There is more than Russia to the East:

Sanctuaries of Cultures and the History of Eastern European Nations

Bohdan Cywiński

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Book Summary

The book contains the analyses of the history of cultures of twelve East European nations which over the last three hundred years were politically conquered by the Russian Empire, and then for many generations subjected to Russianization. The situation of the Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Jewish, Crimean Tatars (along with the Circassian), Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani people, as well as the Islamic East Caucasian nations, is discussed. The focus is on the history of these nations from the moment they were first exposed to Russian influences to the fall of the tsarist empire in the spring of 1917. For more insight and understanding into the individual features of each of the cultures discussed, it is important to look into their earlier, and in some cases, very distant past.

In view of the vast time-span and area in which these cultural phenomena and political events have taken place, only an outline can be given. Apart from this, many interesting historical details have been omitted due to the limitations of one publication. On the other hand, the extensive scope of the theme discussed offers the opportunity to compare developments in different geographic and cultural contexts of which a panorama of our part of the European continent is composed.

The first part of the book is devoted to Russia, seen as a historical, spiritual and cultural actor – a nation which was formed and which had existed under an autocratic system, gradually evolving into an empire built at the edge of Europe and stretched eastwards to the vast areas of Central and Eastern Asia. Russia’s spiritual foundation is the Orthodox Church, whose religious specificity has left a deep and surprisingly long-lasting mark on Russian identity. Orthodox people saw the autocratic tsar as a symbol of national unity and a guarantor of public order. This order was expected to spread not only over the territories inhabited by native Russians but also those of neighbouring nations which were encouraged and forced to become parts of the Russian Empire.

For centuries Russia’s geopolitical dynamics has been targeted, first of all, in Europe – an alien land, unacceptable, but at the same time impressive because of its highly developed civilization. Poland, Sweden and Turkey have always been obstacles to Russian paths into Europe and as such have been repeatedly invaded; in the late 18th century, Poland was politically annihilated. The two other countries were severely weakened and their territories reduced, some parts being occupied by Russia. On these very roads to Europe – on the way to Poland, Sweden and Turkey – stretch the lands of the twelve East European countries that were destined to fall victim to Russia’s imperial ambitions. Having seized their territories either by armed force or by some illusionary promises of political and cultural autonomy, the tsarist authorities enforced the Russianization of these local nations.

The second part of the book is devoted to the process of the Russianization of individual countries. Each nation had previously lived under different historical conditions, its culture developed differently, which resulted in different reactions to the Russianization pressures which were virtually the same everywhere. Thus we have a picture of twelve different national cultures.

The Ukrainians and the Belarusians represent Slavic cultures that have grown from a common background in Kyiv Orthodoxy, and since the 15th century have had difficult relations with the dominant Polish western culture. The conflict with “Polish Europeanism” pushed the Ukrainians towards Russia but this choice also marked the beginning of the struggle with the oppressive nature of Russianization. The apogee of this struggle fell in the times of Shevchenko and the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood; other forms of struggle which also emerged in the late 19th century. Europeanism, however, attracted the Belarusians, whose situation in the Commonwealth of Two Nations was much better, and who had always distrusted Russia. The process of looking towards Europe was interrupted with the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. St Petersburg neglected Belarusian identity altogether, so the model of Russianization in this case was focused on the destruction of Belarusian ties with Polish culture, and subsequently the voice of Belarus as an independent nation was completely muted. However, in 1905 it was heard again with greater force.

The specificity of Lithuanian culture stems from it being strongly rooted in its pre-Christian tradition, and later Christianity which went there from the West, as well as a strong reformation experience, an intense cultural exchange with Prussia, and finally – a deeper Polonization than in other countries, along with the acceptance of the Commonwealth of Two Nations. Considering all these factors, the Russianization of this country was less likely to succeed. It was an openly political rather than a cultural process, so modern Lithuanian culture has been shaped in opposition to the still living traditions of the local Polish community rather than the struggle with Russian culture which appeared a smaller threat.

The cultures of Fins, Estonians and Latvians have grown on the centuries-long battlefields of the Russian-Swedish wars. These cultures developed in communities of free and literate Lutheran peasants, who gradually freed themselves from the elites – the Swedish in Finland, and the Germans in Estonia and Latvia. The Russians tried to take advantage of those conflicts, with minimal success in Finland but with greater effect among Latvian and Estonian people.

In the case of the Caucasus, Transcaucasia and Crimean cultures, Russianization takes the form of completely different processes with regard to Christian nations – Georgians and Armenians – from Muslim Azerbaijani, Caucasian highlanders or Crimean Tatars. The Georgians and the Armenians represent sophisticated cultures with centuries-old traditions, older than Russia and Europe, but for more than a thousand years living in a hostile Islamic environment and with virtually no contact with other Christians. Hence, both nations were attracted to the Russian state and to Russian culture. Trust in Russia shrank gradually, but it was still important as an intermediary to the nations’ contact with European civilisation and free thinking. It was particularly important in the case of Georgia. What the Armenians needed more than Russian culture was its political and military support in their struggle with the Turks.

Caucasian and Crimean Muslim cultures are based on Islamic foundations which slowly developed into characteristic national features. People from Azerbaijan and Crimea have their cultural elite, whilst the Caucasus highlander culture is based on a pre-literate era, characteristically distanced from the doctrines originated in the lowlands. In both of the latter cases, successful Russianization would have to overcome a general hostility against “the infidels”. Consequently, it was reduced to forced political submission or simply to market exchange. Culture was a closed space in this case.

The reaction to Russianisation in Jewish culture dependent on its social form – the elite, developed on Talmudist foundations was more prone to laicization and assimilation with Russian society, while the culture of simple folk was enclosed within the small “shtetl”, Hassidic and was immune to foreign influences. Not having a national territory of their own, Jews were destined to build their “myth of the future” not on the basis of regaining independence, but on achieving as great an autonomy as possible. This situation set them apart from other persecuted nations in the empire, bearing inevitable conflicts. In the Ukraine and Moldova a series of police-provoked pogroms of Jews took place. The Jewish answer to the hostile policy of the authorities and to outbreaks of anti-Semitic sentiments among local people was emigration. During the last twenty five years of Tsarist Russia about two million Jews, which was half the Jewish population of the empire, left Russia mainly for the United States.

The final part contains reflections on the factual material presented earlier in the book. The issues of the nature of Russianization – the government-controlled, long-term process to change the cultural identities of the nations subject to it ¬¬– are discussed. Another set of issues are the reactions of these suppressed national cultures to Russianization, as well as the use of defensive mechanisms – whether it be unofficial education, the circulation of illegal literature, or national input into the life of religious communities. The third stream of thought addresses the modification in the social understanding and experience of culture in a situation where it has a role of defending the identity of a nation which has been deprived of its political representation as well as its own state. Then, culture becomes something different and is assessed following different criteria by their respective societies.


The book opens by presenting the author’s own views on the mysteries of Russian spirituality and culture, and this is followed by a description of the cultures of the Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Moldavians, Crimean Tatars, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Caucasian highlanders, and finally Russian Jews, faced with the Russification pressures of Imperial Russia. Comparing those national histories, the author encourages reflection on how culture evolves and what it becomes in the life of a politically enslaved nation. Professor Bohdan Cywiński’s book is fascinating. It deals with the culture and history of countries that are – in a wider sense –our neighbours [...] The author offers an insightful analysis of how the mentalities of residents of different territories were formed. He presents his reflections about culture against the backdrop of historical events, reaching back to the most distant past of the peoples and countries discussed, clearly and consistently leading the reader through the succession of events, showing their causes and results, up to contemporary times. Understanding differences in mentalities makes us look differently at each of our closer and more distant neighbours.

Professor Elżbieta Janus


The discussed book offers not only interesting reflections in the area of political anthropology, but above all a model of analysis. The content of the book is broken down into sections by country, each section describing an array of different human behaviours and reactions, encouraging the pursuit of an understanding of the rich reflections stimulated by this contrasted picture. The book raises very mixed and contrasting feelings: horror, admiration, hate, adoration, apprehension. In total, that charged dissonance cannot bring about reactions other than either a total and thoughtless acceptance of Russia or, on the contrary, an uninhibited urge to flee and reject all that is Russian.

Professor Marek Śliwiński

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Bohdan Cywiński

Professor Bohdan Cywiński (born on 19 July 1939) - a writer, philosopher, journalist and historian, whose research interests focus largely on cultures and nations of Central and Eastern Europe.

He completed his master's degree in Polish philology at the University of Warsaw in 1961, and in 1973 he obtained the Ph.D. in Philosophy at the Academy of Catholic Theology (also in Warsaw). Moreover, in 1995 he completed one more doctorate study - in Historical Sciences - at the Catholic University of Lublin. In 2011, he was awarded the academic title of Professor of Humanities.

In 1966-1977, he was the editor of the monthly magazine "Znak" (‘The Sign’), one of the oldest Polish periodicals dealing with social and cultural issues (he held the position of the editor-in-chief from 1973 to 1977), and in 1981 he was the deputy editor of the "Solidarity Weekly" . Subsequently, in 1986-1988 he was the editor and publisher of the "Horizon" quarterly, a magazine for exiles published in Fribourg and Rome.

For many years, he was an active participant of the Polish Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK) in Warsaw and was active in the anti-communist opposition, including his lectures delivered for the Flying University and advice provided to the striking workers at the Gdańsk shipyard and, later, in the Upper Silesian city of Jastrzębie-Zdrój. During his political exile in 1981-1989, he advised trade unions in Latin America regarding the trade union liaison between the “Solidarity” and the Latin-American Headquarters of Workers CLAT (Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay). He served as an advisor to both the President of the Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, and to Poland’s Prime Minister, Jan Olszewski.

He has lectured at the Universities of Geneva and Fribourg (Switzerland) and, since 1990, at the Universities of Warsaw and Lublin (Poland). He has also taught in Kiev (Ukraine), Vilnius (Lithuania), Minsk/Vitebsk (Belarus) and Daugavpils (Latvia). His most important books and works include, inter alia: The genealogies of rebels (1971), There’s a Power, and That’s That (1981), Fire tested (Volume I - 1982, Volume II - 1990), My piece of Europe (1994) and An Independent Tale (2006).

For his outstanding contribution to the independent journalism and free media, and to the process of democratic transitions, and as a tribute to his professional and academic achievements, in 2006 he was honoured with the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (he was also a member of the Chapter of that Order in the years 2007- 2010).

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Bohdan Cywiński

Source: provided by the author of the photograph - Maria Cywińska

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