Bosnia’s Memory Problem- Competing Historical Narratives and the Threat to Peace
By sarah.moore.19, on 21 April 2022
On 23 July 2021, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the senior international body overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement which formally ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, criminalised the denial and glorification of genocide in the country. This criminalisation means that prison sentences are mandatory for anyone who is found guilty of condoning, denying, trivialising, or justifying the genocide, war crimes and atrocities committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1992-1995 war.
Why, I hear you ask, is this an issue over a quarter of a century after the end of the war?
From the very first days of the Bosnian War in 1992, denial of war crimes and atrocities have been a present not just in Bosnia, but across the Former Yugoslavia. In order to fully comprehend the reasoning for this, it is worth looking at the composition of national identity among the Yugoslav successor states. The concept of victimhood plays a very prominent role in various nationalities, and scholars such as Nicholas Moll argues that such a theory is particularly relevant to the identities of the nations which comprise the Former Yugoslavia. For instance, some Serbian nationalists will argue that their nation’s suffering stems back to the defeat of Kosovo Polje in 1389, and their experience under the Ottoman, then Habsburg Empires perpetuated the notion of Serbs being second-class citizens and thus targets for persecution. This notion of victimhood is further noted among Serbian experience of the Second World War, where they were victims of genocide at the hands of the Nazi-aligned Ustaše, a Croatian fascist and ultranationalist organisation, and then again during the 1990s where they were the victims of further atrocities. Likewise, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) populations in the region feel that they too were historically victims of war crimes by neighbouring nations, and these feelings were exacerbated by the atrocities perpetrated against them by Serbian forces during the conflicts of the 1990s. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the Srebrenica genocide, which occurred in July 1995 and resulted in over eight thousand men and boys being murdered by Bosnian Serb troops, headed by war criminal Ratko Mladic.
The brutality of Bosnian Serbian troops against Croatian and Bosniak populations during the 1990s, and the subsequent denial of this by politicians, national leaders and military figures is the root cause of the ongoing memory issues today, affecting not just Bosnia, but threatening stability in south-eastern Europe as well as the continent as a whole. The scholar Stanley Cohen has written extensively about the nature of guilt and how this impacts on human behaviour and also actions of an organisation or entity, for example a nation’s government, and within Bosnia-Herzegovina there are many factors which come into play regarding the establishment of memory narratives. However, this blog post will primarily look at the events of recent months and how state officials within Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina) have continued to reject, deny, trivialise, or even justify the actions of their military during the wars of the 1990s.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted more Serbs than any other Former Yugoslav nation; something that Serb state officials both in Bosnia and Serbia proper, feel is unjust, illegitimate, and the result of biased views, often arguing that they too were victims of war crimes. This has led to a general mistrust of the international community, except for a few allies, Russia being one, and has the potential to become a major hurdle in securing long-standing peace within south-eastern Europe.
In response to the OHR decree in July 2021, Republika Srpska president, Milorad Dodik, provocatively threatened to begin preparations for establishing a Bosnian Serb army, and to cut ties with joint state institutions, which were parameters of huge significance during the negotiating and passing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. The potential of a new Bosnian Serb Army ultimately threatens the peace of the immediate region, and undoubtedly causes concern among many local civilians who remember all too well the atrocities committed by soldiers under the same name in the 1990s. Dodik also held a press conference in which he stated that the law criminalising the denial of genocide and war crimes would never be accepted in Republika Srpska, boldly declaring that this was the “final nail in the coffin of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina” and that “the Republika Srpska has no choice but to launch the process of dissolution”. Many complaints were filed against Dodik in 2021, some within the country accusing him of breaking Bosnian laws, whereas some were international, for example the joint charge filed by the Bosnian non-governmental organisation Women Victims of War and the Canadian Institute for Research of Genocide which alleged he undermined the constitutional order and jeopardised the country’s territorial integrity, among other claims. Furthermore, after the genocide denial law came into force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dodik’s name appeared on a list of twenty-nine names accused of that exact crime, the complaint coming after the politician made remarks to Srpski Telegraf stating that there was only one truth: that there was no genocide at Srebrenica. Of course, the thousands of grave markers, the grieving families left behind, as well as the documentary footage of murders being committed and discovery of mass graves in the years since 1995 reveals the heart-breaking reality of what happened in July 1995, and the extent of Dodik’s denial and refusal to accept the true nature of events.
The denial of war crimes, and particularly the Srebrenica genocide, have been a prominent feature of life in both Bosnia and Serbia ever since the 1990s, and continues to plague efforts at reconciliation and transitional justice. In research compiled through quantitative methods by Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik, it is clear that the denial of the true nature of events during the Wars of the Former Yugoslavia is not just limited to governmental and national leaders: as a result of propaganda spread via various forms of public media, indeed many Serb citizens deny or are completely unaware of what atrocities were committed in their nation’s name two decades ago. Therefore, the memory problems concerning conflicting narratives run very deep indeed and at all levels of society.
There have been significant efforts at both acknowledging and denying the true nature of the events of the 1990s within Republika Srpska and Serbia proper. In 2004 a commission established by the Republika Srpska government acknowledged that Bosnian Serb forces had committed the crime of genocide in 1995 at Srebrenica. This report was rejected by the parliament of Republika Srpska in 2018. In 2010 Serbian parliament signed a declaration acknowledging that a ‘crime’ had been committed at Srebrenica in 1995, but did not go as far to admit that the crime was in fact genocide. A great change in public opinion in Serbia about the events of the 1990s was brought about by the broadcast of the Scorpion’s video at the ICTY which revealed Serbian troops committing atrocities in July 1995.
However, the denial of genocide and war crimes seems to be the more common notion within Republika Srpska and Serbia, and in recent years evidence suggests that the state of this denial is worsening as the years move further and further away from the 1990s. In 2019 Republika Srpska commissioned two new commissions aimed at ‘determining the truth’ about wartime atrocities in Srebrenica and Sarajevo. The first of these was published in July 2021, in which accusations against the ICTY included staging subjective trials and wrongly classifying Srebrenica as a genocide. It went further to suggest that the mass killings of Bosniak civilians was not a genocide but an ‘horrific consequence’ of their refusal to surrender to Bosnian Serb forces. In other words, this supposed truth commission blamed the murdered for their own deaths.
There have also been tensions growing in the country concerning the electoral system, for instance the Croatian population wanting to establish their own electoral district to ensure that only Croats can vote for the Croat presidency. The current system allows citizens to vote for a Bosniak or Croat candidate, and should the proposed change be passed, it would enhance the divisions and encourage voting along ethnic lines, something which again the Dayton Peace Accords tried to prevent. This, combined with the provocations by Dodik and the government of Republika Srpska, makes the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina very precarious indeed.
In the months following the July 2021 OHR decree and Dodik’s provocative reaction, tensions in the region have slowly increased, with many international organisations, such as the UN becoming increasingly aware of any potential disorder. With Dodik threatening the secession of Republika Srpska, there are growing fears that the brutal wars of the 1990s may be repeated. The outcome of the Dayton Peace Accords resulted in the establishment of a central government with two autonomous provinces. It is upon this compromise that an uneasy peace has existed in the country for almost twenty-seven years. However, with Dodik threatening the secession of one of these autonomous provinces, the security of the country, and indeed the region, is becoming an increasingly urgent matter for the international community. Even more concerning is the alliance between Republika Srpska and Russia. Indeed, Russia has offered support to the Bosnian Serb Republic, and given their invasion of the Ukraine in February, it is worrying as to what that ‘support’ may entail. It was revealed that in earlier 2021 that the Orthodox Christian icon gilded in gold gifted to Russia’s foreign affairs chief Sergey Lavrov was actually stolen during the ongoing war in the Donbas.
It is clear that many problems have plagued Bosnia-Herzegovina since peace was attained in December 1995, both socially, economically and politically. The contestation of how to remember the wars of the 1990s, and the manipulation of specifically constructed narratives to serve the purpose of nationalistic politicians have further deepened the wounds still felt by the conflict. Understandably and rightfully, the world’s attention has been centred on Ukraine in recent months. However, it must not be forgotten that the escalation of tensions in other regions of Europe may lead to a crisis that has been unprecedented in recent times.
What is happening in the Donbas? An overview of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict
By sarah.moore.19, on 8 March 2022
Given the worrying escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Slovo feels that the time is right to create a blog post discussing the conflict so that our readers can learn more about the events taking place there currently. Qianrui Hu is one of our General Editors and a first-year PhD student researching the dynamics of identities in the context of the ongoing war in the Donbas, so he was perfect to sit down for a chat with our Online Editor, Sarah Moore, to discuss all things related to the conflict, from its origins to the potential implications for the wider international community.
Please note that this interview took place before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, and was originally intended to be an overview of the conflict in the Donbas. However, Slovo feels it is important that this blog post should be amended as much as possible to include recent developments. All information is accurate at the time of writing, but we recognise that certain elements may be outdated at the time of posting due to the escalation of conflict.
Q: What is currently happening in the Donbas?
A: Since the war broke out in 2014, Donbas has undergone fierce battles between Ukrainian government armies and separatists backed by Russia. There are also numerous evidence indicating Russia’s direct involvement in the war. To date, there have been two peace agreements; Minsk agreement I and II. Since the September of 2015, the situation in Donbas is relatively calm, although sporadic shootings happen frequently. As a result of the war, the Donbas region is split into two parts: Ukrainian government-controlled areas and two self-proclaimed republics, namely DNR and LNR, whose sovereignty is not recognized even by Russia. Russia has been continuously framing the war in Donbas as a civil war between local armed groups and Kyiv, but many western scholars refrain from calling it a civil war, as the Russian involvement and local manipulative elites (including the biggest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov) are the key to the escalation and sustaining of the conflict. Tragically, the ongoing war has claimed 14,000 lives, and more than 1.8 million people became internally displaced persons with another 1 million fleeing to other countries, predominantly to Russia.
Q: What is the history behind the conflict?
A: The history regarding this region is very complicated. According to the Ukrainian version of history, the Donbas should be part of the modern Ukrainian state because it is an integral part of Ukrainian ethnographic territory and Ukrainians’ historical patrimony. However, unignorably, from the eighteenth century onwards, the region was undergoing a huge influx of migrants as a result of Tsarist immigration policy. At the same time, many Ukrainian peasants were encouraged to move to the Urals and Siberia especially after the 1861 emancipation reform. Also, in 1764, a new administrative concept called Novorossia (‘New Russia’) was created, covering South and East Ukraine including Donbas. Subsequently, amid all the turmoil during the first world war, there was a short-lived republic established in Donbas and surrounding regions called the Donets’k-Kryvyi Rih republic. The republic was created in opposition to Kyiv-based Ukrainian People’s Republic as it refuses any forms of Ukrainian nationalism, but the republic was highly dependent on Bolsheviks and hence its legitimacy is controversial. During the Soviet era, the Donbas region again underwent massive influx of migrants, predominantly Russians, and the extensive urbanisation and industrialisation in the region made local residents possess a identity of “imagined economy”. As the industrial output was so high, no wonder there were some well-known slogans such as “Donbas feeds the whole Soviet Union” and later “Donbas feeds the whole Ukraine”. However, the region’s economy started to decline after the Ukraine’s independence. By 2014, it was not a region which could “feed” the whole Ukraine anymore but had to receive additional financial helps from Kyiv.
Q: How did the conflict originate?
A: The conflict in Donbas started with protests. To everyone’s surprise, the former Ukrainian president Yanukovych fled to Russia on 22 February 2014 as a response of the massive protest in the central square of Kyiv, called Euromaidan. Yanukovych was a Donbas-born and was backed up by many residents and local elites. His ousting and the overt Ukraine’s turn to Europe made local residents uncertain about the future, particularly the economic prospects as the region’s economy was highly dependent on Russia. Following the unrest in Crimea, there were also many protests in Donbas condemning the unlawful ousting of Yanukovych in February and March. However, many protesters were actually from nearby Russian regions, and they were bussed to various Donbas cities to take participate in the protests. Also, we do not how many of the protesters were paid to protest by local elites, including the biggest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov. In April, the social movement in Donbas became radicalized, with various governmental building seized and the creation of so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, covering the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast’ respectively. There were many “volunteers” from Russia who took participate in the battles between Ukrainian government armies and local separatists. Ukrainian government armies managed to take back some of the lost territories, but the two regional centres, Donetsk and Luhansk are still under separatists’ control.
Q: Why is this conflict important with regards to international relations and global peace?
A: Since Ukraine may potentially gain NATO membership, the conflict is crucial for international relations and global peace. Ukraine has become the frontline of the Russia-NATO’s rivalry, and the occupied territories of Ukraine mean Ukraine’s path towards NATO and EU membership is still uncertain. Also, as in any other conflict, there are a huge flow of displaced people and numerous human rights abuses inflicted by the Donbas conflict. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines civil aircraft likewise means the conflict is never far away from us and can have a huge impact on us at any minute.
Q: What sparked your interest in researching this topic?
A: I was really interested in the complexity of identity regarding the Donbas region and the conflict. There are so many layers in this issue and I genuinely wish to hear first-hand accounts from local people themselves. I am a massive fan of Svetlana Alexievich and I really hope to incorporate her style of writing and investigating into my research.
Q: What is your current research based on?
A: My research is looking at the fluid identity of people with dual nationality in Donbas in the context of the ongoing war. As a result of the massive migrant flow into Donbas, intermarriage was so common in the area. According to official statistics, the intermarriage rate reached 55% in 1970s, meaning there is an enormous number of people who actually possess more than one ethnicity. However, in the first and only one census of the modern Ukraine, they were not given a choice in the census to claim their true identity, as they had to choose either “Ukrainian” or “Russian”. Shall we assume these people naturally possess a middle-ground identity? This is unlikely because there are so many other factors which can affect an individual’s identity, just as we learned from our sociology textbook. My research, hence, is eager to examine the interactions of ethnic, regional, and national identity and the casual mechanisms of how various factors and lived experience influence the context of their identity and the process of their identification, using the case of people with dual nationality.
Q: Why do we (those interested in the SSEES region and the wider academic community) need to know about the conflict?
A: As I have been trying my best to illustrate the origins of this conflict here, the Donbas case is just so fascinating and there are just so many things to study about from different perspective! Whether you are a political scientist, sociologist, or psychologist, the empirical evidence is so rich in the Donbas case. Also, except from those war entrepreneurs who can gain colossal benefits from wars, every conflict is a tragedy for everyone else. My humble wish is by studying the conflict onsets and dynamics, I can make the smallest contribution to future conflict prevention and alleviate a tiny bit of the pain of those who suffered from the war.
Q: How has the international community responded to the escalation of tensions in the region?
A: On 21 February 2022, Russia recognized Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, but Putin did not specify whether Russia recognizes the de-facto borders of these two republics, or the borders claimed by these two republics, that is the whole territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti. The recognition of these two republics was followed by an infamous speech of Putin, in which he again denied the legitimacy of Ukraine as a country and believed Ukrainian as a nation is an artificial concept. Since his speech did not only touch upon the two republics, but Ukraine as a whole, many people were worried that Putin is aiming for expanding the borders and capturing more territories in Ukraine. The next day Putin confirmed that Russia recognizes the borders of the two republics as the borders articulated in the constitutions of the republics, which clearly shows Russia is going to expand borders. However, the Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 at 5 am still shook the whole world, as it is totally unprovoked, and Russia attacked the whole territory of Ukraine. In a video address aiming to justify the invasion, Putin mentioned the goal of this “special military operation” is to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine. The barbaric attack on Ukraine was responded by harsh sanctions of the international community. Russia is sanctioned financially in all possible ways including the expulsion of some major Russian banks from SWIFT. The war is still unfolding, but it is clear that Russia has failed its initial goal of blitzkrieg. Russian armies are faced with strong resistance from both Ukrainian militaries and civilians. Hence, unfortunately, we can see Russia has somehow adjusted its plan to a more brutal way and we are witnessing more and more casualties of civilians. These horrendous war crimes must be recorded and stridently punished later by the international community.
Glory to Ukraine!
Slovo wishes to convey its shock and anger at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and lends its full support and sympathies to all involved in the conflict. We also encourage you to get involved, whether it be attending protest demonstrations or donating items for those in need. A full list of ways you can get involved can be found on UCL’s ‘Ways to Help’ webpage.
Well, hello there!
By sarah.moore.19, on 29 November 2021
A new academic year often means a renewed sense of motivation, eagerness and excitement in anticipation of the year ahead. For SLOVO, it also means a changing of the guard that is the editorial team.
In this blog post, our new editorial team will be introduced as we welcome you to the 2021-2022 year. We have a Call for Papers too for our next issue, the deadline for submitting them is 10 December. If you are interested in submitting a paper, please see our poster on social media platforms for more information.
Our Editor-in-Chief this year is Saffy Mirghani, a doctoral student researching Fyodor Dostoevsky’s influence on twentieth-century, African-American literature. This builds upon her Master’s Degree in Russian and East European Literature and Culture, which she studied for at SSEES.
The Managing Editor for this year is Pippa Crawford, who is currently studying for her MA in Political Analysis of Russia and Eastern Europe. Her current research examines the imprisonment of dissidents in Russia and Belarus. Her long-term career aim is to get involved in the world of journalism, so this post of Managing Editor will undoubtedly help her gain relevant experience, as well as allowing her to share her enthusiasm for the topic.
Our Book Editor is Monica Zulyte. When not getting lost in research projects requiring a lot of statistical analysis (she loves quantitative research!), Monika is studying for an MA in Political Analysis with special focus on Russia and Eastern Europe. Her particular interests concern economic development in Eastern Europe, representations of Eastern Europe and Eastern Europeans, as well as Baltic-Russian relations.
Louis Marmion is the Film Editor for this academic year. He is Louis Marmion, who is undertaking a PhD on Iréne Némirovsky, a Russian-Jewish émigré of French expression. As well as a love for films, Louis enjoys Russian literature, for which he has a Master’s Degree, in addition to his MRes in East European Studies.
SLOVO’s General Editors this year are Margo Bondarchuk and Qianrui Hu. Margo is a MA History student wishing to specialise in Ukrainian and Russian history. This builds upon her undergraduate degree in History and Politics which she earned from the University of Oxford. Her main research interests include nationalism and nationality policies, agrarian populist movements, and the socio-cultural histories of serfdom within the Russian Empire. Quianrui is a first-year PhD student who obtained a double degree from SSEES and Charles University, Prague. His current research focus revolves around the dynamics of identities in the context of the ongoing war in Donbas. When not studying hard, he enjoys cooking, hiking and learning new languages.
Sarah Moore is our Online Editor for this coming year. She is a doctoral student with a research focus of the ways in which childhood, memory and gender intersect in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her other research interests include topics of nationalism, identity, ethno-politics, genocide studies and European monarchies. In her free time she enjoys reading, visiting historic places, sports and creative writing.
The Online Editor’s Assistant for this year is Alina Vrabie. In her second year of studying for a BA in History, Politics and Economics at SSEES, Alina is interested in areas concerning self-determination and ethnic party dynamics in Eastern Europe, and is looking forward to pursuing a career in research.
Eleanor McDonald-Dick is SLOVO’s Copyeditor this year. In her second year of studying for an MRes in East European Studies, Eleanor’s main interests include medieval Northern and Eastern Europe, and her research is currently focussed on courtiers in Kiev during the tenth and eleventh centuries.
And last, but by no means least, is our Typesetter. Aleksandra Walczak is a final year undergraduate student studying Social Sciences with Data Science. Originally from Poland, Aleksandra’s research interests include East Slavic languages, authoritarian populism and the use of conspiracy theories in foreign and domestic policies. Her hobbies include running, pole dancing and embroidery, an interesting mix but demonstrative of her talents in many fields!
With everyone now introduced, there is little else to say until our next blog post, except to say that we are all so excited and thrilled to be part of SLOVO this year, and we can’t wait to share with you what we are working on.
As mentioned above, we have a current Call for Papers, the deadline for which is 10 December. This includes film and book reviews as well as translations. If you wish to submit an entry, please contact us for more information regarding the films and books recommended for review, and for advice on submissions.
Take care and until next time,
The SLOVO Team
Slovo Statement on Equity and Inclusivity
By serian.carlyle.14, on 1 October 2021
Slovo is committed to pursuing equity and inclusivity in all aspects of our work. We believe that good research is diverse, inclusive, and accessible. We stand in solidarity with those experiencing oppression and discrimination and will do everything we can to ensure our work does not reinforce inequality.
In keeping with UCL’s Equity and Inclusion Plan, we “aim to acknowledge, understand, and tackle structural inequities and unjust social power imbalances that affect our communities across the institution”. More information about UCL’s wider commitments in this area, can be found here and specific policies are here.
We are aware that the fields we work in have traditionally been and continue to be very homogenous. In the 2019/2020 academic year, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that 75% of academics working in UK Higher Education were white. Less than 5% of academic staff were known to have a disability. At higher levels of seniority, diversity decreases. This homogeneity can make it very difficult for people from other groups to enter academia, as their needs have not traditionally been considered and they can find themselves isolated. This creates a vicious cycle, making it more difficult for change to occur.
The British university system is intrinsically linked to systems of white supremacy and colonialism. Concurrently, research has often focused on areas acceptable to those with power, such that works exploring race, gender, disability, and/or sexuality have often not received the level of attention they merit.
We do not deny these legacies and we continue to exist within these systems. However, we will do everything we can to learn from these histories and continuing injustices and work to change the spaces over which we hold influence. We believe that diversity is vital to good research, both in terms of the research community and the work we conduct.
We are a small, non-profit, volunteer-run student journal. All work done for Slovo – whether that of the editorial team, peer reviewers, or writers – is done around other commitments, in our own time and without any remuneration. That means that our responsivity is slower than ideal, and we ask for your consideration and generosity in this area. However, your constructive criticism is valued and appreciated, and your suggestions for how we can improve will help us make faster progress in our goals. This is intended as an explanation, not as an excuse; work in this realm is a priority for the journal and will be treated as such.
Slovo is designed to be a space for academics early in their studies to share their work, learn, and grow.
Academia can be a very hierarchical space and its traditions can be alienating and exclusionary for many. Those with societal privilege will often find it easier to make connections and learn how systems work. Student journals offer a space to start to level the playing field. Contributors learn how systems of peer review work; they receive feedback; publish their work; and build their profile, in a safer space that is designated for their development. We hope that this can smooth the transition into the wider world of academia or other fields.
Peer review is, at its heart, a space for learning. In the same vein, we extend our commitment to learning to our own actions as an editorial team. We are open to making mistakes, and think it is important to acknowledge them. That allows for us to build and develop, as individuals and as an organisation.
The editorial team will return to this document every year, reflect on our commitments, and implement lessons we have learnt. We would welcome suggestions for specific actions.
- We will do whatever we can to ensure that Slovo is an inclusive and welcoming space for all.
- We will particularly highlight work on aspects of our fields that have traditionally been excluded in academic research. This may mean soliciting reviews for specific books or articles on certain topics.
- We welcome and encourage contributors from all backgrounds.
- All allegations of inequality or prejudice will be taken seriously and will be investigated through UCL’s systems, unless the person making the statement wishes for it to remain an informal and internal affair.
- We will provide some feedback to all submissions, even those that we reject, to help authors understand the ways they can improve and develop their work.
- We are aware that unpaid work often falls on people who are marginalised and/or in precarious positions. We endeavour to use a diverse pool of peer reviewers with regard to geography, race, gender, age, and seniority.
- We use a double blind peer review system to attempt to reduce incidence of prejudice and unconscious bias. We welcome suggestions for ways to improve this work.
- We will work to maximise the transparency of the editorial process, for example, publishing our guides to writing for Slovo.
- We aim for flexibility in terms of both working hours and deadlines for everyone involved in Slovo. We are aware that many people may have caring responsibilities, fluctuating health, or financial pressures that mean they cannot prioritise work with Slovo. We endeavour to provide alternative options so that everyone is able to manage their own priorities and commitments, and continue their involvement with the journal.
- We will do our part to maximise the accessibility of research. Given that the publication is open access, our articles will be accessible to anyone with an internet connection – free from paywalls – and we are free to publish (our authors will not face any article processing charges (APCs)).
- We will acknowledge our mistakes and learning.
- While much of our work is time-bound, opportunities will always be made to submit work in later issues if there are reasons contributors cannot make deadlines.
- Level of English accuracy and proficiency will not be a reason for rejection, but instead authors will be supported with editing their work before publication.
- When hiring for the Editorial team, applicants will be expected to demonstrate their commitment to these principles.
- The Editorial team will be selected on commitment to Slovo’s projects and ethics, as well as their enthusiasm, rather than solely considering previous experience. We are aware that many people from marginalised groups may have been excluded from certain opportunities (e.g. unpaid work experience) and therefore do not have an equal playing field.
- We will always be open to feedback and will act on all feedback to the best of our ability.
Originally written by Serian Carlyle and Claudia Griffiths, with support from the 2020/2021 Editorial Team. We are grateful for feedback provided, including contributions by Chloe Hixson and other anonymous readers.
A Potted History of International Women’s Day
By hughollard, on 8 March 2021
International Women’s Day is now recognised by the UN and celebrated in countries across the globe. But where did this distinctly twentieth century holiday come from? And what do modern celebrations of it say about the fight for gender equality and recognition in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia? Managing Editor Claudia Griffiths and Online Editor Hugh Ollard chart the history and prospects of the day.
International Women’s Day is now an accepted date in the international calendar. However, its history and how it is marked today is not without conflict. The ultimate origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) may well come down to how you feel about the wave of socialism that overtook the industrialised world at the start of the twentieth century.
In broad strokes, the day developed from protests in the USA before being taken up in socialist circles across Europe. The International Women’s Day website describes ‘great unrest and critical debate was occurring amongst women’ in New York City in 1908. This culminated in a march, calling for better pay and working conditions. To grow visibility of this movement, in 1909, a Women’s Day was celebrated on 28th February. In 1911, women’s rights groups in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland recognised 19th March as International Women’s Day, a date which remained in a limited number of progressives’ calendars until 1913 when the date was moved to 8th March.
The event continued to grow with Russian women observing the day in 1913 – though of course on 23rd February due to the Gregorian calendar – and British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested on her way to the event in London in 1914. However, the event that entrenched the socialist and eastern European roots of the day was the 1917 Women’s Strike in Moscow. Protesting the war and the lack of food, this strike, starting with a march on 23rd February, culminated in Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication.
Alexandra Kollontai, the founder of Zhenotdel or “Women’s Department” in the Bolshevik government, convinced Lenin to commemorate this day as a national holiday. The linkage of the date to such outwardly revolutionary and socialist history limited the day’s spread in the West. It was only recognised by the UN in 1975, and only grew in stature following the creation of the official internationalwomensday.com domain in 2001. In 1994, Maxine Waters, a Democrat in the US House of Representatives, put forward a bill to make IWD a holiday in the USA but it never passed committee.
IWD’s centenary was marked in 2011 with Barack Obama hailing a Women’s History Month in the USA. The choice of year encapsulates the debate over IWD’s origins, choosing to commemorate the first IWD of 19th March 1911, on the date set by the USSR. The day’s history is by no means straightforward.
Against the backdrop of this 100-year history, steps taken towards gender parity are still painstakingly forged. 2020 alone saw outrage sparked by a near-total abortion ban in Poland and arrests of IWD marchers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The IWD website claims that we will face yet another century fighting for equality, since ‘none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children’.
That being said, IWD is now celebrated in a plethora of eastern European countries, and that it is on the agenda, can undoubtedly be seen as a positive. Countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan all recognise the holiday in one way or another. It could be argued that some celebrations, however, lose sight of the day’s progressive history.
As a British student in Russia, I was at first surprised at how widespread the celebrations were for the day which unlike in the UK, was designated a public holiday. The celebrations were undoubtedly cheerful, with women gifted flowers, free meals at restaurants and the day off work, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some ways these festivities were reinforcing the gender norms that IWD aims to dismantle. Some have gone as far as branding it ‘a concoction of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day – schmaltzy, tacky, and commercial all at once’. There is no doubt that the celebrations in Russia seek to glorify women, but as one author puts it, ‘the irony is they go home and cook – not the most progressive reward’.
In recent years, IWD has been seen as an opportunity for Polish activists to tackle this disparity head-on. It is a country where the theme of women’s rights recently made international headlines with its introduction of a near-total abortion ban. Under the name Manifa, Polish women’s activists have taken to the streets on 8th March to confront ‘issues that are too toxic for political parties to touch: abortion, unpaid labour, and the rights of disabled people and sex workers.’ In 2017, they campaigned under the slogan ‘we are the revolution. No more being nice to violent guys’.
According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Eastern Europe and Central Asia falls behind the rest of Europe in the sphere of gender equality and will require another 107 years to close its gender gap. That is not to say that there have not been advances – as of 2020, the region has already closed 71.3% of their gap and Albania was listed as one of the top 5 most improved countries in the world for reducing gender disparity in health, education, economy, and politics. But if we have learnt anything from the recent events in Poland or indeed the shocking figures relating to domestic violence against women and girls during the pandemic, it is that we still have a long way to go, and it is not the time to be complacent. So this year, the IWD campaign asks us to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality by ‘choosing to challenge’, for ‘a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.’
By Claudia Griffiths (Masters Student in Russian and East European Literature and Culture) and Hugh Ollard (Masters Student in Russian Studies) at UCL SSEES.
Are you interested in finding out more about the history of IWD in Eastern Europe or in participating in events to celebrate the day? We encourage you to attend the Ukrainian Institute London’s Event: “30 Years of Women’s Activism in Ukraine”.
The Irony of Fate (or Enjoy Your Bath!) – The Quintessential Soviet New Year Film
By serian.carlyle.14, on 31 December 2020
On this strange New Year’s Eve, the Slovo team invite you to read this review of the quintessential Soviet New Year’s Eve film, a film that remains a staple for many Russian households on the 31st. In her review, Lara Olszowska explores the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film. If you’ve seen the film, we’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #SlovoSuggestions. Until then, Happy New Year!
Film, 184 min
Directed by Eldar Ryazanov
Written by Emil Braginsky, Eldar Ryazanov
Produced by Evgeny Golynsky
Soviet Union, 1976
“Совершенно нетипичная история, которая могла произойти только и исключительно в новогоднюю ночь”
“A completely atypical story that could happen only and exclusively on New Year’s Eve”
–Eldar Ryazanov, Irony of Fate
On New Year’s Day 1976, Eldar Ryazanov’s Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! was first broadcast to television audiences across the Soviet Union. The epigraph attributes the ludicrous events that unfold to the date on which they occur, whilst the second title highlights the initiator of the action as the bathhouse. It later becomes apparent that the true driving force behind the plot is something far less magical than New Year’s Eve and even more ordinary than a festive drinking session at a bathhouse with friends. It is the typical setting in which this “atypical story” is told: a standardized Soviet apartment in an archetypal mikroraion, or suburb. This review posits the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film.
Zhenya Lukashin lives in apartment 12, 25 Third Builder’s Street, Moscow. So does Nadia Sheveluova, but in Leningrad. Once Zhenya enjoys his bath and too much vodka, he mistakenly flies to Leningrad, gives his address to a taxi driver, lets himself into Nadia’s flat using his key, and falls asleep in her bed. After she stirs him from his stupor, the pair spend a farcical evening together and eventually fall in love. The irony of their fate is that their chance romance is a result of Soviet residential planning; a dreary housing block can become the locus of a New Year’s Eve miracle. One of the final lines in the film is Zhenya’s: “Fate brought me to Leningrad and in Leningrad there is a certain street, with exactly the same housing block and apartment, without which I would never be happy”. In other words, he thanks the city for Nadia, not New Year’s Eve for his newfound happiness. Ironically, his destiny as a Soviet man to live in an unremarkable mikroraion with any wife (he manages to substitute his fiancée for Nadia almost seamlessly) remains unchanged no matter how much of an “adventure seeker” Ippolit (Nadia’s fiancé) considers him to be. The conventional fairytale ending neatly upholds traditional Soviet values of domesticity and glosses over the deeper levels of conflict within soviet housing.
The cartoon that preludes Irony of Fate makes a visual mockery of Soviet architecture and marks the film’s raison d’être: two matching flats in identical housing blocks, both with identical addresses, both in identical mikroraiony and each inhabited by the two lead protagonists. The animated architect seeks approval for his imperial-style buildings from bureaucrats, who reject the designs until every decorative feature has disappeared from the façade leaving the prototypical Soviet housing block behind. The newly approved rectangular block shown in the cartoon has nothing “new” about it. As viewers were aware, the only choice for architects was to build according to the model that aligned with the regime. By the 1970s Khrushchev’s prefabricated housing had been reproduced so many times with so little innovation, it demonstrated the absurdity of Soviet planning and the inescapable influence of socialist ideology. The character’s inability to escape the army of apartment blocks that chase him in this opening sequence shows his personal resistance to the regime, personified by a marching mikroraion. The need to present the mikroraion as such a caricature reveals how the ubiquitous ideological signs of the Soviet period were and how desensitised citizens had become to them.
In his light-hearted deprecation of soviet planning, Ryazanov alludes to a heavier criticism of socialist byt, or living. The undisputed aim of socialism was to build a new society from scratch. Housing to induce socialist byt was therefore ideology materialised. The new Soviet person would live in and be conditioned by the new socialist city and form a collective of like-minded individuals, their individuality suppressed by the state. As the voiceover sarcastically narrates: “a person can come to an unknown city and feel at home there” because they are all familiar and all the same. In the film, the uniformity of the suburbs do not generate social harmony as intended, but instead cause chaos for the protagonists. The verisimilitudinous Soviet architecture in the film held a mirror to the Soviet viewer on that New Year’s Day in 1976, likely watching from the comfort of their prefabricated home, reminding them of the ideological project their houses were constructed to complete and how that project remained unfulfilled. There lies the true irony beneath the surface of the lovers’ luck: the irony of socialism.
Review by Lara Olszowska, Masters Student at UCL SSEES
Book review – Tim Barutcu on Jeffrey Brooks and David Hoffmann
By stanca.oproiu.18, on 22 March 2019
Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War & David Hoffmann, Stalinist Values: the Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941
‘Thank You, Comrade Stalin!’ by Jeffrey Brooks is written with the intention of explaining the functions of Joseph Stalin’s personality cult. The book covers power dynamics in the Soviet Union from 1917 to his in death 1953, and the implementation of de-Stalinisation. Brooks’s major argument is that because of the states monopolisation of information, the Soviet Union was able to carefully construct a unique cultural understanding for their citizens, which emphasised Stalin as the provider of great economic and social prosperity. Social and economic “gifts” from Stalin were used to justify an obligation on Soviet citizens to work hard, contribute and conform. However, Brooks adds that this constructed cultural understanding for citizens ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union.
Brooks was able to construct his argument with a quantitative approach to his research, using of a range of primary resources. Jeffrey Brooks continuously refers to contemporary readings of the press, sampled newspapers and propaganda posters, mainly from the newspaper Pravda. Brooks’s quantitative approach allowed him to discover a number of reoccurring themes in Soviet literature, which became essential to his argument. These themes included an emphasis on metaphors such as “the path”, “the line”, and “the gift” in media outlets.1 The bulk of Jeffery Brooks’s book focuses on the utilisation of “Socialist building”. According to Brooks, Socialist Building was an initiative by Stalin, which drastically changed the political system by limiting public discussion and replacing the previous societal understanding of authority.
David Hoffman’s book ‘Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941’ is a worthy contribution to “The Great Retreat” debate stimulated by Nicholas Timasheff. Timasheff argues that in 1934 the offensive broke down, and the Soviet state began to withdraw from its commitment to the socialist ideology.2 Hoffman disagrees, and declares that at no point did Stalin articulate a retreat from socialism. He adds that Stalinism meant a continuation of a commitment to social transformation, and the creation of the New Soviet Person. Hoffman contends that this was a sharp contrast with traditional Tsarist culture.
The most convincing aspect of Hoffman’s argument lies in his view that many of the Stalinist policies that have been accused as a retreat of socialism can instead be understood as pragmatic solutions to political, social and economic dilemmas in the Soviet Union. Hoffman uses Soviet patriotic and nationalistic propaganda as an example, deeming it merely as a means of mobilising society in the defence of the socialist state in a time of international uncertainty. According to Hoffman, Soviet consumerism was distinct to Western Liberalism because it maintained an emphasis on collectivist ideals, whilst providing incentives for hard work. 3
Hoffman also addresses the supposed ‘retreat’ to a patriarchal view of the household in the Stalinist era. Hoffman instead explains it as a measure to deal with low birth rates rather than a withdrawal from the socialist ideology. These changes in social policy should instead be understood as pragmatic measures used to maintain the Socialist state in a time of great political stress.
Hoffman acknowledges the use of traditional symbols, institutions and appeals by Stalin and the political elite. However, he adds that these were used merely for mass mobilisation
purposes as a means of strengthening the new order.4 Hoffman summarises Stalinism as a consolidation of Socialism, rather than a retreat from it.5 According to Hoffman, the Soviet Union remained fundamentally Socialist throughout the period referred to as “The Great Retreat”. The planned economy remained, state ownership of the means of production continued, and the Party’s vanguard role in leading the country towards communism was sustained under the rule of Stalin.6
Brooks’s understanding of the functions of Stalin’s cult of personality helps to develop Hoffman’s argument against the idea of a “great retreat”. Hoffman stresses that although some of Stalin’s policies had not derived from a socialist ideology, the states infrastructure remained fundamentally socialist under Stalin, and thus no retreat was undertaken.
Hoffman writes that “Presenting Stalin as the personification of the Soviet system provided a tangible symbol to which individuals could attach their loyalty. The cult provided a human face that appeared to care about people’s welfare”.7 Hoffman is suggesting that Stalin’s cult of personality was a powerful tool in restructuring society’s understanding of power dynamics in the Soviet Union. ‘Thank You, Comrade Stalin!’ develops Hoffman’s argument of a Socialist continuation under Stalin, because it offers a tangible explanation for the use of an authoritarian cult of personality in a socialist society.
Brooks offers a useful explanation into the purposes of the Cult of Stalin. He begins, by explaining Socialist realism as a state led initiative to promote the idea that life ought to be portrayed how it should be, and not necessarily as it was.8 Socialist realism is a key aspect of Brooks’s argument, because it manipulated society into appreciating the utopian aspect of the Soviet Union, and ultimately led people to believe that life was better than it was. The economic and social prosperity that was portrayed in propaganda was heavily attributed to
Stalin. Stalin was responsible for the provision of all social benefits and all that was good in Soviet life according to media outlets. This understanding of Stalin’s personality cult is useful to Hoffman, because it stresses the mere purposes of mobilisation, and not a withdrawal from the socialist ideology.
Brooks continues to raise another important theme, which advances Hoffman’s claim.
Brooks explains the relevance of Stalin as provider of “the gift”. Brooks introduces his conception of a “moral economy”9 which deeply resided in Soviet culture during Stalin’s time of influence. The demand for society to acknowledge Stalin’s unprecedented influence in the production of social and economic prosperity was met with an expectation for citizens to repay this favour through hard work and conformity. Hoffman would argue that this constructed power dynamic was a means of enhancing the socialist state by use of traditional ideals and understandings of power.
Jeffrey Brooks states that although Stalin acknowledges the contradictions of an authoritarian personality cult in a socialist society, he used it to promote a very unique and precise understanding of state legitimacy and authority. This new understanding of power was used to shape a unified national agenda, with a new understanding of Soviet society, and national identity.10 The legitimacy of orders from institutions replaced the need for rational explanations of behaviour or orders from the state. 11 Brooks makes this point, because this rhetoric remained central in legitimising Stalin’s authoritarian style to governance. Hoffman would argue that this constructed understanding of state legitimacy was used to strengthen the socialist infrastructure in the Soviet Union.
Brooks and Hoffman however fail to explain what the utilisation of prerevolutionary ideals offered to Stalin that previous Bolshevik discourses on power did not. Jan Plamper offers an explanation into why Stalin’s cult of personality was so effective in seizing the public’s
imagination. She argues that since Russia’s Christianization (988), the Russian sovereign was both head of the Russian Orthodox Church and the head of the state12. Thus historically, Russia was used to being centered on a single person, and a retreat to this conventional understanding of authority was greatly advantageous for Stalin.
Another question that Brooks and Hoffman fail to address is the extent to which the Soviet population bought into and supported the reconstructed Soviet culture. Hoffman briefly mentions that some members of the military, party and Stakhanovite workers held a genuine reverence for Stalin. Hoffman also highlights that many also privately criticised Stalin and the cult. He adds, “much of the population viewed Stalin and other leaders as oppressors rather than benefactors.”13 However this point remains underdeveloped. Perhaps Brook and Hoffman’s arguments may have been more convincing if their research had comprised of a greater level of qualitative methods such as readings from private letters, diaries and other personal documents.
One text that does this well is Nora Dudwick’s “When Things Fall Apart”. Dudwick offers an analysis of poverty in the Soviet Union through a number of first hand interviews and readings of personal contemporary texts, and proves that qualitative research can offer a useful insight.14 Both Brooks and Hoffman’s arguments could benefit from implementing some of these research methods, in order to give a more humanist understanding of the period covered.
Brooks concludes that Stalin was able to implement a unique cultural understanding for the Soviet Union. However, he contends that it was ultimately counter productive and led to the dismissal of the state. Brooks accuses Stalinist Soviet culture of having left little room for critical commentary, which would have allowed the state to recognise its own weaknesses,
and thus adapt. Brooks adds that the monopoly of information also contributed to the decimation of the state because it gave little room for an exchange of informal information on an international level, which was necessary for scientific and economic development.15
This conception complies with Hoffman’s understanding on the demise of the Soviet Union. Hoffman claims that state led attempts to change people’s lifestyles and values through coercion and violence ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He continues to say “social change must be gradual and consensual, as violence only achieves superficial change and failed to change the way people thought.”16 Brooks and Hoffman agree that the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union greatly hampered it from flourishing and achieving the social harmony that it set out to accomplish.
Brooks and Hoffman offer insightful conclusions, however neither authors offer an explanation into the nature of Stalin’s terror nor the extent of coercive measures conducted by the state. Although neither book intend to narrate the coercive measures of the Soviet Union, some general background would be useful for some readers. Readers without a pre-existing understanding of the level of oppression conducted by the Stalinist state may find their arguments unconvincing.
Both ‘Thank You, Comrade Stalin’ and Hoffman’s ‘Stalinist Values’ have provided a great contribution in the study of the Soviet Union, and its attempts to create a unique, stringent and powerful cultural understanding of state authority. However, because both texts deal with such a wide scope of study, they can at times allocate too much emphasis on the collective at the expense of personal experience, which can provide relevant and useful insights. An adoption of a balanced approach to the use of qualitative and quantitative research methods may have benefited both arguments.
Although both texts require development in some areas, they provide a number of conclusions that are difficult to scrutinise. In particular, Jeffrey Brooks’s convincing claim that Stalin was able to use traditional and popular understanding of power to enhance the hyper-centralisation of the state and create a new cultural understanding the Soviet Union. David Hoffman offers an engaging contribution to the Great Retreat debate, and presents many plausible reasons to support the notion that the Soviet Union remained fundamentally socialist throughout its existence.
Brooks, Jeffrey. Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture From Revolution To Cold War, (Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 2000).
Dudwick, Nora. When Things Fall Apart: Qualitative Studies of Poverty in the Former Soviet Union, (World Bank Publications: Washington, 2002).
Hoffman. L. David, Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity 1917-1941, (Cornell University Press: New York, 2003).
Plamper, Jan. The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, (Yale University Press: Connecticut,1970).
Timasheff, Nicholas. The Great Retreat: The Growth and Decline of Communism in Russia, (Ayer Co Publishers: New York, 1972).
SLOVO VOL.30 – September 26th 2017
By Borimir S Totev, on 18 September 2017
INTERVIEW: Mila Maeva on Bulgarian migration to the United Kingdom
By Borimir S Totev, on 15 September 2017
Dr. Mila Maeva is an ethnologist from Sofia University. She has specialised in Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway. Her main interests focus on migration, culture and self-identification in minority groups – primarily the Muslim minority in Bulgaria. Her first book “The Bulgarian Turks” was published in 2006 and is dedicated to the migration from Bulgaria to Turkey in 1989 due to the so-called ‘Revival Process’.
Why did you decide to write a book about Bulgarian migration to the UK? Talk more about how the idea became a reality.
Like with most of my research, the topic finds me. My brother – Ivo Maev – was the first editor of the Bulgarian emigrant newspaper ‘Budilnik’. During his time as editor I was involved with contributing to the newspaper, having a column on Bulgarian festivities. The connection with immigration from Bulgaria from the beginning of the 21st century was the starting point of my research on the topic. During that period, Bulgarian immigration was still relatively small in number, whereas its organisation – in a process of coming to life. The book presents the first complete and in-depth analysis of Bulgarian emigration to England from the Bulgarian Revival to present day. My research is based on British archives and my own field work collected in the period between 2007 and 2015 in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Rochester, and London, amongst others. I analyse changes the in ways borders are crosses, the motifs, and the socio-economic specificities of Bulgarian immigrants in England in the period after 1989 to 2015. I focus on the Bulgarian institutions from the prism of subgroups created by the emigrants. The book also presents the changes in religious views when in the process of arriving to a new country. It analyses language as a key emigration component in view of starting a new life in a new society, as well as the changes in every day life and festive culture. My key aim is to present the view point of the emigrants in England – why and how they migrate, what their reflections are on the topic of migration, how they learn a new language and create a new home, how they integrate into British society, what they change in their own culture and traditions, how they feel in Britain, and understanding how and why they create their subgroups and zones of comfort.
Can you share an interesting story from the process of writing the book?
Every piece of research has its own interesting story. My story connected to the writing of this book is concerned with the difficulty I experienced when trying to infiltrate Bulgarian immigrant groups in England. Despite knowing a few Bulgarians, I wanted to produce much more expansive research. This approach connected me with different highly qualified immigrants. Interviews with less qualified and less educated Bulgarians created a number of problems. I encountered the fear of the immigrant from his fellow countrymen, as they saw in me not a researcher, but a competitor, who’s after their jobs. Other striking stories include the emotional traumas of migration. Quite often, my interviews showed that many of the stories of migrating to England were connected primarily with emotional difficulties, as opposed to social and cultural obstacles – an unexplored avenue in this field of research.
What is the most important lesson you’ve taken out from writing the book?
In writing this book I realised how multi-faceted Bulgarian immigration in the United Kingdom is. My initial desire was to write about as many immigrants as possible, from different countries. However, in the end I decided to limit my research exclusively to the Bulgarians living in England. I realised that despite my initially held beliefs that immigration is a product of economic motifs, in the course of the research, it became obvious that people come with different reasons – searching for security, personal growth, or plainly, because their friends and families are leaving.
The book is available online in Bulgarian from the Paradigma Publishers website.
INTERVIEW: Dimitar Bechev’s RIVAL POWER: Russia in Southeast Europe
By Borimir S Totev, on 14 September 2017
Dimitar Bechev is currently a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has extensive experience in the world of policy and is affiliated with the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington, D.C. In 2015, Dimitar Bechev became the founding director of the European Policy Institute, a small but dynamic outfit based in Sofia, Bulgaria. His area of expertise cover EU external relations, especially enlargement and neighbourhood policy, the politics of Turkey and the Balkans, and Russian foreign policy. Prior to the University of North Carolina, Bechev held fellowships at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and the London School of Economics. Having authored or edited several books and articles in academic journals, he also publishes on current affairs in outlets such as the American Interest, Al Jazeera Online, Foreign Policy, openDemocracy and others. In 2010-14, he headed the Sofia Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Prior to that Dimitar Bechev taught International Relations at Oxford where he obtained his D.Phil. in 2005.
Dimitar Bechev is in conversation with the Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal, Borimir Totev, about his latest book ‘Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe’ published by Yale University Press.
Why did you initially decided to enter academia within this particular field? Was there a turning point or a moment of clarity?
I have always been fascinated with international politics and knew I would pursue a graduate degree. I arrived to Oxford in 2000, at a moment the EU, as well as Europe as a whole were undergoing dramatic changes. Southeast Europe was at the forefront as former Yugoslavia, following a decade of wars, and Turkey embarked on the path of membership, and Bulgaria and Romania entered accession negotiations with the EU. Such momentous events provided the inspiration for my D.Phil thesis and ultimately the book I published in 2011, Constructing South East Europe (Palgrave), which explores the international relations of the region. Though there are IR scholars who stay in the academic ivory tower, that has not been my case.
Where do you position of social sciences within wider society?
I have not pursued a typical academic career but have been moving back and forth between universities and think-tanks, which does have its disadvantages but also helps one get a better perspective on world affairs. Academic training provides the means to think a rigorous manner. There are far too many pundits and current affairs analysts who juggle terms and conceptual shortcuts uncritically. Or who lack historical depth to see through the latest hype. Equally, academic researchers are better off if they keep up-to-date with global political events which, admittedly, develop at breakneck speed and think more clearly about what their particular project means for those outside the university circuit. Navel-gazing is not what social science should be about.
How does ‘Rival Power’, as a Russia focused project, differ to your previous book publications?
Rival Power is an attempt to bridge the divide between scholarship and current affairs writing. It looks at Russia’s growing footprint in Southeast Europe – a region comprising the post-communist Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, and even Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, which once dominated the area. I argue that Russia has no strategic ambitions nor is it driven by the rich historical legacies which link it to the Balkans. It simply exploits opportunities to poke a finger into the eye of the West, at a moment when relations with the US and EU are at their lowest point thanks to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Yet, contrary to other authors, I put a great deal on emphasis on local players too (governments, individual leaders, business lobbies, political parties etc.). Rather than being mere pawns or proxies of Moscow, they often leverage their connection to the Russians to advance their own, often parochial interests. It is a two-way street. And more than once, Russia has suffered setbacks – a point that many writing about the standoff with the West and Putin’s talents as a foreign policy chess master often fail to appreciate. Readers can also learn much about the twists and turns in the ambiguous relationship between Russia and Turkey, a marriage of convenience, as I call it. My hope is to draw in both readers following Southeast Europe, who may or may not know much about Russia beyond the usual stereotypes, and those interested in the broader subject of Russian foreign policy and Moscow’s influence beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union.
The book is available on Amazon or from Yale University Press’ website. Excerpts will be published by The American Interest.