Colonialism and Orientalism as a major European problem: the long road to European citizenship

Slowly but surely, we are awakening from our European dream of peace and security on the continent. Unreal, yet it has been almost a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. People wonder how this could have happened suddenly, but experts rightly pointed out that this war already started in 2014. Yet nine years of war does not seem to have made a shocking contribution to our knowledge of the countries located at the east of Europe. So how can we understand this region without falling into condescending clichés or downright toxic disinformation? Two insights are very important for this: Russia thinks colonially, the West thinks orientally. And that is a dangerous combination.

It is strange that many people do not wonder how Russia could have become by far the largest country in the world. To explain this, we need to look at Russian colonialism. Where the Netherlands occupied its colonies overseas, Russia stuck the conquered territory to the existing land, administered from Moscow. ‘Russia exists and so it will be.’ This has also embedded itself in Western European thought. For example, the existence of Russia as such is not disputed, but if Ukraine exists is, according to some, a point of discussion. These are views that are strongly fueled by disinformation.

Such kinds of ideas also occur in popular media. For example, the Dutch television travel program 3 op Reis (3 on travel) has visited Latvia. In the program the country is sketched using an old Soviet nuclear missile base, a ride through Riga in an old Volga (pronounced with a thick Russian accent), followed by an anecdote about Yuri Gagarin. We were in Latvia, weren’t we? A good illustration of going along with a Russian colonial idea. This colonial idea partly fell apart with the breakup of the Soviet Union, which Putin has described as ‘the end of historical Russia.’ This end ensured, among other things, that sovereign Ukraine took a European path despite many internal problems. The ‘losses’ of Russian influence over Kyiv is thus for Moscow the legitimate reason of the current colonial war. According to Tsarina Catharine the Great (1729 – 1796) you defend the borders of the Russian Empire by pushing them forward. Russia-expert Hubert Smeets says that Russia’s expansion only stops when it is being stopped by a strong power.

In view of Russian colonialism, Westers orientalism also plays an important role. The term orientalism was first used by Edward Said in 1979. He has regarded it as a Western form of domination, the exercise of power over the ‘East’ which was seen as ‘the other.’ Said argues that an Eastern civilization is so often presented as culturally backward, dangerous, unpredictable or incomprehensible. Polish scholars Jan Winiecki and Piotr Sztompka have applied this concept to Western European perceptions of Central- and Eastern Europe and found orientalist contradictions within liberal-academic discourse. For example, the term ‘Eastern Bloc’ is still used, referring to countries in Central- and Eastern Europe. The term dates back to the time of the Cold War, but it has not disappeared from our language, and that is problematic. Inconclusive references such as Eastern Europe or Eastern Bloc reduce countries to an undefined group, without their own identity or right to exist and to which one assigns negative clichés, such as poverty, corruption, concrete constructions, or excessive alcohol consumption. This idea can also be clearly seen in another example from 3 op Reis, in which the moderator visits the market hall of the Latvian capital city, where he visibly is making a fool out of a traditional sheep wool cardigan with footwear. The director thinks it necessary to emphasise the ‘ridiculousness’ of this garment in comic frames, followed by laughter. These orientalist views allow Western countries – wherever they begin and may end – to dismiss Central or Eastern European countries as different. An idea which was physical until the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall that separated the Homo Sovieticus and Homo Westernicus.

Can we never again doze off in that European dream? It might not have to be that pessimistic. Western oriental thinking may have given Russia the feeling of being able to conquer new territory and thus offered room for her colonial ambitions. But according to history, Russia can be stopped by a strong power. This seems to be happening at the front in Ukraine, but it is still largely Ukrainians with American support who make a difference there. For this strength to come from European societies, a reform of European citizenship can be looked at to combat the orientalist undermining of Central and Eastern European states. This calls for a revival of equivalence beliefs in the dominant way of thinking.

Given the characteristic diversity on our continent, Europeans must move beyond the nation-state and work towards a republican conception of citizenship. From this point of view, free and independent citizens form a community in which one regulates oneself by participating and thus creates a political community that binds citizens to the ‘republic.’ In this context, ‘republic’ refers to ‘public affairs’ and should not be confused with the modern conception of a republic. Despite cultural pluralism, citizens can form an idea of a ‘common will’ through broad participation. Europeans can overcome the nation-state and it fits more strongly with more heterogeneous structures. In this way, different groups can live together and different group identities can be legitimised by other groups. This is done through public debate, based on essential principles in the form of equal rights. For example, based on the European Convention on Human Rights. This idea of the perfect world may sound unimaginable, but so did the invasion of 24 February 2022. Probably the European dream in which Europe lived until a year ago, sounded during and right after the Second World War unimaginable as well. But nothing could be further from the truth: Europe has long been able to guarantee a stable peace. With a republican vision of citizenship, the long road towards that dream is open again.


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Bram Jongejan studeerde maatschappijleer en is werkzaam als docent burgerschap. Daarnaast rondde hij de master Russian and Eurasian Studies en studeerde af op burgerschap en burgerschapsonderwijs in Rusland.