The (Baltic) “Near Abroad”: Culture Across Borders or Borders Across Culture?

  • Abstract:

    As the call for papers for this conference explains, ‘Eastern Europe was invented as a region and continues to be re-invented from outside and inside’. My paper will consider the contribution of Russian and russophone publics, both within and without the region, to these processes of geographical imagination and articulation, with particular attention to the Baltic region. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians and Russian speakers in this territory emigrated ‘without leaving the comfort of their own homes’. The complex task of fostering the social integration of these populations has loomed over Baltic societies for two decades, more recently giving way to concerns over the potential sympathies of these populations with Kremlin politics. Other Russians are now arriving in a ‘bona fide emigration’ from the Russian Federation to settle in the Baltic, bringing oppositional political and media platforms with them. Riga is now home to a leading alternative news platform, Meduza, and the editor of a leading avant-garde Russian poetry journal, Vozdukh. The current paper will plumb the paradoxes of this situation, something of which is captured by the Russian term that describes these territories: the ‘Near Abroad’. Over the decades, media from the Russian Federation, cross-border networks, and largely state-sponsored institutions that bridge the geopolitical gap (the Russian World Foundation, Moscow House in Riga, the Russian Prize for Russian literature written abroad, etc.) have ensured that this territory remains ‘near’ to Russia. Nevertheless, the Baltic is separated by political borders from metropolitan Russian society, included in political unions (the EU) and defense treaties (NATO) that exclude Moscow, and its institutional culture shares more and more with that of Western Europe. Russians in Riga, in this sense, could not be farther ‘abroad’. To be Russian in the Near Abroad is to have political, social and cultural borders inscribed across one’s community, family and even self. Based in interviews, ethnographic field work, and study of public discourse and media, this presentation will examine the uncomfortable intersections of (Eastern) Europe and Russian Near Abroad in the geographical imagination of the Baltic region.