Book Review: Parallel Cultures


This volume comprises six contributions, and is described as ‘particularly suitable as a subsidiary text for undergraduate courses in politics, sociology and ethnic studies’. Written by local scholars, it provides a welcome opportunity for English speakers to access material based on a variety of languages, though this is not a consideration for most undergraduates. Where this volume suffers as a textbook is in its concentration on small areas such as Donetsk, the Palesse in Belarusia, Transylvania and the Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria. The presentation of data on the ethnic composition of these regions is weakened, with one exception, by not providing maps outlining the ethnic geography of a given area. While local case studies are essential to illuminate the complexities of inter-ethnic relations in Eastern Europe, these contributions do not successfully integrate the local and national levels of their analysis - a particular case study vanishes by the end of an article. These case studies are excessively detailed for a general course but if a course concentrated solely on Eastern Europe some of the contributions would be useful. All contributors focus on the political implications for the nation state and its organisation of competing ethnic identities. Unfortunately, the intriguing title ‘parallel cultures’ is not adequately explained in the first contribution and is succinctly defined by only two contributors. As a result of the failure of Christopher Lord to introduce and frame the volume, it appears incoherent although Olga Strietska-Ilina’s final chapter is a valiant effort to rescue the enterprise.

The first chapter by Christopher Lord ‘Parallel Cultures’ is a surprising 124 pages long, an unusual length for a framing, introductory chapter. It also boasts precious few references, despite ranging from the city states of Sparta and Athens to the importance of television in globalisation. Lord argues that cities are the sites of the development of parallel cultures – areas where different languages, religions and peoples coexist. The diversity of urban areas and their impact on cultural change feature briefly in later contributions, but not as a central linking argument. The difficulty with Lord’s chapter is the lack of chronological or thematic structure. Essentially, the project of parallel cultures seeks to ‘look at minority populations as components of large-scale processes of social formation, and not just as bits of nations that have got stuck on the wrong side of the border somewhere by mistake’. (30) Language, religion, geography, invasion, migration and economic development are all considered in Lord’s account. All these factors are applied to different nation states and/or populations at varying historical moments. The grand sweep of the narrative refers to so many processes of social and historical change that Lord neglects to clarify ‘parallel cultures’. The comparative references are often exhaustive. Lord discusses the minority languages of Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, but before articulating how language decline or revival reflects an instance of ‘parallel cultures’, he introduces ‘Lallans’, the language of lowland Scotland. Comparisons between the revival movement of Lallans and Slav, Greek and Eastern European nationalists then occurs to Lord, who proceeds to elaborate, but only briefly. It is the brief, tantalising nature of the comparisons that frustrated this reader – just when it looks interesting, he moves onto another point. Sub-heading four ‘Historical Parallels’ was a curious choice, as the necessary amount of historical background had been provided in the previous 65 pages. The undergraduate market for this book will be necessarily limited because it does not provide a short, sweet definition of ‘parallel cultures’.

‘Competing Cultures, Conflicting Identities: the Case of Transylvania’ Gavril Flora (125-146)
Thankfully, the second essay includes a short definition of the author’s opinion of what ‘parallel cultures’ means. According to Flora ‘interaction is in itself a driving force: both a cause and an effect. It constantly creates and recreates the interethnic context, but at the same time is significantly affected and influenced by it, thus acting both as a factor of stability, and as a motive power of change’. (125) Transylvania is a well chosen case study: a historically multi-cultural ‘borderland country’ (128) that has undergone the integrationist policies of two modern nation states, Hungary under the framework of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and Romania after 1920. Flora clearly outlines the salient features of the region’s medieval and early modern history, making a reader fully aware of the historical complexities of ethnic identities. Briefly, the region maintained a ‘very specific institutional system, aimed at preserving the very delicate balance of power, which recognised and reflected the plurality of cultures within the territory’. (126) Flora believes this carefully constructed system collapsed even before the onslaught of Hungarian or Romanian state building because of the ‘second serfdom’ (128) and crucially ‘the unequal power positions of their respective political elites’. (129) This article focuses primarily on the positions and status of political elites, their relationships with the state and their expectations of state power. The ethnic groups in question are Hungarian, German, Jewish and Romanian, with the focus shifting towards Hungarians and Romanians under the respective nation states. In describing the fate of a multi-ethnic area under two different states, Flora points to the importance of ‘historically - and regionally determined – state-building traditions’. (133) The strongest section describes how Transylvania fared under the Romanian state in the interwar period, under Communism and finally after the collapse of the Ceausescu regime. It is a bleak summary of ‘Romanisation’ which sought to promote Romanians at the expense of ethnic Hungarians, while denying minorities the right or facilities to use their own languages. Under communism, that state implemented policies ‘aimed at encouraging the dissolution of the traditional ethno-deomgraphic composition of the predominantly minority-inhabited regions by means of emigration and assimilation’. (140) Flora argues perceptively that the decline of the Jewish and German populations led to ‘a diminishing of Transylvania’s multi-cultural profile, and an increasing Romanian-Hungarian bipolarity within that region’. (140) The rise in ethnic nationalism in the post-communist period is succinctly explained and the article finishes with a discussion of the country as a whole and the function of nationalism in Romanian society. Flora argues that the irreconcilable political demands of Hungarian and Romanian groups stems from deeper roots, for ‘according to the Eastern European model of nation building, primary loyalty must always belong to one’s ethnic group, rather than to the state’. (144) When a minority is denied collective rights, but ascribed collective guilt and asked to display collective loyalty, the situation is potentially explosive. Since the ethnic clashes in March 1990 in the city of Tigu Mures, Flora argues that ‘the polarisation of society and political life along ethnic lines has remained’ (141) and the author is unhopeful of a reconciliation. Without losing coherence this article ranges from the medieval period to contemporary Romania. It would provide an undergraduate with a challenging introduction to the politics of majority/minority relations in Eastern Europe and it is well referenced. Perhaps the use of ‘culture’ in the title is misleading as the author is primarily concerned with state formation and elite decision making.

‘Transformations of Ethnic Identity: the Case of the Bulgarian Pomaks’ Madeleine Danova (147-175).
The difficulties of explaining the patchwork of ethnic affiliations, language and religion are all acutely demonstrated in this contribution. Pomaks are Muslims who speak Bulgarian and live in the high-mountain regions of the Rhodope mountains and in some central regions of the Balkan range. Their faith is a residue of the Ottoman empire and their geographical isolation and relative economic backwardness have marked them out as enduringly different to the Bulgarian nation proper. This difference appears to be tolerated and even celebrated, as Pomaks have a unique place in folk tradition ‘both as a rich reservoir of authentic an extremely colourful folklore and as one of the main ‘heroes’ (or ‘anti-heroes’) in folklore tales and songs’. (155) The first section of this article which describes the origins and present state of the Pomaks details a people possessing a double-sided identity, being Bulgarian, but not Christian. However, the bewildering problem of nomenclature served to perplex this reader. Determining the numbers of ‘Pomaks’ appears to be impossible, when some identify themselves as Turks due to their religion and other as Bulgarians because of their language. The situation is further complicated when Muslim Gypsies no longer speaking Romani but Bulgarian have to be taken into account. (154) The article’s weakness is its overt separation under three main subheadings, reserving the theoretical framework for the end. Perhaps the author would have been better served integrating theoretical discussion and the fieldwork among the Pomaks, a section that presumes a fairly detailed understanding of Bulgarian and Pomak identities. Moreover, the author has considerable difficulty finding a theory to fit the confused identification of Bulgarian Pomaks with Turkey and/or Bulgaria. It appears that the fluid, often contradictory identity of the Bulgarian Mohammedans or Pomaks has resisted the author’s attempts at explication.

‘The Identity Crisis and Emergence of Alternative Ethnic Identities among the Eastern Slavs: the Case of the Poleshucks’ Kirill Shevchenko (177-201)
The fourth contribution describes the recent ethnic mobilisation of a population describing themselves as Poleshucks, living in Belarusia’s Palesse, the South-Western part of Belarus. Once again, a population divided by different national borders at various historical periods is described, with the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union being particularly well analysed. The author notes that unlike the Rusyn (Ruthenian) movement, Poleshuck ideologists face a more difficult task. While the Rusyn movement has its roots in the 19th century, the Poleshuck movement ‘apparently does not possess any deep-rooted or stable cultural tradition’. (180) Shevchenko provides a fascinating chronicle of ‘the selective cultural work’ undertaken by advocates of Poleshuck ethnicity. The strongest part of the article discusses the codification of a ‘literary language’ which attempts to distinguish the Poleshuck vernacular from the Ukrainian and Belarusian languages. The problems of dialect and linguistic innovation have hampered efforts to codify a separate Poleshuck language. Once again the author contrasts the Rusyn and Poleshuck vernacular movements to emphasise the difficulties facing ethnic ideologists. The appropriation of V. Dunin-Martynkevich, a classic author of the 19th century Belarusian canon as Poleshuck illustrates the desperate need for a literary tradition. (188) Perceptively, Shevchenko asks why Ukrainian and Belarusian linguistic and cultural areas have been so afflicted with ‘ethnic fragmentation and atomisation’. (189) These literary languages were themselves formed by challenging Russian, depriving them of ‘a stable and long-term historical tradition, sanctified by the historical past and by the authority of the Old Church Slavonic legacy’. (191) During the Soviet Union these languages coexisted with Russian as the dominant language, therefore unable to ‘homogenise what was supposedly their ‘own’ linguistic space, or to establish sufficiently stable and viable cultural traditions’. (191) Moving onto the use of history by the Poleshuck intelligentsia, Shevchenko outlines the claims made to an Old-Lithuanian tribal past. Since the establishment of the modern ethnic movement in the 1980s, these claims have changed in emphasis. The initial claims to non-Slavonic roots have been replaced by an acceptance of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian influences. (197) As Shevchenko acknowledges, ‘the ‘pure’ Poleshuck history is so little documented that the imaginative nationalist can construct almost any fantastic past for his people that he wishes’. (200) The pragmatic nature of Poleshuck ethnic politics is clearly demonstrated - the collapse of the USSR and the foundation of the Belarusian state had a considerable effect on the articulation of Poleshuck identity. Where separateness and distinguishing features were once emphasised, now the ‘the supreme unity of all Eastern Slavs’ characterises Poleshuck identity politics. Ideologists now ‘insist on the existence of a Poleshuck unit as a fourth and separate element of the Eastern Slavonic ethnic community – together with Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians’. (200) This is a well written article, though the author does not explain why his discussion of the Ukraine and Belarus ends with a conclusion that does not mention the Ukraine.

‘Inter-Ethnic Coexistence and Cultural Autonomy in Ukraine: the Case of the Donetsk Region’ Kateryna Stadnik (209-243)
Donetsk (or Donbass, Donetsk Coal Basin) is a coal mining region in Ukraine where Ukrainians make up 51% of the population, compared to an average of 72.2% for the country as a whole. Stadnik provides a lucid account of the ethnic patchwork of this region and the reaction of the young Ukrainian nation state to the realities of a multi-ethnic population. Ukrainian ruling elites pride themselves on the levels of ‘inter-ethnic peaceful coexistence’ achieved in the nation state and Stadnik carefully assesses these claims. The pre-revolutionary and early Soviet historical experience of Russians, Germans, Greeks and Jews is concisely written and clearly laid out, as the author has not presumed a detailed knowledge of the region’s settlement history. The era of ‘compromise tactics in nationality policy’ from 1922 to 1929 implemented the idea of ‘national cultural autonomy’, proving cultural diversity is acceptable inside a single national State. (226) Stadnik explains the demise of state support for education in German and Yiddish languages in the context of ‘the global fight with mass illiteracy’. Once illiteracy was deemed conquered ‘the development of distinctive cultures for the various non-Russian ethnic groups became something that was no longer possible’. (226) The tolerant intentions of the Ukrainian state on ethnic issues are well described and the author bravely, if briefly tackles the question of indexes of ethnic consciousness. In common with the other essays, language features prominently in Stadnik’s account of ethnic affiliation. The problematic demand by Donetsk for official use of once-dominant Russian to be reinstated illustrates the limits of the state’s ability to facilitate regional wishes. Stadnik summarises that the inconsistencies between the State priorities and regional interests ‘have impeded the improvement of existing mechanisms of decision-making in the field of inter-ethnic coexistence’ when applied to the Donetsk region. (239) Throughout, the author stresses the specific economic and geo-political characteristics of the Donetsk region, a trait shared by other authors in this volume. Thankfully, Stadnik has provided the reader with enough historical background and contemporary detail to understand the Donetsk region. The author concludes that ‘regional peculiarities’ must be taken into account when formulating principles of inter-ethnic coexistence in Ukraine. This article contains interesting survey material and a map of ethnic settlement, a piece of contextual information omitted by other contributors.

‘Quo Vadis? The Case of Russia’ Olga Strietska-Ilina (245-289)
As this reviewer read the volume in traditional linear fashion, I was aggrieved to find that the final chapter would have been better placed as the first. The author begins with a consideration of culture, ‘the abstract, transcendent character of the notion, and its relationship with some other existential characteristics, including other cultures themselves’. (245) Strietska-Ilina notes that globalisation has brought about coexistence between a ‘single supranational culture’ and ‘more static’ ethnic cultures, formulated around ‘the existential division between ‘we’ and ‘they’’. (245-6) These ethnic cultures are themselves ‘the result of a continuous interaction with other supposedly ‘static’ ethnic or other cultural group identities’. (246) This development of parallel cultures preceded a post-modern, global society, arising in Russia due to its historically mixed population and continuing migration of different ethnic groups. Strietska-Ilina addresses two basic types of ethnic grouping: firstly, communities living in a compact, homogenous area and secondly, groups of dispersed populations of minorities living among alien majority populations. The article seeks to consider the position and problems of the second, neglected grouping. Drawing heavily on Brubaker (1996) Strietska-Ilina discusses the historical and institutional context to the multinational, multicultural perception of society in the Soviet Union. The central issue is how to accommodate the demands of ethnic groups within a political system conditioned by nationalism and unitary state building. The Russian Federation poses particular problems, as the ethno-demographic mix cannot be divided into nation states without expulsion or mass migration. As this quandary is obliquely referred to in other contributions, this chapter would have made a fitting introduction to the volume. Strietska-Ilina’s detailed explanation of the legacy left by the administrative divisions of the former Soviet Union is cogently presented. The author believes that the inadequate recognition of nationhood under Soviet federalism, combined with collective memories of oppression creates contemporary political nationalism, when crucially ‘their nationalism is in at least a majority of cases of a cultural nature’. (259) Unaddressed cultural nationalism can transmute into political demands for sovereignty and lead finally to secession. Under the 1993 constitution, the Russian Federation is organised on an ethnic principle, though not Strietska-Ilina notes, on a monoethnic principle. The inequality between federal subjects such as republics, regions and autonomous areas is outlined and the implications for the status of minorities in semi-sovereign republics considered. Tartarstan is cited as an example of the difficulties the presently constituted Federation faces. Now a state within a state, Tartarstan has a ‘clear-cut ethnic dimension to the ideology of the new ‘state’’, though only half the population are Tartar, while 68% of Tartars live outside the territory of the republic. (262) Regional economic disparities are cited as a further reason for the development of ethnocracies: powerful elites who serve the ‘interests of their own ethnic group rather than the economic and social development of the region as a whole’. (263) Strietska-Ilina argues that ‘territorial organisation and matters of cultural recognition of ethnicity should not be decided as one issue’. (263) The author calls for decentralisation in tandem with ‘political representation, responsive party system and sensitive politics of accountability’. (265) Satisfying cultural nationalism, thus repudiating political nationalism would foster a civic culture. However, the author is realistic enough to see that reforms would face considerable opposition from the nationalities. Strietska-Ilina questions how the right to self-determination as formulated in the Constitution can address the ‘cultural aspirations of dispersed or highly mixed populations’. (267) As some 60 million people live outside their ‘home’ republics, Strietska-Ilina makes a convincing case for the redundancy of the ethnic territorial principle in Russia. (268) Moving away from the question of political organisation to popular prejudice, Strietska-Ilina discusses the extent of intolerance among the Russian population. The impact of radical nationalism emanating from non-Russian ethnic groups and the collapse of the Soviet Union are assessed. Traditional Russian anti-Semitism has given way in the 1990s to a new enemy– the Balts and other peoples of former Union republics. Strietska-Ilina tackles the question of how to put the nationalist genie back in the bottle before the one nation – one territorial state principle is carried to its logical conclusion. The solution offered is to relegate ethnic concerns to a local or community level, removing ethnicity from national consideration and elevating nation-hood to a civic, state-centred environment. Concluding with an outline of the parallel cultures theory Strietska-Ilina defines the ‘cultural ‘common’ as an object of study, where the object is understood as changeable, diffuse and influential as well as influenced’. (285)

I found this the most interesting and engaging contribution in the volume, though exactly how cultural nationalism could be satisfied without involving political and state structures was not discussed. As an overview of many of the key issues in the volume, it linked the other contributions together. Well written, and not presuming encyclopaedic local knowledge from the reader, Strietska-Ilina demonstrates that it is possible to fluently describe of regional peculiarities without neglecting the national or theoretical angle.