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We’re back in the 19th century

An interview with Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. Interviewer: Aleksander Kaczorowski

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

CHARLES KING: Where I grew up, if you wanted to be strange at that time, the best way was by being interested in communism. 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 to 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”?

You mention this song, of course it was a silly pop song, but in a way 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 United States 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, and headed to my Russian classes in Leningrad and Moscow.

July 14, 2017 - Charles King - Interviews

Charles King

That was the spring of 1987 which was of course an interesting time. It was the beginning of perestroika and the beginning of glasnost. The circumstances, places, people – all that was fascinating to me. It had a particular kind of smell, a particular Soviet smell – it was some combination of 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 field.

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 University. The main person teaching Eastern European history and politics was Timothy Garton Ash. I was in the same class with a PhD student named Timothy Snyder and there was a student visiting 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 when I came to Oxford. So everything was still fresh and I signed up for a two-year master’s degree in the middle of which, of course, the August coup took place in Moscow, so I started a degree which was called “Soviet studies” and by the time I graduated it changed to “Russian studies”. Then I was searching around for something to write my dissertation on and I remember talking with Tim Snyder – who came a year after me, we both had the same scholarship – about what he wanted to do and he said: “I’m going to go off this summer and study Polish.”

I thought I should learn a new language too. I learnt Russian as an undergraduate and I thought I should pick up another language. I thought Tim is doing Polish, so I should pick up something different. There was an ad at the language centre 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 to another and I started to focus more on South-Eastern Europe and that part of the world. I think, I really became fascinated, for some time, by this kind of meeting place between the Islamic world and Europe. And much of the history of Eastern Europe is about that meeting.

Over time, this flowed into being very concerned with nationalism and national issues and I found myself increasingly writing books about things that were against the national story. My dissertation was about Moldova and Romanian and Russian relations over this territory. It was really a story about how national identity is constructed or deconstructed. Over time I found 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.

Why did you choose the Black Sea?

I wanted to write a book that moved away from my main concern, which was Romania and Romanian speaking lands. I had a Fulbright scholarship in Istanbul in 1998 and I was renting an apartment above the Bosphorus. 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. I believe it is strange that we see no problem in writing big, thick history books called The Bulgarians or The Poles. When in fact that is 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 five or 15 centuries ago.

I guess you could just write the history of the Black Sea that revolves around the Ukrainians, the Georgians or the Turks, but that would be a very boring book. 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 does not mean, of course, that there weren’t conflicts. It just means that the unit of conflict or co-operation was not 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 modernised 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-modernising force between1970-80. But if you’re talking about the 1870-80s, then yes, this is the periphery of the modernising empire. And especially for 50 year now historians of Russia in the US and Europe have realised that you actually cannot tell Russian imperial history without understanding something about empires and disarray.

There is now a new generation of younger historians of the Russian empire who came to understand that they have to be multilingual. If you are going to do anything on the Black Sea you have to have very good Russian and Turkish to use the Ottoman sources. There was a wonderful PhD student at Georgetown University who wrote about diseases around the Black Sea and realised 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 disease control agents. 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 is wrong with those old narratives?

Well, it’s amazing to me that when you go to a place called a “national museum” across the region from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the structure of the story is exactly the same. When you walk in the first room there will be a mock-up of an archaeological dig with some bones 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 going to 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 unified culture, a civilisation, 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 is 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 to a different place and change the proper nouns and you have exactly the same story. 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 that particular way rather than letting in a Syrian family who will die? When you think about it, it’s a bizarre thing to believe in.

Why do we believe in this, then?

Because we believe in the idea of modern states and modern states are deeply intrusive ways of organising political life. 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…

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 sometimes get hijacked in the same way that they might in the European context.

Or in the Central European context, where ruling politicians need an American umbrella, they need President Donald Trump, to keep their nation-states free from refugees, enlightenment, feminism, etc.

Well, Trump believes fundamentally in the same kind of things. He’s very comfortable with European right or far-right view of the world. He believes that the world is composed of mutually exclusive nation-states of which each one is elbowing the other. There are no permanent friends, there are just temporary business partners. His world view is similar to how he does business.

Do you think that, in that case, the US with Donald Trump can still play a constructive role in this part of the globe?

I think we are witnessing the natural outcome of some tension that was 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 foreign influence. 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. In a way, in this moment, you see a separation between those different ideas.

The best example of this, of course, is 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?


The Hungarian train pulls up at the station just at the time the station announcer calls the end of the nation state. The Hungarians arrive and shout “Wait a minute! We just got here and now you’re telling us that in the era of globalisation you don’t need the nation state anymore?! We’ve only just thrown off the shackles of foreign occupation!” I think that is the essential Fidesz message now. Their approach to things like multi-lingualism and immigration looks very 19th century because it is very 19th century.

Then of course the thing being proclaimed in Britain, France, the US or elsewhere is also increasingly 19th century. Even in America. I am always amazed by this and I think that many Europeans do not 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 the real inheritors of it were mainly southern politicians in the segregated states. It’s always been there and Trumpism is just the latest version of it.

What is your next book about?

I am doing something different now. I realised that over the years I have learned something about nations and nationalism and ethnicity and conflict. So I am going to turn around and write about my own country. I am 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, an 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 are increasingly in that moment now.

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 real. Not that it is just a powerful sort of idea. They believe that it’s biology. And it astounds me that in the 21st century this pseudo-scientific vision, which they took from school, from their parents, still exists.

Collaboration Aleksandra Kaczorowska

Charles King is a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University. 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.

Aleksander Kaczorowski is a Polish author and journalist. He is the author of several books including a biography of Václav Havel titled Havel which was awarded the “Ambassador of New Europe” in 2016. He is also the editor in chief of the journal Aspen Review Central Europe.


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