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April 2008

Volume XXVIII, No. 2

What is “Eastern Europe?”

The September 2007 issue of the Sarmatian Review published a short review of my book Euro-Orientalism, which I find fallacious and arbitrary. I do not mind being criticized for my opinions and interpretations. But I find this case disturbing, as the author, Ms. Sally Boss, argues against opinions I do not hold. She makes me appear as having exactly the opinions I criticize in my book, and invents statements that are alien to my work. She says that I claim that “Euro-orientalism was an Orientalism avant la lettre.” My book argues exactly the opposite. It is Larry Wolff's Inventing Eastern Europe that has such claim (Wolff argues that there was a discourse, a body of scholarship and “specialists” in Eastern Europe already in the eighteenth century). My work shows that Wolff is wrong, and that there is no Euro-orientalism properly speaking before the second half of the nineteenth century (see page 246); I explicitly say that Orientalism, as studied by Said, emerged well before. Another example. The reviewer says: “Adamovsky conflates Russia and the countries situated between Germany and Russia, calling all of them ‘Eastern Europe'”, and accuses me of making no distinction between Russia (which the reviewer seems to consider truly “Oriental”) and countries like Poland, Czech Republic, etc. which the reviewer considers “Central European.” But the whole point of my book if that “Eastern Europe” is an ideologically biased concept, and therefore makes no sense to use it neither for Russia nor for any other European country. I do not “call” those countries “Eastern Europe:” if anything, I argue AGAINST calling them Eastern Europe! That is the main point of the whole book. Third example: Ms. Boss argues that I am wrong in claiming that Western intellectuals and academics shaped the image of Russia prevalent in the West in the period of my research. On the contrary, she says, it was Russia that “imposed on the West an image of Russia;” and she accuses me of ignoring this “fact.” But my book explores the two moments in which Russians and Russophiles managed to seriously influence public opinion in Western Europe: with the myth of Peter the Great en the eighteenth century, and with the myth of the Russian “democratic” peasantry in the nineteenth century. My work devotes two entire chapters (nos. 1 and 4) to exploring the degree of that influence. So it cannot be said that I “ignore” the participation of Russians and Russophiles in the making of discourses. But my book also proves that the liberal image of Russia, which was entirely created in the West, combated those Russophile representations and eventually became hegemonic. Finally, the reviewer says that my “unstated premise” is that “Western epistemology (based on Aristotelian logic) is just one of the many epistemologies of equal value in the world.” From that, she jumps into accusing me of believing that the opinions of “present-day Russophiles” are of equal worth as those of the main Western philosophers or academics. This is simply ridiculous. I do not even mention any “present-day Russophile,” nor do I endorse any of their claims. I do not believe or say in my book that “Western epistemology” has anything to do with Euro-Orientalism (and I certainly do not deal with, or even mention Aristotle's logic). Quite the opposite, I argue AGAINST postmodern authors who believe that the different types of Eurocentric discourses (such as Euro-Orientalism) are nothing but a peculiar Western “episteme” (pp. 267-69). My work explicitly says that Euro-Orientalism is not an “episteme” as valid as any other, but a form of “class ideology” which is therefore of little value when it comes to helping us understand reality. The Introduction of my book argues extensively against postmodern “textual” approaches and in favor of “social” analysis of discourses. When rereading Ms Boss review, it becomes to me very clear that she has not read the book at all, but rather gave it a “quick look.” I feel sad that my work of ten years was so disrespectfully treated in a serious and valuable journal like the Sarmatian Review. Let me say it once again: I do not complain about being criticized (that's part of the deal in academic life). I just find it totally unfair having to deal with the opinions of someone who obviously has not read my book at all.

Ezequiel Adamovsky, University of Buenos Aires

Ms. Boss responds:

Professor Adamovsky does not see the elephant in the room and instead goes off on tangents. The elephant to which my review referred was the fact that the book about “Russia” took the French Enlightenment image of “Russia” for granted, without pointing out its fundamental flaw - namely, that much of what was taken to be “Russian” belonged in fact to the other nations of the empire. Whether Adamovsky is for or against the usage of the expression “Eastern Europe” is irrelevant; what is relevant is that he writes about “Eastern Europe” without mentioning a single Eastern European non-Russian writer.

Adamovsky is so deeply entrenched in the Enlightenment paradigm of “Eastern Europe” that he does not notice what my review was about. His bibliography confirms that the Enlightenment construct called “Russia” is the only construct about the region he is prepared to entertain. He is unfamiliar with basic histories of the region by authors such as Andrzej Nowak, Jan Kieniewicz, Michał Bobrzyński, Aleksander Gieysztor, Henryk Wisner, Thomas Masaryk, and others. While ostensibly arguing against Orientalization of “Russia,” he engages in a classically orientalizing enterprise with regard to the cultures and countries of the region by simply ignoring their existence and not pointing out that the French Enlightenment's view of “Russia” was fundamentally flawed. While it is true that these countries were wiped off the map owing to Russian expansionism, their existence in the region should have weighed in on Adamovsky's critique of French theorizing. It did not.

Adamovsky does not seem to understand that the great conflict in the territory he calls “Russia” was that of the Catholic and Protestant countries colonized, suppressed, and exploited by the Muscovite Kingdom whose political system and traditions derived from the nearly infinite Mongol greed for land. This conflict was entirely suppressed by the French Enlightenment writers, and also by Adamovsky, who follows them in an uncritical manner. By not challenging the flawed Enlightenment narrative of Russia versus Eastern Europe, Adamovsky elevates it to the status of accepted historical truth.

Adamovsky protests that he too is against the expression “Eastern Europe.” He is, but not for the reasons indicated above. Nowhere in his text is there a hint that the author comprehends the conflict between the Muscovite land kleptomania and Muscovite westward expansion on the one hand, and on the other the “Eastern European” desire to be left alone to pursue the region's multiple identities. Adamovsky readily follows the Enlightenment and Russian usage that compresses Russia's western colonies and ethnic Russia.

In other words, Adamovsky ignores the fundamental problem of the region. He consents to the misleading word usage initiated by the corrupt intellectuals in France (Catherine II bestowed significant financial gifts on Diderot and Voltaire), and concentrates on what Russian and Russian-influenced French writers have to say about the region. One cannot write this way these days even about black Africa: why should Eastern Europe remain the sole territory where orientalism is not challenged?

Incidentally, Edward Said's use of the word “orientalism” gave a radically new meaning to this term. Contrary to Adamovsky's suggestion, “orientalism” after Said means something different than what Adamovsky suggests. In speaking of “Orientalism avant la lettre” I meant precisely this relationship between Said's radical and creative usage, and historical interpretations of “Russia” and “Eastern Europe” to which it can be applied.

Sally R. Boss, Houston, Texas

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