Charles King: We Are Back in the 19th Century

If you ask average students about differences between human beings, the first division is race, next comes ethnicity. They believe that it is real. Not just that it’s a powerful sort of idea—says Charles King, professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University in an interview with Aleksander Kaczorowski.

ALEKSANDER KACZOROWSKI: You have written some excellent books on the Black Sea, Caucasus, Istanbul, and Odessa. How did you get involved in these Eastern Europe issues?

CHARLES KING: Where I grew up, if you wanted to be strange at the time when I grew up, the best way to be strange was by being interested in the Communists. I grew up in a rather conservative part of the United States, in the South, in Arkansas. During the Cold War in the 1980s this part of the world might as well have been on another planet, at least the society that I grew up in. And I think I was always fascinated by the idea that people who live as far away as Europe or even in the Soviet Union must be real people, need not have two heads.

You know, “the Russians love their children too?”

Yeah, you know, you mention this song that, of course it was a silly pop song in a way, but I think to the 15-year-old me that was a bit of a revelation: “Oh yes, I guess they must.” So then I just became fascinated by the Communist world, as we used to call it, and my first time out of the US was to the Soviet Union. I had never left the US before. I got my passport, they sent it to you through your post office back then. So I got a passport to go with my Russian class to Leningrad and Moscow.

That was the spring of 1987, which was of course an interesting time. The beginning of Perestroika, the beginning of glasnost. The circumstances, the places, the people, all that was fascinating. It had a particular kind of smell, the place, the particular Soviet smell and it was some combination of a very cheap tobacco and grease from the wheels of the metro cars. I still remember being fascinated by it. I had no business caring about anything like that, I mean, I grew up on a farm, my mom still lives on the family farm, but I think I was just thrown into a thing that was as different from what I knew as I could imagine. And then I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in that eld. I got a scholarship after I finished my undergraduate degree, to do a master’s degree in Russian and East European studies and I kind of landed by chance in the best possible place, at Oxford. The main person teaching Eastern European history and politics was Timothy Garton Ash. I was in the same class with PhD student Timothy Snyder and there was a guy, a visiting student from Bulgaria, Ivan Krastev. I think we all felt we were experiencing something special.

Was it 1989?

It was right after. It was in 1990 that I came to Oxford. So everything was still fresh and I signed up for a two years’ master’s degree in the middle of which, of course, the August coup happened in Moscow so I started a degree which was called “Soviet studies” and by the time I graduated it’s changed its name to “Russian…”. Then I was searching around for something to write my dissertation on, and I remember Tim Snyder, who came a year after me and we both had the same scholarship. I remember talking with him about what he wanted to do and he said “I’m gonna go o this summer and study Polish.” I thought I should learn a new language too. I learned Russian as an undergraduate and I thought I should pick up another language.

 

I think I was always fascinated by the idea that people who live as far away as Europe or even in the Soviet Union must be real people, need not have two heads.

 

I thought Tim is doing Polish, so I should pick something different. There was an ad on the language center board that you could learn Romanian, so I called the place and I started working with a guy, he was another student from Romania. And one thing led into another, I started to focus more on South-Eastern Europe and that part of the world. And I think, I’ve really been fascinated, for some time, by this kind of meeting place of the Islamic world and Europe. And much of the history of Eastern Europe is about that meeting.

And that, over time, owed into being very concerned with nationalism and national issues and I found myself increasingly writing books about things that were sort of against a national story. My dissertation was about Moldova, about Romanian and Russian relations over this territory. It was really a story about how national identity gets constructed or deconstructed. Over time I picked some topics that allowed me to talk about the past in a way that is something other than national. History writing is done in museums, history curricula are taught as if the only way to talk about the past is to talk through something called the nation. I wanted to pick subjects where you cannot lie about nations.

But why did you choose the Black Sea?

I wanted to write a book that moved away from my main concern, which was Romania, Romanian speaking lands. I had a Fulbright scholarship in Istanbul in 1998, so I was almost on the Bosphorus, I was renting an apartment up above the Bosphorus. And it dawned on me that one way in which you could write about history that didn’t just take the nation as a given was by picking some geographical feature and writing on it from a historical perspective.

History writing is done in museums, history curricula are taught as if the only way to talk about the past is to talk through something called the nation. History writing is done in museums, history curricula are taught as if the only way to talk about the past is to talk through something called the nation.

 

Because it’s strange that we think it’s totally unproblematic to write big, thick history books called “The Bulgarians” or “The Poles”. When that’s a very problematic thing to do. Especially if you want to cover a long historical era as you have to assume that those who you try to call Bulgarians today existed 5 or 15 centuries ago.

I guess you could just write the history of the Black Sea that revolves around the Ukrainians, the Georgians, the Turks, but that would be a very boring book. And
I wanted my books to talk about the way in which people interacted across this landscape. Nationality as we know it now was non-existent. It doesn’t of course mean that there weren’t conflicts, it just means that the unit of conflict or cooperation wasn’t something called the ethnic nation.

What struck me about this book was your positive view on the Russian empowerment in this area. It was the Russian state which modernized the northern part of the seaside and brought modernity to this mixture of cultures that had existed for a few thousand years.

Of course it depends on the period. For the territory which was a part of the Soviet Union it is rather a de-modernizing force between 1970-80. But if you’re talking about the 1870-80s, then yes, this is the periphery of the modernizing empire. And especially for 50 years now historians of Russia in the US and Europe have realized that you actually can’t tell Russian imperial history without understanding something about empires and disarray.

There’s now a new generation of younger historians of the Russian empire who realize that they have to be multilingual. If you’re going to do anything on the Black Sea you have to have very good Russian and Turkish to use the Ottoman sources.

Nationality as we know it now was non-existent. It doesn’t of course mean that there weren’t conflicts, it just means that the unit of conflict or cooperation wasn’t something called the ethnic nation.

There was a wonderful PhD student at Georgetown University who wrote about diseases around the Black Sea and realized that in the 19th century the growth of the modern border guard systems was largely a result of the quarantine system. The border guards were there essentially as disease control agents. And the modern system of guards grew on top of that system of disease control. It’s almost like a microbial history of the Black Sea. So there’s so much good work now that begins to transform some of those old narratives.

What’s wrong with those old narratives?

Well, it’s amazing to me that when you go to things called “national museum” across the region from the Baltic to the Black Sea the structure of the story is exactly the same. Like, when you walk in the first room there’s going to be a mock-up of an archaeological dig with some bone in it. The first thing you see is a big map and the map shows your country at its greatest expanse. And you kind of think “Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you show your country when it was the smallest it ever was?” You could do that, but now we’re gonna show the greatest expanse, go through rooms that are about the growth of some kind of a local culture, which won’t have a name like “Hungarian” or “Romanian,” it will have some archaeological name but you’ll discover that the people in this place painted their pots in a very particular way, so that tells you that they were a uni ed culture, civilization, and then there were some invasions. Then you had an invader for too long and then you’re going to have a national poet.

I always think that if it was a detective story, the detective at some point would say: “Wait a minute. Nobody’s telling exactly the same story about what happened.” I would be suspicious that everybody is lying. But we never get suspicious like a detective.

We should do better at that. The nature of modern nationalism is that you can take exactly the same museum and transplant it to a different place and change the proper nouns and you have got exactly the same story.

 

There’s now a new generation of younger historians of the Russian empire who realize that they have to be multilingual.

 

And we repeat that over and over, we repeat the national symbolism in the museum and in the school curricula. This thing kind of perpetuates itself. And it gets to this point where it can cause people to lose any sense of moral perspective whatsoever. There are a lot of things that do that, this erosion, like communism and authoritarianism but nationalism does that, too. Is it really more important that you conjugate a verb in a particular way and you get everybody else to conjugate the verb in a particular way rather than letting in a Syrian family who will die? When you think about it what a bizarre thing to believe that this.

Why do we believe in this, then?

Because we believe in the idea of modern states and modern states are deeply intrusive ways of organizing your political life. I mean the modern state that cares how you educate your kids or a modern state that cares whether it treats you for disease or not, or a modern state that cares what version of history you tell yourself and your children and repeat it. But what we should be worried about is whether people are living the values of freedom, openness, democracy, responsive government, the sanctity of the individual, the rights of women. Those are the things that we should be really focused on. But the political debate is all about what does the national museum look like. It’s really the wrong set of things.

Are you talking about Europe?

The US is going through the same version of the same kind of thing. It’s complicated in America because our version of nation is a thing we call “race” and we divide our society along this line. It’s just that the American translation of the word “nationalism” is “racism.” It has its peculiarities but historically it’s the same phenomenon. And so in our debates about passing along values they sometime get hijacked in the same way that they might in the European context.

I think we’re witnessing the natural outcome of some tensions that were there all along. The American view of Central Europe and, for that matter, of the Soviet Union during the Communist period, was as a prison house of nations. Not really a prison house of people, but of peoples. It was not the idea of captive individuals or human rights, but the nation was somehow captive to the foreign influence. And so that train of thought was always there during the Cold War, this tension between the human rights idea and a deeply nationalist vision of political community. And in a way in this moment you see a separation between those different ideas.

The best example of this is, of course, Hungary, where you rewind the tape 20 years. And I remember conference after conference, seminar after seminar where 35-year-old Fidesz representatives were talking about European values, freedom, and democracy, doing it in excellent English and all of the ex-cold warriors from America and Britain were sitting around the table nodding and saying “Yes! That’s the future of Europe.” But then I also remember some of the same Fidesz folks when they started talking about Treaty of Trianon. Do you know the late train theory of nationalism?

No.

The Hungarian train pulls up at the station just at the time that the station announcer announces the end of the nation state. And the Hungarians arrive and shout “Wait a minute! We just got here and now you’re telling us that in the era of globalization you don’t need the nation state anymore?! We’ve only just thrown o the shackles of foreign occupation!” And that, I think, is the essential Fidesz message now. So their approach to things like multilingualism and immigration looks very 19th century. Because it is very 19th century.

But then of course the thing being proclaimed in Britain, France, US, or elsewhere is also increasingly 19th century. Even in America.

 

The nature of modern nationalism is that you can take exactly the same museum and transplant it to a different place and change the proper nouns and you have got exactly the same story.

I am always amazed by this and I think that many Europeans don’t understand it but America has long had its nationalist narrative. It’s a deeply European-style nationalism that privileges the role of people, particularly those of a British Isles origin and of Nordic heritage. It was called in the 19th century the “nativist movement.” In the period from the 1930s to the 1960s or so the real inheritors of it were mainly southern politicians in the segregated states in the South. It’s always been there and “Trumpism” is just the latest version of it.

What is your next book about?

I’m doing something different now. I realized that over the years I’ve learned something about nations and nationalism and ethnicity and conflicts. So I’m going to turn around and write about my own country. I’m writing a book about a group of intellectuals in the 1920s-30s in the US at the time of restrictions on immigration, rising nationalism, racism, on the eugenics movement in America, who argued deeply against the scientific reality of all of those things. They were people who were quite well-known in the US, such as Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, but they found themselves at a moment in the history of their own country when they had to argue forcefully against the received wisdom. And I think we’re increasingly in that moment now.

What we should be worried about is whether people are living the values of freedom, openness, democracy, responsive government, the sanctity of the individual, the rights of women.

If you ask average American students on the difference between human beings, the first division is race, next comes ethnicity, and then, further down the line, you have religion. They have in their heads this 19th century division of society and they believe that it is really real. Not that it’s just a powerful sort of idea. They believe that it’s biology. And it astounds me that in the 21th century this pseudo-scientific vision, which they took from school, from their parents, still exists.

Collaboration Aleksandra Kaczorowska


Charles King

is Professor of International A airs and Government and chair of the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He previously served as chair of the faculty of Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, the country’s premier school of global a airs. King’s research has focused on nationalism, ethnic politics, transi- tions from authoritarianism, urban history, and the relationship between history and the social sciences. He is the author of Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul; Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams; The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus; The Black Sea: A History, and other books. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He has held visiting appointments at the University of Michigan and Bosphorus University in Istanbul. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations. A frequent speaker and commentator on global a airs

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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