Blog: Don’t call me an Eastern European!

What to do with our ‘Eastern Europe’ label? Keep it or ditch it?

Every coin has two sides. There are positive nuances of ‘Eastern Europe’.Every coin has two sides. There are positive nuances of ‘Eastern Europe’. (Source: Sme-Pavol Funtál)

We all know it. When you tell a foreigner that you come from Slovakia and most of them give you that surprised look. It hurts the most when the voyeur is from the ‘West’. It is hard to escape the consequential classification of the former Iron Curtain, where anything East of Germany is slotted into the category of ‘Eastern European’. A large geographical circumference which encompasses everyone from the Czechs to the Russians, including Europe’s largest ethnic group: the Slavs.

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Are we ashamed of being Eastern European? Why?

Our region was labelled ‘Eastern Europe’ during the powerful propaganda of the Cold War. Ironically, the fall of the Iron Curtain only reinforced the term. As borders opened, we began to explore the world, and the world also began to explore us. The differences between East and West suddenly became very real and tangible. Stereotypes grew even stronger during the instability of the 1990s as we tried our best to transition from planned economy to free market, making very many beginner mistakes along the way.

The 2004 accession to the European Union was a major salvation point. For the first time, a new generation of Eastern Europeans embarked freely for the West. Personal contact between the once removed populations helped to heal the old geopolitical divides. Just over a decade later, things are taking a turn for the worst. The rise of Putin’s Russia, the annexation of Crimea and the V4’s refusal to cooperate on the migrant issue bring old division back to life. Today, the phenomenon of ‘Eastern Europe’ is becoming ever more pronounced.   

‘Eastern European’ evokes a wave of unpleasant emotions within us. The ignorance of Westerners adds to the frustration. No, we do not get around on horses. Yes, we have paved roads now, even electricity and smartphones. Humorous at first, these statements expose much deeper and painful connotations. Cheap labour, the bad reputation of Polish abroad, offensive Russians, corruption, low salaries and a lower standard of living are all common perceptions of our region. It is no surprise that we find the label insulting and above all disrespectful.

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However, every coin has two sides. Let’s have a look at the positive nuances of ‘Eastern Europe’. Disciplined and educated work-force, tenacity, diligence, creativity, innovation, the success of our IT sector and technology at large are competencies that are celebrated. The allure of the Slovak environment for foreign investors, the beautiful countryside for tourists, the pure mystical Slavic soul, the achievements of our sportsmen and sportswomen are world renowned. Not to mention the rise of a Slovak finalist for the top post of the United Nations. Finally, how can we forget the famed and cherished beauty of our women?

What to do with our ‘Eastern Europe’ label? Keep it or ditch it?

Realistically, the term ‘Eastern Europe’ is too deeply ingrained in the public consciousness of Westerners to simply do away with it. The label provides guidance to thinking about the former Eastern Bloc. Moreover, the term ‘Eastern Europe’ is handy as it captures our geographic location and history. It could be thought of as a mental shortcut. ‘Eastern Europe’ is a convenient term, which is why the West is reluctant to abandon it. Indeed, Slovakia can and is trying to change this perception. So far, the efforts have failed. Simply put, the influence of our country is not strong enough to uproot this familiar concept.

“I am an Eastern-European and I am proud of it”

A much more doable solution to the ‘problem’ lends itself here. Instead of fierce resistance to the term, why don’t we just fill it with a new meaning? Why don’t we rebrand and tweak the ‘Eastern European’ label? Westerners are also starting to view our region differently. The new film Anthropoid that celebrates Slovaks as heroes in the Second World War is a shining example. The world at large is curious about what lies behind the label. ‘Eastern Europe’ is no longer a derogatory term for a sleepy backwater region. The time has come for us to embrace the term. Why reinvent the wheel, when all that the old one needs is a coat of fresh paint? ‘Eastern Europe’ deserves to be loved and glamourized. Next time you are asked about your provenance, answer with confidence: “I am an Eastern-European and I am proud of it.”

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