Studying the connections between East (Central) Europe and the extra-European world is becoming one of the most promising fields in transregional studies. The edited volume The World beyond the West: Perspectives from Eastern Europe is a fresh and welcome addition to this burgeoning scholarship. The book’s nine chapters focus on the Russian and East-Central European (mainly Polish) encounters with the non-European “exotic”, stretching from Russia’s own “Orients” in the Caucasus and Central Asia to the Middle East, South and Central America, Africa, and Vietnam. The common motif of the chapters is the argument that East-Central European and Russian actors, when describing, mapping, or fantasizing about the non-European “exotic”, took roughly similar positions than their West European peers, despite the fact that they were themselves Orientalized by and in the Western European core. The volume editors, Mariusz Kałczewiak and Magdalena Kozłowska, convincingly argue “that the East European condition, shaped by its self-perceived and externally ascribed peripherality, inbetweenness, and Otherness, has defined the way this region has shaped its relations with lands and people outside Europe” (p. 2). The case studies of this book demonstrate well how Western-style encounters with the exotic could be a tool in overcoming the ascribed and internalized backwardness of East (Central) Europe.
The core of the book examines actors representing the dominant layer of their societies. Batir Xasanov’s chapter analyses how nineteenth-century Russian authors, including literary superstars Pushkin and Dostoevsky, equated Central Asia with emptiness and, as a consequence, ascribed Russia a relative Europeanness. Balázs Venkovits shows that nineteenth-century Hungarian travellers to Mexico unconditionally appropriated the common US view on Mexico that juxtaposed the two countries as being industrious, well-organized, active, and civilized versus lazy, chaotic, passive, and backward. By identifying themselves with the dominant narrative in the United States, these Hungarian travellers did not consider possible comparisons between Mexico and their native country, even though the economic and political subordination of Hungary by the more powerful Austria would have made this parallel obvious. Barbora Buzássyová’s chapter discusses Czechoslovak travelogues in Africa during the socialist period. For each communist country, solidarity with the (post-)colonized peoples and support for their anti-colonial (read anti-US and anti-US allies) fight, alongside the official denunciation of racism, was a core policy and an important means for domestic and international self-legitimization. However, Buzássyová argues that despite this official anti-colonial narrative, travelogues from socialist Czechoslovakia continued to contrast white and black, developed, and undeveloped, and Europe and Africa. Experts sent by socialist Czechoslovakia to Africa to aid local development were portrayed as people spreading progress out of altruism, not unlike the perception and self-representation of Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century. Marta Grzechnik contends that South America, in particular southern Brazil, home to a robust Polish immigrant community, were imagined by interwar Polish publications as empty, passive spaces that only awaited Polish settler colonists to vivify them. This fantasy was a tool to advance the idea of a Poland that was “ripe” enough to civilize barren lands and thus justified Poland’s fragile international situation. Piotr Puchalski’s chapter is connected to Grzechnik’s study in several ways. Puchalski demonstrates how Polish political elites in the 1930s advanced the ambiguous idea of building a soft empire in the independent African nations of Liberia and Ethiopia by referring to the non-colonial past of Poland; Puchalski terms this – largely failed – attempt as Promethean colonialism.
Another three chapters investigate actors who were even sidelined in their societies. Curtis G. Murphy’s chapter tracks how Polish exiles in Central Asia became agents of the Russian Empire, though styling themselves as better, more humble colonizers than Russians. At the same time, in the Caucasus, some Poles portrayed Circassians as noble warriors unspoiled by civilization and pinned their hopes on a potential alliance against Russia. At the end of the day, the narrative on the Caucasus was equally Orientalizing and affirmed the self-ascription of Poles as vanguards of Europeanness against both the core of Russia and its peripheries. Mateusz Majman contrasts two Jewish narratives on the Caucasian Mountain Jews. The first account, written by a Minsk-born Odessa Jewish traveller, testifies that the Orientalizing perception of the Mountain Jews could serve as justifying the “Europeanness” of the Russian Jewry, whose position within Russia and within the European Jewry was ambiguous and contested, to say the least. The second account was written by a Mountain Jew and oscillated between a more emphatic perception and an Orientalizing narrative. Another Odessa Jew is the central protagonist in Jonathan Hirsch’s chapter, which tackles the tension between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewry in Alexandria during World War I, as a Jewish battalion was envisioned to fight for the British army with in the hope to carve out a Zionist state from the Ottoman Empire. Hirsch shows how Sephardi Jews were associated with the Muslim world and how this Orientalizing view formed an obstacle in imagining a common state for all Jews.
The last chapter in the book, Jill Massino’s study on the Romanian perception of the war in Vietnam, is a bit isolated from the other contributions. Massino argues that the Vietnam War was the first occasion when Romanian communist society engaged with an issue beyond individual, family, or communal problems, let alone the national boundaries, though the underlying motives of this grass-roots interest varied considerably.
The main merit of this well-organized book is that it challenges a one-sided post-colonial view of East (Central) Europe that has become especially fashionable recently. Puchalski is right to note, though perhaps a bit too harshly, that “the scholarship has only benefited from what one might term a “postcolonial turn”, whereby historic Polish lands such as Galicia are viewed as objects of some form of colonial exploitation, either from within (at the hands of their Polish elites) or from the outside (at the hands of foreigners)” (p.196). As the contributions to this volume show, actors in East (Central) Europe, both at the core of their societies and at its margins, were often acting in a “colonial modus” to counterbalance their inferior status. Due to their encounters with the “Orient” and other potentially Orientalized regions of the world, East (Central) Europeans became both objects and subjects of colonial history. These positions are deeply interwoven, and The World beyond the West does a solid job of identifying these intertwinements.