Professor Renee Buhr, left, laughs while talking with a student, right, during a "Politics of Post Soviet States" Political Science class on December 4, 2014, in the Summit Classroom Building on the St. Paul Campus. The class was conducting a UN Security Council simulation, with group of students representing different Security Council member countries. These photos were taken for marketing purposes for the Political Science Department and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Studying Nationalism at a Historic Crossroads

An odd headline ran in The New York Times on Jan. 1, 2013: “Used to Hardship, Latvia Accepts Austerity, and Its Pain Eases.”

I say this is odd, because I fail to understand why we would assume that “Latvia” think of this as shorthand for the three Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and their constituent nations is somehow more naturally accepting of hardship than, for example, Greece or Portugal. Why should a reporter for The New York Times make such an assumption? And why do readers, other media figures and American politicians echo this assumption, particularly when praising the Baltic governments’ austerity efforts and “stiff upper lip” of their populations while shaming the so-called PIIGs (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece) for their popular protests against such measures?

The short answer is: Most people have assumptions about East European nations. The most pervasive stereotypes of Eastern nations are two: In the positive camp, we have the relative fiscal responsibility of the East European EU member states, and the ways in which observers link this behavior to national identity. Rather than viewing this political behavior as an example of practical decisions made by East European lawmakers and, one might add, in response to the demands of very powerful forces such as the European Union, International Monetary Fund and the global economy this fiscal responsibility has been molded into an assumption about Eastern nations and their nations’ collective acceptance of suffering. East Europeans are “accustomed to hardship,” rather than “responding rationally to external economic incentives.”

It also echoes, uncomfortably, the romantic notions of the East European populations forwarded by 19th century German writers like Herder and Fichte, who believed that different ethnic groups displayed particular characteristics that were largely biologically determined. Herder praised the Slavs for their innate work ethic, for example. If this sounds a bit familiar, it should, given the assumption discussed above.

In a current research project, I am examining neoliberal economic policy adoption  in other words, the choice of austerity and fiscal restraint policies by East European states and its connection to the European Union, as a means of critiquing this “essentialist” assumption and hopefully bringing a deeper understanding of how the East European states have been affected positively and negatively by EU membership.

The second, less-flattering stereotype attributed to Eastern nations is their purported ethnolinguistic and exclusionary character. “Eastern” nations are purportedly exclusive, hostile to minorities and anti-democratic, or so the myth goes. This assumption pervades civil society and even worms its way into academia, so that when a so-called Eastern nation chooses a model of national identity that does not fit this stereotype, it may be dismissed as lacking a national identity entirely! In this case, the Belarusian nation has been labeled as “denationalized” because it chooses, at least for the time being, to eschew the path of ethnolinguistic exclusivity.

It is hard to resist an opportunity to critique “common knowledge,” particularly when that common knowledge appears to be factually incorrect and stereotypes entire populations of individuals. Since 2009, I have been fortunate to engage in a number of research projects regarding nationalism in East Europe with my department chair, Dr. Steven Hoffman, and two co-authors from Belarusian State University: Victor Shadurski and Marharyta Fabrykant.

Our published research has focused on the characteristics that comprise national identity in Belarus and Lithuania, and in each case we have found that reality bore little resemblance to the assumptions about these nations. Yes, Lithuanians believe that speaking Lithuanian is an important part of being part of the Lithuanian nation, and this fits with the “linguistic” part of the ethnolinguistic assumption. However, many Lithuanians care a great deal more about democracy than they do religion or ethnicity when they draw their mental boundaries of the Lithuanian nation.

Belarus is even more interesting. We found that ethnolinguistic and exclusive ideas of what it means to be Belarusian are not only not salient to our survey respondents they are downright frightening to many. To understand this, it is necessary to think of Belarus as a historical crossroads: one that has seen the rise and fall of many official languages, religions and regimes.

This has lent a richness and diversity to this territory that pervades the country Catholic and Orthodox churches face each other across city streets, often alongside other houses of worship, whether Protestant, Jewish or Islamic. The Russian language is used everywhere today, while two other languages, Trasianka (a hybrid of Russian and Belarusian) and Belarusian are sometimes seen and heard. In the 19th century one would have heard Polish, Russian, Yiddish or Belarusian spoken in the streets and in peoples’ homes.

If that richness is the bright side of being a crossroads in history, the dark side is war. Belarus, as was the case with most of Eastern Europe, was brutalized throughout history by one conquering force or another. Napoleon’s troops fought (and lost) in the Belarusian forests where today families go on mushroom-gathering trips every fall. Those same forests were the sites of brutal partisan battles against the Nazis.

In Minsk, one can visit a park with a sculpture that memorializes the deaths of Jews in pogroms, see the boundaries of the Jewish ghetto to which nearly 100,000 Jews from throughout East Europe were sent and see the names of Belarusian citizens granted the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” for protecting Jews during the Holocaust.

Outside of Minsk is the Khatyn Memorial, which reminds visitors of the more than 600 villages burned to the ground, with all inhabitants, by Nazi reprisal squads. Many university-aged students still go visit their grandparents to help with harvesting the garden every fall, and while harvesting their grandparents tell them about the “Great Patriotic War” and its horrors.

All of this has led many Belarusians to value tolerance and fear those individuals and groups that would pit the diverse religious, linguistic and ethnic population of Belarusians against one another. Clearly this is not a formula for rabid ethnolinguistic nationalism.

The lessons learned from this research may seem specific to a particular region, and indeed the particulars of the history, geography, economics and politics of Eastern Europe are an important part of the content of my Politics of Post-Soviet States and Politics of the New Europe courses. Students who choose one of these courses are interested in the specifics of the region and enjoy these details. I enjoy bringing in the hands-on experience either with data or with research abroad into these classrooms and making it accessible to students.

However, the broader lessons revealed by this research the horrors and causes of war, the foundations of ethnic hatred, questioning “common knowledge,” and considering the policy consequences of assumptions and actions pervade all of my courses, and I would say, all of the international relations subfield. International relations, as a “practitioners’ discipline,” teaches us to be ever aware that misunderstandings, erroneous assumptions and faulty “common knowledge” extract a huge price from our own country and from humanity in the shape of wars, exclusion and hatred.

Since a natural career path for students in my field is foreign policy analysis, and a number of graduates have pursued this career, there is a real-world impact from the teaching of these lessons. Other students may not pursue careers in policy, but will, one hopes, form a key part of the critical citizenry that elects and critiques our government’s foreign policy decisions, and for them these lessons are equally important. I consider this the unique contribution that my department, my subfield and my research can make to the training of UST students to be morally responsible, critical thinkers.

Or, as a favorite UST student and research assistant of mine once put it: “International relations: solving the world’s problems one uncomfortable topic at a time.”

Associate professor Dr. Renee Buhr teaches in the Department of Political Science. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.