Daniela Kaneva, Author, Consultant in Culture for Business applications
Having emerged for a long time, it was in the years since 2000, during which Identity politics stepped into the limelight, stirred public opinions, fascinated intellectual elites and before anyone realized it, marched victoriously into the mainstream of political agenda. Coming from the premises of elevated aspirations, based on noble concepts such as equality, recognition, respect and diversity, the ideology of Identity gradually transformed from a movement for better equality of all into an instrument for effective suppression of thoughts and opinions which differ from it. This transformation was hailed by some as necessary in the fight for justice but rang macabre bells into the ears of others. For citizens of the so-called ‘Eastern Europe’, a set of countries which have first-hand experienced life in the political reality of oppression and lack of basic civil freedoms, the Identity Issue is hard to understand and even harder to accept as it resembles very much the premises of the Communist ideology that has dominated their societies for 50 years. Having lived through the rise and fall of a system that disintegrated through its rejection of basic human values, those coming from ‘Eastern Europe’ have become extremely sensitive to anything reminiscent of the totalitarian regimes that crushed millions of lives and destinies in one of the most hideous social experiments in history.
The countries, subject to this experiment, have a perspective on the issue of Identity, which is somewhat different from the Western European countries’ one, and is mostly the outcome of their different value systems and historical context. There is a common thread which conditions the high sensitivity towards oppression – and we have communist or socialist ideology to thank for that.
Keywords: Identity, Culture, Mental Images, Eastern Europe, Socialism, neo-Marxism, totalitarian state, national cultures, national identity, assimilation
When The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, this event resonated throughout the globe as the end of a brutal political system that brought oppression, misery, obscurantism and death to millions of human beings.
It was hailed as the end of Mordor.
“East Germany opens border” – echoed thousands of titles throughout the world. Followed by:
“The Iron Curtain torn open.”
“We are one nation.”
“Europe without the Wall”
“Together at last.”
“Eastern Europe opens to a new future.”
Eastern Europe, anyone?
Up to World War Two, the term ‘Eastern Europe’ meant little besides being a geographical region, yet in a number of definitions across various authors and works, it could occasionally be subject of mostly ridiculous attempts to outline it as a cultural entity – a hotch-potch of influences having nothing in common but shared territory (including but not limited to ‘Balkan, Byzantine, Eastern Orthodox’, even ‘Ottoman’ cultural or political tags, although ‘the Orient’ was not a rarity either).
In the aftermath of WW2, the term stuck firmly to a particular set of countries – namely Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, as well as the Soviet-occupied part of Germany, which was a consequence of the Second World War’s political cake-slicing. As a result of the War winners’ game of bargains, for the next half-century, these countries (together with several others on other continents) remained in the iron-clad sphere of control of the Soviet Union. They all existed in an imposed social and political system called ‘Socialism.’
A system that checks all the boxes or fundamental premises that typify totalitarianism:
– forced monopoly of one Party and elimination or nullification of all other parties; one-party system
– a merger of party and government functions and functionaries on all levels
– the unification of social values, practices and philosophy of life
– authoritarian thinking accompanied by a cult to personality
– mechanisms of the constraint of any non-conforming expression of ideas
– concentration camps designed to contain deviant thinking (Zhelev, Zhelyo, 1982)
For over 50 years, this compendium of countries together with the Easternmost part of Europe, previously known as Russia, became known as ‘the Eastern bloc – the Communist / Socialist bloc – the Soviet bloc. In the grim reality of the Cold War and the confrontation of the two main political systems, in the absence of free information exchange and the effective ban on travel aka human exchange, imposed upon the Bloc’s citizens, people in the rest of Europe and the world unconsciously and gradually started using the term ‘Eastern Europe’ to designate the countries as mentioned above (seven independent and three included within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). All of them were integrated firmly in the Soviet sphere – in economic (under the hat of Comicon) and military (under the Warsaw Pact) terms.
We should also mention and include ex-Yugoslavia, which differs from the rest of the pack by both the rather artificial way of its creation as a nation-state (after WW1) and its ‘deviation’ from the orthodox pro-Soviet paradigm (after WW2). Yet, it was undoubtedly a socialist country having all the features of a Totalitarian State to a varying extent. The disintegration of the Eastern Bloc saw quite a few cases of breakdown of states (that were never integrated in the first place). In the case of Yugoslavia, its components were held together by a particularly fragile cultural glue and consequently, its breakdown was more atrocious and violent than any of the other examples.
The keyword is imposed. Large masses of people do not always have the luxury to choose the system of society they live in, and often it is forced upon them. But “the system is accepted and succeeds to a greater or lesser extent depending on the peculiar features of the local culture” (Минков, 2007)
For over 50 years, the countries in Eastern Europe functioned under the ideology, political and social order of the USSR – and this looked unanimous and unshakeable. Therefore, they stayed in the world’s mind as a uniform entity of similar countries and similar populations that came to be known as Eastern Europe. Its derivative – Eastern European – also came into wide usage, meaning ‘someone who comes from Eastern Europe’ regardless of which of these countries. So much so, generally, it was assumed that ‘Eastern European’ was an identity.
You can still witness this attitude by and large, as the current understanding of ‘Eastern Europe’ is shaped by the Cold War and the Iron Curtain (a term coined by Churchill in 1945). Even as the collapse of the Soviet regime and its bloc in the 1990s revealed these countries’ many pluralities, it could not do away with the stereotype.
Yet, Prague, Ljubljana, or Zagreb are to the West of Vienna, and Serbia is further West than Finland, but in the mind of the ‘Westerners’, the former is designated as ‘eastern’ and the latter as ‘western.’
The whole set-up has its roots further away in time, quite long before WW2. While not going into historical details, it is worth noting that the ‘western’ attitude to ‘the Orient’ reflects both Enlightenment’s sense of intellectual superiority and the colonialist power-mind that dominated the period between 15th and 19th century, and somewhat later. This is very much rooted in the implicit idea that ‘the West has a monopoly’ over what is seen as European civilization.
Even today, at the beginning of the 21st century, those that joined the European Union last have to struggle with the unseen and unspoken but acutely felt tag of ‘second-hand members.’
In other words, “Eastern Europe was always simultaneously both the other Europe and Europe’s ‘Other’” (Grob, Thomas)
Objectively speaking, apart from geography, ‘Eastern European’ has no more meaning than ‘Western European,’ or “Asian,’ or ‘African’.
The best way to calibrate and visualize the grounds, the impetus, the similarities and the differences of ‘the Eastern European’ countries is a cultural approach. Culturally speaking, Eastern Europe is a diverse selection of countries with significant variations in history, habits and hustle, and at the same time, they share certain traits in certain ways.
What traits are common and different, what are the identity features, and what is the very understanding of Identity among these cultures are all points that this article tries to explore.
The Starting Point
Prof. Geert Hofstede’s model of cultures
Prof. Geert Hofstede is the pioneering researcher of Cultures across modern nations whose research work on the state of the collective human mind is still unsurpassed in scope and profoundness.
Some of us are familiar with the data-based approach through which Prof. Hofstede developed his defining paradigm enabling comparison of cultures and, therefore, values shared by large human groups.
Prof. Hofstede assigned to the term Culture a meaning close to what some others described as a national mindset. But his approach is profound in terms of making it clear that there is no equation between the mind of the individual and the mind of a group of individuals; that any attempts to measure and express them by the same tokens is “a reverse ecological fallacy” (Hofstede, 2001) and therefore the way towards understanding the drivers of the collective mind is by using means that are specific to it.
Such tools, which Hofstede calls cultural dimensions, measure relative differences between values shared by most of a certain country’s population.
According to the initial frame of Hofstede’s model, Cultures can be calibrated and compared along the lines of four dimensions which reflect society’s attitudes to fundamental dilemmas in life and work:
Power Distance Index: PDI – the level of hierarchy which society accepts as normal, i.e., the perceived distance between power-holders and those below them
(egalitarian vs. hierarchical societies)
Individualism vs. Collectivism: IDV – the importance attributed by people to loyalty and harmony with their In-Group as opposed to Out-Groups and, consequently, the level of acceptance of double standards
(one set of standards for members of the in-group and another set for outsiders)
Uncertainty Avoidance: UAI – the extent to which society feels uncomfortable with what is unknown or ambiguous
(feeling comfortable with vs. feeling threatened by the unknown)
Masculinity vs. Femininity: MAS – the way society defines success – as achievement of wealth and status vs. quality of life and caring for others
(competitive vs. caring societies)
These original four Hofstede dimensions developed in his work through the 1980s are fundamental for outlining the profiles of national cultures. Later research and collaboration between Prof. Hofstede and other scholars produced additional dimensions that enriched the palette of how we explain national cultures and their manifestations.
Long-Term Orientation: LTO – the expectations of society about the fulfillment of purpose and the ways to fulfill this purpose
(expecting results in the short-term vs. results in the long-term, accompanied by the belief that there is an absolute Truth vs. belief that Truth is flexible and dependent on circumstances)
Indulgence vs. Restraint: IVR – the preferrable norms of society about how to satisfy natural human desires for pleasure and leisure
(instant Indulgence of desires vs. curbing and control of desires)
It is important to note, time and again, that Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, while having autonomy in the research context, in real life behave according to a complex synergy.
More than any other social phenomenon, culture is a glaring example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
The Grammar of Cultures
The research model of Prof. Hofstede emerged as an unsurpassed tool for identifying cultural differences and managing them. After the 2000s, when the forces of globalization combined with the upsurge of technology, global corporations became aware that their success factor No.1 was the effectiveness of their human capital, and especially “the ability of people who think differently to act together” (Hofstede, 1980).
However, just as it is pretty challenging to understand and motivate an individual mind, it is times more difficult to manage the collective mind of large groups – called Culture. This is because the six dimensions of culture never act on their own but in complex interaction, situated in a particular historical and ethnic context. Thus, only six dimensions can produce thousands of behaviors whose patterns can be decoded only after extensive study.
Businesses management requires a much swifter approach, though.
Shortly after the Hofstede model came out of academia and into the world of corporate governance, effective intercultural training required that certain reductions be introduced in order “to simplify global business complexity while retaining maximum local impact” (Schram in preface to Wursten, 2019).
Therefore, Huib Wursten brought decades of his collaboration with Geert Hofstede and experience in strategic cultural training to create a typology as elegant as it is potent in helping businesspeople find ways to productive interactions in multicultural settings.
Huib is ‘the intellectual father’ of this approach which consists of grouping world Cultures in clusters according to their commonalities. This enables even novices to be reasonably well equipped to interpret observable behaviors and language in the light of true intentions and meanings.
In Huib’s own words:
“The description of how the dimensions influence each other and show the internal consistent ‘logic’ of each cluster makes it almost possible to predict behavior. The combinations work as a preprogrammed approach to a complex reality. They function as ‘mindsets’….
“The fact that countries within a culture cluster share a similar mindset does not mean they are completely identical … (but) they share the same grammar system. So, the basic grammar is the same. But style and dialect differences certainly can be found”.
Huib’s approach helps us understand the internal logic of the mental models according to which people behave on a group level. For convenience, each of these major models is associated with an image, a metaphor representing its essence. The framework is called ‘The 7 Mental Images’, so is the book on the same subject.
The 7 Mental Images representing seven major ‘grammars’ of the cultural language are:
- Contest – ‘winner takes it all.’
It includes the competitive Anglo-Saxon cultures having a low acceptance of hierarchy, great Individualism and significant Masculinity, and relatively comfortable ways of dealing with uncertainty avoidance.
Representative examples are: UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand.
- Network – with a keyword ‘‘
These are highly individualistic, egalitarian societies characterized by big concern for the well-being of all members and focused on involving everyone in the decision-making process.
Countries belonging to this cluster are the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.
- Well-oiled Machine – ‘order rules’
This type of society is pretty egalitarian and individualistic, but its members are not comfortable with uncertainty avoidance and try to deal with it through carefully balanced procedures and rules.
Typical examples: Austria, Germany, German-speaking Switzerland.
- Solar System – ‘strong leadership and clear standards.’’
The members of this cluster are a unique combination of hierarchy and great Individualism, also accompanied by a deep concern for uncertainty.
Examples: Belgium, France, Spain, French-speaking Switzerland.
- Pyramid – ‘loyalty, hierarchy and implicit order.’
This cultural framework is typically found in collective societies with large power distance and a tendency to avoid uncertainty at all costs.
Examples: Latin American countries, Sub-Saharan Africa, Arab countries,
Russia, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, and others.
- Family – ‘loyalty, hierarchy and flexible adaptation.’
These cultures are large on power distance and have strong in-group affiliations and paternalistic leaders. Their members are comfortable with uncertain or ambiguous situations.
Examples: China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore.
- Japan as the 7th Mental Image – ‘dynamic equilibrium.’
Japan is the only country belonging to this mental image due to its unique combination of dimensions not found in any of the other clusters. Its cultural makeup has moderate power distance and collectivism, coupled with a very strong aversion to uncertainly and very high competitiveness. (after Wursten, 2019)
The framework of the 7 Mental Images by Huib Wursten is based primarily on the first four cultural dimensions of Prof. Hofstede.
Undoubtedly, the first four dimensions are definitive for the basic grammar of Cultures. But when trying to outline the details of one or another cultural profile, we cannot do without the last two dimensions as they reflect important critical drivers of collective behaviors. Those who embark on any journey of cultural exploration could and should use all instruments that help make validated conclusions about the deep motivations shaping values and actions of large groups of people.
For example, if you tell a person who is not Hofstede-trained – especially one whose profession takes them across borders – that you can do business with ‘Eastern Europeans’, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Sub-Saharan Africans in the same way, they would laugh. And not listen to arguments that these four distinct cultural profiles all belong to the Pyramid Mental Image.
In fact, in cases where a particular cultural sensitivity is needed, it is often the ‘dialects,’ the subtle variations of cultural grammar that can make or break the correct interpretation of observable behaviors.
Where is the position of ‘Eastern Europe’ in the cultural landscape?
‘Eastern Europe’ in the mirror of Hofstede
Consider the countries making the list of ‘Eastern Europe’:
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia), Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Russia.
In most cases, the notion of ‘Eastern Europe’ also includes countries that used to be within the political frame of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Belarus, Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, etc.) or in the frame of ex-Yugoslavia (Northern Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, etc.).
(For cultural comparison, we will use countries whose scores on the cultural dimensions can be reasonably well confirmed by current data. Conclusions about how to attribute other countries to Mental Images can be drawn on analogy based on commonalities in language, shared history, etc.).
The question is:
Do these countries/cultures make an entity implied by their common denomination?
Let’s try to answer that by asking the question:
Which cultural grammar do they use?
Of course, we know that not everything is Culture and that culture comprises a wide variety of elements. Yet, Hofstede’s dimensions have a proven track record of being a mirror that reasonably well reflects similarities and differences in the way members of a certain nation relate to reality.
If we choose just to consider the country scores along the six dimensions of Culture, we will end up with a hotch-potch of numbers that make little sense to the lovers of classifications. Especially if we arrange them alphabetically, as practiced by lovers of Excel tables.
Having a table with lots of numbers that vary widely along each column, i.e., cultural dimension, will not come even close to identifying commonalities in this selection.
However, if we take a more thorough look at these countries’ cultural profiles, considering other fundamental factors such as proximity, religion, historical facts, geography, etc., we can immediately see emerging patterns.
For the purposes of this comparison, we will apply descriptions of cultural scores such as:
→ Low score – when the score is 40 or lower ↓
→ High score – when the score is 60 or higher ↑
→ The moderate score for any score between 40 and 60 ↔
Here is the first example:
The scores show that Bulgaria, Romania and Russia belong to the Pyramid cluster besides sharing many common points such as history, language and Orthodox Christian denomination. We can add Albania and Serbia to this group as their profiles are a close match.
These countries not only have large Power Distance, it is also quite large – in the range between 70 and 90+. Naturally, these are all highly Collectivist societies, as most often is the case with very high PDI scores. They do not just have high Uncertainty Avoidance scores – with scores above 90 these countries are champions of Uncertainty Avoidance, matched only by Japan and some members of the Solar System cluster. Last but not least, except Albania, all these cultures have a definite aversion to Masculinity meaning they don’t like competition, which is one of their culturally defining traits.
The next group presents its obvious affiliation to the Network culture cluster. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all score egalitarian, Individualistic and Feminine and are closely historically related to the Scandinavian countries.
There are slight differences with the typical Network profile, like their significant score on Uncertainty Avoidance, which is higher than the Scandinavian countries, but the pattern is the same. This is not surprising because the three Baltic countries have been part of the Soviet Union for 50 years and communism is definitely not a system fostering feelings of security and certainty.
Next, the remaining three countries situated in what is more of a Central than Eastern Europe may pose a question score-wise whether they can be attributed to the same cultural group or not.
Hungary matches the Well-Oiled Machine cluster score levels, which is very logical considering how long it has been part of the Austrian-Hungarian Habsburg Empire.
On the other hand, Poland has for centuries been interchanging cultural, religious, royal, and political influences with France. Culturally, its Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance scores closely match the Solar System cluster scores.
Just looking at its moderate scores on cultural dimensions, Czech Republic’s profile can be a of match different culture clusters. But as mentioned, scores on cultural dimensions are not everything that describes a culture, so its close affiliation with Austria-Hungary naturally puts it into the Well-Oiled Machine cluster.
In the case of Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, the essential thing is that they are all positioned as being highly Individualistic and with a significant degree of Uncertainty Avoidance. Their positions on hierarchy or Power Distance differ a lot and this fact contributes to their attribution to one or another cultural cluster.
It is worth mentioning that Power Distance is the most polarizing dimension. Cultures worldwide score decidedly on the extreme low (very egalitarian) or the extreme high (very hierarchical) end of the scale. Less than 5% of over 100 cultures in our database are positioned within the moderate band of preference on this dimension.
The bottom line of all this is that among ‘Eastern European’ countries, we can see representatives of four different culture clusters, four different prisms of looking at reality and interpreting life, work and human relations.
That is as far as it goes in terms of ‘Eastern European countries’ perceived uniformity.
Of course, the attentive readers have already noticed that after all these countries share some commonalities.
They are all invariably very Long-Term Oriented and Restrained societies.
What may be the reason for that?
Living in Real Socialism
The Socialist system of organizing society is based on Marxist theory, which appeals to a concept that is naturally dear to any human heart – equality for all. And this is the main reason for its attractiveness to so many people for so many years.
It attracted and continues to attract particularly young people. For what is youth? It is a time of one’s life when a person is still very much insecure and is looking for an identity that will make them comfortable in their skin and win others’ recognition. A time when the young adult is already grown up to the stage when he/she can use and appreciate all that life has to offer but does not have the standing and the means to do so. Couple that with the acutely felt need for belonging and recognition from peers (not parents), and you end up with the strive to join a cause that basically talks promise of having it all and having it for all – clad in a packing of noble ideas and humane aspirations.
As the adage goes:
“If at the age of 20 you are not a Communist, you have no heart”.
However, Marx and his collaborator, Engels, were not concerned with matters of the heart. Their works focused on materialism as an approach to interpreting everything and the outcome was virtual disappearance of the human factor in their works. The large groups of humans in the abstract world of their writings, such as ‘working class’ or ‘bourgeoisie’ etc., are actors on the scene of unfolding historical events but have mostly one-dimensional motivations and are predictable as a band of puppets. Their approach assumed that large groups of humans are not driven by much more than basic material needs and wants. Thus, the question of human nature (and its social nature) becomes secondary or irrelevant as an explanatory force.
Society or Culture?
The Egg or the Hen?
As this article aims to explore some practical traits related to ‘Eastern European’ countries, there is not enough space to delve into the philosophical question Which comes first? or which determines the other: political and economic systems influencing culture or vice versa. A similar exercise is to be asking whether religion or culture comes first.
In the light of a very personal opinion, I think that culture always comes first, whether in religion or ideology. Of course, postulates of the dominant doctrine profoundly influence people’s minds over time. But for a doctrine to become mainstream and be embraced by the majority in the first place, it has to resonate with the values and needs shared by the group.
On the individual level, the uniqueness of personality always lays upon the foundations of the collective mind (or Culture) where the individual grew up and formed themselves. In this sense, whatever the individual wrote or created, there is always the specter of cultural origin looming somewhere in the background.
A Cultural Theory of Socialism
The theory of Socialism (both by its early proponents since the 17th century and by its foundational authors) was a product of highly individualistic minds concerned with concepts related to benefits and rights for all humans, and in particular – issues that were hot potatoes in the 19th century such as democracy in political representation, freedoms of speech and press, fair and just rewards and working conditions, voting and economic rights etc. The Springtime of Revolutions of 1848, which cemented modern industrial capitalism, rolled across countries with varying hierarchy levels, such as Denmark, Italy, France, Spain, Habsburg, Hungary, Poland, and Ireland. Still, it occurred invariably in Individualistic cultures. Besides that, the upheaval in the middle of the 19th century was driven by a search for Identity, which found its answer in establishing national identities.
In his works, Marx essentially assumes that once the material side, i.e., ownership over the means of production happens and the base is changed, the rest will somehow follow by itself. And the desired superstructure of society shall naturally evolve from certain principles that are so universal that they don’t need elaboration. But principles – either of organizing production or social functions – presuppose the existence of clear, shared and valid standards for all which is a top individualistic idea.
Shortly speaking, Marx and Engels theorized that the desired transformation of society could be effected when several conditions are met: the existence of advanced means of production (assuming solid base for social prosperity); established universal standards (assuming just and fair ways of distribution of benefits to meet the needs of all people), emancipated working class (assuming educated enough to solve intelligently complicated tasks such as a new social organization).
Human nature or culture was nowhere in this picture.
How It Happened
It happened differently.
Socialism did not come along in countries with developed means of production, emancipated working class and universal standards. It came along in 1917 in Russia – a country that lagged in industrial development, had a predominantly poorly educated and peasant population and a cultural profile founded on powerful hierarchy and acceptance of double standards. The one on top, be it Czar or Stalin, was almighty. The master owned the lives of the serves, and those lives had no value. As a consequence, Soviet Socialism produced atrocities towards its own citizens like induced hunger, mass resettlements, mass killings, repressions, and deprivation of basic human rights on an unprecedented scale, never before seen in history. (Chinese version of Socialism followed this pattern later, based on similar cultural points).
The double standards took a central place in the new paradigm. Imperatives of religious or moral traditions were replaced by relativism: murder was punishable but still it was ‘OK to kill the enemies of the new order’, theft was punishable unless it was ‘expropriation from the bad guys in favor of the good ones’, laws and regulations existed unless ‘the communist Party superimposed over them in the name of its purposes’. Anything was justified, as long as it served the ‘Great Purpose’, and those who were empowered to pass judgment lived according to different rules than those below. Those below took all of it.
By the outcomes of WW2 the system of Socialism was adopted in a number of other countries around the world, some of them developing and some pretty highly industrialized and with developed democracies. It was carried by the barrels of the Red Army and the newly empowered power-holders applied the whole arsenal of instruments designed through the experience of the Soviet Union in ‘achieving of the Great Purpose’. Resistance to the new order was crushed and violence justified – after all, it was for the good of everyone.
In some cases, in countries like China and Cambodia, the methods of achieving the dream of a better society took the forms of abominable repressions and outrageous genocides. In the case of Eastern European countries, they took a little more discrete form.
In the 1960s through the 1980s, when I grew up in my native Bulgaria, Socialism ‘has already won the battle’. The red terror of political executions when people were taken from their homes and shot in the back in open fields was ended by 1945. Forced labor camps as prisons for anyone who dissented were closed by 1962. Political trials were a rarity after 1975.
Other things stayed until the dissolution of the system in 1989:
– ‘resettlement’ or forceful change of place of living with a ban on leaving it for those who did something considered a breach of the system
– ‘denunciation’ or public reprobation for authors of works that smelled of criticism
– ‘limitation’ or restrictions to enter certain types of education for people of ‘insecure origin,’ i.e., having parents or relatives deemed enemies
– conviction and effective prison time even for minor transgressions such as telling a joke about those at the top
– confinement or physical elimination of loud dissenting voices although executions were not open, they followed the discrete scenario of ‘the Bulgarian umbrella’.
– censorship of thought was as strong as ever, but it has taken milder forms, as self-censoring was already internalized by a couple of generations and did the job just as effectively as direct censorship
And so on.
Shortly speaking, Real Socialism was a totalitarian system forcefully installed in a number of countries that previously constituted an integral part of Europe in terms of their economies, finances and political systems. These countries made the list of so-called ‘Eastern Europe’ and implemented all the features of typical totalitarian states. The outcomes differed, though.
Highlights from History
As mentioned before, the system (any system) is accepted and succeeds to a greater or lesser extent depending on the local culture’s special features.
We already mentioned the examples of Czarist Russia or Imperial China, where the populations relatively easily accepted the victory of Socialism and its propagated principles, as this coincided with their millennial-old cultural make-up.
If not embraced, the system was at least endured without mutiny. This was also the case in the examples of Albania, Bulgaria, Russia, Romania between 1944 and 1989.
The system was not fair and power holders lived by different rules, but for the Collectivist mind, that was OK; that was the usual thing.
The need for a Boss, a Father, or a Big Brother, was in the cultures’ DNA, as was the reflex to listen to and obey the power-holders.
Many people were malcontent, yet others praised the ability of the system to ensure jobs for all and minimize crime, thus catering to anxiety and tension with the people.
The lack of competition and the discouraging of individual freedom and assertion also appealed to the social code of these particular cultures.
– It was different with Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
They all had high affinity to Individualistic values and competitiveness. The first two had considerably less acceptance of hierarchy than the Pyramid group, and Poland as far as being relatively hierarchical, had long traditions in independence and democracy. These preferences matched historical realia.
The citizens of these countries proved their attitudes with ‘skin in the game’ i.e., with blood and sacrifice. Socialism was effectively eliminated in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and had to be reinstalled by Soviet tanks. Thousands of people were killed or imprisoned in the process.
Between 1980 and 1989, Solidarność (Solidarity), the Polish dissident trade union, opened the road to changes in Poland and throughout the whole Socialist Bloc by turning Marxist philosophy upside down and proclaiming ‘the real proletarian revolution’ … against Socialism.
The moment Solidarity’s leader Lech Wałęsa became the first democratically elected President of Poland in 1990, he announced that Poland would firmly follow the road of a capitalist system.
– The Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, did not openly oppose their regimes since being part of the USSR, they were considered straight Soviet territory. However, they never stopped seeing themselves and being seen by the world as occupied states between 1940 and 1989.
In the late 1980s, the citizens of these countries instigated a series of peaceful resistance actions known as the Singing Revolution. Then, in August of the tumulus year 1989, they gave a brilliant example of Network consensus by making the longest human chain ever, called the Baltic Chain, including 2 million people holding hands across a distance of 675 kilometers, as a symbol of protest and call for change of Soviet rule.
– After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the transition of ex-Socialist countries into a new system followed strictly cultural lines.
Poland, Hungary and Czech and Slovak Republics swiftly reformed and, together with the Baltic countries, made the first wave of enlargement of the European Union in 2004, building successful market economies since then.
Bulgaria and Romania followed three years later in 2007. However, up to the present day, their reform efforts are still not catching up, and they firmly occupy the last places in the European Index of Corruption. Changes in these countries with especially large power distance and collectivist traits are happening in a typical way – primarily by changing the players instead of changing the system and the rules of the game.
How We Coped
In my experience, I have always found it difficult to explain to ‘Westerners’ what it was and how it was. They would struggle to understand the realities of life under Socialism. Sometimes it would work on a cognitive level, rarely on emotional. ‘But why did you not protest?’ I would hear occasionally. Just to show me that my counterpart could not get out of their framework of affluent, satisfied, democratic, free-speaking, right-of-protest, rule-of-law, functioning society.
It is not easy to understand how we coped. We did, though.
We adapted in all imaginative ways. Bulgarian culture as well as Russian one are both great at adapting to circumstances, as evident by their very high scores of Long-Term Orientation – we have centuries-long traditions in flexibility, adaptation and ingenious ways of fooling the system. The goal was not only survival. In our Collectivist way, many were able to arrange a pretty comfortable life for themselves, their families, their close ones, leaving higher aspirations for others. Russia has done it for 70 years; others managed for 50.
Several generations internalized the consequences:
– Distrust – living in a totalitarian system means you grow up being taught to distrust everything and everybody. You learn not to say your thoughts over the phone. You are being indoctrinated since early childhood into the ideology of ‘the Great purpose,’ and you don’t believe one word of it, as the things you see are in sharp contrast with the things you hear.
– Alienation – was one of the major reverse effects of the system. Socialism was supposed to eliminate the alienation of people from their work (a central Marxist concept); it was supposed to create a brotherhood of men and women working together in happy harmony.
Several research efforts (Trompenaars, WVS) have shown that in the attitudes regarding working on one’s own instead of in team collaboration, the top places are occupied by Czechs with 88% agreeing, Russians 86%, Hungarians 84%, Polish 80%, etc. or in other words “Socialism suppressed exactly what it aimed to install”. (Minkov, 2007)
– Avoidance – was the escape route, in the sense of being indifferent and trying to minimize relations with institutions, either within a company being your workplace or with government institutions.
You grow up distrusting school and teachers and resenting their intervention of your free will.
(the best way to visualize it are the marching children turned into putty-faced clones in Another Brick in the Wall, Pink Floyd’s famous anthem).
When the time comes to go to work, you distrust superiors and colleagues and don’t care about work outcomes. As a result, the place where you work is not perceived as a team of people gathered around a common goal but as a “faceless system of rules and actions” (Minkov, 2007) where you invest by necessity a certain amount of time and effort while trying to interact as little as possible with others.
The same goes for the state and its institutions that you treat as designed to bring harm, and they, in turn, treat you as nothing more than a milking cow.
All this does not encourage Indulgence. On the contrary, restraining your thoughts and feelings is clinically depressing and successfully turns people into dark pessimists. The other thing people internalize is that they don’t have much control over their lives. No wonder life satisfaction is not thriving under Socialism.
The system eventually imploded, but the culture stayed.
The political and ideological system that ‘Eastern European’ countries lived with for about 50 years did not change their national cultures. There is convincing proof of that by the World Value Survey and other sources, which in the 1990s showed the similarity in the value systems of East and West Germany.
Socialism undoubtedly exercised influence upon certain cultural traits as it had strengthened or lessened some of them. Yet, it could not create a culture of its own regardless of its rich set of coercive tools. (after Minkov, 2007)
Highlights from the Present – how Europe sees its European ‘Other’
It is the year 2022, and two or three generations already have grown into adulthood without knowing what Socialism was. Young people of today do not call their countries ex-Socialist. Yet, they continue to be called ‘Eastern Europe.’ For example, the ‘invasion of the East Europeans’ occupied an honorable place in the arguments in favor of Brexit before the 2016 referendum.
How is ‘Eastern Europe’ perceived by others in the European Union today?
Let’s have a look at the countries from our list of ‘Eastern Europe’ – the countries which Europe and its main body, the European Union, applauded in 1989 for overthrowing the totalitarian regimes, and later accepted as members, realizing perfectly well that Europe is incomplete without them in every aspect of the continent’s prosperity – economy, energy, security, infrastructure, human rights, to name but a few.
There are a lot of descriptions, definitions, or straight accusations being thrown at large in the public space by politicians and media alike that show how the mainstream is creating a sort of a negative picture of East European countries. In most cases, this picture is perceived unquestionably by Western citizens who – unlike Eastern Europeans – are used to mostly trusting their institutions, as a consequence of their Individualism and low Power Distance.
Here is a brief selection of some of these representations (leaving Russia out as it is not part of the EU):
– infringing on the rights of women – Poland, Romania, Bulgaria
– anti-migrant and anti-refugee stance and policies – Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Slovakia
Bulgaria and Romania do not appear in the light of anti-migrant rhetoric, yet they have the lowest rates of acceptance of refugees; the same applies for the Baltic countries
– infringing on the rights of LGBTQ communities – Poland, Hungary; as well as countries which do not allow same-sex marriage: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania
– attacking democratic institutions – Hungary, Poland
– ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ – Hungary (Guy Verhofstadt)
– ‘illiberal democracies’ – Poland, Hungary
– right-wing, populist governments – Poland, Hungary
– corrupt, ‘Europe on two speeds’ – Bulgaria, Romania
(examples taken from various media sources)
A brief look at these descriptions shows that most of them are related to the issue of Identity.
‘Eastern Europe’ and the Identity Issue
The qualifications mentioned above align with the current mainstream of what is considered right or wrong in the Western but not necessarily in the Eastern parts of Europe.
There are different opinions on different issues in every country and nation. So much so, there are people in Western European countries who may disagree with what is considered politically correct. Just so, in the East, there are many people who share the politically correct ideas that dominate West European cultural landscape.
Yet. We are talking about the mainstream. The best reflection of the mainstream is in the politicians and politics that people elect for their governance and the resulting legal framework. After all, we have functional democracy in Europe, at least among the member states.
In most cases, the politicians governing ‘Eastern European’ countries who are mostly targeted by criticism from the current European mainstream, have been successfully supported by their electorate for quite some time. Meaning, their policies match the prevailing opinions in their societies.
Examples: Poland (current Law & Order party in power since 2015), Hungary (conservative Fidesz party and Victor Orban in power since 2010), Latvia (center-right coalitions in power since 2010), Czech Republic (current president Miloš Zeman, described as ‘one of the most Kremlin-friendly leaders’, directly elected 2 times since 2013); East Germany (steady electoral support for Alternative fur Deutschland, qualified as extreme right-wing party, since 2013).
So, what makes Eastern Europeans lean so ‘right’?
Issues with Identity.
Let’s have a look at the phenomenon of Identity and Identity Wars from the perspective of people from Eastern Europe.
What is Identity?
I am not going to write about Identity. There are plenty of works and definitions exploring Identity in its philosophical, cultural, or psychological aspects.
The question which is relevant here is:
Why are we engaged in Identity Politics?
The prevailing agreement is that Identity issues entered politics in the context of the struggle for civil rights, against social injustices and for betterment of discriminated minorities.
Historically, the strive towards the unquestionable universality of human rights is a very Individualistic idea (just to mention that those who penned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 originated from USA and Canada). Such an idea would not be so easily generated by a Collectivist mind for whom difference in standards comes as easy as breathing.
The idea of human rights, equality and justice is thousands of years old – even in ancient times the great philosopher Plato had a dream of “free city ruled by the people where everybody counts equally, and has at least three slaves”. Which comes to show that labels are meaningless out of the context in which they were created.
To remember the original premises of the struggles for rights and equality, we can get back to Marx:
– the subject of the struggle were classes
– the essence of the struggle was in the universal concepts of freedom and justice
However, as pointed before, Marx and company left out one very important factor of human nature as a contributing factor for social justice: “the craving for dignity” (Fukuyama, 2018).
In the past, as of today, in societies with lower standards of living, where people are struggling to secure basics such as shelter, food, water, health, education, their main concerns are similar to those of 19th century working class.
Not so in affluent societies where basic needs and wants are mostly done away with and the matters of ‘dignity’ takes central place.
Identity at the start
The early adepts wanted to have additional layers of experiences of injustice, such as not only having a fight for women’s rights but ‘deepening’ this to a fight for the rights of black women, for example. Instead of broadening the base for correction of injustices, the idea was to narrow it in order to address personal experience.
This was an Individualistic idea taken to its extreme. So, naturally, it originated in the United States, although it was quickly embraced by the counter and then the mainstream cultures of all developed, affluent, Individualistic Western societies.
At the heart of Identity Politics is the assumption that belonging to a certain minority category or group of the population like having black skin, or being a woman, or having certain sexual preferences, or being of a certain (minority) religion, automatically endows the person with a set of features. And also, this automatically puts him/her into a position of oppression, makes the person ‘more vulnerable’, and as a consequence – more entitled to defense.
Formulated in this way, the Identity issue was embraced by multitudes of social justice warriors who did not have to provide a framework or a rational proof for their causes.
Taken to its logical extreme, Identity Politics is tremendously attractive. It allows all forms of human stupidity and laziness to be presented in the halo of oppression and historical injustice.
There is more to that, though.
The Marxist Roots of Identity Wars
One-two hundred years ago, progressive liberal forces fought for such fundamental things as social solidarity, equal rights, and opportunities for people of all races, ethnicities, genders, religions, and sexual preferences.
Those movements associated with the term ‘left’ have a profound contribution to many of today’s luxuries that we take for granted, like fair pay, two-day weekends, eight-hour workday, twenty-day leave, safe working conditions, etc.
If you make a parallel with the new left – Starbucks/iPhone Social Justice Warriors, carrying a brochure by Marcuse or Mao Zedong in their pockets – you will notice no mention of ‘working class’. Instead, they are set out to ‘defend’ completely different ideas and groups.
The left of the past fought for class justice, but the issue of Identity has successfully replaced this discourse, and neoliberals have begun to discover new and new masses of victims that could be successfully ‘defended’.
Back in the 19th century, Marxism became the flagship of what is considered ‘the Left,’ although leftist ideas encompass many more ideological and philosophical currents. However, as radical as it seemed in the past, classical Marxism has been twisted and twirled by the likes of Kautsky, Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin – men who were more of “functioneers” than thinkers, more of tacticians than philosophers – in order to suite their agenda of implementing the ideology into real life, real Socialism.
This modified Marxist doctrine resulted in a new relativism that shed all of its humanitarian features and turned into an instrument of terror and oppression that shaped the so-called Real Socialism for 70+ years.
After World War Two, the world split along two ideological lines. So did Marxism.
There were the practitioners who were ‘building the new order’ in the Socialist East. And there were the neo-Marxist who worked ‘towards the new order’ from the comfort of their university chairs in the West.
Ironically, it turned out that the capitalist West provided better conditions for the thriving of Marxism: affluence, security, free speech, observation of human rights, tolerance and free expression of thoughts.
The primary ideological source of neo-Marxism is in the works of the Frankfurt School (Frankfurter Schule) of social theory, which positioned themselves as revisionist (or ‘correctors’) of Marxism and its Eastern / Soviet variant. However, they had the same end goal – destroying capitalist society.
Most members of the school moved to the United States in the 1930s, where they occupied a number of professor chairs in humanitarian faculties on the East and West Coast and continued to indoctrinate followers.
The most outstanding or at least best known among them is Herbert Marcuse. Of course, he is very far away from the philosophical genius of Marx and can rather be compared to Lenin both as a tactician and as someone detached from any moral binds.
Ironically, while the originators of Marxism tried to decouple the actions for change from human nature as much as possible, the new Marxists, the neo-Marxists, embraced culture as their primary weapon for eliminating capitalist order.
Marcuse and his likes pursued a dream: the destruction of the bourgeois state and the emergence of New people and New Order, thriving in a New World. They developed the idea about the ‘cultural’, non-violent struggle against bourgeois morality and the state in all their aspects. They enriched it with elements like undermining Europe’s cultural heritage, including Christianity, to carry out Marxism’s dream of social revolution.
They concluded that unlike the political one, the cultural revolution is eroding society more effectively and quickly, with less violence. They recognized that ‘soft power’ achieved new forms of obedience. For Frankfurt School thinkers, the revolution is a long-term project in the fields of morality, family, education, science, popular culture, education, art, media and sexual relations.
Marcuse was not happy anymore with the working class as an agent of change. The working class has become too opportunist, too conservative and too satisfied. So, he set on substituting the proletariat with new revolutionaries and found candidates for that in all and any groups labeled as ‘oppressed minorities’. The label is quite suitable for continuing struggle – as at the moment a certain minority reaches equalizing achievements, the struggle continues for privileges designed to ‘redress past injustice’. Also, the moment a minority starts to become a bit mainstream, there can always be found another one that needs defense.
However, the biggest enormity created by Marcuse and company is contained in a short work by the name of ‘A Critique of Pure Tolerance’ (1965), in which they proclaim “the right of revolutionary minorities to suppress opinions”. In other words, they undermine the basis of the principles of free speech, arguing that tolerance to ‘the oppressed’ requires “intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions”. They make a case for “repressive tolerance”, which would consist of intolerance to right-wing movements and toleration of left-wing movements. (of course, the question of who is ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ is subject to interpretation by the chosen few). (Marcuse, Wolff, Moore, 1969)
Anyone who has lived in Socialism can quickly recognize the patterns of suppression of dissent in this “liberating tolerance” as gently called by Marcuse.
Marcuse and his collaborators worked out an ideology that is in its nature totalitarian. Their success was supported by the fact that they operated in the United States, a country with a heavy legacy of racism and a track record of aspirations to justice.
The main traits of American Culture are extreme Individualism, low Uncertainty Avoidance, and Short-Term Orientation – the last one meaning conviction that there is one indisputable Truth, which is, of course, our Truth, the Truth we share. In the United States the Identity Wars found rich soil to thrive. Coupled with the vast money always available for missionary endeavors, the Identity Wars started their victorious march worldwide spearheaded by George Soros’s activism and Hollywood’s exceptionalism.
You may find this correct or incorrect, safe for two things:
– The Identity Issue is evolved and spread based on a mainly American agenda disregarding local cultural issues and preferences – and that is bad.
(Sorry, in my native culture, as well as in many others, we don’t have a particular legacy of enslaving African population 200-300 years ago and don’t see a reason to feel guilty about it).
– The guerillas of Identity, waving ‘Repressive Tolerance’ as a banner, are trying to shut down all disagreeing voices and even slightly different points of view – and that is bad.
An ‘Eastern European’ Lens
Having started around the 1960s and promoted in the 1980s, the Identity crusade got a powerful impetus with the rise of globalization and especially after 2005 with the mass spread of technology and social media. “Social media and the Internet have facilitated the emergence of self-contained communities, walled off not by physical barriers but by shared identities.” (Fukuyama, 2018)
Western Europe quickly followed the United States into the footsteps of Identity issues. The rights of oppressed minorities overpowered academic research, moved from streets to councils, conquered news and media outlets and finally established themselves into mainstream political agendas.
Societies which seemed unanimously agreeing on principles such as equality, unity, fairness and freedom, shifted their preoccupation into fragmenting into smaller and smaller groups and interests. Fragmentation carries the seeds of social disintegration.
Eastern Europe watched in dismay.
Don’t take it wrong!
We, from ‘Eastern Europe’ are fully in favor of eliminating abominable phenomena such as racism or sexual harassment. Most of us are concerned about the fate of the underdog, of those who are not so lucky in life, and we support solidarity and care. We are also ardent proponents of freedom of choice, freedom of speech and free will – as we have learnt through deprivation to value them highly.
But we have lived in the totalitarian state, our young generations don’t remember Socialism but have enough aversion to it in their DNA, and we are able to discern tyranny when we see one.
Here are some Identity tunes and how they ring in ‘East European’ ears:
– Your nationality does not matter, you must be European, supranational, global. Global is correct, national is not!
Yes, we have been there. It used to be called Internationalism. It called for forgetting where you came from, as the legacy of your origin makes you belong to a large group, a nation. A nation is a support group which makes you more resistant against totalitarian rule and regulation.
– European Law has to supersede national law; it was part of the agreement to join the EU.
Yes, we have been there. The Big Soviet Brother imposing their will upon our wishes. We agree with and accept European law, but there is a limit to that when things step over our cultural boundaries.
– You will have to take on your quota of migrants, as this is what the European Union has decided.
We don’t mind helping others to the extent that we can and want to. But we do what we want to do in our own house.
– Multicultural is good. You must tolerate and sustain a large number of people living among you in the way they prefer, being very strange to your culture and habits.
We have been there – where people were supposed to be like screws and fit in wherever put. But we know that is not true, people are different and their interests often contradictory and difficult to integrate. Or else, the Soviet Bloc wouldn’t have fallen apart.
– You must provide rights and freedoms for these about 0.5 % to 5 % of the population identifying as LGBTQ. Minorities should be given rights equal to the majority.
We don’t mind. Minorities should have equal rights and freedoms as everyone else. But don’t make us give them privileges, we have seen enough of privileges already.
Doesn’t democracy mean prevalence of majority over minority?
– You should not use hate speech or any kind of speech that is not acceptable to somebody and might offend them.
Yes, we have been there. We’ve had enough people jailed or killed for ‘not saying the right thing’. We are allergic to political correctness and are not willing to give up hard won free speech.
– It is OK to tolerate extreme language or actions when we are talking about left causes and not OK to tolerate similar things coming from the right-wing sources. Left is right, right is not!
Don’t touch us on double standards again! Been there, seen that! No, that does not make us fascists, racist, extremist or any other -ists.
– Women have been an oppressed minority for ages. You should give more rights and opportunities to women.
Sorry, since the times of Alexandra Kolontai women have been fully emancipated. We have the highest numbers in Europe (and maybe the world) of women in top management positions, high political representation, and more women than men in scientific and engineering professions. Anything else?
– You are so lagging in your activism! Why don’t you support more decisively civil causes?
If my child wants to change the world, their place is in school to study and prepare for that. We think that climate is way too important and serious to be lectured by a 16-year-old school dropout.
The list can go on. And to anyone who feels shocked or resentful to the examples above, I have one message:
It’s a big world and there are viewpoints that differ from yours!
What To Do
As a consultant who works with people and businesses to help them bridge gaps in understanding, and find ways of working together, I wrote a list of recommendations in the first draft of this article.
As a someone concerned about what future awaits my children, as someone who lives very much in ‘Eastern Europe’ and in the United States, I deleted this list.
I honestly don’t know!
In the light of a very personal opinion, I tend to agree with most of the views of Francis Fukuyama and look for solutions based on the creation of shared national identity. This invariably involves “assimilation into a dominant culture” – a phrase that sounds like anathema for the adepts of the Identity Bible.
However, a culture war is best won by Culture means. It seems that those who manage to harness the power of Culture in favor of their cause shall emerge as the winners. On a personal level I very much hope that the winning side will be the one embracing common sense, tolerance, freedom, and democracy. Provided it is not too late.
Fukuyama, Francis, Against Identity Politics The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy In: Foreign Affairs: September/October 2018
Grob, Thomas. The concept of “Eastern Europe” in past and present. University of Basel, Switzerland,
Hofstede, Geert: Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, 2nd Edition. Sage Publications, 2001, hardcover, ISBN 0-8039-7323-7; ISBN 0-8039-7324-4.
Hofstede, Geert; Hofstede Geert Jan; Minkov. Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind, Third Revised Edition, McGraw-Hill (2010,) ISBN 0-07-166418-1. ©Geert Hofstede B.V.
Marcuse, Herbert; Wolff, Robert Paul; Moore, Barrington; A Critique of Pure Tolerance – Beacon Press, 1969; ISBN 10: 0224616889 ISBN 13: 9780224616881
Wursten, Huib. The 7 Mental Images of National Culture Leading and managing in a globalized world, Amazon (2019) ISBN-10: 1687633347 ISBN-13: 978-1687633347
Желев, Желю. Фашизмът (оригинално заглавие Тоталитарната държава) 1967-1982, издателство БЗНС
Zhelev, Zhelyu – dissident scholar and writer before 1989, President of Bulgaria 1990-1997
Seminal work on the features of totalitarian regimes; original title: The Totalitarian State, published under the title Fascism 1967-1982
Минков, Михаил. Защо сме различни, „Класика и стил“ (2007), ISBN 978-954-327-029-3
Minkov, Mihail, a book on the exploration of cultures from Hofstede Model point of view, in Bulgarian, titled Why We Are Different (2007)
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