Vieda Skultans

Vieda Skultans

The Invention of Eastern Europe and Baltic Identity Trajectories

The title of our conference Trajectories of Belonging in Europe points to some of the paradoxes that collective memory in the Baltic countries must face in arriving at an acceptable identity. Trajectory implies movement (both willed and imposed), whereas belonging implies a degree of stability. Furthermore, Europe as a construct (including both East and West) also embraces movement and stillness. It has acquired a spurious geographical and social legitimacy whilst hiding, perhaps even flourishing, on its own instability. In this presentation I plan to examine the constructions of Europe East and West, their interdependency and the difficulties these pose for narratives of belonging. I will examine the ways in which collective memory negotiates these paradoxes and necessarily leads to a partial eclipse of history. And finally I will draw out the implications of constructs of Europe for Baltic narratives of belonging in relation to the all-pervasive presence of alcohol in the lives of the marginalized.


The concept of Western Europe as the seat of reason and civilization emerged during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and required the other in order to know and authenticate itself.  Thus eighteenth century writers among them Voltaire, Rousseau and Herder had an interest in the Slav and Baltic peoples and in doing so paved the way for the invention of the idea of Eastern Europe. Garlieb Merkel, the Baltic German pastor and teacher born in Livonia, was part of this tradition. It is noteworthy that his revered, but double-edged work on the condition of the Baltic peasantry in the eighteenth century incorporates the Enlightenment in its very title, namely, Die Letten, vorzuglich in Liefland, am Ende des philosphischen Jahrhunderts (2005). In other words this peasantry is described from the perspective of the century of Enlightenment. Whilst the German landlords and their treatment of the Livonian serfs is seen as despicable, the behaviour of the serfs themselves is described as primitive, even degenerate. And yet they were seen as a laboratory in which a new Greece could be shaped “out of so many little wild peoples” (Herder, 1976:77). Indeed, Herder had vowed to transform “Rousseau’s Emil into the national child of Livonia” (Critchfield, 1990: 103).


However, already in the 18th. century Merkel noted that a major obstacle to the civilizing mission was the excessive use of alcohol. Today the Baltic countries form part of what is popularly called the vodka belt stretching from Siberia across the Baltic and Scandinavian countries to Iceland. But within these countries there is another belt of sparsely populated rural border areas where drinking practices are more intense and extensive than elsewhere. Marginalization is experienced most painfully in the borderlands. Go to any village in these rural areas, search out their geographical and social centre, the heart if you like, and you will find there a crowd of local men,  in varying stages of intoxication, who have chosen the most visible position to share and display their bottles of drink and to act out their drunkenness. These performative displays of intoxication are, I will argue, a consequence of a marginalized identity.


Vieda Skultans is emerita professor of Social Anthropology and senior research fellow at the University of Bristol. For many years she worked in the department of Mental Health. Her interest in narrative and suffering was consolidated during this period. Although committed to Anthropology she is non-disciplinarian and has drawn upon a number of theoretical fields to enlarge the scope of Anthropology. Among her published books are Empathy and Healing: Essays in Narrative and Medical Anthropology (Berghahn, 2007) and The Testimony of Lives (Routledge, 1997).