Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the second being East European Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

      — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors

By Artur Banaszewski & Isabel Jacobs

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, both a violent military conflict and a war of narratives, forces us to reassess the role of Eastern Europe in intellectual history. Scouring the archives for our first Virtual Issue on East European Intellectual History, we noticed that this complex region is still terra incognita for many scholars in the West. Given the global consequences of the Russo-Ukrainian war, it is now more important than ever to critically reassess the existing scholarship about Eastern Europe and award the region with the agency it deserves.

We also found traces of hope in the archives, with scholars pushing disciplinary boundaries to deconstruct orientalist and determinist views from within. Focusing on notions of modernity, this first installment of East European Intellectual History resituates the region and outlines the main challenges future scholarship will need to address. In a truly global and decolonizing history of ideas, “East” and “West” are floating signifiers, the inverted commas signaling ideological, cultural, and religious rather than geographical ascriptions. But what is Eastern Europe? And how can we rewrite its intellectual histories?

In Inventing Eastern Europe (1994), Larry Wolff unveiled how, in the 18th century, Enlightenment intellectuals fabricated their imaginaries of Eastern Europe, most prominently French writer Voltaire (who never made it east of Berlin himself). Voltaire’s The history of the Russian empire under Peter the Great (1759/1763) emphasized Russia’s inbetweenness of Europe and Asia—a geopolitical construct that was reimported by Russian thinkers to affirm their imperial position in Eurasia.

Voltaire’s fascination for Russia as an imperial power sparked a passionate correspondence with Catherine the Great, whom he hailed as the “goddess of the Enlightenment in Russia” (Wolff, 201). After hearing of the conquest of Crimea, Voltaire reimagined his Russian muse as Iphigenia, “unscrambling” the chaos in the land of the Taurians. In Eastern Europe, just off its doorsteps, the “West” discovered its own Orient. According to Wolff, Western intellectuals of the Enlightenment began defining their civilization “with respect to the semi-Oriental backwardness of Eastern Europe” (Wolff, 345).

Voltaire’s orientalizing depictions of Eastern Europe had yet another unsettling consequence. By presenting Eastern Europeans as intolerant and uncivilized, the French philosopher also facilitated and legitimized Russia’s imperial dominance in the region. The belief that the lands located east of Berlin differed from the rest of the continent in essential, intangible ways implied that their inhabitants could only become “enlightened” thanks to a power compatible with their ways of thinking: the Russian Empire. Hence, the orientalization of Eastern Europe helped advance the projects of Western Enlightenment and Russian imperialism alike.

As Gražina Bielousova has recently argued, Eastern Europe as a concept is thus born from the “conditions of double hegemony.” Any study of the region is shaped by both “Western colonial interest and Russian quest for dominance.” Consequently, the division between the gravitational fields of the “West” and “East” is not a natural, geographical delineation. It is an ideological distinction embedded in Enlightenment narratives of Western civilizational superiority and orientalized essentialism of Eastern Europe as an internal Other.

Jean-Jacques Avril, “Catherine’s Triumph: Allegory of Empress Catherine II’s journey to Crimea” (1790), Hermitage Museum

The imaginary maps of the 18th century, perpetuating the narrative of double hegemony, continued to condition the relations between the “West” and the “East” of Europe. Geographically located in Europe yet denied the privileged status associated with European civilization, the region remained mostly absent from the scope of Western intellectuals. In his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel left open the question of whether Eastern Europeans would take part in furthering the course of the World-Spirit.

On the other hand, Oswald Spengler in his infamous The Decline of the West outright refused to use the word “Europe” on the assumption that it wrongly included Russia within the scope of the Western civilization (Spengler, 16). In the 1920s, Spengler claimed that all modernizing attempts of East European politicians were artificial and unnatural, as the region was at an earlier, inferior stage in the historical process. Basing his views on Eastern Europe on determinism, Spengler considered attempts at modernity in the region as doomed to failure. By doing so, he denied Eastern Europeans any autonomous agency.

Once we consider the idea of double hegemony, it becomes strikingly clear how little Western views on Eastern Europe changed during the Cold War. Just as the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great presented its conquests in Eastern Europe as a spread of the Enlightenment, now the Soviet Union legitimized its control over the Eastern Bloc with the building of an alternative, socialist system. Similarly to Voltaire in the 18th century, many left-wing Western intellectuals during the Cold War ignored their role in legitimizing Soviet imperialism in the region.

In both cases, the subaltern status of Eastern Europe was perpetuated through marginalizing assumptions about its cultural and civilizational inferiority. Consequently, one of the main concerns of our Virtual Issue is to deconstruct this simplified narrative and critically evaluate (Western) scholarship on East European Intellectual History from the 1950s until today.

As the issue showcases, Eastern European intellectuals and thinkers were aware of the importance of the modernization discourse for the region. The permanent inadequacy vis-à-vis Western philosophies of history has forced Eastern Europeans to continually contest the boundaries of European modernity. Our Virtual Issue explores how this process challenged false, essentialist dichotomies between barbarism and civilization, progress and backwardness, the oriental “East” and enlightened “West.” One outcome was that Western Europe was never able to fully undermine Eastern Europe’s agency and self-determination.

At the same time, “East” and “West” remained mutually interdependent, due to their shared intellectual traditions and transfer of ideas. Thus, East European Intellectual History should aim to break with narratives driven by false dichotomies and rediscover how Eastern agency has helped shape European history. It will be necessary to critically assess two factors: how Russian imperialism has overshadowed the rest of the region, and how Western scholarship has neglected Eastern European experiences. Eastern Europe needs to be reinstated as a full-fledged subject of historical inquiry equal to its Western neighbors.

However, this process will involve serious risks for Eastern Europeans themselves. While striving for their voice and empowerment, Eastern European scholars should resist the temptation to revive past discourses of European historical exceptionalism and civilizational superiority. Integrating Eastern Europe into these narratives would mean drawing the wrong lesson from the region’s history. Rather, East European history should serve as a reminder of the triviality and vagueness of all discourses of imperial dominance, cultural essentialism, and historical determinism.

Future scholarship about Eastern Europe must not strive to upgrade it to the club of historically privileged subjects but to break the club from within. Only then will East European Intellectual History have a chance to move beyond the conditions of double hegemony and become an integral part of a wider project of Global Intellectual History.

  • Siljak, Ana. “Between East and West: Hegel and the Origins of the Russian Dilemma.” Journal of the History of Ideas 62, no. 2 (2001): 335–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/3654362.
  • Thompson, Martyn P. “Ideas of Europe during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.” Journal of the History of Ideas 55, no. 1 (1994): 37–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/2709952.
  • Lewitter, L. R. “Peter the Great, Poland, and the Westernization of Russia.” Journal of the History of Ideas 19, no. 4 (1958): 493–506. https://doi.org/10.2307/2707919.
  • Gluck, Mary. “The Budapest Coffee House and the Making of ‘Jewish Modernity’ at the Fin de Siècle.” Journal of the History of Ideas 74, no. 2 (2013): 289–306. https://doi.org/10.1353/jhi.2013.0017.
  • Vovchenko, Denis. “Modernizing Orthodoxy: Russia and the Christian East (1856—1914).” Journal of the History of Ideas 73, no. 2 (2012): 295–317. https://doi.org/10.1353/jhi.2012.0018.
  • Williams, Robert C. “The Russian Soul: A Study in European Thought and Non-European Nationalism.” Journal of the History of Ideas 31, no. 4 (1970): 573–588. https://doi.org/10.2307/2708261.
  • Sinkoff, Nancy. “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment.” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, no. 1 (2000): 133–52. https://doi.org/10.2307/3654046.

Opening our survey of East European Intellectual History, Ana Siljak’s inspiring article argues that Russian intellectuals derived their conception of the world as irrevocably divided between “East” and “West” from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History. (In a way, by proclaiming the Spirit had wandered off from East to West, Hegel promoted the idea of Russia’s innate backwardness.)

From the 1830s onwards, most social, cultural, and political issues in Imperial Russia became framed through the West-East dilemma. As V. N. Tatishchev, Peter the Great’s historian, stated, “where the border between these two large and most important cultures is located, no one has as yet determined for certain” (p. 336). This imaginary division persisted through Russian nationalism and Soviet Marxism, and continues to influence our thinking about Russia to this day.

Similarly, Martyn P. Thompson’s article investigates Edmund Burke’s criticism of French revolutionary ideas of Europe. While Eastern Europe is only mentioned as a side note, Thompson echoes Tatishchev in stating the “boundaries of Europe may be disputed” (p. 44). Written just after the end of the Soviet Union, Thompson’s article is representative of Western scholarship on Europe that does not turn its gaze east of Berlin.

L. R. Lewitter’s 1958 article, on the other hand, is an astonishing piece of scholarship on the transnational foundations of modern Russia, recognizing the critical role of Kyiv. The author argues that in the 17th century Polish culture was the main vehicle of westernizing Russia, while Ukraine played a pivotal role as an intermediary. However, the Polish education system, dominated by Jesuit institutions, was too backward and static to meet Peter’s ambitious goals, which led to a decline of Latino-Polish culture in Russia.

Mary Gluck’s article conceptualizes Budapest’s fin-de-siècle coffee houses as mystified, ambivalent symbols of urban modernity. Through the lens of the coffee house, she deconstructs the notion of “Jewish Budapest” as a motor of conservative antisemitism which ascribed to Jews decadence and immorality associated with cosmopolitan life. The article is also significant for problematizing a contested notion in East European Intellectual History: modernity. Here, it is the key concept to describe the adoption of Western European institutions, such as the coffee house, in a supposedly barbaric, orientalized Hungary.

In his contribution, Denis Vovchenko takes a radically different approach to Eastern Europe as a laboratory of alternative modernities. His article voices an important criticism of Russia’s exclusion from Western historiography while deconstructing ideas of progress. The author claims that Pan-Slavism and Pan-Orthodoxy were articulate attempts to decenter a Western narrative that is progressivist and universalizing. In his view, both movements aimed to formulate modern political identities based on traditional Orthodox values as opposed to those of the liberal “West.” However, and this makes his compelling analysis contestable, he does not once mention that these revisionist ideologies were conceived as an extension of Russia’s imperial project in the region.

Robert C. Williams’s article describes the emergence of the influential concept of ‘Russian soul’ in the 1840s and follows its evolution until the 1900s. Williams argues that the term was used in different ways: by Russians as an utopian reaction to European industrialization, by Europeans to mark Russia’s arcadian identity. German Romanticists even utilized the concept to voice their own anti-European sentiments. The ‘Russian soul’ formed an integral part of Russian nationalism and ideologies of superiority.

However, as so often in the history of ideas, this conceptual vehicle of Russian nationalism was itself a product of transnational entanglements, borrowed and synthesized by Vissarion Belinsky from Gogol and Schelling (p. 580). Williams concludes that Russia’s attempt at modernity shares affinities with other non-Western experiences, for instance modernizing tendencies in the Islamic world. 

Our first installment closes with Nancy Sinkoff’s article on Benjamin Franklin’s reception in Jewish Eastern Europe. Her piece is a great example of giving Eastern Europe intellectual agency instead of framing the lands between Germany and Russia as passive recipients of Enlightenment ideas. Sinkoff focuses on Mendel Lefin of Satanów, an enlightened Jewish scholar from Poland, who creatively transformed and applied Franklin’s ideas to the context of Polish Jewry. Sinkoff’s careful remapping of Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe brings out the local specificities in the experience of modernity.

As such, her article is a wonderful example of a new approach to East European Intellectual History: one that balances micro and macro, the local and the global, while emphasizing the role of transcultural transmissions. Rather than a unidirectional stream of ideas from “West” to “East,” Sinkoff conceptualizes Eastern Europe as an original contributor to key debates of the Enlightenment, thus displaying the great potential of including the region in future intellectual histories of the continent and the globe.

Artur Banaszewski is a PhD researcher in the Department of History and Civilization at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He holds a Master of Letters degree in Global Social and Political Thought from the University of St Andrews. Artur’s doctoral project titled “Disillusioned with communism. Zygmunt Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski and the global decline of orthodox Marxism” explores Eastern European critiques of socialist thought and intersects them with the global political context of the Cold War. His research interests include global intellectual history, postcolonial studies, political theory, and Cold War liberalism. 

Isabel Jacobs is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her dissertation explores Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s aesthetics. Her research interests include Soviet and Russian philosophy, German-Jewish thought, global intellectual history, and cinema. She holds a MA in Russian and East European Literature and Culture from UCL and a BA in Philosophy and Slavic Studies from Heidelberg University.

Featured Image: Johnson’s 1862 map of Europe with a colorful border between “East” and “West”.