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Long Read May 2024

Global Easts as Problem Spaces

by Eun-joo Lee

Eun-joo Lee reports on the Global Easts conference, organized by the Critical Global Studies Institute (CGSI) and the Global Easts Consortium, which took place at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea from 17 to 19 January. Lee concludes that the concept of Global Easts recognizes East Asia and Eastern Europe as significant and comparable players and highlights their equal importance alongside Western counterparts in global history. 

Thousands of kilometers stand between East Asia and Eastern Europe, without any similarities in race, ethnicity, language, and culture. Despite such seemingly incomparable differences, what is it that has allowed them to form “Global Easts,” the concept coined and developed by transnational historian Jie-hyun Lim? The “Global Easts 2024” conference, organized by the CGSI and the Global Easts Consortium, took place from January 17-19, 2024, at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea. This event brought together scholars from various countries to engage in stimulating discussions on Global Easts. 

Challenging the traditional East-West divide, scholars elaborated on how East Asian and Eastern European histories have intersected and intertwined, forming Global Easts. Their elaboration consisted mainly of two collective discussions, one of which was on “Gender-Based Violence in the Global East,” and the other on “the Global East as a Turbulent Region.”

On the first day, feminist scholars took a comparative approach to wartime sexual violence in East Asia and Eastern Europe. On the one hand, noting the delayed interest of scholars in the recurring instances of mass rape by soldiers, Andrea Pető and Maren Röger highlighted sexual war crimes committed by German, Soviet, Romanian, and Hungarian soldiers against women from Poland, Ukraine, Serbia, Romania, and other Eastern European nation-states. The presentations by Pető and Röger made it clear to the audience that there is a continuity between those past crimes and the current ones by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian women, which were perhaps happening somewhere in the conflict zone while we were at the conference. Expressing her concern about the inaccessibility to Soviet sources on the Soviet Union’s militarized mass rape, Pető posed a question: in contemporary memory politics, why has the history of wartime rape become a frequently employed tactic, particularly in illiberal memory politics? Needless to say, this question resonated with the audience from East Asia who had witnessed the political manipulation of victim-survivors of the Japanese Imperial Army’s sexual slavery (the “comfort women” issue) in both South Korean and Japanese realpolitik.

Joohee Kim’s presentation provided the audience with a specific example. Kim compared Japanese right-wingers’ stigmatization of comfort women as prostitutes who were paid a large amount of money with the South Korean postcolonial nationalists’ counterargument that the women actually received a small amount of money due to wartime inflation. Her astute comparison implies that both parties, despite their opposing positions on the political spectrum, share a discriminatory attitude towards sex workers, which distinguishes between “forced, unpaid, and thus pure victims’ and ‘voluntary, paid, and therefore non-victims.”

Belarusian women have also fought against such patriarchal manipulations. As Heinrich Kirschbaum underlined, the wives and female allies of arrested male presidential candidates played a crucial role in leading the Belarusian protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarianism in 2020-2021. As major agents of the protests, these women clearly articulated the reasons why national democratization will not be possible without resolving family issues and gendered violence, such as domestic abuse. As such, the presentations embodied the symbolic space of Global Easts, in which feminists from East Asia and Eastern Europe find common ground in their political insights and wisdom in their efforts to address gender violence.

At this point, one could pose a simple but important question: what enables such a common ground between two regions that are racially, culturally, historically, and politically different from one another? On the second day of the conference, scholars convened and shared their insights on different aspects of Global Easts, ultimately unearthing answers to that question. First, Daniel Hedinger succinctly outlined the advantages of studying transimperial history as a method through which to seek answers. By incorporating various empires into a single analytical framework, transimperial history offers a nuanced perspective that challenges the linear and simplified narratives of historiographies produced by Eurocentrism and nationalisms and highlights the complicated and enduring connections and entanglements between imperial powers in the East over centuries. Transimperial histories are thus more sensitive to power inequalities and social, racial, and economic hierarchies than global history is.

At this point, one could pose a simple but important question: what enables such a common ground between two regions that are racially, culturally, historically, and politically different from one another?

Frank Hadler also concurred with Hedinger’s argument and suggested Eastern European perceptions of global events as an example of transimperial history. According to Hadler, these perceptions reveal not only that the Western notion of three distinct worlds has oversimplified, and thus decontextualized, the political ramifications of the capitalist-socialist competition in Eastern Europe. These perceptions also indicate that Eastern Europe has produced its own distinctive knowledge of the intricate processes of colonialism and decolonization in the non-European world. Acknowledging Eastern Europe as an epistemic actor, the region can be used as a lens through which one could (re)produce knowledge on Western Europe. For instance, Paul Corner drew an analogy between Poland and Italy. The latter, like the former, serves as a prime illustration of Europe’s ‘Easts’ due to its wavering sense of having belonged within Western Europe since the late nineteenth century. This self-image as an ‘East.’ or peripheral part of the West, has heavily influenced the development of a coherent national identity.

Marek Pawełczak, Thục Linh Nguyễn Vũ, Daqing Yang, and Sherzod Muminov introduced the audience to some transimperial historical incidents in Global Easts. To begin with, Muminov traced the displacement of migrants, deportees, prisoners of war, and other individuals and peoples in the first half of the twentieth century. Two major trajectories of the movements can be highlighted, one caused by the Soviet Empire and the other by Japan.  The two networks of movements were linked and overlapped. In one of these, tens of thousands of Koreans, who had initially been displaced by Japanese colonial rule, were again forcibly displaced by Stalin from Soviet East Asia to Soviet Central Asia in 1937. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, around 600,000 Japanese prisoners of war were held in captivity by the Soviet Union and endured internment from 1945 to 1956. Such a transnational, trans-regional, trans-Eurasian link between Korean and Japanese diasporas is a palimpsest of Global Easts in which Japanese colonialism and Soviet imperialism intersected and overlapped.

Yang’s and Pawełczak’s presentations pointed to the Cold War rationale of Global Easts. On the capitalist side, Japan and Poland formed a secret alliance to prevent the spread of communism by the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, Western colonizers witnessed Japan’s imperialist ascendancy and speculated that other regions of the world may also experience a similar shift in the future, reinforcing capitalism as a world system. Based on superficial observations, those colonizers hailed the Baganda people (of Uganda) as the “Japanese of Africa,” assuming that the people were prone to absorbing Western education and imitating Western patterns, much like their Japanese predecessors. Pawełczak’s presentation clearly shows how Japan, as the only Asian imperial power, influenced the West’s perception of African peoples, proving the vast scope of Global Easts in which Asia meets Africa. Such two distinct, but closely related, historical incidents—Japan’s and Poland’s alliance and the Baganda people as the Japanese of Africa—suggest the extensive scope of transimperial history in the Global Easts, which connects Japan, Poland, and Uganda. 

As Vũ explained, on the socialist side, the relationship between Poland and Vietnam is also part of the Cold War transimperial history of Global Easts. Throughout their histories, both nation-states have faced and resisted powerful foreign invaders and shared a commitment to global socialism, creating a strong bond between them. Even after the Second World War, their friendly relationship remained strong in numerous aspects, including culture, education, and civilian interaction. Various agents were involved, drawing complicatedly intersecting trajectories of the bilateral relationship. Those agents’ interactions were mainly official and political, but they also formed intimacy and friendship between themselves, reaching far into the private sphere.

The communist context of Global Easts was further elaborated on by presenters such as Laura Pozzi and Kristina Jõekalda. Both Pozzi and Muminov focused on cultural movements in the Global East. Pozzi delved into the circulation of Chinese artworks in Poland and East Germany in the 1950s and the 1960s, to highlight how this trilateral interaction was an indicator of knowledge production in Global Easts on the communist side. By investigating China’s efforts to reclaim its national history through the donation and exhibition of artifacts in Poland and East Germany, Pozzi demonstrated how the inner tension and conflicts between the two Easts had significant effects on the politics of global socialism. In contrast, Jõekalda was interested in the cultural diversities of the former members of the Soviet Union in the post-Cold War era. By revisiting the popularity of Soviet monuments in the Baltic region in the past decades, she was able to analyze their multifaceted characteristics and insightfully point out the problematic nature of these characteristics as a key factor in the campaigns for the removal of these monuments in the region since 2022. She thus demonstrated that Sovietness did not define East Europeanness, contrary to popular belief.

Scholars did not forget to discuss Global Easts in the contemporary context. Igor Štiks pointed to a new turning point in Global Easts, signaled by the emergence of a new Balkan left. After the 2008 financial crisis signaled the end of neoliberal hegemony, the Yugoslav socialist experience was re-discovered, including its relations to the Global East and South. This newfound fascination has shattered a belief that Eastern Europeans are still politically immature due to their decades-long exposure to socialism, and are thus required to have ongoing supervision from Western Europe in order to integrate into the global capitalist economy. It also drew political wisdoms and lessons from both the socialist era and the neoliberal transition, to critically imagine global movements for their democratic participation, social equality, and environmental justice.

Ksenia Robbe argued that the Soviet/U.S. binary of existing Cold War studies is no longer useful for understanding the entanglements between parts of the former Second and Third worlds. Robbe instead suggested a Global East/South, especially centered on Russia and South Africa, as a lens to look into post-socialist, postcolonial, post-apartheid, and post-dictatorship transformations in the so-called Second and Third Worlds in the 1980s and 1990s, which ended both authoritarian regimes and socialist alternatives. Robbe analyzed contemporary literature and film representations of how the crises of the 1980-1990s shaped the present, proving the ever-increasing importance of Global Easts as a method for critically understanding contemporary global politics.

As a historiographical method, Global Easts recognizes East Asia and Eastern Europe as significant players and highlights their equal importance alongside Western counterparts in global history, creating a comprehensive and multi-layered analytical framework.

In the concluding session, Ivan Peshkov and Jonathan Bach further diversified the conference by examining the most recent issues—the Covid-19 pandemic and accusations of genocide in Gaza. Peshkov discussed the cross-border urbanization at the Sino-Russian Border as a recent problem occurring in the Global Easts. He highlighted the heightened global epidemiological risk, which led to a significant increase in border control measures and decreased mobility. He called for a thorough analysis of the crises affecting border regions in this era of increased border restrictions, which would impact everyday life, urban development, commercialization, and security measures between neighboring countries.

Lastly, Jonathan Bach examined the challenges posed by German memory politics in the midst of accusations against Israel committing genocide in Gaza. At the heart of these challenges lies the question of whether decolonial critiques cross a line into anti-Semitism when they engage in criticism of Israel as a settler colony. This dilemma requires re-evaluating Germany’s efforts to address the Holocaust and to serve as a global example of how a former perpetrator state takes historical responsibility for its actions. The reconsideration of this issue not only raises concerns about where Germany’s moral obligation to never commit genocide again ultimately leads it to. It also raises the question of what new political responsibilities Germany will have when its commitment to combating anti-Semitism inadvertently worsens anti-Islamic sentiment. As such, Bach’s questioning of German memory politics clearly demonstrates the ongoing formation and transformation of the Global Easts, which are expanding their scope of critical inquiries.

The presenters and attendees had passionate discussions about the similarities, intersections, and entanglements in the histories of East Asia and Eastern Europe, offering insights into the formation and development of Global Easts. As a historiographical method, Global Easts recognizes East Asia and Eastern Europe as significant players and highlights their equal importance alongside Western counterparts in global history, creating a comprehensive and multi-layered analytical framework. In this sense, it is not implausible to say that the Global Easts—both the region and the conference about it—played a significant role in producing knowledge about global history. Further efforts are anticipated to contribute to the knowledge production at the conference in the near future, particularly focusing on elaborating knowledges that were not fully explored during the production process. By doing so, Global Easts continues to produce critical knowledge by avoiding what Yoneyama calls “the transnational ‘warping’ of politics,” which takes place “when a critique travels from one location to another, it often inadvertently results in allying with intellectual and political positions that are at odds with those it endorsed in the original context.”1 


Eun-joo Lee is an HK+ (Humanities Korea) research professor in the Critical Global Studies Institute at Sogang University, South Korea. As a global Asian Americanist scholar, her teaching and research interest focuses on Asian American cultural representations of Cold War geopolitics in Asia. She is currently working on her monograph provisionally entitled Cold War Memory Regime in Korean and Korean American Literatures of Comfort Women, in which she compares Korean and Korean American literatures of Japan’s military sexual slavery (the “comfort women” issue) to critically read how the two kindred groups become increasingly complicit with U.S. Cold War imperialism in the trans-Pacific. She is also interested in a trans-medial critique, such as a comparison between novels and virtual reality.


1 Yoneyama, Lisa. Cold War Ruins: Transpacific Critique of American Justice and Japanese War Crimes. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, p. 39.