Staunton, November 6 – In 1982, Benedict Anderson reminded the world that nations are “imagined communities,” entities that exist first and foremost in the minds of those who are part of them or who interact with them. But it is not only nations that are imagined. So too are entire regions of the world.
One of the most contested of these regional “imagined” communities is Eastern Europe. Until the end of the Cold War, the countries between the European Community in the West and the USSR, less the occupied Baltic states, were defined as Eastern Europe, a definition that many found accurate and congenial but that infuriated Russians who were thus excluded.
In response when the Cold War wound down, that led many in Europe and the West more generally to speak of Central-East Europe, defined to include the old Eastern Europe but allowing Russians to view themselves and to be viewed by others not as beyond Europe but only beyond its “central-eastern” part.
Now, however, despite the conviction of many Russian and Western intellectuals that Europe would be extended to include Russia, the old term Eastern Europe which appears to exclude them has returned, according to Moscow historian and journalist Yaroslav Shimov (liberal.ru/articles/7414).
In a 5200-word article, he notes that “intellectuals, especially those who write and speak about history and politics are grand masters of presenting the subjective as objective, the partial as general, and the temporary as permanent” and that the fate of the terms Eastern Europe and Central Europe are “good examples” of this.
This essay, Shimov says, should be read as a continuation of his earlier article, “Intermarium: A Space of Fate,” Istoricheskaya ekspertisa (in Russian; 3(2019): 79-97 at storex.ru/uPage/Novaya_stranitsa_4).
Shimov’s arguments will be familiar to Western readers of Timothy Garton Ash, Anne Applebaum, and other contemporary specialists on the region. But what is significant is that the Moscow historian is introducing them into Russian discourse and even arguing for the acceptance of the old term Eastern Europe rather than the neologism that sought to replace it.
To the extent that his position affects Russian thinking, Shimov’s words are among the most powerful indication yet that the hopes many had after 1989 for the inclusion in the West not only of the old “Eastern Europe” but the broader one including the Russian Federation have been dashed at least for this generation.
And that the old-new imagined communities the demise of those hopes have given rise to will have increasing consequences far beyond the imaginations of those who have come up with this terminological change.