Europe’s Internal De-colonisation

July 28, 2023
Kundera’s passing inspires us to re-examine his vision of Europe.
Photo credit: Visegrad Insight
  • Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, Editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld, for Visegrad Insight.

Russia's war on Ukraine will determine if colonisation by force belongs to the past or the future. If Russia wins, we must say farewell to Kundera's idea of building maximum diversity in minimum space.

Milan Kundera passed away and invites us, again, to rethink his legacy. His famous essay, "The Tragedy of Central Europe" is a frequent topic of reflection for us today. As a Ukrainian philosopher, I think it is also a topic of thinking in light of the Russian genocidal war against Ukraine.

Back in 2014, in my essay "The Dreams of Europe", I praised Kundera for suggesting that Europe goes far beyond the formal borders of the European institutions. Europe was bigger than people in Western Europe thought.

However, I also criticised Kundera for setting new imaginary borders instead of the old ones. Kundera suggested that Central Europe was a "kidnapped West" -- and for me, a Ukrainian, this latently implied that for him, only Central Europe is genuinely Europe in this part of the world and that  "Europe" ends on the Western borders of the Soviet Union -- thus, on the Western borders of Ukraine.

Events that have come to pass since Kundera's essay have shown that establishing new European boundaries was a mistake. These decades show that Europe is liquid, organic, has plasticity, and moves beyond its own "frame". They show that values are often nomadic and can be reborn in previously unnoticed or ignored societies like Ukraine.

CEE as the "kidnapped West" -- colonialism inside Europe

But Kundera also showed something else. By metaphorising Central Europe as a "kidnapped West", he pointed at an essential thing: that in the 20th century, lands, cultures, and people could be kidnapped en masse. Something terrible was going on inside the European continent: a new colonisation, a new imperialism.

That was news for Western Europe. It showed that "Europe" might not only be a coloniser; it can also be colonised. That there are Europeans who were not imperialists but suffered from an imperial power as much as non-European colonised nations. That the wave of de-imperialisation and decolonisation is not over.

Central Europe made several attempts to think about Europe in non-imperialistic terms. Kundera's formula, "maximum diversity in minimum space" is one of them. Czesłav Milosz's metaphor of a "family Europe", Rodzinna Europa, is another one.

Even a Panslavic myth, born in the early 19th century among Slovak and Czech intellectuals, contained a dream about a non-tyrannical and non-autocratic society. It later penetrated the circle of Ukrainian writers and historians of the first decades of the 19th century to create a strong anti-imperial narrative inside the Russian empire. The latter, however, turned it upside down and transformed it into an imperial narrative. It later did the same trick with socialism.

Kundera's Central Europe myth, with its idea of "maximum diversity in minimum space", was also flawed. It seems that with this formula, he used one imperial idea (a Habsburg one) against the other (a Soviet one). Yet, the idea of Central Europe as kidnapped West warned that new imperialism is back in Europe -- and not only imperialism but hardcore old-fashioned colonialism.

We can trust Edward Said's idea that cultural imperialism, which replaced 19th-century direct colonialism, is also a violent power discourse and a true heir of old-fashioned colonialism.

Yet, while cultural imperialism can play with soft power -- ideas, religion, pop culture, etc., colonialism is much more direct, much less hybrid. Colonialism sets boots on the ground, replaces power on the ground, and conquers not only hearts and minds but also space and bodies. It de-populates, not only constructs or deconstructs; it changes demography and identity.

Violence as a means of colonisation

Kundera knew this very well. An image of Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968, recurrent in his novels, shows this without any additional words. He knew that Russian / Soviet domination was not only about ideas. It's about physical domination and violence. It is hard, not soft.

During the Cold War, Central and Eastern European countries were newly colonized. The Russian Empire used the ideas of pan-Slavism to colonise its neighbours in the 19th century; it used the ideas of socialism to colonise them in the 20th century. Leftist ideas in other parts of the world, a vehicle of de-imperialisation and emancipation, became the instruments of re-imperialisation and re-colonisation in Eastern and Central Europe.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and even more so since 2022, is a continuation of this imperialism and colonialism, with a new level of cruelty and a new passion for extermination. In occupied Crimea, since 2014, Russia not only illegally changed the political and social order but also changed the demographics by forcing dozens of thousands of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians to leave and by replacing them with hundreds of thousands of settlers from Russia.

During the occupation of Ukrainian lands in 2022-2023, Russia used the most cruel practices (torture and killings) against the most active representatives of the Ukrainian nation.

It also attempted the ideological and psychological re-engineering of the Ukrainian local citizens' hearts and minds by imposing on them the Russian education system, media, propaganda, and culture.

One of the key questions today is this: are we living in times of global de-imperialisation or re-imperialisation? Are we experiencing the demise of empires or their rebirth? Both vectors are possible, and we don't know what will happen next.

During the invasion of Ukraine, Russian imperialism showed its weakness, but this doesn't mean that it is doomed. It will not be defeated by its own; it will only be defeated if it faces real collective resistance -- from the whole free world.

Russian war against Ukraine, with all its imperial and genocidal components, is an event which will determine which direction the world takes. Will we see the final collapse of the last empire in Europe? Or, on the contrary, we will witness the re-establishment of the imperial idea as "stronger", "more efficient", and "more predictable", which will gradually minimize our rights, turning citizens into silent workers and consumers.

A farewell to Kundera's vision of Europe?

If this scenario wins, we must say farewell to Kundera's idea of building maximum diversity in minimum space. We will face a world of minimum diversity in maximum space. A world the Russian empire has tried to build for centuries. A world that rejects or minimizes the idea of rights, replacing it with the mechanisms of violence and obedience. A world that breaks the link between crime and punishment inverts the justice pyramid upside down and uses violence as an unpredictable tool to seed fear.

Thinking about Kundera's legacy today also means thinking about the future and acting to shape it. Kundera's ideas are alive, but they are even more fragile than in the 1980s when he wrote his essay. Their subsistence depends on what we do next month, next week, next hour.

It depends on us alone whether we are leading our children toward a world of diversity and rights or towards a world of violence and unification. Whether we are heading towards a world where humans and other living beings are considered irreplaceable or towards a world where lives are exchangeable, death has become a banality. Towards a world where the space for violence is being constantly reduced, or towards a world in which violence remains the only viable argument, the final power that decides our destiny.

It depends on us alone whether Europe will be not only a «single market» but a value force that, repenting its own crimes and mistakes, leads the world towards a truly decolonised future.

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