Réka Krizmanics reviews the volume Socialism Goes Global edited by James Mark and Paul Betts and discusses the long-term prospects of globalizing Eastern Europe as a subfield.
Socialism Goes Global: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Age of Decolonisation is a much-anticipated volume that offers an overview of an entire field of inquiry, that of globalizing Eastern Europe. Its publication therefore provides a great opportunity to discuss both the merits of this book and where the subfield might be heading. In this essay, I first provide a concise review of the book, reflecting on how it embodies the state-of-the-field and also opens new avenues of inquiry. I then turn to the institutional embeddedness of the field and argue that its long-term prospects are heavily dependent on two factors: its ability to be integrated into national-regional scholarships within Eastern Europe and the academic impact it makes on the study of Eastern Europe worldwide.
Socialism Goes Global: Origins and main themes
The book is authored by collaborators of the project “Socialism Goes Global: Connecting the Second and Third Worlds,” an AHRC-funded grant. Not entirely without antecedents, this research network solidified globalizing Eastern Europe as a field of inquiry, promising to insert the region’s histories into our understanding of postwar globalization(s). Socialism Goes Global set out to synthesize the research that had been conducted until the time of writing by the collaborators of the eponymous project and others, who either tied their works explicitly to this new literature or produced relevant knowledge unrelated to it. As such, this volume will likely become a staple in classes that deal with the modern history of Eastern and Southeastern Europe for years to come, alongside its companion volume, edited by Kristin Roth-Ey, David Brydan and Jessica Reinisch: Global Socialism and the Gritty Politics of the Particular: Second-Third World Spaces in the Cold War.
Socialism Goes Global is thus a capstone book, preceded by another volume edited by James Mark, Steffi Marung and Artem Kalinovsky entitled Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World, which proposed the idea of a globalization process not centered on the West. This thought remained the guiding premise of Socialism Goes Global as well. The collectively written monograph is composed of thematic, somewhat overlapping chapters, covering the following areas, as indicated by the chapter titles: Development; War and Peace; Culture; Rights; Race; Health; Mobility: Education and Labor; and Home Front. These are prefaced by both an introduction and a chapter entitled Origins. The latter strives to root the analysis of the dynamics of the region’s postwar global interconnectedness in earlier developments, an interest that is also reflected in the timelines of the individual chapters. There is also a forward-looking segment: the brief epilogue at the end of Chapter Nine (Home Front) gestures toward processes that took place after the transitions of 1989/1991.
The chapters can be read as standalone works, easily extendable into separate monographs, but the collective writing process ensured that they put forward their arguments in discussion with each other and support a coherent arc. Each chapter has one to three dedicated authors, but it is evident that much effort was put into harmonizing the style throughout the text. Beyond cementing the claim of the existence of alternative globalizations, the book aims to drive home a second major assertion: that the development of East-South relations can be described as coherent, producing a clear and tangible timeline. The authors argue that the early decades of enthusiasm and shared anticolonial framework gave way to the monetization of solidarity during the 1970s and 1980s (p.23). Taking this point further, perhaps their most provocative statement is that “the last decades of the Cold War in fact saw the de-globalization of the region and a retreat from the claims to leadership on the global stage” (p. 22). This assertion goes against the bulk of the literature, produced both within and outside the region, upholding the narrative of a “return to Europe” (and the West, by extension) and in fact, a more or less linear story of increased global embeddedness, with a special emphasis on the opening up of markets and the pro-Western orientation of dissent after the signing of the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Despite the occasional singling out of the Yugoslav or the Romanian context, the introduction already provides a seemingly well-rounded story, suggesting that this conclusion will be reached in such different realms as economic relations or culture and rights, and with respect to all countries of the region.
The authors have paid particular attention to highlighting the disruptions and incongruencies in East-South relations, and while they take the messaging around socialist internationalism and solidarity seriously, they examine its practices very critically, several important examples of which I introduce here. They make it clear that, despite their promises, these international relations did little to overwrite global civilizational hierarchies (p.264). Second, Eastern European delegates were less than keen on institutionalizing a more equitable system of international order (p.100). Third, Eastern European assistance to the Global South usually had its limits set by the condition of their national economies, which was also to the detriment of a viable state socialist financial system (p. 78). These apparent contradictions led Global South leaders to compare the Second World’s attitudes to that of former colonizers (p. 138). Fourth, the socialist state was keen on establishing, circumscribing, encouraging or even enforcing solidarities, but the sentiment and related actions did not only occur in these state-limited and surveyed spaces but found broader resonance (p. 21). Thus, in many respects, the authors successfully pre-empt any criticism that they paint an overly rosy picture of East-South encounters. Importantly, they do not ascribe these incongruencies to a primordial bad faith or a conscious act to mislead audiences both in the state socialist home countries and abroad. While the authors contended that the image of an anticolonial stance in international relations was used and perceived as an efficient Cold War propaganda tool, they underline the (temporary) existence of alternative vocabularies and ways of registering otherness that produced unequal results and nigh forgotten legacies.
The reader must be mindful of the differences between certain characteristics of the book that derive from the state of the field at the time of writing and those that could be attributed to the book itself. When it comes to the downplaying or absence of certain (cultural) aspects of globally interconnected Eastern Europe, I would therefore rather present some suggestions as to how the field might develop further rather than frame them as criticism.
The analysis laudably goes beyond the interstate level of exchanges, but it remains very much focused on elite groups and urban cultures. There are indications of the growing interest in bottom-up perspectives, especially concerning students and guest workers who came to Eastern Europe (as duly referred to in Chapter Eight), but this does not change the optics overall. The experiences of the countryside are virtually missing from the volume and minority voices are largely absent. Alena Alamgir’s chapter (Mobility) is the only one that does not depict gendered aspects as marginal. Although women do also appear in the chapter on Rights, the brief paragraphs seem to be rather an afterthought and gloss over important and ongoing debates in the field of women’s history in Eastern Europe (women’s agency and the best term to capture advocacy for women under state socialism). Beyond centering marginalized voices from within the region, it would be a welcome direction of development to shift the focus to actors from the Global South, even if this would be a clear step beyond the field’s current core concerns, which are firmly grounded in how the analyzed encounters affected Eastern Europe. These potential directions for further enquiry and their current underrepresentation in the book do not deduct from its great achievements, in particular that it offers a well-written, immersive account of East-South relations, even if, as a snapshot of the state-of-the-field, its authors are well aware that some of its qualities are inherently ephemeral.
The benefits and stakes of a global(ized) perspective
An image of Eastern Europe that suggests global interconnectedness and global aspirations – even if temporarily – clearly challenges earlier understandings of the nature and effects of state socialism and the limits it imposed on the region. The mere existence of this subfield, one that is built on the premise that countries of Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989/1991 did have certain international space for maneuver that cannot be understood within the Cold War binary, questions not only historiographical tenets, but upsets established frameworks of how this period is being remembered in the region. Thanks to the broad sweep of the case studies, many forgotten encounters have been unearthed in the past decades between East and South. There is a marked emphasis on the perspective of the East, as the Eastern European state socialist condition – not necessarily a given in the southern partners – and the ways in which its internal logic influenced developments at a global level remained a guiding question for all these studies.
Beyond extending state socialist European horizons, there have been many developments in the field that aimed to prepare the ground for a cultural and intellectual history of Eastern Europe’s globalized presence, weighing Western influences against experiences during state socialism, a goal that the authors have attained for the time being with the publication of Socialism Goes Global. While many of the preceding or accompanying case studies examine economic relations, including both Western and Eastern engagements and their consequences, this volume highlights rather the cultural and intellectual historical stakes, leaving room for a synthesizing work that focuses more on the financial side of engagement and approaches the dynamics of Eastern Europe’s global interconnectedness more pronouncedly from this aspect.
The interest in globalizing Eastern Europe is not confined to the post-1945 period, even if the boundaries of the spatial containers were not entirely congruent. Research concerning the first wave of globalization and its impact on the region as well as patterns of interwar interconnectedness feed increasingly into the analysis of state socialist times. Although it is pointed out that a more systematic engagement with the anticolonial world only started in the region after 1945, (p. 12.) these synergies are crucial to a longue durée understanding of the circulation of ideas and enable more nuanced distinctions between what might be understood as Western (cultural) influence, local appropriation and reinterpretation, and endogenous development.
Only such analysis can aspire successfully to chart the roots of frictions that fuel contemporary xenophobic and racist attitudes in the region, which is perhaps the greatest political stake this enterprise might have. Entering the larger discussion about the significance of colonial legacies and fantasies, race and racializing practices within the Soviet orbit have gained an undesirable topicality during Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. In order to assess how the image of a more globally interconnected Eastern Europe might challenge the memory of the period in Eastern Europe, larger questions should be addressed that concern the situatedness of this subfield in its main target region.
At a crossroads: regional embeddedness, epistemic quandaries and seizing the moment
It is difficult to foresee how the emergence of the scholarship on globalizing state socialist Eastern Europe will be able to shape the histories of the region in the long term. Beyond the excitement of a new perspective that has the potential to rewire our perceptions of post-1945 Eastern European history, the participating historians, and their institutional and regional embeddedness matter. Until today, the bulk of this research had been carried out by outsiders to the region: outsiders by birth and/or education. They are joined by the eternal inbetweeners – like the author of this essay – who may be considered both as outsiders and insiders, depending on the context. Scholars who are based in Eastern Europe have been largely reluctant to engage with this trend until now, focusing rather on the “national” majorities and producing narratives that give the impression of self-contained histories. But why are these distinctions important? I argue that various implications of participating scholars’ positionality will play a decisive role in how lasting an impact this line of inquiry will be able to make.
The first issue at stake is the subfield’s ability to integrate into local and regional historiographies. Will this field of inquiry remain the domain of “Western” scholars and inbetweeners, which can provoke a backlash locally? Eastern European historiography is notorious for its parallel universes (arguably, national historiographies elsewhere take just as little heed of outside developments, but there is less discussion of these phenomena). The countries of Eastern Europe boast relatively large communities of historians, most of whom concern themselves with local and national histories, interpreted singularly within the (constitutive) nation’s orbit. Various decisions and circumstances may lead to this self-limitation to address local and national readerships. More often than not, historians have been socialized this way, lacking academic mentors who could have modelled a more outward-looking scholarship. The issue of language skills is often cited as well, which not only hinders appearances at international venues but results in serious limitations on access to literature and sources. Third, some historians, while in possession of the skills and means to become part of international conversations and build on scholarship that has been produced beyond their respective national community of historians, write (primarily) in their vernacular and address deliberately their co-nationals only.
The heterogeneity of these groups is further demonstrated by a rift which can increasingly be observed in some of these nation-bound communities, most prominently in Hungary and Poland, where right-wing governments invest heavily in institutions that will uphold their own visions of the recent past. The latter have their limited transnational networks, which are bound by a commitment to unmask the crimes of communism based on archival sources, largely in order to discredit the opposition to the governing parties and to preclude the emergence of any other memory culture than that of the totalitarian equivalence between Nazism and Communism. These institutions tend to be better endowed and dominate public history venues, which on the one hand sustains a tense professional environment, while on the other hand there is no interest in allowing the consideration of alternative visions of the state socialist past.
Parallel to these, interlinked national levels is the scholarship that is being produced outside of the region, often under the label of area studies. This field is highly interconnected and international, while the main language of its publication and communication is English, seconded by German. And while there is some interaction with the “national” communities, the results of these interpersonal, to a lesser extent, institutional connections yield meagre transfer, and findings that were produced outside of the national orbit find their way into the national historiographies very slowly, if ever. There are also instances of pushback, when “foreigners” are invalidated because of their positionality, regardless of their language skills and relationship with local collaborators. These conflicts address epistemic anxieties that may be familiar from Global South settings, yet, without the added gravity of a colonial experience, often suffered by those states that the criticized researcher (unwillingly) represents.
Does the subfield have enough momentum and is it willing to push for a fundamental change in how Eastern Europe is imagined, depicted and read?
Globalizing Eastern Europe as a research trend, coming largely from the outside, must skillfully navigate these circumstances. The already mentioned inbetweeners may become key actors here. Yet the room for maneuver in matters of connection-building within the “national” community is considerably larger for those whose primary affiliation is with a national institution and their level of seniority is also decisive. The acknowledgement of these circumstances does not absolve more junior scholars who have less institutional leverage and belong to “Western” institutions. They can contribute to the embedding of this trend by remaining committed to the respective nation-bound communities: participating in their events, occasionally publishing in their respective vernaculars, and offering their own networks to broaden external cooperations, thus paving the way for collaborations and joint grant bids.
This brings me to my last point, as grants may both uphold and challenge existing academic structures, and how this trend gains (further) academic footing is far from clear at the moment. Does the subfield have enough momentum and is it willing to push for a fundamental change in how Eastern Europe is imagined, depicted and read? Is this change of perspective powerful enough to constitute a turn, or is it going to remain a small-scale experiment on the fringes of area studies?
Considering the allocation of resources and entrenched lines of inquiry, it is far from obvious where historians with this research agenda might fit best. Their transcontinental outlook sits somewhat uneasily with traditional area studies (Slavic studies) types of positions, where a comparative regional expertise and often the knowledge of the dominant area state (here: Russia) is appreciated more. The other, seemingly easy candidate would be global history; however, currently this subfield is dominated by the focus on the Eastern European side of the encounters, and the reciprocity of contacts is explored only to a limited extent. In-depth engagement with sources and interviewees in the Global South is often (but not entirely) restricted to those areas where the colonial legacies enable an easy linguistic access. Moreover, universities and research centers advertise positions in global history predominantly, though not exclusively, in Anglo-Saxon and German-speaking academia, which favor expertise in encounters between the First World and the Global South.
Therefore, it depends on the strength of the subfield as a network, and its ability to both establish some boundaries and yet remain willing to cross these boundaries in order to enable synergies with better-established corners of the discipline. With a concerted effort at making their scholarly achievements convincing and visible for various neighboring fields, and through strategic networking, the attainment of further financial support may secure the future of scholarship on globalizing Eastern Europe in the long(er) term. Socialism Goes Global and its contributors have done much to lay the groundwork. The questions remain, whether they can ensure a recruitment of scholars, including from “national” scholarships and how they keep the network more coherent and growing, one that can mold slowly changing institutions. It would also be a welcome development to see more Eastern Europe-based principal investigators and invert these in-group hierarchies. And while remaining sensitive to the issues of positionality in “East-West” relations, the involvement of scholars from the Global South should also be seen both as an epistemic and as an academic issue. The extent of (future) inclusiveness of this scholarship is intimately bound to the previously mentioned question of core research interest. Should the field’s focus shift to the centering of two-way interactions, it will allocate space to the Global South in the discussion in its own right, rather than seeing it as a distant theater where European state socialist imaginations materialized and gained new inspirations. In order to achieve that, the engagement of scholars from the Global South is indispensable. Ideally, as members of a somewhat transformed subfield, they could form alliances with their Eastern European colleagues, based on yet underexplored transperipheral solidarities.
Réka Krizmanics is an Assistant Professor (Akademische Rätin) at the Profile Area Global and Entangled History, University of Bielefeld. She earned her PhD in comparative history at the Central European University. In her research, she explores solidarities among women from state socialist Eastern Europe, Vietnam and Cuba.
 Roth-Ey, Kristin, ed. Socialist Internationalism and the Gritty Politics of the Particular: Second-Third World Spaces in the Cold War. Histories of Internationalism. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.
 Krizmanics, Réka. “Trianon in Popular History in Late-Socialist and Post-Transition Hungary: A Case Study,” East European Politics and Societies: And Cultures, Vol. 36, No. 3 (August 2022): 1036–60, https://doi.org/10.1177/0888325421989411.