In 2014 the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation coincided with the emergence of a new temporal and geopolitical term. “From Soviet Union to New East: welcome to our new network,” the British newspaper The Guardian stated. In June 2014, the paper launched a series of publications about 15 countries “risen from the ashes of the USSR”: it called the “New East.”
The Guardian allows that the impetus for this was the Maidan revolution, interpreted mainly as a confrontation between the adherents of the West and those of the East (Moscow), reaching its climax with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, with far-reaching effects for the entire region. As a result, the “the old east vs. west debate has been reignited.” But did it ever abate, at least for the East?
Distorted reflections and apparatuses of control
The term “New East” appears as a distorted mirror image of the term “Former West.” The latter is used in projects related to an attempt to critically reflect on what happened in Europe after 1989 (for example, the longstanding research and art platform “Former West”). According to the platform, the very invention of this term refers to the “old” or “former” East: “When the ‘former East’ emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War in 1989, its western geo-political counterpart – blinded by the (seemingly default) victory of neoliberal capitalism – widely failed to recognize the impact of these massive changes upon itself.”
Economic crises, the reshaping of border regimes, austerity policies, and migration are establishing new hierarchies within the West itself. The Schengen system and its visa control regime entail the weakening of the EU’s internal borders and the simultaneous strengthening and militarizing the external borders (e.g., through Frontex), in turn entailing the construction of new structures of inclusion and exclusion. This apparatus of control is not only concentrated along the contours of the states, but is also a discursive regime that lets in and legitimizes, infiltrates, and blocks “eastern” bodies – and their representations.
Soon the “New East” label was taken up by youth media. For instance, the London-based Calvert 22 Foundation (which includes a gallery, research platform, and the online magazine “The Calvert Journal,” in partnership with The Guardian) announced its mission: “to support and share the contemporary culture and creativity of the ‘New East’ – eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia – enhancing perceptions of the region and furthering international understanding.” This mission statement was published on the website when we started our research in 2017. Now it has been reformulated somewhat differently, omitting the geographical focus: “Calvert 22 is the UK’s leading cultural institution dedicated to promoting and supporting the new culture of the New East.”
Advancing the capture
Calvert 22 was founded in 2009 by the Russian economist Nonna Materkova to raise awareness of contemporary Russian culture in the West. In 2011, the large Russian bank VTB Capital announced a cooperation with them over several years. One of the key goals of VTB Capital is “to promote Russian culture around the world.” At the same time, its main shareholder is the Russian government, while Alexei Kudrin, who is on the board of trustees of Calvert 22 and the co-founder of The Calvert Journal, served as finance minister until 2011 and was a member of the bank’s board. Since 2016, Alexey Kudrin has been deputy Chairman of the Economic Council under the President of Russia.
Thus, the construction of the “New East” as a positive image of post-socialist countries was initially directly in line with VTB Capital’s goals. This is how the Russian counterpart to Western neoliberalism advanced the capture of the “New East” even further by the mechanisms of global capitalism and commodification.
It is notable that this term was invented and actively used by English-language media, and that it is still rarely used in relation to art, with the exception of photography. Igor Zabel points out that we, as the inhabitants of Eastern Europe, “understand ourselves as ‘others’ for the West, that ‘we’ look at ourselves through ‘others’ eyes,’ so to speak. [..] “We” understand ourselves as “the others’ others.” The “New East” is another fantasy that hardly turns the oppressed subjects – “poor but sexy” – into agents.
After all, in order to see themselves as such, they first need to look in the mirror of Western media. At the same time, the media themselves hardly give this concept an intelligible definition; in the case of Calvert it refers to both young cultural workers and the “progressive” Soviet heritage, while The Guardian places the “New East” label on all publications from the post-socialist region.
“To give a name to a territory means to master it in terms of one ideology or another, to fit it into a certain symbolic matrix – and into a political game.” The naming process marks the connection between knowledge and power: the production of an image of the Other and knowledge of the Other means dominance and subjugation. Today, ‘post-socialism’ as a concept is criticized for its attachment to the past and misleading homogenization of territories whose past and present were never experienced in a unifying way. In fact, as Martin Müller claims, this term initially emerged as a temporary one. Reflecting a particular historical event – the collapse of the USSR – it has now lost its object.
The concept of “Central Europe” was invented in order to get closer to Western Europe and, in particular, to dissolve the connection to Russia, because “Eastern Europe” is still marked with negative connotations: a weak economy, not fully developed democracies, the ghosts of the ideology of communism, and corruption. The “New East” performs a similar function: creating a positive image of post-socialist countries, while also inventing new names for this region.
Nevertheless, the “New East” is still burdened with the past: “All these post-Soviet countries are united by one thing: an element of the past, which, whether glorified or condemned, still substantiates their co-temporality.” How can something be “new” when it is overdetermined by the past over and over again? Is the West itself dispossessed of its past or not subject to its influence? This perspective places the “New East” in the same colonial discourse, where non-Western cultures are interesting first and foremost ethnographically.
Modes of escapism
The “New East” still works through the mechanisms of exoticism. What is exotic is always foreign, distant, and, according to Dorothy M. Figueira, it “functions as a mode of escapism,” as “philosophical nostalgia.” We can say that the “New East” emerges as a space where the intensity of experience is still possible, where raves are still political, and art is subversive. And where revolution is still possible: “Kyiv’s techno scene offers a platform for young people to come together and keep alive the drive for renewal that defined the revolution. [...] A fresh wave of creativity has fueled a cultural revival in Kyiv in the two years since the Maidan revolution [that coincided with the beginning of the war in the East of Ukraine, which resulted in the relocation of many of its residents, including cultural workers, to Kyiv - authors]: Instead of taking to the streets, young people have resorted to partying in protest against endemic corruption.”
The East seems to be constantly coming into existence, in an endless process of redefining the past and the present. Real and significant political (not “post-political”) and cultural transformations take place here. In this sense, the focus on young people (ravers, designers, artists, photographers – rebellious teenagers) in the representations of the “New East” seems logical. This space of potentiality is associated with an authentic experience that is experienced “before” the event, in anticipation of something that could happen. Regardless of the political and economic situation of specific countries, this experience seems to be significantly different from the boredom, repetitiveness and uniformity of neoliberal modernization.
Exoticism is a way of translating something obscure, complex, and specific into something understandable, familiar, and predictable. It is both a political and an aesthetic practice, in which the political is usually hidden behind the aesthetic, and power relations and systems of domination are transformed into a spectacle, as Graham Huggan claims. Contemporary exoticism is produced by the market, which works through the logic of decontextualization, commodity fetishism, and cultural consumption, creating “imagined access to the cultural Other through the process of consumption; reification of people and places into exchangeable aesthetic objects.” Exoticism – i.e., commodification and co-optation – of marginality functions by rendering mainstream culture’s contact with the margins secure, controlled, and safe. Ultimately, when the margins are reduced to attractive, domesticated diversity (sleeping areas, “gopnik” looks in fashion, protests, “raw aesthetics”), they are stripped of their subversive potential.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. An earlier, Russian version was published in the Moscow Art Magazine, Issue 101, 2017. You can find more BLACK BOX EAST texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de
Aleksei Borisionok is a curator, writer, and organizer who currently lives and works in Minsk and Vienna. He is a member of the artistic-research group Problem Collective and the Work Hard! Play Hard! working group. He writes about art and politics for various magazines, catalogues and online platforms. His writings have been published in Partisan, Moscow Art Magazine, Springerin, Hjärnstorm, Paletten, syg.ma, among others. In his current research he is focusing on the temporalities of postsocialism.
Olia Sosnovskaya is an artist, researcher, writer, and organizer who is based in Minsk and Vienna. She works with text, performance and visual art, intertwining the notions of festivity, collective choreographies, affect, score and the political within post-socialist contexts and beyond. Member of the artistic-research group Problem Collective and the Work Hard! Play Hard! working group http://workhardplay.pw/ Currently a PhD-in-Practice candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.