I spoke to Dr. Ileana Nachescu of Rutgers on the history of ‘whiteness’ within the USSR and the ‘wages of whiteness’ for post-Soviet immigrants in the U.S and Europe.
It’s a fascinating chat that you can read below!
Asia Art Tours: Under Soviet rule, how was ‘whiteness’ defined within Russia? And did Russian scholars see their nation’s ‘whiteness’ as different (or superior) to other settler colonial nations like the US, UK and France?
Ileana Nachescu: First off, I want to start by saying that I’m talking of whiteness in the sense of a racial formation as discussed by Omi and Winant, who point out that the history of American citizenship is deeply embedded with the assumption of whiteness. Whiteness (understood as Europeanness) circumscribed American citizenship. And, from an American perspective but not only, Europe was also assumed to be the West (Western Europe) and synonymous with civilization.
I think yours is a very important question, but we need to place the articulations of whiteness during and after the Soviet times in the longer history of the Russian Empire. Madina Tlostanova discusses at length the Russian Empire as a Janus-face empire, one face anxiously turned toward Western Europe, seen as an unattainable model, the other facing its own internal colonies, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus. What is interesting in the case of the Russian empire was that its colonies were spatially adjacent. Yet the civilizing stance that Russia intellectuals articulated toward populations Central Asia and the Caucasus was not unlike the famous trope of the white man’s burden.
During Soviet times, modernization within the Soviet Union acquired distinctly colonizing overtones as far as populations other than Russians were concerned. Although the Soviet Union saw itself as promoting proletarian internationalism, what resulted was in fact a project of forced Russification of its territories both in the Eastern and Western areas of the Soviet Union, with the paradoxical result that occasionally the populations that the Russians, who very much identified with whiteness, attempted to “civilize” were already more Westernized than their colonizers, as in the case of Latvians or Estonians.
A discarded Soviet statue in Tallinn, Estonia. PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia
Asia Art Tours: After the collapse of the USSR, did the “currency” of Russia’s whiteness also collapse? Is this “currency’s” stability tethered to Russia’s status as an empire?
Ileana Nachescu: I really like how you phrased the question: the currency of Russia’s whiteness. I would say that on the international stage, Russia’s whiteness, just like the ruble, has never been very strong. Russians and Eastern Europeans more generally have been considered as not fully Western, as a territory that is in need of further civilization… a project that has never been completed. I don’t think Russians themselves, or Eastern European countries, will ever be seen as fully European, fully civilized, regardless of the political dynamics in the region.
But at the same time, being adjacent to whiteness confers privileges that we have seen in the treatment of Ukrainian refugees compared to refugees from other parts of the world. At Poland’s Eastern border, the same activists and volunteers attempting to help refugees cross into the country encounter very different experiences: Ukrainians are allowed to pass and welcome, while African refugees are detained at the border with Belarus.
Syrian Refugees protest in Budapest, asking for entry to Germany. PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia
Asia Art Tours: Journalist Terrell Starr and scholar Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon have discussed the rich history of Afro-Ukranians. Other reporters have focused on the Crimean Tatars as a longstanding minority group within Ukraine.
When looking at direct governance, what was the ‘Soviet’ approach to immigration and integration of those deemed ‘non-white’? And how was this approach differentiated throughout the USSR?
Ileana Nachescu: Racialized minorities, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus were seen as uncivilized, and a process of colonization that aimed to repress local religions, traditions, and linguistic identities was carried throughout the region. Yet the Soviet Union also tried to project, externally, at the time of the Cold War, the image of a classless, colorblind, and anti-racist state, highly critical of American racism.
Particularly in the aftermath of colonial movements in Africa, the USSR did its best to attract African students to its universities, as historian Maxim Matusevic has shown; they arrived in relatively large numbers searching for an education that was unavailable in their countries. The expectation was that they would return home at the end of their studies; they enjoyed a certain privileged status, being allowed to travel abroad and having access to products of Western culture, jazz especially, which they introduced to local audiences. But they also had experiences that highlighted rather ugly racial prejudices against them, and were even exposed to violent incidents.
A delegation from Angola laying a wreath at Lenin’s Mosoleum. PHOTO CREDIT: Tass
Asia Art Tours: Post -USSR is the nationalism in the majority of former Soviet states still based on ethnonationalism or has ethnicity, nationalism and belonging become a more fluid liminal space in these nations?
Ileana Nachescu: I would very much love to say that in the aftermath of socialism, all sorts of hybridities were embraced in the former socialist states, but that’s not the case, unfortunately, even as the world we live in becomes more and more integrated and multicultural. In the Soviet Union, the perestroika years witnessed a return to more openly expressed racism against African students, which continued after the end of the Soviet Union.
I will speak for a moment about Romania and the 1990s, when mainstream intellectuals promoted a return to the values and culture of interwar Romania. I remember being a student in those years, and although many of us were interested in studying Western feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory, and environmental studies, all the local book market offered was a steady stream of Romanian interwar nationalist and religious thinkers, in combination with conservative thinkers that had been suppressed by the socialist censorship. Feminist and queer studies books had been censored as well during socialism—with few exceptions, socialist societies were adamant that they had solved “the woman question”—but these latter types of texts continued to be censored informally well into the 1990s.
And discrimination in general against racialized populations such as the Romas has been on the rise in very alarming ways throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Even now, even in the midst of showing enormous generosity toward Ukrainian refugees, countries such as Moldova have chosen to place Romani refugees from Ukraine separately, offering less-than-equal accommodations, and this is incredibly sad and revolting.
Soviet-era Feminist Poster, the text reads: “Every minute should be spent on highly productive work!” PHOTO CREDIT: National Museum of History in Moldova.
Asia Art Tours: Exploring your own whiteness after immigrating to the US, you write in the Boston Review:
I realize that the war in Ukraine, and the West’s reaction to it, simply cannot be understood without reflecting on the role of race. Scholars have coined various names for racialized categories adjacent to whiteness, but perhaps the simplest way to understand the racial paradox represented by Eastern Europeans is to understand that we are white but not Western
What has it meant for you to immigrate to the US and experience being ‘white’ but not ‘Western’?
Ileana Nachescu: Several scholars have coined various terms for defining this in-between status adjacent to whiteness. “White but not quite,” “dirty whites,” etc. Most often, it means an erasure of alterity. I’m not perceived as foreign when I walk into a room. I’m perceived as different when I open my mouth, and usually somebody asks about my accent—where am I from—that tricky question that assumes that one never really belongs. But I also remember that once someone told me that immigrants from Eastern Europe are hardworking and what this country (the US) needs, and I immediately understood that he referred to my whiteness codified in the trope of the self-sufficient, bootstrapping immigrant that would never demand any kind of social services or support from the state. Some sort of a model minority, except that this one can be fast-tracked toward whiteness, which was his ideal version of the nation.
My reflections on whiteness are grounded in my experience of writing a monograph of a Black feminist organization, the National Alliance of Black Feminists (1974-1983), and of being grounded in Black feminist theory. The book is completed and currently under review. I think it is very important for Eastern European immigrants to engage race, not only in the sense of pointing out our second-class whiteness, but also in the sense of engaging with white privilege and being critical of the identification with whiteness and Europeanness that we’ve been fed in our countries. And that identification was not interrupted during socialism—I want to emphasize that. I am currently working on a memoir about growing up in socialist Romania, using a lens that accounts for gender, class, and race. Another project I am working on examines the experiences of contemporary immigrants from Eastern Europe as shaped by both transnational whiteness and neoliberal capitalism.
Yet the hierarchies that place us in an inferior position vis-à-vis our white Western counterparts are never more visible than when discussing our own histories. It’s not a secret that if you look at departments and programs of Eastern European Studies or whatever the designation might be, the number of scholars from the region is astonishingly low. I remember delivering a talk, and one of the discussants, a white American woman who was an expert on Eastern Europe, told me that I had a lovely personality. She did not want to engage with my argument, that there was a power relationship between her and her subjects—Eastern European women. And in fact, Western scholars are happy to avoid the much-needed exercises of reflecting upon how Cold War ideas about the freedom-loving West versus the authoritarian East inform their work.
The current war is waged over Ukraine as a nation, but also in the name of European values, understood as liberal democracy and elections. (An interesting point is that capitalism is not really discussed here. The privatization and financialization of Ukraine, whose disastrous consequences economists such as Yurchenko have pointed out, are somehow not part of a conversation that tends to frame everything in national terms.) Again, if Ukrainians were truly white and Western, we know that there wouldn’t be a war. So Zelenskyy’s desire to be seen as equal to Europe is unlikely to come to fruition. But I’m concerned about the way this war is being used to reinforce the image of the West as the bastion of freedom and democracy, while people of color living in the West do not experience it as such. I fear that the war in Ukraine can become to ultimate form of whataboutism in a country like the US, where mass incarceration and mass deportation of people of color are daily realities for millions.
A Roma – Black Lives Matter Protest in Bucharest, Romania. PHOTO CREDIT: Twitter
Asia Art Tours: Finally, in a world hitting the limits of capitalism and the ecological threshold to sustain life, what does the absurdity of Putin’s war and the reasons behind it, tell us about the (absurd) future of nation-state conflict?
Ileana Nachescu: I haven’t seen nationalisms disappear, unfortunately, and this war will reinforce national identities. Nations are imagined communities, of course, and these types of imaginations and discourses fluctuate. They are constantly rearticulated, and, in this war of invasion of an independent nation, they are likely to solidify even more, as Russian soldiers inflict destruction and harm on the civilian Ukrainian population, as abuses and war crimes accumulate. And women are mobilized as agents doing the affective work of nationalism.
I recently saw a news program showing Ukrainian Canadian women and children singing their national anthem and wearing traditional Ukrainian costumes. War is always carried in the name of women and children, and the Ukrainian martial law has, in fact, solidified the perception that men are warriors whose mission is to protect their families; women and children were allowed to leave the country. There are Ukrainian women fighting in the war, of course, but the assumption is that war is gendered in a specific way.
And to answer your question, we have not witnessed the disappearance of nationalism under global neoliberalism. On the contrary, I would say. Globalization is not about the erasure of borders; it is about opening them to capital and controlling the transnational flows of labor. Similarly, nationalism, and especially white nationalism, is an extremely convenient tool for global neoliberal elites, who can deploy it once the pain created by the destruction of various socials safety nets reaches the usually privileged white populations—people of color are usually even more vulnerable. Then, as we have seen in the US and around the globe after all, economic misfortune, which is the rule rather than the exception under neoliberalism, is blamed on racial minorities, immigrants, welfare recipients, and pretty much anybody who challenges the established gender order. Nationalism can work really well with global neoliberalism.
Ukrainian Woman in traditional clothing. PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia
Dr. Ileana V. Nachescu, grew up in socialist Romania and came of age during the popular uprising that ended state socialism. She co-founded the first Women’s Studies Center at her alma mater, the University of the West, Timisoara, Romania.
Currently she is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University.
She is working on a memoir about growing up in socialist Romania. She is also working to document the experiences of contemporary immigrants from Eastern Europe as shaped by both transnational whiteness and neoliberal capitalism.
For more, please check out Dr. Nachescu’s website: ileananachescu.com