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Module Abstract Introduction and Tools

1. Chapter
East-West division in Europe: Construction of terms

"Eastern Europe is an arbitrary term. It is largely a product of the European history of the past two centuries, solidified particularly during the Cold War era. Until the 18th -19th centuries the distinction between Eastern and Western Europe did not exist. More appropriately, even if we can now, retrospectively, point out many divergences in the developments in these two regions going long back into history, contemporaries did not think in terms of West-East divide. According to Wandycz (2001), the origins of such thinking could be traced to the debate among the Slavophiles and the Westerners in Russia in the second quarter of the 19th century. Sabine Fischer believes that the concept of Europe and Russia being two different cultural entities came into being before the Slavophiles-Westerners-debate, at the latest with Peter I in the beginning of the 18th century. Another historian, Larry Wolff, sees the origins of the concept of Eastern Europe in the Enlightenment period. According to Wolff (1994), the idea of civilization developed by Enlightenment thinkers enabled an articulation of the idea of Eastern Europe as a link between civilized Europe and barbarian Asia.

From the 19th century the duality in European development was often interpreted and justified in cultural-religious terms. One part of the continent followed the Byzantine Greek Orthodox tradition, while the other adhered to that of the Roman Catholic or Protestant Church. Numerous other historical events, such as the split of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, the Mongol invasion of the 13th century and the Ottoman domination in the 14-19th century were all used to explain the divergence in the developmental trajectories of Europe's two parts (these historical developments will be elaborated in more detail in the next unit).

Many historians had pointed to the importance of the medieval heritage for the differentiation in the patterns of political and economic change. Feudalism evolved very differently in two parts of Europe. The Western model of development was based upon the growth of towns that developed into centers of commerce and production, and the gradual separation of state and society. The nobility in the West preserved considerable autonomy. The Roman Catholic Church was able to escape the tutelage of the state, securing another autonomous domain for the society. On the economic front, from the 15 th century onwards Western Europe set out on a path of capitalist development, encouraging commercialization of agriculture and abolishing serfdom, expanding commerce and facilitating technological advances. The Eastern model, on the other hand, most fully revealed in Russian history, was based on being fully subservient to the monarch nobility, weak and underdeveloped urban settlements and the Eastern Orthodox Church that maintained its close ties to the state. In contrast to the Western model, the post-15 th century development in the East was based on intensifying and prolonging serfdom until mid-19 th century ("second serfdom"), while the economic position of towns declined.

The real consolidation of the idea of Eastern Europe occurred in the second half of the 20 th century, when the entire international system came to be defined according to the geopolitical lines of rivalry between the two superpowers associated with two competing ideologies of capitalism and communism. As stated famously by Churchill in 1946, "An iron curtain descended across the Continent". Eastern Europe then became synonymous with the Soviet bloc, a unique form of communist dictatorship and a command economy totally subordinated to the political control of the ruling party.

To the outside world, the Soviet bloc was a unified entity – led by the Soviet Union and opposed to the West. Inside, there was ever increasing diversity. Although the initial period of post-WWII development in Eastern Europe was characterized by an attempt to impose a uniform model of Soviet-type communism, this effort failed. The return to diversity started almost from the outset, with the breakaway of Yugoslavia in 1948, and was propelled further with the death of Stalin in 1953. What transpired in the following decades could be described as a process of continuous adjustment, accommodation and, ultimately, rejection of the communist model.

The Revolutions of 1989 and the end of the Cold War blurred the relatively clear political boundaries between East and West and brought many of the definitional debates back to the table. The achievement of political independence from the Soviet bloc allowed for a "return" of some of the East European countries back to Europe that in the current political context took a form of the accession to the European Union. This new era also witnessed the revival of the concept of Central Europe."

Gulnaz Sharafutdinova: East-West division in Europe: Construction of terms. 1st Chapter of Unit 1 of the Introduction & Tools Module. © East European Studies Online; 2010.