Conference reports The post-Soviet Europe and its ”beyond”

The theme of the conference, "Beyond Transition", reflects a critical phase in current research on Eastern Europe and highlights the need for theoretical and methodological revision noted by many.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Vol VI: 3-4, p 34
Published on on januari 24, 2014

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Three Swedish research centers for Eastern European Studies: The Center for European Research at Lund University, Uppsala Center for Russian Studies (UCRS) and Center for Baltic and Eastern European Studies (CBEES) at Södertörn University arranged a conference on October 2-4, 2013 in Lund entitled Beyond Transition:  New Directions in Eastern and Central European Studies. The Society for the Study of Russia, Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia initiated the conference and also financed it. The conference was a follow-up event after the VIII ICCEES World Congress in Stockholm in 2010, where the Society was the main arranger. The purpose of the time in Lund was to bring together Nordic researchers in Eastern Europe studies and academics from the Baltic region and hold a joint conversation to summarize results and examine future perspectives in Eastern European research in collaboration with the global organization ICCEES.

The theme of the conference, Beyond Transition, reflects a critical phase in current research on Eastern Europe and highlights the need for theoretical and methodological revision noted by many. After the fall of the Soviet Union, academic thinking was dominated by liberal ideas of the natural transition to the European, democratic order. Implied in that is the view that the transition from a state-controlled economic system to a free market economy was something completely natural. Already by the end of the 1990s, and not least in the aftermath of the EU expansion, a question was raised whether such a transition really was ”natural” or even necessary.  Today, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is clear that the former ”Second World” has already passed its projected post-Soviet transition period, and apparently sometimes with rather disappointing results. There is no doubt that the former Soviet countries have developed ”beyond”, but in which direction? Transition theory based on normalization could not predict the current situation we are in, nor could it explain it.

Sometime in the late 1980s, Soviet TV, in cooperation with SVT, produced a program called ”Next Stop Soviet”.[1] In a revolutionary spirit, inspired by the historic year 1989, the future of the Second World was proclaimed ”Next Stop Europe”. What will be the ”next stop” when the future has lost the normalized vision that was promised, and the present is somewhere along a new, somewhat weak and dangerous path to an uncertain and unexplored ”beyond”?

These questions formed the starting points for the conference. The borders between macroregions – between the Oder and Vladivostok or between Murmansk and Dushanbe – can no longer be considered a given; is it still possible to consider Eastern Europe as one coherent, socioeconomic and sociocultural block? How does the old East-West orientation affect the mental geography in terms of science and politics? The Lund conference provided alternatives to the vision of a necessary and path-driven transition by comparing both the necessities and opportunities arising in various European countries, which are equally affected by globalization regardless of their origin either on this or that side of the Iron Curtain. How will a Europe with social inequality and multiculturalism reach its new, ”next stop”, globalization?

* * *

With these thoughts in the background, partly concerned but mostly curiously optimistic, the organizers of the conference planned the program. In a more international environment and with active participation from Eastern European researchers, the plan was to discuss new social, cultural and political developments in Central and Eastern Europe. Over 100 international participants were organized into 25 workshops held over the three days of the conference, and the conversation focused on highly volatile themes, such as culture and society, memory and politics, globalization and Europeanization, corruption and democracy.[2] These workshops and many previously unheard voices were not just interesting from an academic perspective, they also demonstrated the complexity of the topic in a practical sense.

Lectures by prominent international speakers were the conference’s pièce de résistance. Five speakers helped identify the real key questions to the agenda of beyond transition.

The world-famous German historian Karl Schlögel, author of the monumental Terror and Dream: Moscow 1937[3]spoke about the political and geographic factors that have been neglected within transition studies, the social groups that had never been considered in post-Soviet studies in their capacity as historical players. Faithful to his already well-proven theory that history must be given a spatial dimension, Schlögel reported on his experiences and reflections during his many low-cost trips around Europe using buses, commuter trains and other forms of transportation for Europe’s poorest and therefore the most active employees and entrepreneurs. This type of ”cheap Europeanization” using Ryanair, for example, should be considered in today’s globalized Europe, as well as the millions of anonymous travelers who travel across all types of real and symbolic borders for business or for pleasure. In their luggage, they are not just carrying and spreading their humble goods and money, but also their languages and traditions, memories, opinions and belief in the future. It is this type of nameless, faceless subject in constant movement that ended up in the blind spot of transition theory and that? will affect the future of Europe, according to Schlögel.

Schlögel regretted that Svetlana Aleksievič could not attend the conference, although she was invited. For those who have read Aleksievič’s Vremia Second Hand [Second Hand Time] (Tiden second hand, Sw. trans. Kajsa Öberg Lindsten)[4] a dialog between the two of them would have been very enlightening. While Schlögel points to the future opportunities of ”cheap Europeanization”, Aleksievič describes the ideological and personal catastrophes that individual people have to pay as a price for progress. What distinguishes a success from a catastrophe appears to be what we choose to remember.

Memory was actually a large theme: both among workshop participants as well as in the keynote presentations. Amir Weiner, historian at Stanford University, author of studies of the war and political repression in Eastern Europe during the Soviet period[5] talked about his research in the Stasi and KGB archives. He studies the state surveillance practices in East Germany, their connection with the political goals of the socialist state, and the after-effects that the surveillance culture left behind in post-totalitarian states and societies.

Another important aspect to the current politics of memory in Europe was discussed by the French sociologist Georges Mink (ISP-CNRS in Paris and the College of Europe). Mink is one of Europe’s leading specialists in cultural-sociological and historical studies of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, and one of the people who actually coined the term transition in the 1990s.  [6] Mink came to Lund with a presentation based on his most recent project, an anthology about the past and present. [7]He spoke about the current active power games taking place around collective memory on high political and bureaucratic levels within the EU and in the new EU member states. The tragic pages in history, such as World War II, the Holocaust, and the Soviet occupation are not only debated by historians, but are also used to increase political influence in negotiations between European governments and EU institutions. Memory has become an issue for a hyperactive lobbying industry. All too often political parties, public institutions or large corporations rely on PR consulting firms to rewrite history and deliver a palatable narrative for ”uncomfortable” historical episodes. While this type of historical revisionism is blossoming among lobbyists, politicians and bureaucrats, critical voices from academic historians go almost unheard.

Jan Kubik from Rutgers university in the USA describes a similar situation. Kubik considers the current politics of memory in former Eastern Europe through the lens of political science. In his lecture, he presented the new anthology, Twenty Years After: The Commemoration of the End of Communism[8] with contributions from 14 political scientists who use anthropologic approaches to study the politics of memory in various countries after the fall of the socialist state. According to Kubik, what is important is to understand how memory and memorialization affect post-totalitarian politics. His and his colleagues’ anthropological and comparative methods reveal the connection between memory and political legitimacy. In the public debate among the former Eastern European nations, these methods help highlight a strong connection between political behavior and the understanding of historical justice in the population. Both from a legal and ethical standpoint, the search for justice plays a central role in how post-totalitarian citizens define themselves and act in light of the legacy of Communism.

Historical legacy may have catastrophic consequences in terms of how the state is institutionalized and controlled. This was demonstrated by the British sociologist Alena Ledeneva (University College London) in her lecture in which she concentrated on corruption and power in Russia. Ledeneva gained international acclaim during the 1990s with her groundbreaking study of blat in the Soviet Union in which she analyzed the effect of Soviet informal, almost criminal networks in Russia’s burgeoning market economy and its power relations[9]. As Ledeneva shows in her two recent books[10], one shouldn’t interpret corruption in Putin’s Russia as a problem in the system to be revealed and rectified. Indeed, corruption is the system within which power is exercised through a complex relationship between informal communication and the exchange of services within a circle with limitless but diffuse contacts. It is through the corrupt sistema that Russia, in its brutal manner and despite unending crises, actually ”works” economically, politically and internationally. But it is also the same sistema that locks Russia into the trap of informality”. Politicians, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats are kept hostage to their own short-sighted interests, while the system’s long-term consequences prevent modernization and the development of institutions in particular.

* * *

In conclusion, I would like to add to this brief overview of the conference’s highlights that Beyond Transition was a successful summary of the many years of collaboration between Swedish academics and the global organization ICCEES, inspired and promoted by the Society for the Study of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe and Central Asia.. During the particularly intense years of preparation prior to the Stockholm Congress in 2010, as well afterwards when reflecting on the results, Swedish researchers were able to internationalize their networks to a great degree. They share their resources and expertise with the less privileged others in the field; they become more sensitive to the international environment, and at the same time their findings become more well known worldwide.

The conference in Lund was a big step forward, also a response to a challenge by the executive committee of ICCEES to make regional networks more active. This is particularly important for the researchers from the Baltic region who participated. In the future, they should also represent successful research by acting as main speakers and not just as listeners. We hope that this initiative with a regional ICCEES conference will continue and can develop into a forum for meetings between an increasingly wider network of specialists and general stakeholders.

So, ”Next Stop Beyond!”

NOTE: A version of this text was published in Swedish in the online resource Världen Österut.


  2. The workshop themes in question were: Memory Conflicts and Memory Travels across the old East-West division; What is left from all these years? Cultural Transformation after Communism; Visions and Conceptualizations of Cultural Diversity; Multiculturalism beyond the EU;
 Economic Corruption and Nepotism in Russia; Civil society – politics and ethics;  Europe in Fatigue: Backslide of Democratic Values and Their Re-Invention in Culture and Society
; “Sic Transit”: New Perspectives on Soviet Heritage Today; Politics and Religion;“Culture Trouble”: New Issues of Identity, Aesthetics, and Democracy in Art and Literature.
  3. Schlögel, Karl (2008). Terror und Traum: Moskau 1937 [Terror and dream: Moscow 1937]. München : Hanser
  4. Aleksievič, Svetlana Aleksandrovna (2013). Tiden second hand Time: slutet för den röda människan [Second hand time: the end of the red man]. Stockholm: Ersatz
  5. Weiner, Amir (2001). Making Sense of War: the Second World War and the Fate of the Bolshevik Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  6. Mink, Georges (1990). Europe de l'Est: la transition. [Eastern Europe: the transition] Paris: Documentation française
  7. Mink, Georges & Bonnard, Pascal (red.) (2010). Le passé au présent: gisements mémoriels et actions historicisantes en Europe centrale et orientale. Paris: Houdiard
  8. Bernhard, Michael and Jan Kubik (eds.) (2013) Twenty Years After: The Commemoration of the End of Communism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  9. Ledeneva, Alena V. (1998). Russia's Economy of Favours: Blat, Networking, and Informal Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  10. Ledeneva, Alena V. (2006). How Russia Really Works: the Informal Practices that Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Ledeneva, Alena V. (2013). Can Russia Modernise?:Sistema, Power Networks, and Informal Governance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.