Central Europe is an interesting place right now, politically. Hungarian prime minister Orbán Viktor, Czech president Miloš Zeman, Slovak prime minister Robert Fico, and moreover from southern Europe recently-elected Greek prime minister Aléxis Tsípras, have all begun to show a remarkable shift in their public commitments. All of them have made public certain nationalist and populist stances that the European Union is not an absolute commitment; certain old-fashioned leftist economic stances in favor of increased national sovereignty over industrial and agricultural production; and certain geopolitical stances (in particular criticism of anti-Russia sanctions, criticism of media coverage of recent events in the Ukraine, and opposition to the admission of Kosovar nationhood) that edge their respective nations toward a rapprochement, or at least a benign neutrality, with Russia.
Certain corners of the Anglophone media have been tempted into reading this as mere Soviet nostalgia, an atavistic remnant of anti-Western authoritarianism, and they look hopefully to (and not-so-subtly encourage, by means fair and foul) the protest movements against the above leaders to topple them. But the contradictions in such a reading are blindingly obvious. The only one of the above politicians who can rightly lay claim to any such nostalgia is Fico, who was a member of the KSČ (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) right up until the dissolution of the Czechoslovakian state. But Zeman was an active member of the dissident Czech Civic Forum before going on to found his own political projects. Tsípras seems to have left his puerile teenage Leninism long behind him (as many youth indeed do). And – most problematic for this interpretation – Orbán launched his political career as the young leader of Hungarian resistance to Soviet political repression, taking up the former cause of nationalist reformer Nagy Imre.
What is going on in Eastern and Central Europe now clearly isn’t Soviet nostalgia. There are other forces at work – not only political, economic and geopolitical (though those do indeed make a difference!), but cultural as well. In Greece, both the long-standing economic problems, exacerbated by the IMF’s signature cutthroat austerity policies, and the atmosphere of prejudice amongst Western European nations against ‘indolent’ and ‘profligate’ Mediterranean cultural values and lifestyles, have contributed to the present Greek reaction against austerity and against anti-Russian sentiment. But in the Slavic and Magyar lands, even though the economic factor still does very much attain, something slightly different even to this is going on.
What is at stake for them, is the self-same tradition of negotiating and eschewing the powers wielded over them. This is a tradition I am trying to understand better as I explore more of the history of Czechia and Slovakia, and that of the Jews in particular. My South Bohemian grandmother’s family, the Schulzes, was related in two generations by marriage to the Kafka family, which produced the author most famous for his literary depictions of people’s relationship to the law, from an Eastern European Jewish perspective. Torn between Western (German), Eastern (Czech) and countercultural (Jewish) identities, Franz Kafka’s protagonists (particularly Josef K. in Der Prozeß) are lost, alienated and often brutally isolated from the uncaring or hostile social environments they live in, though the degree to which they themselves are guilty and responsible for their own plight remains unclear.
Kafka’s works do speak for themselves, of course. He himself as an admirer of the populist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin would likely scoff at the spiritual sketch of his nation which I am making here. But even that association is somewhat the point – Kafka’s suspicion of state power does not draw wholly from the well-justified paranoia of the Jewish Diaspora. In Kafka’s deep suspicions against legalism there is a distinctly Slavic character as well. Kafka in his descriptions of alienated people caught up in their own internal struggles, in the shadow of uncaring capitalistic and legal structures, drew at least partially from the same well of Russian populism that inspired Dostoevsky’s ‘underground man’ (and we may be sure Kafka read Dostoevsky avidly!). He used these characters to touch at something that reverberated spiritually for many Czech (and other Eastern European) writers and thinkers who followed him.
Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and even the Silesian Poles all lived under the shadow of the Habsburg monarchy, and they shared a common history being, more often than not, on the receiving end of political violence from outside. They stand upon and embody a historical bridge between Eastern and Western peoples and ways of life. (Those who claim that Hungary is wholly Western need to bear in mind that Hungarians still name themselves after the Chinese fashion with the surname first, and that some Hungarians to this day lay claim to the legacy of Attila!) In this, the Central Europeans at once bear a marked similarity to the Russia to which they are now drawing closer, and also a distinction. Where Russia was subject to the Tatar yoke, thus being forced to focus both its anxieties and identity-building in an ‘eastward’ cultural direction, the Hungarians and Western Slavs were forced to understand themselves within the context of primarily-German political power. Kafka portrayed a distinctly German high modernity without sense, leaving the individual struggling and disoriented in the face of a faceless legalism… but, he portrayed it exclusively in German!
At the same time, Americans would do well to learn from Austria’s failures, and wise up to the truth that Atlanticism ill-fits this collection of nations which rose from the ashes of the old Habsburg monarchy. Nations, of course, are not people, and they can’t act be expected to act as individual people and smaller communities do, but they are informed by the experiences of individuals and communities. Nikolai Berdyaev spoke of the Slavic spirit of alarm and revolt which both underwrote and was understated by the Slavophil movement; even more, he argues convincingly that it is within the Russian idea to approach power only with a profound sense of its tragedy.
Among the Western Slavs this attains as well, though in different ways. Where once they rebelled against Soviet power, now Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary are beginning to turn their questioning gazes back upon European and American power. What Eastern Europe ended up getting out of the collapse of the USSR was emphatically not what they fought for, and the degree to which the leaders of each nation have been looking to shift back toward Russia ought to be an ample indictment of our own blindly legalistic geopolitical power-projection.
The point is not that these nations necessarily belong within the Russian sphere of influence. (Indeed, the example of Poland is one which goes in the other direction! Much as we may critique the total, pigheaded wrongness of Poland’s uncritical embrace of Atlanticism and American state violence in Iraq and other places, we have to acknowledge that it is indeed a reaction.) But as the actions of their politicians show, the distinctive character of Central European peoples and political communities is not to be underestimated, and it is not one which responds well to the manipulations of power-politics, from the West no less than from the East. That having been said, even though because of the cultural cross-pressures from the steppes of Central Asia and from the castles of Germany the civilisational ideas in the Russian world and Central Europe have diverged as they have evolved, the two still share a deep blood-kinship as well as a kinship in values. Neither one ought not to be overlooked.