Deconstruction on the (semi)periphery
A review of Postkolonialne historiografie. Casus jednego średniowiecza (Postcolonial historiographies. The case of a certain medieval period). By: Anton Saifullayeu. Publisher: Oficyna Wydawnicza ASPRA-JR, Warsaw, 2020.
Anton Saifullayeu’s book is truly one of a kind on the Polish market. Authors who are able to provide Polish readers with such high-level intellectual analysis regarding the fundamental problems concerning Eastern Europe are truly scarce in numbers. The book discusses Belarusian historiography related to the Middle Ages and tells an engaging story about what Belarusian, as well as Russian and Soviet, historians wrote about the lands of present-day Belarus. First of all, it offers a very detailed, in-depth analysis of academic texts by discussing their findings and situating them in wider discourse. The work also reveals various continuities and discontinuities within these texts. It is certainly a book that deserves respect for its intellectual rigour.
The long rule of the Russian and Soviet empires serves as one important context for the story of the book. Another is the “birth” of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. This is often contrasted with post-communist Central Europe, a concept often used by local states to stress their break with the communist past. This process provides the author with a chance to acknowledge the circumstances in which Belarusian nation-building took place and its impact on historiography related to the country. A deep analysis of texts that present visions and interpretations of the past are subsequently used by the author as a pretext for a wider discussion of civilisational perspectives, the conditions in which society functions and how images of the past are being created and expressed today.
A strong dose of theory
Postcolonial historiographies. The case of a certain medieval period is based on a doctoral dissertation supervised by Professor Jerzy Pysiak, a medievalist at the University of Warsaw. Saifullayeu undoubtedly has a brilliant grasp of the empirical material. It is worth emphasising that he has learnt about the historiography of Belarus not only as a researcher but also as a young Belarusian citizen. He was subsequently taught various official narratives about the extensive history of the Belarusian lands during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. It is to the author’s credit that he is simultaneously able to distance himself from his own personal experiences but also use it in his analysis. In the course of his writing, he unravels the narratives’ details with surgeon-like precision. There is no doubt that the author knows what he is talking about.
Writing about postcolonial historiography Saifullayeu provides us with a considerable dose of theory and this is not surprising in such a work. From the very beginning, we get an overview of the concept of post-colonialism. This is based on discussions of mostly English and French language classics of the genre, as well as various authors from Central and Eastern Europe. Authors discussed subsequently include Paul Ricoeur and Frank Ankersmit, as well as Mykola Riabchuk and Dorota Kołodziejczyk. This, of course, showcases the author’s extensive knowledge and justifies his consistently applied post-structuralist approach. This allows him to expose hidden layers to the story, as well as the structures responsible for its details. Such discoveries are contrasted with the intended goals related to the production of historical narration.
To a certain extent, Saifullayeu’s work resembles Adam Leszczyński’s research on the policy of growth in peripheral countries (Adam Leszczyński, Skok w nowoczesność. Polityka wzrostu w krajach peryferyjnych 1943–1980, Warszawa 2013). Most of all, one can spot the similarity of their adopted perspectives. Leszczyński also positioned his work as a story told by a historian from a semi-peripheral country about other semi-peripheral and peripheral countries whilst using the methods of a researcher from the centre. What is most important, however, is not so much the method employed but the book’s culture of argument and reasoning. By this I mean the work’s structure, language and the positioning of the author himself. After all, Saifullayeu is both from “here” (that is from Central and Eastern Europe) and from “there” (from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of poststructuralist research). It is hard not to notice that this position is quite peculiar. It is indeed an interesting position but also one that potentially results in various inconsistencies.
Overall, Saifullayeu’s argument is indeed consistent throughout the work. Traditionally understood Ranke-style historiography is directly challenged in Postcolonial Narratives. This is at least true in the sense that when subjected to enormous pressure from the theory applied by the author, such a traditional outlook loses its value. To simplify Saifullayeu’s argument, works that appear essentialist and anachronistic are often in fact influenced by changing meanings, rather than lasting values. If questioning the domination of the classical narrative, rooted in the tradition of German Romanticism, allows room for (self) analysis, then I am in favour. But then the question arises: what comes next?
Despite its interesting approach, in many sections of the book it is simply difficult to follow the overall argument. Indeed, the author’s assertions effectively grow out of proportion in too many parts of the work. This is especially true when he argues that the connection between fact and power is a manifestation of “postcolonial male emancipation of the lust for power”.
It is hard not to get the impression that the author is making, to put it mildly, quite a risky interpretation here. Unfortunately, there are other parts in this book that I would also call “overanalysed”. I get the impression that the author wants to take his argument further than is reasonably possible, since the layers of discourse he ultimately finds himself in seem to be very remotely connected not only to the historiography but to more general phenomena like nation-building. Only the author himself knows the ultimate goal of his argument and it would be inappropriate to try to impose my own point of view on him. I only wish to ask if it was worth going this far with the argument?
In my opinion, I do not think it was worth it. The deeper we go into Saifullayeu’s narrative, the more the theoretical frame becomes difficult to understand. In addition to the aforementioned classics, there are a whole lot of other influential texts used in the work. For example, the influence of Jacques Derrida is very clear, as well as the work of Freud. I do not question the very reasoning behind using such works. Instead, I question the excessively syncretic nature of the theory employed. The author’s knowledge becomes, paradoxically, an obstacle in several respects. First of all, the text becomes more and more difficult to read from page to page, so dense that it requires maximum concentration from the reader. Secondly, the conclusion drawn from all of the book’s arguments turns out to be unfortunately rather disappointing. It is probably not advisable to expect an intellectual earthquake at the beginning of a scientific dissertation, with increasing tension in the following chapters and an exciting conclusion at the end. Nevertheless, the conclusion is disappointing, especially from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge.
Not an objective observer
In the end of the book we read that “the phenomenon of post-Soviet Eastern Europe is hidden and unrecognisable”. I take this as a far-reaching self-criticism of the author. Whilst he has turned the entire available tradition upside down through a critical approach, he still refuses to present his own positive vision. Here, of course, the problem is more complicated, as Saifullayeu adheres to a post-structuralist approach of which I remain largely sceptical.
Nevertheless, I must admit that, from my point of view, the lack of a constructive conclusion constitutes a real setback for this work. This is all the more disappointing as Saifullayeu is indisputably able to leave the role of someone “revealing” history to actually becoming somewhat of a “constructor”. I believe that the author’s arguments could prove to be more convincing than many others in the discipline. This is especially true as he is not in the position of an objective observer from the outside.
Postcolonial historiographies offers a strong, important contribution to ongoing debate. It is clear that a great specialist has appeared on the analytical and research scene, combining empirical skills with a good grasp of recent trends in the humanities. The unquestionable value of this work lies in combining reflection on very diverse and intertwined official narratives with a knowledge of popular culture and the functioning of discourses in everyday life in Central and Eastern Europe. Among the book’s weaknesses, the biggest are perhaps its hermetic nature and the complexity of its argument. Nevertheless, this book is undoubtedly a must read for professionals.
Michał Przeperski is a historian at the Institute for the History of Science of the Polish Academy of Sciences.