Michael Roberts Blog

There is one outstanding statistical feature of 21st century capitalism.  Capitalism is increasingly failing to develop what Marx called the “productive forces” (namely the technology and labour necessary to expand the output of things and services that human society needs or wants).  As measured by gross national product in all the economies of the world (or per person), world capitalism is finding it more and more difficult to expand.

When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto 170 years ago, they proclaimed the productive power unleashed by the capitalist exploitation of labour power, based on using more and more means of production (machines, technology etc) to replace human labour, while extending its tentacles to all parts of the globe.  Indeed, the rapacious drive for profit has led to an uncontrolled destruction of nature and of the earth’s resources that has polluted the planet.  And now, fossil fuel production has…

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[“ВСТУПЛЕНИЕ” ИЗ ЖУРНАЛА ВАМПИР] “Introduction” from art-satirical journal Vampire by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev. The scene depicted is the Moscow uprising of 1905.

For the anti-communist propagandist and hysteric, communism meant visceral death. As an existential threat to all civilization, it was said to somehow be evil for its own sake. The communist menace was thought to render all the supposed progress made lost, and all the history that preceded it left debased.  It was typified as torture, famine, and the complete collapse of civilization itself.

The terrorizing spectral force of communism was said to be all-consuming, with the capacity to bring all of world-history to its knees. In this way, the anti-communists gave “the devil his due” and, in doing so, gave communism unprecedented power. Their extreme fears were illustrated as blood-thirsty demons, Satan, beasts, skeletons, and exaggerated brutes to elicit shock and revulsion among their expected audiences.

These exaggerations rely on classic tropes seen elsewhere, such as the anti-semitic caricature of blood-thirsty murders reminiscent of the mythology of blood libels, along with others. In any effect, the propaganda-art produced against communism went to great lengths to tie it to the deathly end of history and of the entire social order. This much was true: communism was supposed to be the complete abolishment and negation of the existing-state-of-things, of capitalist relations, and a radical break from history up until that point.

I have noticed some of these same styles imposed on other oppositional propaganda works. For example, posters made against early British imperialism use some of the same imagery in their anti-communist posters decades later. Similarly, anti-Japanese propaganda bears some resemblance to anti-communist ones found in South Korea during the 1950s. The dark forces depicted in these propaganda works, therefore, speak to some deep-seated fear which is easily transmuted and tacked onto many different ideologies across time. These images also speak of the power of these ideologies (communism and otherwise) in that they were associated with the most extreme and basal human elements, even death itself. For the anti-communist propagandist, nothing could be more severe. The threat was a question of existence itself — be it for liberalism, fascism, nationalism, monarchism, or any other social formation where communist posited itself as its violent, direct opposite.

Looking at how this hysteria has been illustrated over time, I’ll be posting them on Instagram. Follow it if you like @march_of_history.

More than a decade ago, I was gifted a stamp collection from my father’s old co-worker. He was a lonely fellow and found out in passing that I had my own stamp collection. Having no one to pass it along to, he gave my dad his old collection of Soviet stamps to give to me, many of which are steeped in both Russian history (including famous figures, folklore, and art) and Soviet ideology. Now I find myself perusing through them after almost a decade and they now hold newfound meaning for me. I can appreciate them more so than I ever could have at ten or eleven years old.

It’s a large collection and I am still in the process of organizing all of these stamps, but I posted them in a forum not too long ago and the most common question was “Do you have any Lenin stamps?” I have quite a few of them and I decided to put them all on one page since they were some of the best stamps in my collection.

I don’t know how much these stamps are worth. Initially I thought they were rare, but I tempered by expectations a bit after realizing that most of these are archived online. However, I have not done research on all of them. I only checked a few of them that I considered to be particularly impressive, and was able to reverse-image search them quite easily. My knowledge on stamps is limited though, and I received mixed responses from people when assessing their value. To assess the value of the entire collection would be very meticulous and I have not gotten around to doing it yet. If anyone has any thoughts on the stamps presented in this post, either in value or any further insight on their production, I’d like to hear it. Most of these stamps come in duplicates, but the really “rare” ones (from my understanding, just by looking at them) only come as singles. All of these photos I tried to take in high-quality, so be sure to click on them individually if you want to look at their detail.

Some Lenin Stamps

Some notable information on these stamps include:

Image #1 — The Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan

What first caught my eye was the structure that’s depicted. The Soviet pavilion was the largest at the world fair and was designed by Mikhail V. Posokhin. It was the last world expo the Soviet Union participated in.




Spacecrafts on display at the Soviet Pavilion, 1970.

Image #4 –‘Lenin at a Direct Line’ (1933) by Igor Grabar.


The above image is featured on the stamp. Igor Grabar was a Russian post-Impressionist painter. He generally did not draw socialist realism, but he did some pieces like this one which depicts Lenin on the telegraph.

Image #9 — Lenin Statue in Kiev, Ukraine

The bottom stamp on image #9 is an illustration of the famous statue of Lenin in what is now Kiev, Ukraine.

VLUU L210  / Samsung L210

The statue took on new political significance since Euromaidan and was toppled by a mob in early December, 2013. It was considered a symbol of Russian occupation to Ukrainian nationalists and the Svoboda party took credit for its destruction.


The destruction of the Lenin statue in Kiev was part of a general trend of destroying Soviet monuments in the country.  The phenomenon was called Ленінопад (Leninopad or “Lenin-fall”). A database of Soviet-era monuments demolished since 2013 can be found here.

Image #10 — Oil Painting by Viktor G. Tsyplakov


The above oil painting is featured on one of the stamps in image #10. It is one of the better known examples of Viktor G. Tsyplakov’s work. He was a prolific artist, but his work, from my understanding, is not as well-documented as it should.


“Facing a Firing Squad” – c. 1940s. If anybody has any information on this painting, I’d like to hear because I’m having trouble properly identifying it.


These are just a few stamps in the collection. I have not even exhausted the research I would like to do on them. I’m not even actually that satisfied with what I have dug up so far because schoolwork has been forcing me to neglect my individual pursuits as of late but I will expand on this, and post other stamps, as I continue to read and identify them.

A modified version of this essay was published in Vol. 4, No. 1 of “Interplay: A Journal of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature.”

Note: This is an extended essay on a topic which has been discussed already on this blog. If interested, please read parts one, two, and three

The Balkans occupy a contested middle-ground in studies on orientalism since they are neither Western nor do they fit into Edward Said’s conceptions of the “Orient.” Instead, they have historically been pulled by three distinct axes of power: the West, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. Although not traditionally colonized, the logic of colonialism and orientalism still operate via representation and identity. In order to understand how this logic operates, we must most importantly understand how the Balkans were known to those outside of it. By looking at travelogues from Western and Russian/Orthodox travelers, this essay will seek to understand how to account for the similarities and differences present in these works.

The first instances of Western travel interest in the Balkan region began in the late 16th century, mostly among the British upper-class. Their observations proved to be meager, totalizing, and nebulous; interest in the Balkans as a cultural space was secondary to exploring the Ottoman East. After a century-long lull of interest in Western circles, Balkan travelogues began once-again reappearing during the 19th century amidst a changing political landscape in Europe. The so-called “Eastern Question,” the multiple Russo-Turkish wars, the 1856 Treat of Paris, rising Balkan nationalisms, and the uprisings in Bosnia and elsewhere during the latter-half of the century all put the Balkans back on the Western map.

This essay places us in this century of sweeping change. For these European travelers, the Balkans served as an in-between space and a testing ground for their own inter-cultural analyses and observations, including on how “Europe” proper should be defined. When considering the origin and journey of each traveler, one can begin to piece together the discourse on the Balkans as a separate space. The discursive basis for the Balkans as separate from Europe was constructed partly through the travelogue, more so than is commonly understood, and the travelers themselves used the Balkans as a vehicle with which to make political criticisms of their host country and as a means through which to indict all of Ottoman influence on Southeast Europe.

I. Orientalism in Balkan Historiography

As has been mentioned, the Balkans occupy a disputed middle-ground between the two categories in Edward Said’s schema of orientalism: Europe (the West) and its constitutive other, the Orient. Part of the issue is that the Balkans have significant historical baggage, and “what we know about the Balkans cannot be separated from how we know it”[1]. Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova calls the specificity of this historical dilemma as uniquely called balkanism which, although related to Said’s orientalism, diverges from it on account of historical difference. What makes the Balkans categorically different from Said’s conception of the Orient is that the Orient “has an intangible character, [whereas] the Balkans have a tangible and concrete existence in Western historical accounts”[2]. Another point of difference is that, “the Orient […] is portrayed in Western accounts as Europe’s complete opposite, [whereas] the Balkans are construed as an ambiguous category on the periphery of Europe,” as an “incomplete self”[3]. This is why Western travelogues oftentimes prescribe cultural purification or Western occupation as the necessary political antidote, so that the Balkans can, presumably, finally “complete itself” and join the greater, Christian European community.

Discourse on the Balkans thus has its own unique rhetorical arsenal which it defers to when being discussed, and its representation operates through centuries-old Western histories, travelogues, literature, and journalism. Balkan representation operates within the bounds of how it was known. Indeed, this was, and is still, internalized by its people, a phenemon called  “nesting orientalism” by historian Milica Bakić-Hayden [4]. “Nesting orientalism” describes a discourse where the Other is appropriated by those who were themselves designated as this category within orientalist discourse. Naturally, this has been the butt of many self-aware jokes, by Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek and others, on how Slovenes view themselves “more Western” than Croats, who feel similarly towards Serbs, and Serbs who view themselves as “less Eastern” than Albanians, and so it goes [5]. It would seem that, even for the people living there, the Balkans lack concrete, geographic boundaries; instead, what is Balkan is often “not-us,” depending on who one asks. The land thus constantly finds itself historically displaced as if it lies suspended outside of Europe proper, despite being located in it.

This phenomenon of self-orientalism was not unknown to Edward Said, who used such language to describe Sigmund Freud in Freud and the Non-European. Freud, an Eastern Europe Jew, also “saw himself the subject of stereotyping that today might as well be designated ‘orientalist'” despite now falling squarely in the Western canon [6]. Interestingly, this same psychoanalytic language was employed by Radovan Karadžić and others to articulate a common European subjectivity for Serbs to justify inter-ethnic violence during the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. What Karadžić found useful in psychoanalysis was its idea of the “split subject” which he viewed as the subjective articulation of the objective, split historical subject of the Balkans itself. However, Karadžić understood reclaiming this “European subjectivity” through the violent ripping apart of his regional multi-faith communities so the Serbs could, once again, become one people who could then be made intelligible in proper European discourse [7]. Psychoanalysis and poetry was used to describe the “purification” of one’s people, seen as removing the taint which bound them to their split consciousness and relegated them as the abject of Europe and the West. This articulation of identity is particular to the Balkans, and cannot be captured through just orientalism. Instead, Todorova’s concept of balkanism is a more appropriate, given the Balkans’ peculiar historical position as the “in-between” and “incomplete” entity between Europe proper and the perceived “Orient.”

II. The Traveling British Aristocrat

If we cannot separate the actual, geographic Balkan space from how it was known, our first task must then be to uncover how it was described and narrativized. Travelogues grant us with the best means with which to do so, since they provide the link between the geographic space, passed through during the traveler’s journey, and the presentation through which the Balkans are known by to Western audiences. The stock traveler in Balkan travelogue literature is the British aristocrat, many of whom traveled through Ottoman Rumelia either as their destination, or en route to Istanbul. In these travelogues, as will soon be demonstrated, many travelers may pass through the same space but deduce from it different lessons and political prescriptions. As was often the case for these travelers, the writings say less about the actual material conditions of Ottoman Rumelia, and speak more of the traveler’s own audience, their journey, and ideological and historical predilections. Thus, many travelers pass through the Balkans not out of impartial interest, but rather with the intention of inscribing their view of the culture, people, and land onto the space itself – which, in turn, became branded onto Western perceptions and was then, in many cases, internalized and appropriated by the people living in the Balkans themselves.

It was during the 19th century that Southeast Europe emerged in public British imagination as “a peripheral zone of barbarism and conflict” largely through travelers’ accounts, and this imagining began to interact with the British state.[8] These travelers journeyed amidst the so-called Eastern Question in British politics, and they were determined to participate and provide a constant stream of information, none of which truly clarified the issue. These stances did not all make up one coherent political ideology, and the travelogues themselves vary in their political prescriptions and allegiances. Despite being politically disparate, all of these travelogues led themselves to a specific manifestation of power. Instead of being construed as their young Italian and German neighboring nation-states, the Balkans were constructed through discourse “developed primarily, though not exclusively, for usage on the colonial object.”[9] Regardless of their political affiliations, most if not all of these British travelers agreed on the subordinate status of the lands they were visiting through cultural signifiers, evoking “a place of comedy, romance, or imminent threat.”[10]

Such is the line that follows through these traveling accounts. Robert Manuro concluded his journey through the Western Balkans by praising the improvements brought about by Austro-Hungarian rule[11]; R. Arnold speaks of Serbia and the Danube providences as needing to “fall beneath the crown of the Kaiser” rather than have their autonomy continue;[12] Sir Arthur Evans writes that the “hated government of the [Ottoman] must be severed” and that the “ultimate form of Bosnian government is a question of secondary importance to the paramount necessity of establishing order in that unhappy land.”[13] For all of these British writers, the necessity of a foreign force to establish order is the highest priority, whatever their reasoning for it may be. Underneath it all, the fact that these are still Europeans fills these travelers with psychological fears, and their narratives include “threatening moments of self-recognition in which some aspect of Eastern Europe reminds them of the British Isles.”[14] This fear was even reciprocated by the British state; Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli famously proclaimed that the League of Three Emperors “was beginning to treat England ‘as if we were Montenegro or Bosnia.’”[15]

In the past decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in Victorian women travelers who were previously often relegated to a mere footnote to their male journeying counterparts. For these women “foreign travel was a means of redefining themselves, assuming a different persona and becoming someone who did not exist at home.”[16] Traveling to Eastern Europe had a phantasmic quality to it for these travelers, as if it were an adventurous fiction novel. Emily Gerard compares her travels through Transylvania with the “experiences of Robinson Crusoe on the deserted island and of a fairy-tale princess who was carried off to gnomeland.”[17] Not just women, but many British travelers expressed such imperial imagination as a motive for exploration, falling spell to the “indolent charm and drowsy poetry of this secluded land.”[18] Traveling also offered these aristocratic women a subtle means with which to influence public discourse. Georgina Muir Mackenzie and Adeline Paulina Irby, traveling in the 1860s, remarked that “they found it to be ‘much more exciting […] to be two Englishwomen in the wilds of Turkey than to be at home in England.’”[19] Their book Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey-in-Europe became critically acclaimed in England and was used by William Gladstone in speeches and parliamentary debates on the Eastern Question.[20] Given that the knowledge of southeastern Europe was marginal in British public life, Travels is said to have brought a virtually unknown subject to British popular discourse. These women writers came to the Balkans with different expectations than their male counterparts, but their observations inevitably overlap as is expected. Just as Sir Arthur Evans writes in his account, Mackenzie and Irby focused their writing on the perceived injustices committed against the Christians by their Ottoman overlords, and ultimately all of these authors come to the same conclusion: that fellow Christians are being persecuted, and that the Ottoman influence must be removed from southeast Europe. However, Mackenzie and Irby do not prescribe foreign occupation as the solution for the Balkans as some other male British travelers did; instead, we see a condescending argument for national sovereignty on the basis of, for example, the Bulgarians being “shrewd,” “eager for intelligence,” and possessing an “industrious approach to agriculture.”[21] Both of them expressed similar opinions towards the Serbs, and wished that both Montenegro and Serbia “draw Kosovo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina into ‘one Serbian fatherland.’”[22] Muir Mackenzie and Adeline Paulina Irby thus prescribe here a political solution that would frankly become the basis for multiple Balkan wars in the succeeding century, imposing their conceptions of Western nationhood as the only possible political solution.

Irby and Mackenzie also pass judgement on the social mores of the Balkan lands in proto-feminist engagement. They “lament the restrictions on female education, the oppressiveness of marriage expectation, and the abuses of traditional rural customs.”[23] However, these same critiques are simultaneously critiques of the gendered social mores they faced at home in Victorian Britain. Traveling gave these aristocratic British women travelers an opportunity through which they could make political criticisms – it was the journey that granted these women an entry point into British political discourse and many of their political prescriptions for the Balkans are, conversely, for Britain itself rather than exclusively the Balkans. In other words, the Balkans served as the vehicle through which they could make political commentary. This same logic applies to all of these British traveling writers: in prescribing their political solutions to the plight of the Balkans, they are simultaneously drawing on Britain as their reference, and thus their Balkan criticisms intersect with their criticisms of British society. They are of the same discourse, and their standards are unequivocally British. Their goal is to ultimately see that these people break from the yoke of Ottoman rule. Their criticisms of the Balkans thus oscillate between two camps. One the one hand, their criticisms of social mores and life in the Balkans are inadvertently also criticisms of their Victorian British society; and, on the other hand, they indict the Ottoman Empire for the perceived wretchedness of the Balkan lands. These two lines of argumentation – an indictment of Ottoman influence and/or a critique of British society vis-a-vis a critique of Balkan life – runs parallel throughout all of these travelogues.

III. Russian Travelers Who Journeyed through the Balkans

Thus far, only British travelogues have been discussed to understand how the Balkans were known. One must consider, however, contrasting travelogues to bring truth to the claim that these traveling accounts had more to do with opposition to Ottoman rule and the traveler’s origins, rather than the Balkans themselves.

Maria F. Korlova was an upper-class Muscovite traveler who journeyed to Macedonia and Albania in 1868 and documented her observations. Despite hailing from Russia, her observations draw similarity to Mackenzie and Irby and other Victorian travelling women. Like them, she remarks on the lack of “female emancipation,” a concept she associates with European modernity and progress.[24] She made these remarks decades before women’s emancipation became a central issue in Russia. Her essay is not a case study on Eastern-Western relations, but instead demonstrate how “gender and class can be inserted into debates about Russian identity and Russia’s place in Europe’s symbolic map of modernity.”[25] She remarks that had traveled in a country not yet visited by a “single Russia female” establishing an authoritative voice via gender, social status, and nationality.[26] As has been mentioned thus far, Korlova’s account bears a striking resemblance to other upper-class women travelers of the Balkans at this time. However, this begs the question: how did these women, living in different regions, all come to similar conclusions in their Balkan travels? Arguably, it is because they all belonged to the same social milieu: “they were all concerned with enhancing women’s status and commented on their national identity and notions of European belonging.”[27] It was during the 19th century that a trans-European class consciousness was developing among the upper-class, and these women belonged to this particular historical moment on account of their class. Most of them were of the same stock as those that participated in the Grand Tour where upper-class men would travel Europe and mingle with the upper-crust of polite European society. A class dimension across the entire continent of Europe is what united these women, not their country of origin.  Most of these women travelling writers in the Balkans thus intersect on three major points: (1) they make criticisms of gendered social mores which they could not do in their home country, (2) there is an emphasis on being the “first visitor,” and (3) a Eurocentric belief in being a part of a superior culture, and always trying to cross cultural boundaries but never class boundaries.

However, other travelling writers in the Balkans visited with the intention of reaffirming their place of origin. For those Russians travelling to Bulgaria in the 1840s, they “saw it as the cradle of Slavic civilization and written culture.”[28] Their travels focused more on Bulgarian archives and monasteries, oftentimes pillaging them so their materials could be brought back to Russia. The shift in Russian travel literature noticeably changes during the rising tides of nationalism. Whereas, “in 1810 some Russian travelers empathized with the Turks, few travelers did after 1840.”[29] Here, again, we have an instance of travelogues illuminating more about their host country and culture than the space they are said to be describing. The drastic change in opinion towards the Balkans in Russia is not that Serbia had accelerated in its economic development from the 1810s to the 1840s; rather, the political climate in Russia changed as did geopolitics. Slavophilism became a popular political ideology in Russia, along with the souring of relations between Russia and the Ottoman Empire culminating in multiple wars during the 19th century.

Comparing these Russian and British travelogues illuminate a stark different between them which are products of history, rather than individual differences between the travelers themselves. Across the board, with Mackenzie and Irby as notable exceptions, the Western travelogues prescribe that the Balkans must remove their Ottoman character and be civilized by a foreign power, along the lines of Austria-Hungary as is mentioned by the French traveler Emile De Laveleye in his text The Balkan Peninsula.[30] All of these Western travelogues, however, are outright hostile to Ottoman influence, no matter their intended audience. The aristocratic travelers who journeyed to the Balkans belonged to the same milieu, and a trans-European upper-class was developing its own separate consciousness apart from the rest of Europe. Therefore, similar topics are touched on in all of these accounts, namely criticisms of Balkan social mores, the perceived oppression of Christians, the “backwardness” of its people, and outright hostility towards anything Ottoman. The Russian travelers, on the other hand, documented their journeys in different light and instead, after the 1830s, focused on the Slavic elements of Balkan society and elevated them. In doing so, they were acting in accords with the nationalist movements of their time, and they paid particular attention to how these lands related back to their native country of origin. A notable exception to this rule was Maria F. Korlova, who wrote her account similar to other aristocrats of her milieu, as they did across Europe. This, thus, is the point of divergence between these aristocratic travelers and other more marginal travelers, Russian or otherwise: the former highlighted their European identity, as a cross-continental elite with the same interests, but others were influenced by the burgeoning nationalisms of their host country, and took this perspective in their travels. These travelogues thus demonstrate the two different ideological strains taking root in Europe in the 19th century, one being the trans-European identity as was made conscious in the upper-crust of European society, and the other is the nationalist undercurrent that inspired some Russian and Orthodox travelers to journey to the Balkans to find lost cultural treasures for their respective nationalist histories. This contradiction of interests between the nationalists and pan-Europeanism would come to a head many times over in Europe, starting from the nationalist revolutions of 1848.

IV. Conclusions

Reviewing these travelogues forces one to ask: Can any traveler write of regional history without falling into the trap of generalizing peoples into a pathology in an effort to describe them? Moreover, which of these travelogues are “more true?” Ultimately, the problem lies in how one approaches this question. This essay was written without falling into the trap of comparisons on which travelogues are more accurate; all of them are steeped in their respective opinions, molded by the history that preceded and enveloped them. Arguably, no travelogue can escape the trap of essentializing and projecting onto the land. So, we are left with these fleeting reflections on a particular historical moment in the Balkans, molded by the respective socio-economic milieu of each traveler.

However, we can deduce a few truths from these many travelogues. Firstly, as has been demonstrated by the British travelogues alone, these reflections had a real impact on discourse and public policy back home. It brought the Balkans to an audience who had previously not known much, if at all, about it. Secondly, the similarity in these travelogues demonstrate that the travelers were using the Balkans as a vehicle with which to make their own political criticisms and observations, many of which reflected the politics from whence they came. For the aristocratic traveler, Maria F. Korlova and others, the observations were strikingly formulaic and similar, as if they were products of the same society despite living in disparate places. This was a consequence of their class-basis, and this can be taken to be wholly explanatory of the similarity in form and content. However, what unites all of these travelogues, albeit for different reasons, is their animosity towards Ottoman influence. For the Russian travelers, the Slavic character was elevated as their own, and Ottomanism was seen as a corrupting influence; Western travelers also despised the Ottoman foothold in Europe, but they prescribed a different solution more-aligned with their country’s interests, i.e. foreign occupation. Whatever their political orientation, all of these travelogues deferred to the geopolitical interests of their host country, and it is therefore difficult for anyone to read these and take their observations at face-value as representative of what was actually-happening in the Balkans at this time. As has been stated in this essay repeatedly, what we know about the Balkans cannot be separated from how we know it. Therefore, these travelogues altogether provide us a discursive basis from which we can understand how the Balkans were perceived during the 19th century, and this, in turn, brings us one step closer to understanding the space as it was actually lived by the people there. We can then begin to unravel the Balkans from orientalist historiography, and find it that occupies something separate from Said’s schema, as is articulated by Maria Todorova’s concept of balkanism. However, this can only ever be done piecemeal, since we cannot encapsulate the entire scope of history, not to speak of the Balkans but of any space. Therefore, all we are left with are these travelogues, as historical fragments, to attempt to illustrate a historical reality as accurate as one can.


[1] Dušan Belić, Immigrants as the Enemy: Psychoanalysis and the Balkans’ Self-Orientation (Slavonic & Eastern European Review, vol. 87, No. 3, 2009), 489.

[2] Vasiliki P. Neofotistos, “The Balkans’ Other within”: Imaginings of the West in the  Republic of Macedonia (History and Anthropology, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2008), 19.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dušan Belić, Immigrants as the Enemy: Psychoanalysis and the Balkans’ Self-Orientation, 490.

[5] Vasiliki P. Neofotistos writes of this in “The Balkans’ Other within”: Imagining of the West in the Republic of Macedonia where she recounts: “The ’Balkans’ included Greece when my Macedonian friends suggested that Greeks and Macedonians shared the same ‘Balkan mentality’ … and also Bulgaria and Turkey when my Albanian friends who had taken a bus trip from Skopje via Bulgarian towns to Istanbul, where they visited relatives, recounted how convenient it was to get around ‘the Balkans’ by bus” (pp. 18).

[6] Dušan Belić, Immigrants as the Enemy: Psychoanalysis and the Balkans’ Self-Orientation, 491.

[7] In the West, the Balkans are commonly construed by overlooking any differences that might exist between their peoples and cultures; therefore, for the ethnic-religious nationalists of the 1990s, the first step was to separate themselves from this lumped Balkan identity, in this case through violence, so as to be recognized in Western discourse as separate peoples, not signified by the Balkan region. This tragedy was caused by the appropriation of orientalist discourse by the people it originally described, and by the Balkan’s indeterminate position as an “incomplete” part of Europe; thus, the ethnic violence that ensued is predicated on a desire to complete what was prescribed by the very logic of Western orientalist discourse.

[8] Andrew Hammond, The Uses of Balkanism: Representation and Power in British travel Writing, 1850 – 1914 (The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 82, No. 3, 2004), 602.

[9] Ibid., 603.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Robert Munro, Rambles and Studies in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Dalmatia with an Account of the Proceedings of the Congress of Archaeologists and Anthropologists Held at Sarajevo, August 1894  (Edinburgh and London, 1895), 390.

[12] R. Arnold, From the Levant, the Black Sea, and the Danube (Vol. 2, London, 1868) 235 – 236.

[13] Neval Berber, Unveiling Bosnia-Herzegovina in British Travel Literature (Spirit of Bosnia, Vol. 5 No. 4., 2010).

[14] Katarina Gephardt, “The Enchanted Garden” Or “The Red Flag”: Eastern Europe in Late Ninetieth-Century British Travel Literature (Journal of Narrative Theory, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2005), 295.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Andrew Hammond, Memoirs of Conflict: British Women Travelers in the Balkans (Studies in Travel Writing, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2010), 57.

[17] Katarina Gephardt, “The Enchanted Garden” Or “The Red Flag”: Eastern Europe in Late Ninetieth-Century British Travel Literature, 295.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Andrew Hammond, Memoirs of Conflict: British Women Travelers in the Balkans, 59.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 60.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Evguenia Davidova Gender and Culture in the Turkish Providence: Observations of a Russian Woman Traveler (Aspasia, vol. 6, 2012), 80.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 83.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sarah McArthur, Slavophile Ideology and Representations of Serbia in Russian  Travel Writing, 1810 – 1850 (Budapest, 2007), 2.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Emile De Laveleye, The Balkan Peninsula (Bibliolife, 2008), 72.

*Note: If you’re interested in the origins of Yugoslav nationalism, which this article touches on, I wrote something on it a while back titled “The Croatian Origins of Yugoslav Nationalism and Pan-Slavism.”

Nationalism has made itself increasingly visible in the past decade. Right-wing nationalist parties are organizing themselves throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and with great success. A new bloc is forming, an alliance of right-wing nationalists made up of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the Hungarian Civil Alliance, the Freedom Party of Austria, and many others. This has placed nationalism squarely at the center of Europe’s current predicament once again.   It seems history is repeating itself but with difference. Eastern Europe once again must come to grips with its national question(s), and must take the corpses out of the closet to ponder once more. A necessary moment of reflection, perhaps, but an all-too-familiar one in lieu of the past century. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the creation of new states, Eastern Europe has been scrambled up once again as it was a century prior. Population politics have returned with new force, and the classical arguments made against them have proved to be all but useless in preventing their rise. The new wave of nationalism is bold, and it makes little natural claims to legitimacy; instead, it is playful, arbitrary, and aware of it. In a post-modern hogwash of competing ideologies, sheer political will triumphs.

I.   The National Question 

The “national question” was one of the prevailing debates within socialist thought in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was also the concern of Western powers who needed to decide how to appease the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europeans without tipping the scale in their own disfavor. Austria-Hungary and the British Empire grew increasingly concerned the so-called “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, and the political fallout of them exiting the southeast European theater. Marxists, however, were one of the few to treat the national question as something other than a case-by-case problem. Liberal scholars treated it as a regional issue, and therefore each respective region had its own “national question,” separate from one another. Of these, there were many – having to do with Poles, Jews, Italian irredentism in Dalmatia, Slavs in Austria-Hungary, Bulgarians, Turks in the Balkans, and many others. Yet, at the time, few of these were understood as being of the same historical trajectory guided by the then-developments of capitalism. They were seen as natural movements which fulfilled a historic promise of community; they were characterized as being previously “repressed, and now they were finally materializing. These nationalist promises were underscored with myths, poetry, and literature. Many of these peoples went through a period of cultural “rediscovery” in the latter-19th century. Languages were codified, and lost cultural artifacts were “found” from which cultural tradition was invented. Remarkably, despite being separately orchestrated to a large extent, these nationalist revivals were occurring at around the same time and in similar patterns.

By the late 19th century, Balkan nationalism became the central question of geopolitics for Europe. For the first time, nationalism and nation-states was viewed as the normative standard for attaining legitimacy in Eastern Europe. The concept of a nation was seen as a natural progression of their respective peoples, and, for them, the prior empires that occupied the Balkans repressed their cultural progress and prevented their peoples from realizing their historical goals. Therefore for Serbian nationalists, to give one example, the creation of the nation-state was seen as the pinnacle of their millennia-long struggle to establish a sovereign space for their peoples. Naturally, this required they determine who was included in this new national identity, and how territory would be parceled between them and other states. The “national question” soon became a central political concern across the Balkans and in all of Eastern Europe.

The argument for the nation-state is that it creates balance and represents parties with distinct cultural interests. The state in this schema is not just an administrative body, but also a cultural guardian, and an assertion of a group’s right to sovereignty and existence. The question that immediately arises when discussing nationalism is: what is the point of divergence between different peoples? Generally speaking, these distinctions are said to be based on blood, religion, or language, and they oftentimes overlap to together form a basal identity.  Yet, the nation-state is a recent development in European history. To have a state, one does not need to necessarily create a nation. As historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, there was a French state before there was anything remotely reminiscent of a “French people” [1]. What developed, however, from these states were nations, and old multi-cultural empires like Austria-Hungary soon led way to smaller, more homogeneous nation-states. These were said to be better representative of their newly-created peoples’ interests. This was the case in Eastern Europe, and the history of empire still weighs heavily on the national question there. The initial wave of national awakening happened post-1848 when liberal nationalism gripped the educated classes who identified as Poles, Croats, Serbs, and others. The respective populations were counted, shuffled around to appease certain demographics, and territories between states became contestable based on its language or culture. I have read scholars treat the history of Eastern European in stages [2] – the first wave until 1914 was anti-imperialist nationalism which had emancipatory potential; what came after was a period of destructive nationalism with violence being committed in Ukraine, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, and elsewhere with the intent of purging perceived foreign elements; and what followed after World War Two was a positive rehabilitation of nationalism. For the Western powers, nationalism was seen as undermining the Soviet Union and was therefore treated in different light in Western and American historiography after World War Two.

However, these are not separate “eras” of nationalism that should be valued irrespective of one another. In his essay Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means, philosopher Slavoj Zizek pushes back against this notion that “healthy” nationalism can be separated from fanaticism and he cites the Yugoslav wars of secession during the 1990s as a reference point. The so-called “good” nationalism of the late 19th century provided the phantasmic structure that allowed for nationalist fantasies to be played out as violently as they did later on. It is the “healthy” nationalism that structures the nationalist fantasy (what Zizek calls the “dirty water”) and maintains its spiritual purity [3]. To decouple these is to effectively de-historicize it, and leaves the national question unresolved. The West distanced itself from Balkan nationalism to escape the “ethnic bug” of sectarian fanaticism, but their soft nationalism is in fact the opposing side of the same, nationalist violence they were viewing during the wars of Yugoslav secession. This is partly why a Western state cannot properly account for the national question, or even resolve it politically: it affirms its presumptions, and tries to decouple the bad nationalism from the good which leaves the phantasmic structure of nationalism still intact. The nation-state deals with the national question through particulars while it is a question of grander, material history which both “soft” and fanatical, ultra-nationalism are implicated in.

Although modern Western politics has painted liberal democracy and nationalism as oppositional forces, their histories are interwoven with one another. They answer fundamentally different questions: while “democracy is the institutional expression of the tenet of self-rule of the people, nationalism addresses the problem of who are ‘the people’” [4].  Therefore, when liberal historians critique the national question they are in effect also critiquing of a fundamental tenet of their own  ideology. By looking into the Balkans, the Westerner finds solace in their own neutral “soft” nationalism, but they are looking at their own reflection; they are us, and vice-versa. The brazen nationalist politics and violence in the Balkans is merely a replay of the original, national question that Westerners needed to resolve centuries prior. And it was them, too, that created their own homogeneous space, and excluded others, all in the context of liberalism. French philosopher Étienne Balibar, in a 1999 lecture in Thessaloniki, Greece remarked that:

The fate of European identity as a whole is being played out in Yugoslavia and more generally in the Balkans. Europe has two options… either [it] will recognize in the Balkan situation not a monstrosity grafted to its breast, a pathological ‘after-effect’ of underdevelopment or of communism, but rather an image… of its own history, and will undertake to confront it and resolve it and thus to put itself into question and transform itself [5].

Nationalism plays out again and again, repeating with difference, but continues to  reproduce itself because the problems underlying it remain unresolved. We are currently witnessing the new wave of right-wing nationalist politics in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. It repeats because the question of nationalism has yet to be properly answered. Instead, distance has been created between its particular symptoms. When nationalism is treated solely by its particulars, with individual national histories, the assumed distance that is said to exist between each nationalist narrative ends up reproducing the same ambiguity and contradictions continuously – the “dirty water” of nationalism, the perceived good in it, and all the rest.

II.   Ambiguous Spaces

Nation and the VillageLiberal historiographers have naturalized the process of nationalism into a linear, homogeneous trajectory. On the ground, it was a different story and one of sectarianism, negotiation, and forced assimilation. The tension comes from the nature of the nation-state itself, and how it determines who are its “people.” Given that the majority in Eastern Europe and the Balkans were peasants, this oftentimes involved a communication between the upper-classes of their respective societies and the peasant base. Keely Stauter-Halsted in The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 uses the region of Galicia as an allegory for other nationalist projects of the time. The creation of nationalism generally took a similar form among all peasant Slavs and others living in Eastern Europe. There needed to be a unified, nationalist front among all classes of the people in question, but this involved correcting the grey areas, regions where nationalist identity was not so clear. These regions were plentiful because the conquered peoples of Eastern Europe oftentimes had a multiplicity of allegiances. Keely Stauter-Halsted calls these “nested identities,” and they oftentimes overlapped. How these people identify, she writes, was based on many different allegiances, and their most immediate one was their local community and dialect. For Austrian Poles, their allegiances were multifold: many had their own nested identities that they clung to including the Austrian state and the Catholic Church [6]. For the peasant living under the rule of an empire in Eastern Europe, the nationalist project involved evoking all of these interwoven identities that rested on “regional, extra-regional, and social attachments” [7]. The goal was to channel them into one cohesive vision that could be adopted as an organizing principle for the new nation-state. Previously, these old, pre-modern identities were not channeled into a particular politics; they only denoted specific kinds of allegiances, and provided social organization on some basic, intelligible level whether it be Catholicism or allegiance to the emperor. And because these identities overlapped, there was intelligibility between them and this made them ripe for appropriation by nationalist politics.

In Galicia, the peasant elite increasingly began articulating the public agenda as the “welfare of the nation” by the late-19th century [8]. However, for the elites and their upper-class allies, the “nation” denoted a much different concept than how it was understood by the majority of the population, the peasantry. Galicia is just a microcosm of a greater process that occurred in Eastern Europe in the latter-half of the 19th century where elites began a long and sustained entry into peasant cultural life, and were constantly negotiating their “patriotic message” with their respective peasant audiences [9]. For many of these peasants, these interactions gave them a glimpse of what would be characterized as modern, civic life, but yet they “still remained rooted in the rituals, customs, and beliefs of ‘premodern’ agricultural communities” [10]. The goal of the educated nationalists was therefore to appropriate many of these images into vague references, and use it to “camouflage the heterogeneous nature of national identity” [11]. Therefore, the most significant rift in early-developing nationalist consciousness was on class lines between the elites and the peasant class. Soon, the discourse they used merged despite being interpreted differently by each class. One such example, Keely Stauter-Halsted writes, was the annual celebration of the 1791 Polish Constitution: for the upper-class, the day signified an “opposition to foreign rule,” but for the peasants it was a time for “staging agrarian rituals around maypoles in the countryside” [12]. The peasants negotiated the meaning of the national vision with their elite counterparts. They rooted them in village traditions and this provided them a basis why they could now associate with the new national character. It became familiar to them. Peasant nationalism spread from village to village, discussed in pubs and local events, and constantly vied for legitimacy among other competing subcultures. And in a “discursive sleight of hand,” elites in Austrian Poland performed peasant folk culture and in their writings spoke of a natural, nationalist consciousness forming; their historiography was one of triumph of a homogeneous group of Poles reaching their true identity [13]. They spoke little of the struggle present on the local level, and the discussions had, and the “nested identities” constantly conflicting with each other. Instead, nationalist historiography was about homogeneous movement forward, and the educated class narrativized peasant nationalism into a justification for sovereignty and a new state of affairs. As the peasants were determining the “nation” on a local level, the elite class was codifying these developments into a clear, historical trajectory.

Many ambiguous spaces existed in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century which became battlegrounds for nationalist politics. Galicia is just one of many. In Jeremy King’s text Budweisers into Czechs and Germans, he writes of the contested space in Southern Bohemia where “for at least seven centuries, [there were] at least three ethnic groups: the Czech majority, a strong German minority, and… a less numerous but nonetheless influential Jewish minority” [14]. It was only “the ninetieth and twentieth century that elevated these relations… to a relationship among modern nations” [15]. King quotes Jörg Hoensch in History of Bohemia in pointing out that German-ness was based not only in culture or religion, but also in perceived common history. The wars of liberation against Napoleon captured the German historical experience, but “it gripped few Germans in Bohemia” [16]. Historiographies of Austria-Hungary, and specifically even Bohemia, have been mostly national histories instead of histories of nationalism. Ethnicity, here, then becomes a predecessor to nations, and nationalism is the outgrowth of natural, ethnic divisions. However, ethnic groups are not “historical antecedents but national products” – and some, like historian Gary Cohen, have gone as far as to argue that, in the case of Czechs and Germans, “socioeconomic standing accounted better than did ethnicity for how residents became national” [17]. Oftentimes, nationalism was adopted by Austria-Hungarian minorities to aspire to political primacy, and it was through political will that Croats, Czechs, and others were able to naturalize their respective nationalisms. They needed to be interpolated as a separate group by an authority, and Austria-Hungary adopted ethnic splits as mode of politics which ultimately undermined its legitimacy.

III.   The National Question after World War One

In the years following World War One, two concepts were pushed in tandem: minority rights and forced deportations. Eric D. Weitz in From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions speaks of this development as a transition between the old model of Vienna to the new Paris system. Whereas the Vienna system of states was based on dynastic legacy and sovereignty, the new post-WW1 system had a new geopolitical configuration where each state was a representative of its own homogeneous ethnic space. This distinction was made on two major points: (1) the confounding of ethnicity, nationalism, and sovereignty and (2) “the development of the civilizing mission into a comprehensive program” to boost the numbers of the nation so that it can bee seen as a legitimate state [18]. In the summer of 1919, the Allies needed to deal with a different national question emerging in Eastern Europe with the dissolution of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires. The logic of self-determination forced a response, and two solutions emerged: “populations could either be protected or removed” [19]. A population could derive rights from its numbers alone, and the relationship between nationalist violence and the protection of minorities in Europe parallel each other in 20th century history. Weitz specifically writes of the Greek-Bulgarian exchange promulgated by the then Greek prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos. In 1913, he proposed “the notion of moving around hundreds of thousands of people to create homogenous states” so that the political lines were drawn in the “exact accordance… or approximate accordance… [of the] limits of their ethnical domain.” From this, the “Society of Nations [would] be created” [20].


Nationalist politics in Eastern Europe soon turned against its neighbors as they struggled to define who their “people” were and came to a head on the eve of World War One. This is a propagandized postcard of that time illustrated by Alexander Bozhinov (Александър Божинов). The postcard depicts a satirical caricature of Bulgarian soldier hanging Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and French enemy soldiers like laundry.

The Western response to the national question after World War One was to naturalize these relationships between nation-states through legal means. It created international, rights-based protections for minorities, while also allowing for states to determine their own homogeneous spaces. This proved politically unstable as many of the newly-created Eastern European nations had heterogeneous populations and the influx of refugees from Russia, Turkey, and elsewhere created an international policy of minority protection by the League of Nations which soon became unenforceable by the 1930s because of sheer numbers.  There was a large influx of stateless people who, without belonging to a nation-state, effectively had no rights. Through peace treaties, Western powers attempted to regulate peoples in Eastern Europe by offering a model of minority rights. The old nation-states of the West were themselves, though, unable to grapple with the problem of minority status in their own liberal states, and it remained “even more doubtful whether it could be imported in an area which lacked the very conditions for the rise of nation-states” [21].

From the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea, there was a belt of mixed populations [22]. In Latvia, a quarter of the population was a minority ethnic group; twenty percent were minorities in Lithuania; in Czechoslovakia, a quarter was German; and within the borders of Poland, only 70% were ethnically considered Polish [23]. Some regions became ethnically ambiguous, such as Czech Silesia, Transylvania, and Macedonia which was a contested space between Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks [24]. In the West, identification transitioned from religious identity to cultural affiliation and citizenship after the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th century; however, Eastern Europe maintained a religious-national consciousness, where Catholic Poles could differentiate themselves from Protestant Germans or Orthodox Russians. These relationships were intensified after World War One, but the conflict between these groups had been present in peasant life in the region for at least a century. Economic stratification soon took on the form of these identities where Estonian and Latvian peasants worked for German barons, or Ukrainian minorities worked for Polish lords [25]. The slippage between class and nationality became the instigator of pogroms where these two concepts confounded to spark violence. The 1907 peasant revolts in Moldavia began as an anti-Semitic riot in the northern part of the region before expanding into protests against the land-owning class more broadly. Other identities were recuperated into class antagonisms as ethnic conflicts took on a class dimension but played themselves out as nationalist violence.

IV.   The Current Wave of Population Politics

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the national question has once again reappeared in Eastern Europe after the lid was kept on it for decades. It was not as if during Soviet occupation such questions were not asked, but nationalist politics were effectively frozen for decades. Much had changed during this time, however. After World War Two, the border between Western and Eastern Europe effectively “shifted several hundred kilometers to the west, and several nations that had always considered themselves to be Western woke up to discover that they were now in the East” [26]. Now, they are independent states, and these perceived wrongs could be corrected.  Since the 90s, questions of nationalism have thawed in Eastern Europe and have once again entered popular discourse. The old, nationalist population politics of the late 19th and early 20th century have reappeared, yet now they come as alarmist and dire because of perceived cultural loss. The national question was left unresolved, and has now reappeared with ressentiment. The current wave has been instigated by reasons other than ones that pushed it during the turn of the 20th century. Russian diaspora politics has been revitalized by Russian nationalism and its reach is felt in Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, Georgia, and other ex-Soviet states that still have sizable Russian minorities. Diaspora politics more generally have become a crucial political tool for ruling powers in Eastern Europe especially in light of falling birthrates post-1989. Croatia, for example, used diaspora politics in the 1990s to grant ethnic Croats living abroad in Bosnia and elsewhere proper citizenship and voting right – ultimately, pushing the Croatian nationalist party HDZ over the edge and to victory [27]. In 1999, the right-wing coalition in Poland reached out to ethnic Poles in Ukraine and Lithuania through citizenship and immigration policy to spur tourism, investment, and economic growth [28]. This new wave of Eastern European nationalism based on diasporic kin has created a “cross-border [network] of interdependent and patronage between homeland states and diaspora elites” while also increasing the potential of “inter-ethnic tensions” [29]. Kinship on ethnic ground forges ties within communities and minorities of other nation-states which ultimately empowers secessionist politics. The political ramifications of diaspora politics are strongly felt in Macedonia and Kosovo where the national question has led to cultural disputes over historical narratives and whether a region that is significantly Albanian is justified in being allowed to join Albania [30].

In the early 20th century, nationalism was justified by empiricism and perceived natural difference. It was made into a science, and it could be scrutinized as such. Now, however, we have reached a different form of nationalism – one which, increasingly, cannot be discredited by the mere fact that it is arbitrary. The mono-ideology of Sovietism has collapsed, and many individual nationalist ideologies have come to reclaim their place of power. We live today in a world of relativistic difference, of many competing narratives, none of which are deemed “correct.” Post-modernism provides coverage for all of these previously bastardized ideologies — nationalists, ethnic purists, traditionalists, etc., because it raises the floor for all of them. They are all fighting on the same turf, because post-modernism privileges none of them. The only aspect that makes nationalism “real” is its political will. This is even demonstrated in an old Slavic myth about Vladimir the Great. It is said that in the year 987, Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the world to pick one for his people. Islam was undesirable because of its taboos on alcohol and pork; Jews had lost Jerusalem, and therefore they were God’s abandoned children; and Catholicism was too dull (surprisingly). He settled on Eastern Orthodox Christianity because its festivals had a phantasmic quality… “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth” [31]. The choice was arbitrary, but it was the historical precedent thereafter that linked Orthodoxy with the Russian ethnicity. How could one argue against an identity when its adherents recognize its arbitrariness? Within this nationalist fantasy lies something deeper that cannot be accounted for with reason alone.

The Eastern European attachment to nationalism has many origins, but in the current era, it is characterized by cultural anxiety over declining status and the precarity of workers in Eastern Europe. This instability necessitates a need for community, one which is satisfied by nationalism. If nationalism cannot be accounted for by reason alone, then we must diagnose the forces that push individuals into these categories. In their precarity, nationalism provides community. Although arbitrary, there are clear historical trajectories that underscore nationalism as an ideology and grant it an actually-existing justification. And even when Vladimir the Great was choosing a religion for his people, a political calculation was made amidst it all. It was not only that Orthodoxy was aesthetically beautiful for him, but Byzantine impressed him as a political system and as a power. It was geopolitically beneficial for Orthodoxy to be pinned to Russian identity, and the historical forces placed its peoples into this constructed category. Although nationalism now requires no “objective” narrative to derive legitimacy, the material conditions ultimately provide that narrative. History thus pushes us and provides the actually-existing justification for narratives that would have previously been unfounded. The social forces are too great to be undermined by their arbitrariness, for what makes Russian nationalism any less arbitrary than Western liberalism? Any criticism of Eastern European nationalism on these grounds ultimately ends up reflecting back the arbitrary construction of Western nation-states. The national question, thus, cannot be resolved by appealing to its Western reflection; the creation of rights-based politics and protections during the 20th century merely naturalized nationalism’s historical trend, and tried to decouple “soft” nationalism from its true, fanatical base. Instead, ethnic and national categories must be decoupled from their socioeconomic origins; it is only by addressing the precarity of modern labor, and the anxiety it brings, can the community be rehabilitated beyond just nationalism.


[1]  Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), Chapter II, 80–81.
[2] Yugoslav scholars oftentimes rehabilitated nationalist anti-imperialist struggle against the Austria-Hungarians by describing it as “good nationalism.” For a more concrete example, I cite Thomas T. Hammond’s article Nationalism and National Minorities in Eastern Europe in the Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1966), on pages 9-31 who makes this exact argument.
[3] Slavoj Zizek. Underground, or Ethnic Cleansing as a Continuation of Poetry by Other Means (InterCommunications, 18: 1997).
[4]  Pavel Barša, “Ethnocultural Justice in East European States and the Case of the Czech Roma” in Can Liberal Pluralism Be Exported?: Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe (Oxford University Press: 2002), 243.
[5] Tanja Petrovic. Thinking Europe without Thinking: Neo-colonial Discourse on and in the Western Balkans. (Eurozine: 2007). Web: http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-09-22-petrovic-en.html
[6] Keely Stauter-Halsted writes that even well into the beginning of the 20th century, there were still Poles who resisted the nation-state and still referred to themselves as the “emperor’s people.”
[7] Keely Stauter-Halsted. The Nation in the Village: The Genesis of Peasent National Identity in Austrian Poland, 1848 – 1914 (Cornell University Press: 2004), 8.
[8] Ibid., 3.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 5.
[14] Jeremy King. Budweisers into Czechs and Germans (Princeton University Press: 2002), 6.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 9.
[18] Eric D. Weitz. From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions. (American Historical Review: December, 2008), 1315.
[19] Ibid., 1329.
[20] Ibid., 1335.
[21] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1st edition: 1973), 268.
[22] Hannah Ardent. The Origins of Totalitarianism, 270.
[23] Ivan T. Berend. Decades of Crisis: Central and Eastern Europe before World War II (University of California Press: 2001), 43.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., 45.
[26] Milan Kundera. The Tragedy of Central Europe. (New York Review of Books Volume 31, Number 7: 1984), 1.
[27] Myra A. Waterbury. From Irredentism to Diaspora Politics: States and Transborder Ethnic Groups in Eastern
Europe (Center for Global Studies: July, 2009), 4.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid., 7.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Marvin Kalb. Imperial Gamble: Putin, Ukraine, and the New Cold War (Brookings Institution Press: 2015), ch. 4.

If history is a night from which Stephen Dedalus is trying to awake, writing could be said to be a dream into which James Joyce awakened, his pen a machine to turn bad dreams into good…[1].

From the illustration copy of Ulysses drawn by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

From the illustrated copy of Ulysses drawn by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

In Ulysses, James Joyce plays with language and non-linear narration, disrupting our sense of time while also using the text as a demonstration of him becoming an artist. It is thus written in light of the inevitable event – the creation of Ulysses as a text, and the fulfillment of history as Joyce perceives it [2]Ulysses relies on history and its direction to make its central argument; it transforms the past to work towards this end by using mythology, national history, and even syntax. If it is as Stephen famously said, “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” then Ulysses is Joyce’s nightmare made into a dream.

Ulysses is able to play with categories – history, fiction, mythology, etc. – to create a narrative that is a radical break from prior forms. Its end goal is one of salvation: just as Odysseus in the ancient Greek classic Odyssey comes back to reclaim Ithaca and bring it peace, Ulysses is a prescription for the Irish nation, for the next artistic epoch, and for the modern age more generally. This essay seeks to historicize the text by tracing Joyce’s views on history and its direction, while also using Ulysses as a means with which to understand history conceptually.

I.   Joyce’s Theory of History

Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico in The New Science and his other works theorized on a concept he called “corsi e ricorsi” or a cyclical theory of history. He posited that “man [creates the human world, [and] creates it by transforming himself into the facts of society” [3]. Thus, the individual is a creation of the world or, to put it alternatively, “society is a book in which to read the soul” [4]. History, according to Vico, runs in three stages – theocratic, aristocratic, and democratic or the divine, the heroic, and the human [5]. Eventually, there is a break (ricorso) and then a return to the divine, after which the cycle repeats itself indefinitely. Joyce was so moved by these theories that he himself remarked that they “forced themselves upon him through the circumstances of his own life” [6]. He also possibly saw the stages Vico described manifest in his own progression – starting from his early fear of God, to his then newfound love of his family, to his final dispossessed, ordinary state [7]. It is also likely Joyce saw in Vico’s search for a scientific form of history an analogy to his own struggle for new art or literature [8]. Both Vico and Joyce can be said to be pushing back against the authoritative traditions that have kept narratives and histories tightly sealed, and both are interested in mapping “counter-histories.” Altogether, Joyce and Vico find their answer in mythology, transforming fiction and using it to make history anew [9]. Although these might seem to be contradictory — history and fiction — they form a special relationship in Ulysses and every telling of history more generally.

In the second chapter of Ulysses, Stephen has ironic contempt for history as an authoritative subject [10]. For the students he is teaching, and also for himself, “history was a tale like any other too often heard” [11]. His students do not want to hear positivist interpretations of history as fact, irrelevant to the lived experiences of its people – his pupils simply want “a ghoststory” [12]. They turn instead to poetry and fiction by reading Lycidas by John Milton. Later in the chapter, Stephen denounces Mr. Deasy’s claims on history and his argument that its direction is “towards one great goal, the manifestation of God” [13]. Stephen so strongly disputes this because he sees it as history being destructively taken away from humanity; it obscures history as the real force it is, placing it outside of the human realm from which it was created. We see this “reclaiming” of history in another crucial passage in the text, from Scylla and Charybdis, where speaking of Shakespeare, Joyce writes: “He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible” [14]. For Joyce, Shakespeare was great because he embraced in his artistic vision the “all in all in all of us” [15]. The details of everyday life were part of his subjects. And what made him a great artist was his relationship to this World, and that he was “able to go beyond the limitations of his own ego in order to achieve the impersonality and objectivity that is necessary for dramatic art” [16]. As Vico theorized that man creates history, then is it within the artist’s power to do more than reproduce the known World; he can create it himself, and from cultural and personal fragments he can create it anew. To harken back to Mr. Deasy’s claim – it is therefore not history that tends to God towards the manifestation of His will. Instead, “it is the artist that creates the world, rather than God” [17]. And history being circular rather than linear, the artist therefore “goes forth, but returns to the same place” [18]. It is then through this intersection between history and art, as Joyce derives from Vico, that we can read the soul like a book. History is thus art’s necessary impetus. “In apprehending his soul, Stephen sees what is possible for him” [19] and, in doing so, also sees what is possible for history – be it Irish or otherwise – because the world cannot be divorced from the soul. If anything, according to Joyce, it must be viewed through it. It is through our imagination that our past becomes incorporated into our present.

II.   Meta-history and Mythology

Even though Stephen teaches history in Nestor, it makes little sense to him. Watching the schoolchildren play, he laments:

I am among them, among their battling bodies in the medley, the joust of life… Time shocked rebounds, shock by shock. Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men’s bloodied guts [20].

This is undoubtedly the nightmare of history; it is chaotic, bloody, and harsh. It is senseless, a “meaningless progression of names, dates, and places.” History is like a specter haunting the living [21]. A string of brutality, it reminds Stephen of Rome, asking Bloom in Eumaues to “oblige me by taking that knife away. I can’t look at the point of it. It reminds me of Roman history” [22]. In Eumaues, for example, the cabman’s shelter is filled with historical insight, oftentimes nonsensical. The Phoenix Park murders, the Irish nation, Roman history, Judaism and Christ, the Evening Telegraph – “all are points on an indiscernible compass” [23]. History’s presence is totalizing, almost as a thing outside of ourselves, as Haines remarks in the beginning of the novel: “we feel in England that we have treated you [the Irish] unfairly. It seems history is to blame” [24]. And too, for the Irish, “history was like a tale too often heard, their land a pawnshop” [25]. Stephen is thus trapped in its spell and Joyce, also, is under its boot for he, too, is forced to confront it to create his Irish epic.

Unlike Stephen, Bloom is able to humanize history. For it is true, “persecution… all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations,” [26] but Bloom retorts this remark brilliantly: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life” [27]. That which is really life, to Bloom, is “love” [28]. While history is a nightmare to some, it is altogether “rendered more beautiful still by the waters of sorrow which have passed over them and by the rich incursion of time” [29]. Therefore, history gives life depth – it exists in sorrow, but it also brings love and community based on shared precedent. History is also familiar, and unlike Stephen, Bloom is able to act with it. And it is familiar because it is cyclical for “history repeats itself… so it returns. Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way around is the shortest way home” [30]. Bloom thus unifies two ways of looking at experience to produce a meta-history incorporating fiction to “produce a kind of reality that… is more clearly enunciated and immediate than anything which might have occurred in documented history” [31].

It is through literature and art that Joyce is able to make the nightmare into a dream. Although history is cyclical, it is “repeating itself with a difference” [32]. This gap or difference allows for the dream. If it was a “matter of strict history,” it would not be explanatory of anything besides fact. Thus, art and history intersect on some level if we consider that narratives repeat themselves with difference, as does art and life [33]. It is all a matter of perspective. We are exposed to history in Ulysses through varying perspectives: Stephen’s, Molly’s, and Bloom’s, all of whom are no less valid in some sense than the other, along with other minor perspectives. They cycle through each other and what better way to demonstrate history as being precisely that, the cycling of perspectives. This constant shift was commented on by those who spoke to Joyce himself. After Joyce asked his friend Frank Budgen about if “[Cyclops] strikes [him] as futuristic,” Budgen responds in a fashion that (appropriately) might as well had been Joyce:

Rather cubist than futurist, I said. Every event is a many sided object. You first state one view of it and then you draw it from another angle on another scale, and both aspects lie side by side in the same picture [34].

Mythology and fiction then, on some level, are necessary to account for the gap, the difference, in history. And Ulysses is a textual embodiment of this necessity, and how myth – the mystical, fictitious, etc. – is required to make sense of history in some relevant way. A bare example would be the format of Ulysses as a text. Being based on the Odyssey, the entire novel is dotted with references to the Homeric epic poem. This mythology frames the novel beyond what could have just been a mundane, boring day. In one such instance, in Cyclops, the entire framing of Bloom and the Citizen as analogous to the battle between Odysseus and the Cyclops is a mythologized rendering of a relatively common, non-event in Irish public life. Yet, this myth gives it life for it is through fiction that we understand what is actually at play.

Mythologies are found throughout the text – from the relationship between the Holy Trinity and Bloom and Stephen [35], to even comparisons between Ulysses and Hamlet or Ulysses and Divine Comedy. These tie the connection between facticity and fiction, history and art, making both intelligible. In harkening back to previous great literature to create his own Irish epic, Joyce demonstrates what made Shakespeare so great: he was able to “actualize the real world” because he “[drew] the political reality of history out of his own ‘long pocket’ because he and the history of his nation inhere within one another” [36]. Bloom represents this actualization because for him, although history is brutal, nightmarish even, it can be redeemed. Bloom tries to convince Stephen of this ultimately and holds the key to his nightmare. He hints at this in Ithaca where Bloom discloses his meditations to “his companion” (i.e. Stephen), first talking about the vast expanse of the universe to place it all in perspective and then remarking:

… of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity [37].

Given that Ithaca relies on Divine Comedy for some degree of inspiration, the closing line of Dante Alighieri’s text is alluded to in just the few lines before Bloom’s remark to his companion. I think it is appropriate since it illustrates what the “key” to Stephen’s nightmare would bring, quite beautifully said:

[Virgil] and I entered by that hidden road to return into the bright world; and without caring for any rest, we mounted up, he first and I second, so far that I distinguished through a round opening the beauteous things which Heaven bears; and then we issued out, again to see the Stars [38].

Bloom is responsible for Stephen’s self-actualization, not just in his view of history, but in art, and in life. History is far from being alien, nightmarish, or a material force outside of us; it is rooted, if anything, in the opposite of all of this, just as Bloom exclaimed: it is rooted in “love,” the particulars that become overshadowed by history’s ghastly scope, and the interminable camaraderie that must exist for history to press onward despite the “waters of sorrow” passing over it.

III.   Conclusion

As Ulysses demonstrates, history is a spectral force. It possesses an overbearing weight, one that is felt on all levels of the human psyche. Yet, it is not rooted in anything beyond that which is human – and it is not tailored towards an end beyond us alone. Because it is rooted firmly in our own doing, it must be humanized or else it is haunting. In Irish history, or even just Dublin, Joyce hoped to find something greater than just historical particulars. Just as the Odyssey, Hamlet, the Bible, and others defined their respective epoch(s) by transcending them, Joyce hoped to do the same. Through particulars, he hoped to find the universal — that which binds all history together, and one that would represent his respective epoch.

For Joyce, history returns and comes in cycles; it is a recurring movement and a melody of ever-changing ebbs and flows. However, with each returning wave, history comes back with difference. And Joyce brought this difference to light. History alone can not do this because calculated fact-based narratives place us underneath it. Instead, Ulysses hoped to bring history closer to us. It demonstrates how a telling of history cannot distance itself from humanism. For the nightmare of history to be overcome, we must be put squarely in its reigns, to make it anew once again into the dream that it is meant to drive. We should take Ulysses to be this metamorphosis, of a nightmare to a dream.


[1] Christine Froula, “History’s Nightmare, Fiction’s Dream: Joyce and the Psychohistory of “Ulysses,” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, Papers from the Joyce and History Conference at Yale, October 1990 (Summer, 1991), 857.
[2] This fulfillment is the creation of a new text for the era to fulfill the cyclical history that other great texts have done for their time.
[3] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 141.
[4] Ibid., 142.
[5] Ibid., 52.
[6] Donald Phillip Verere, Vico and Joyce (New York: State University of New York Press, 1st Edition, 1987), 32.
[7] Richard Ellman, Ulysses on the Liffey, 52.
[8] Donald Phillip Verere, Vico and Joyce, 32.
[9] Ibid., 33.
[10] Stephen’s irony is appropriate given that Vico characterized the “human” or “democratic” epoch as one of irony.
[11] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition (New York: Random House, Inc., 1986), 21 (II, 46–47).
[12] Ibid., 21 (II, 55).
[13] Ibid., 28 (II, 381).
[14] Ibid., 175 (IX, 1041–1042).
[15] Ibid., 175 (IX, 1049–1050).
[16] Daniel R. Schwarz, Reading the Modern British and Irish Novel 1890-1930 (Wiley-Blackwell, 1st Edition, 2004), 17.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and Reprobate Tradition (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), 102.
[19] Frederick Lang, Ulysses and the Irish God, (Bucknell Univ Press, 1st edition, 1993), 84.
[20] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 27 (II, 314–318).
[21] Robert D. Newman, Weldon Thornton, Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective (Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1987), 239.
[22] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 519 (XVI, 815–816).
[23] Robert D. Newman,  Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective, 239.
[24] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 17 (I, 648–649).
[25] Ibid., 21 (II, 46–47).
[26] Ibid., 271 (XII, 1417–1418).
[27] Ibid., 273 (XII, 1481–1483).
[28] As Joyce writes, “love loves to love love” (XII, 1493).
[29] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 272 (XII, 1462–1465).
[30] Ibid., 308–309 (XIII, 1093–1111).
[31] Robert D. Newman,  Joyce’s Ulysses: The Larger Perspective, 242.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., 243.
[34] Corinna del Greco Lobner, “James Joyce and Italian Futurism,” Irish University Review, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1985), 73.
[35] Frederick Lang, Ulysses and the Irish God, 84.
[36] Alistair Cormack, Yeats and Joyce: Cyclical History and Reprobate Tradition, 102.
[37] James Joyce, Ulysses: The Gabler Edition, 573 (XVII, 1051–1056).
[38] Don Gifford, Robert J. Seidman, Ulysses Annotated (USA: University of California Press, 2008), 581.

I have been wanting to do an in-depth look at certain individuals I consider important for some time now. I plan on collecting their works (to the best of my ability) all in one place for anyone who happens to find it useful. And I’ll start by introducing Josip Račić — an early 20th century Croatian painter and one of the modern founders of Croatian art. Despite dying young at 23 years-old, Račić demonstrated an incredible level of self-awareness in his short list of works which combined dark imagery and what he called “passion painting.” It was one of the first artistic manifestations of Croatian modernism.

Josip Račić was born in the small settlement of Horvati located within the city of Zagreb in Croatia. He attended elementary and high school in Zagreb and began working from 1900-1903 in the workshop of Vladimir Rožankovski studying lithography. His ambitions awakened, he went to Munich in 1904 to study under the Slovene painter, Anton Ažbe. He worked briefly in 1905 as a lithographer, but later that year he enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. Quickly, a Croatian art contingent formed at the school consisting of Račić, Oskar Herman, Vladimir Becić, and Miroslav Kraljević known as the Munich Circle (Münchenski krug). Račić became enthralled with observational painting and perspective which is felt in his works, most of them portraits. He particularly liked oil painting which is responsible for creating the dreary atmosphere in his works. The stares of his portraits are glassy and obscure with strong tones that place his works among the likes of French Impressionist Paul Cézanne and others.

Račić, being among the most gifted of the Croatian art circle, was rebellious and oftentimes clashed with his professor, Hugo von Habermann. He particularly objected to academic painting and the backward syllabus of the Academy. This desire made Račić leave for Paris in 1908. In a short three months, he painted several compositions of parks, cafes, and people. He also spent time copying some of the artwork in the Louvre, especially Francisco Goya’s work; his use of blackness interested him, but he also loved Impressionism and its use of light and colors. Račić tragically died of a gunshot blast on the 20th of June, 1908 in an apparent suicide.

Below are all the works by Račić that I managed to find in the best resolution I could find. My favorites are Majka i dijete (Mother and Child) and his self-portrait from 1908.


Autoportret (Self-portrait), 1906.


Jevojka s košarom (Girl with Basket), 1906/1907

Portret sestre Pepice

Portret sestre Pepice (Portrait of Sister Pepice), 1907.


Muškarac sa šalom (Man with scarf), 1907.

Portret starog prijatelja

Portret starog prijatelja I (Portrait of an Old Friend I), 1907.


Autoportret (Self-portrait), 1906.

Portret žene s kravatom

Restored — Portret žene s kravatom (Portrait of Woman with Tie), 1907.


Glava starice (Head of an Old Woman), 1906.

Portret gospode sa sesirom

Portret gospode sa sesirom (Portrait of Woman with Hat), 1907.

Gospođica u crnom (zoom)

Detail — Gospođica u crnom (Woman in Red), 1907.


Autoportret (Self-portrait), 1908.

Dama u bijelom -- Detail

Detail — Dama u bijelom (Lady in White), 1908.

Na boulevardu

Na boulevaru I (On the Boulevard I), 1908.

Portret starog prijatelja II

Portret starog prijatelja II (Portrait of an Old Friend II), 1907.

Dama u bijelom2

Dama u bijelom (Lady in White), 1908.

U parku

U parku (In the Park), 1908.

sjedeći ženski akt - 1905

Sjedeći ženski akt (Sitting Female Nude), 1905.

Gospođica u crnom

Gospođica u crnom (Woman in Black), 1907.

Majka i dijete

Majka i dijete (Mother and Child), 1908.

Pred ogledalom

Pred ogledalom (In Front of the Mirror), 1908.

Starac u crvenom prsluku

Starac u crvenom prsluku (Old Man with Red Vest), 1907.

Kavana na boulevaru

Kavana na boulevaru (Cafe on the Boulevard), 1908.


Pont des Arts, 1908.




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