on the other hand no new celebrities have emerged in the East since 1989 (Zhirinovsky, Ziuganov, and Lukashenko are hardly applicable). Manchester capitalism seems to be less supportive for the liberal arts in Eastern Europe than over-aged and senile communism.

Today, as we can easily notice, the best filmmakers move to the West to make their fortunes; and the best East European artists follow them and paint everything, including fences and walls; and the best musicians perform usually abroad, sometimes in the Carnegie Hall, more often in churches and restaurants; and the writers and scholars penetrate Western universities to teach whatever they can: one of them (Ye.Yevtushenko) has confessed recently in The New York Times that he is neither qualified nor academically prepared to teach Pushkin but, in his

Ironically, Adam Zagajewski was right when twelve years ago he envisaged today’s situation as something that would hardly become true. “What will happen one day [he asked rhetorically] – one wonderful day — when Poland gains her political independence? Can it be that this tremendous intensity of spirit, so characteristic of today’s Polish democratic elite, will vanish? Will churches suddenly become empty? Will poetry be of interest to bored specialists only, as is the case in the happy countries of the West? Will filmmaking become just a branch of entertainment industry? Can it be that all those things that have arisen in Poland as a reaction to the threat of totalitarianism [...] will cease to exist that very day this threat disappears?”

Apparently, it is not just a Polish but East European problem; the tremendous endeavour of East European intellectuals to withstand totalitarianism and to preserve inner freedom had passed out and became a history. Today, the region enters a new, non-heroic era when the old habits of resistance and fighting are obsolete while the new habits of mundane work are not yet acquired. The combatants of the long anticommunist struggle may feel disappointed and dissatisfied; they still employ their outdated discourse (and the harped Central East European myth is just a part of it), but East European societies are clearly fed up with it, and the people’s return to the reformed, and even unreformed, communists in some countries is the first sign that new ideas and slogans are needed.

Milan Kundera was right when describing Central Europe as “not a state” but “a culture or a fate.” “Its borders [he wrote] are imaginary and must be drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation. Central Europe therefore cannot be defined and determined by political frontiers [...] but by the great common situations that reassemble peoples, regroup them in ever new ways along the imaginary and ever-changing boundaries that mark a realm inhabited by the same memories, the same problems and conflicts, the same common tradition.”

But he was apparently wrong when explaining why this myth (this “imaginary realm”, in his words) had not been appealing to Westerners; why it “seem[ed] outmoded and [was] not understood.” In Kundera’s view, Western Europe itself was “in the process of losing its own cultural identity,” “it no longer perceive[d] its unity as a cultural unity”; and because of this “it perceive[d] in Central Europe nothing but a political regime; put another way, it s[aw] in Central Europe only Eastern Europe.”

Here, we cannot and, actually, do not need to, go deeper into the problem of European identity as based on a common religion and culture (“the supreme values by which European humanity understood itself, defined itself, identified itself as European”). The major vulnerability of Kundera’s arguments does not lie in his hypothesis that there was a moment when European identity changed and culture bowed out, giving way to the marketplace, to technical feats, to the mass media, to politics. Maybe he is right, maybe not. What seems to be really questionable in his theory, however, is a non-proved assumption that, before that very moment, Eastern Europe had been perceived in Europe as its integral part. History gives little evidence to this argument. To the contrary, the well-known Shakespeare’s words (“Bohemia. A desert country near the sea”) could serve a good motto to the entire history of Western-Eastern relations. “A desert country near the sea” is just another term for the black hole behind the fence of Metternich’s garden.

Today, Eastern Europeans have a good chance to remove the fence to the east – somewhere to the western or eastern Ukrainian borders (this depends on many circumstances, but also on the honesty of the removers). And then, Eastern Europe may have become just a Europe, without additional qualifications and humiliating discussions about who is “more” Central and “more” European. (Exactly, as nobody in Benelux cares whether they are Western or Central Western Europeans).

As any myth, the concept of Central Eastern Europe would not dissipate immediately. It would exist until there is Eastern Europe as a certain post-communist reality, and until unpredictable “Asia” stands on the Bug, or the Dniper, or elsewhere eastward. As any myth, it has its own power, since was created as a rephrase of classical myths — those of the lost paradise and the promised land. The paradise was the Habsburg Empire and “cultural unity”, while the promised land was EC, NATO and, again, “cultural unity.” In the internal sphere, this myth facilitated popular anti-Soviet and anticommunist mobilisation; in the international sphere, it substantiated demands to the West for further recognition and support.

Yet, from the very beginning, this myth proved to be extremely exclusivist and, thereby, harmful; its side effect was not only mystification of “central” Easterners with too pinkly visions of their pasts and futures, but also establishment of a very distasteful hierarchy of “more” and “less European” nations in Eastern Europe. Since “European belonging”, under peculiar political circumstances, had been far more than just a cultural/geographical notion, the detachment of some “Central” European nations from Eastern Europe implicitly meant that the non-members of this privileged club did deserve less, if any, Western attention and help. In practical terms, it looked as a quarrel among the prisoners over who of them used to love freedom more and deserved to be released first.

Today, as some “central” Easterners elbow their way to EC and NATO, the bored Westerners may find another amusement in watching beggars who still want to be choosers. The most regrettable thing in this competition is that the Easterners prove to be as exclusivist as the Westerners, as soon as they manage to jump over the Metternich’s fence. And now, not only Westerners, but also Easterners come to believe that “Asia” begins somewhere to the east from Poland and to the south from Hungary, and that Macedonia, Belarus, Armenia are but another “desert countries near the sea.” The Westerners have had to pay their price for their exclusiveness, but for the Easterners, the price may be much higher.

All our talks about cultural unity are worthless as long as we neglect Albanians because they are poor, we neglect Belorussians because they are Russified, we neglect Lusatian Sorbs because they are too small, we neglect Georgians and Armenians because they are too remote from our gardens (even though they had found their Christian kingdoms and evolved their unique literacy much earlier than any East European tribe was mentioned wherever).

Who cares about all that? Who cares about wonderful Georgian cinema, which certainly was the best in the former Soviet Union and, perhaps, one of the best in the world? Who cares about excellent Georgian theatre, painting, about the bright philosophers and translators (the first and only translation of Joyce’s Ullises in the USSR was Georgian!). Who cares about great Georgian literature which has at least two modern writers, Otar Chiladze and Chabua Amiredjibi, who would have honoured the long list of Nobel Prize winners if anybody managed to read them, at least in Russian translations!.. Again, the “tremendous intensity of spirit,” the “wild hunger for Europe,” demonstrated by a small East European nation who never lost its cultural longing for Europe, have not been noticed anywhere. But how can we complain, after this, about Western ignorance, being ourselves no less ignorant and selfish?!

I have deliberately said nothing about Ukraine since any my view may seem too particular and partisan. I may claim, as many Ukrainians do, that Ukrainian poetry is better and “more European” than that of Europe – but who would care? I may remind that Western Ukraine is no less “Central European” than Poland or Slovakia – but who would admit it to the privileged club of the “true” Central Europeans, to the club where not only Ukrainians but also Slovenians, Croats and Transylvanians look rather suspicious candidates? I may argue that the Central European, “Habsburgian”, myth is alive in Ukrainian Lviv even more than in Czech Prague, and that not accidentally the first issue of respectable cultural journal “I” (the unique letter of Ukrainian alphabet) was dedicated a few years ago to that very problem – with the featured Kundera’s “Tragedy of Eastern Europe,” short stories of Bruno Schulz, Sacher-Mazoch’s essays, and the portrait of emperor Franz Joseph on the cover sheet.

Of course, Western Ukraine is only small part of the country, and most Ukrainians are certainly not preoccupied with their “Europeanness” or “Eastern Centralness.” In 1994, only 15% of the participants of the opinion poll claimed that Ukraine should mainly establish ties with Western countries (in Western Ukraine, the number of “Westerners” mounted 30%, but in the Crimea it proved ten times smaller). Meanwhile, 17% of the respondents said to develop relations mainly with Russia (this is rather high and disturbing figure but it is still smaller than the number of Russians – 22%, and much smaller than the total number of Russophones in Ukraine – up to 50% of the population). Some 14% of the respondents held that Ukraine should mainly rely on its own resources to strengthen independence, while the vast majority (40%) suggested that Ukraine should mainly broaden ties within the CIS, i.e., to preserve the existing status-quo.

Sincerely, I do not think that Ukraine can teach the West whatever. Neither East Europeans can. Nor the West is going to be taught by anybody. Of course, both the Western and Eastern intellectuals may speculate on this topic – in the style of Karl Jung who had published an article “What does India teach us?” many decades ago, perfectly explaining “what” but never pondering over “us”. Like Jung, I believe in “what” but I have serious doubts about “us”.

The process which Eastern Europe is undergoing now, can be called normalisation. It is interesting but hardly attractive. It promises little room for any “uniqueness” and would certainly dissatisfy East European intellectuals who want their countries to be at the forefront of world attention. But the combatant consciousness must have gone, and exhibitionist complexes vanished. At the best scenario – unless “Asia” returns, and new dictatorships remerge, and a new Bosnia flares up – Eastern Europe would be successfully marginalized and would certainly draw no more attention than Greece, Portugal, Finland, or Iceland. Is it so bad? For old combatants – probably yes, but for most people – no. Most people don’t care about the fence, whether it’s eastern, or central, or south eastern. They care about a garden. I feel, it’s a good time to roll up the sleeves and to till it.