Discourses of Collective Identity

in Central and Eastern Europe (1770 - 1945)


texts and commentaries

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The Identity Reader Experience: Three Participants Reflect on Their Work Together (Michal Kopeček, Vangelis Kechriotis, Maciej Górny)

from the Editor of CAS Newsletter

The degree of enthusiasm in the youthful participants in the Identity Reader project was evident from the fact that I hardly managed to interview them - literally all of their time during the final workshop was spent working feverishly on the final products.

Earlier, I had overheard them refer jokingly to a "Slavic brotherhood" and, when I finally got hold of them, I asked Maciej Gorny, Michal Kopecek and Vangelis Kechriotis what that was. "We have a community of historical experiences but hardly a "Slavic brotherhood". In the Polish case, "Slavic brotherhoods" are quite unpopular anyway, Maciej said. Michal explained that their private joke came out of the fact that in the project we are dealing with issues of national identity, so it is natural to crack a joke by saying "Oh, no, this is a Pan-Slavic brotherhood we are dealing with here" or "Here comes Balazs the Hungarian". Of course, he claimed, "through the project we have got to know the others" identities and learned that we all have very much in common. Within the team there are no internal divisions except on an ad-hoc basis on specific problems. We are friends. We like to socialize together. Vangelis smiled and said that in Istanbul a friend had warned him: "You [meaning the Southerners, Greeks and Turks] are going to be devoured by the Central Europeans". One of the real differences, according to Vangelis, was that they came from different political backgrounds post-Communist vs. non-Communist and sometimes our frames of reference would differ: "Liberal" or "Radical" or even "Left Wing" had a completely different meaning for them than they had for me".

What, I asked, was the best and worst time they had had on this project? To Maciej, his stays in Bulgaria were both best and worst times, because they had always been hectic. He remembered fondly the beginning, when he saw the suggested project as a way to deal with the oversimplification of the idea of Polish uniqueness, of Polish history being incomparable to any other history. Michal said: "I had a fantastic time at the Sabanci University Conference, a success because of the way we organized the workshop - everybody had to read another's paper previous to the event which generated great discussions. The other great thing there was the emerging understanding inside the group, the feeling of common ground with people from Turkey to the Czech Republic. And, of course, Istanbul itself was a fantastic experience." Michal claimed he had no bad experiences, only a few problems getting used to working through the Internet.

"Who needs your Identity Reader?" I asked, somewhat provocatively. Maciej replied: "I hope the Reader will successfully address the needs of students of history in the region, and that it will interest American students as well. When I studied at Warsaw University, I had just one lecture on comparative Central European history, delivered by Maciej Janowski, currently at CEU. He referred to texts in Czech, Slovak etc. that were not available either in Polish or English. I hope it will also reach a wider public and serve our region, not only the Western public." "Has there been no interest in comparative studies in Poland so far?" I wondered. "Yes, but in a somewhat different direction Polish-Ukrainian, Polish- Lithuanian, Polish-German and Polish-Jew ish have been the most popular and obvious paths to take so far. Central Europe and the Southeast, even Hungary and the Czech Republic, are not so popular. The Reader will go at least some way towards filling the gap. What is also needed is, of course, the willingness of Polish scholars to use it. It tries to be comprehensive without forcing national traditions into a single mould. We have tried to formulate a way of describing them so that they are comparable but not reinterpret them in a drastically non-orthodox way."

"How would you explain the point of the Identity Reader to a layman in your own country?" I wanted to know. Michal thought he would quote important Czech figures such as Palacky, Masaryk and so on, and say, "Do you know the similarly important figures of other countries - Hungary, for instance? How come we know about the Czechs and not about the others? That is because we were educated very much within a national tradition."

"Why did you take part in this?" I asked the group. "It has given me much new knowledge," Michal said. "Now I plan to offer a course covering Central European history and using the results of this project. But, more importantly, I feel influenced by the style of work, by its comparative and international context. This is a negotiated project. We have really read each other's texts and you can see it in the book as it appears in its final form."

Vangelis said: "I was motivated in part by personal friendship with the others, partly by the impulse to get to know and understand similar phenomena in different cultures. We had so many things to learn and the unique opportunity to communicate with peers from our neighbouring countries, which would not have been possible in the past. In the process, I found I had learned many things about my own culture - I scanned texts produced over 170 years."

"Did something surprise you about the Greek case?" I asked. I can give you one example of such a surprise," Vangelis answered. "We are all familiar with the basic texts of the cultural mainstream of our respective traditions, but there are little known alternative texts. One such text I have included is that of a Socialist activist of Jewish origin from Thessaloniki, Abraham Benaroya. During the Ottoman period he would not identify with the Hellenic nation or cause, but afterwards he started learning Greek and developed into a Jewish Greek Socialist. He wrote the history of the first period of the Greek socialist movement. I went through this text and its context in order to recreate the atmosphere of both the socialist movement and the Greek Jewish community.

"Are you satisfied with the result? How far was it a reflection of your original intention?" I persisted. Vangelis said that it had proved more difficult than expected to include texts which use peculiar language - texts wonderfully representative of national identity but impossible to translate." For instance, in the Greek case there is a play called Babylonia (1843), which I wanted to include. However, I had to settle only for the Intorduction rather than part of the play itself. You see, my translator refused to work on it. The text describes how Greeks speaking different dialects, six or seven characters, come to Nauplion - the first Greek capital - to celebrate the battle of Navarino. Ironically, their speech differs so much that they often misunderstand each other's meaning."

"More importantly, the Reader will represent our level of understanding of our own cultures and literatures at a point in time. I believe as a group undertaking joint work, we have embarked on a never-ending quest for understanding of the other. I'm afraid that in ten years, with more knowledge and maturity, we would possibly like to see a completely different Reader, maybe based on the same texts but giving them a completely different interpretation. The users of the Reader should keep in mind that it represents a moment in the personal development of a group of young people and that, despite the fact that it will be published, it is work in progress."

"What about the future?" I asked. Maciej told me they were already thinking of other, follow-up projects: "I hope this project will not conclude my cooperation with CAS Sofia. One very obvious way to continue and extend the Reader is based on the fact that chronologically it ends in 1945, which is certainly not the end of the processes of formation of national identity."

Created by the Centre for Advanced Study Sofia, 2006