The Mythos Of Eastern Europe
My writing got somewhat paralyzed by the conflict in Ukraine.
This newsletter (The 10-Year Horizon) mostly filters out whatever we see on the evening news, because what seems important today won’t be a topic in 10 years. But this war sadly passes the filter. We are witnessing history. In the words of Lenin, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
But finding words has been nearly impossible. Twitter is chock-full of excellent reporting and commentary already. And above all, the daily suffering in places like Mariupol is so vivid and monumental that it’s hard to put any words down.
But I sense something happening in the world of ideas, and this has forced me to put some of my interconnected thoughts in order. To be more specific, the conflict unfolding on the ground of Eastern Europe is creating changes in the deeply-felt realms that make up our concept of Eastern Europe—what I would call its mythos. My purpose in sharing my thoughts here is not to paint an authoritative version of the mythos, but to hint at how one can perceive their own rendering.
First, what is the area under attack? Ukraine? Europe? From a Czech vantage point, the most fitting answer is, Eastern Europe. The ongoing Russian rhetoric does not shy away from direct threats to Poland and the Baltics, or restoring the Soviet sphere of influence. Those threats run deep into the collective psyche of Eastern Europeans. But the target is not only geographical. There are also conceptual targets. In an important sense, what is under attack is the mythos of Eastern Europe.
When we say “Eastern Europe” we tend to think in terms of geography and history—that seemingly factual level, with its appropriate experts. So here comes the first turn I suggest you take: let’s talk about Eastern Europe as a place on the inner, psychological map. What do you feel or imagine when someone says “Eastern Europeans”? In this sense, Eastern Europe is a myth—not in the sense that it “doesn’t really exist”, but as it exists on a deep layer of our collective unconscious.
When I say “mythos”, I mean something other than a myth or an archetype. I mean the meaning of “Eastern Europe” as a living realm. It is everything the words mean to us, the region’s history, the lives of all who were born or set foot there, their feelings, futures, memories, and narratives. All information connected to “Eastern Europe”, as a living and ever-changing space1. This is an infinite, invisible realm, but it also has centres of gravity: symbols.
I sense this spring that the gates of mythos have opened. Suddenly, it’s possible to approach planes that have been inaccessible and motionless for decades. Munich 1938. It’s no coincidence that the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict has been often compared to the Munich Agreement—or the Munich Betrayal, as it’s called in Czech. In a fateful irony, the last pre-war meeting between the leaders of Ukrainian and European powers happened in Munich, as if history was literally repeating.
I don’t see it as coincidence, but the powerful gravity of mythos. One might say our minds and actions are drawn toward the forms that have already been. But it’s fundamentally the other way around: our ideas are born of memories. We change our destiny only by making an effort to divert events from the past.
The material world unfolds according to causal logic. Because of gravity, an apple falls to the ground, and rivers flow into the sea. Therefore, we assume that same principle governs human events. But this is a mistake. Wars, like other mass phenomena, are mainly mythical events.
And the mythical world unfolds according to the logic of the inner world of people—that is, according to the logic of emotional association.
I am used to feeling a degree of shame and contempt in this inner place. I used to correct everyone who placed the Czech Republic in Eastern Europe: “No, we are in Central Europe!”
If we can’t be from the West, that term is at least more bearable. After all, Eastern Europe—that’s the Socialist Bloc, the Warsaw Pact, the Polish plumber, the Ukrainian builder, the Czech thief, the bad accent. It’s the wrong side of the Wall and of history. It’s the folks who were left behind in Munich and Yalta. It’s decades of history that we’d prefer to forget, but that still remain on our CV.
Why shame, we may ask? Most of us weren’t even alive in 1938! Kamil Galeev explains:
That is Prague in 1938. There’s a well-known story from the Munich meeting, that when Hitler and Göring met the Czech president to pressure him into capitulation, he resisted for hours. He even suffered a heart attack from Hitler’s shouting and threats, but the decisive moment was a gentle suggestion from Göring. In the President Hácha’s own words:
“Is it truly necessary for the beautiful Prague to be bombed to the ground within a few hours?—he said that so meekly and looked into my eyes like some woman… and I saw it was the devil speaking, capable of carrying out his threat.”
So Prague remained arguably the most beautiful city in the world, and its people are guilty of saving it. The city stands and the mythos is broken. Later, Yalta rhymed with Munich, and Eastern Europe once again played the role of the victim, first handed to the Nazis, then the Soviets.
So again, why is the victim ashamed? Once, at a crossroads, the victim was forced to choose a path. It was a hard, hard choice to make. A tradeoff. Since then he has been apologising like an old automaton for the perfectly reasonable and very painful sacrifice he once made. His children inherit the guilt, and their children. The guilt lives on, locked in a place that can’t be changed, because it’s history. And history is fixed, they all say.2
The gates of mythos unexpectedly opened in those first days after the invasion. For a short while, the Ukrainian voice was that of a victim. Europe left us in Munich. Then Zelensky said, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo.” And his whole country followed him. At that moment, an old place was revisited, and the opposite choice was taken. It was an old place in Eastern Europe. The victims were watching the brave, finally relieved of their eternal shame.
If that sounds somewhat pathetic, it’s because pathos is the character of that deep place. We must approach mythos and pathos together. We can shrug it off, but then the gates close.
When the Ukrainians reached Munich (that mythical crossroads) this time, they helped themselves. And behold, they found that the majority of the world suddenly standing behind them. That was a symbolic, dramatic move. I have replayed it in my mind’s eye as a slow-motion recording of an athletic feat many times over. My body and soul slowly absorbed and learned that move. I was learning bravery. I was learning that the Czechs may have been betrayed in Munich, but also actively chose their victimhood.
This is how the Ukrainians resurrect Eastern Europe. They replay the myth, and against all odds, they don’t follow the old script. The world is stunned. Here, in Prague, I often hear that “it will be impossible now to continue treating Ukrainian builders the way we used to”. It took one week to replace contempt with awe. Notice the paradox: a trauma can be fixed and inaccessible for decades, stuck no matter how hard one tries to release it. Then the gates open and, like that, in a matter of days, the energy transforms.
So what is Eastern Europe? A fault line. That’s what makes it a difficult identity. It’s a liminal place between two worlds, and those are not easily labelled.
This liminal nature also explains part of the shame. Ukraine is the liminal to Russia (the word Oukraina means border lands. In Czech, the border is ‘okraj’.) Interestingly, Praha also means a doorstep, a threshold—i.e. a boundary between two worlds. And the liminal is easily frowned upon by the centre—both centres, actually: the Eastern and the Western. Its quality is unsettling, even repulsive. It’s not pure. From the perspective of the power centres, it’s an inferior meme.
Of course, from a metaphysical and mythical perspective, it is anything but. It shows the artificiality of purity and the futility of order. It is elusive, anti-systemic and anti-bureaucratic. Very annoying!
Unfortunately, the liminal nature also explains why there is no happy closure. The Ukrainian choice healed some Eastern European trauma3, but no doubt, the war creates new and deeper wounds. The fault line on which Eastern Europe stands is not going away with yet another earthquake.
Thus, it would be a mistake to look at the war in Ukraine simply as a neighborly dispute or geopolitical muscle-flexing. Rather, it is a clash between systems of values and an attempt to undermine the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe.
When we hear that the war is being fought in narratives, or that it’s a religious war, we might imagine big crowds and warmongering speeches. But the heroic and the shameful are very close. Mythos is archetypal, just as it is intimate. It is the feeling of approaching something vast and monumental. It can inspire you to sing hymns as much as push you down to your knees. That’s the noteworthy dynamic. How do you feel when one says “Eastern Europe”? That’s the experience of mythos, wherever you are from. That’s what this war is fought over. That little nothing and nearly everything.
Zelensky’s speeches are a masterclass in summoning the mythical. He now talks in front of one Parliament or another every day. In every speech, Zelensky connects the mythos of Eastern Europe with the audience’s own mythos.
Address to the Parliament of the United Kingdom:
We do not want to lose what we have, what is ours—Ukraine. Just as you did not want to lose your island when the Nazis were preparing to start the battle for your great power, the battle for Britain…
We shall fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches, in the cities and villages, in the streets, we shall fight in the hills... And I want to add: we shall fight on the spoil tips, on the banks of the Kalmius and the Dnieper!
Address to the Bunderstag:
You are like behind the wall again. Not the Berlin Wall. But in the middle of Europe…
If you remember what the Berlin Airlift meant to you. Which could be realized because the sky was safe…
I am addressing you on behalf of older Ukrainians. Many survivors of World War II. Those who escaped during the occupation 80 years ago. Those who survived Babyn Yar.
Address to the US Congress:
I remember your Rushmore National Memorial. The faces of your prominent presidents. Those who laid the foundations of America…
Remember Pearl Harbor…
Remember September 11th…
“I have a dream”—these words are known to each of you.
I suspect these threads of connection will have a profound effect for decades, just as the speeches of MLK and Churchill had originally. Again notice the same paradox: millions of people live with disconnected myths for decades. Then one person, inimitably placed in history, connects them in a matter of days.
A Czech closing note. This is why Presidents Zeman and Klaus hurt. Because they hurt at the site of the myth, like a tongue touching a broken tooth. The presidency is a unique position from which to work the mythos—either gently healing or kicking it in the kidneys. Parliamentary democracies give the presidents so few real competencies that the mythological is their main area of work. The next time we elect a president, we have to ask: can they heal the mythos?
Some other names for these informational realities are infosphere, ideosphere, logosphere. Though others authors might not consider these realms to be alive.
We could just as well be speaking of the German trauma. And they too are getting a chance to relive their mythos.
It also feels terrible to suggest that Eastern Europe is somehow being healed by the atrocity of the war.