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Meet the editors of a new journal challenging prejudices about eastern Europe

The Bucharest-based Kajet journal was founded to challenge cliches about eastern Europe — a region that can be “more than a sheer pile of debris awaiting reconstruction.”

Source: Kajet Journal.  

Read the latest in our ongoing Unlikely Media series. As part of this series, we profile new independent (and independently-minded) publications from across the postsocialist space, interviewing editors who are trying to make spaces for alternative journalism, political commentary and reporting.

For the generation of western European journalists writing about post-Socialist Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, eastern Europe was a often exotic land of hopeful optimism.

Twenty-five years and dozens of tabloid headlines about Romanian immigrants later, much of the region’s exoticism to western European audiences has disappeared – and in post-Socialist Europe, so has a great deal of the hope. Today, this Europe is making headlines again, whether as a testing ground for illiberal democracy or a battleground between Russian and the EU/NATO. Yet the region is still written with as the same paradigms (a Europe in imitation that is struggling to become Normal) or as the frontline between liberal democracy and revanchist Putinism.

Some eastern Europeans are speaking out against this binary between the west and the rest, and seek to salvage the region’s post-socialist identity as a potential source of transformation. Take the editors of Bucharest-based Kajet Journal, who flaunt an unapologetically post-socialist identity and put western cliches about the region under a microscope. The journal, which has just released its second issue, is the brainchild of “Founding Mother” Laura Naum and “Founding Father” Petrică Mogoș.

Naum is a writer and graduate in Cultural Economics from the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. She’s proud of her Aromanian roots and is first and foremost interested in the ethnic melting pot which characterises eastern Europe and its representation (the topic of Kajet’s first issue). Mogoș holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the Erasmus University and researches precarity under neoliberalism and the post-socialist art word. They were recently joined by Bucharest-based graphic designers Gabriel Barbu and Ana Maria Dudu. This growing team is fascinated with archival materials and printed matter from the socialist period, a passion reflected in Kajet’s design.

I spoke to Naum and Mogoș about what it means to be eastern European today – and what it means to write about eastern Europe.

Let’s start with the name, from the French “cahier” (a worn notebook). Why did you choose it?

Petrică & Laura: We consider KAJET to be a forever work in progress, and just like a notebook that is bursting with scribbles and scrawls, doodles and sidenotes, eastern Europe is a region that seems to be ever-changing, a cultural-geographic concept whose historical as well as political marks and dents are still visible. KAJET – an easternised version of the cahier – is also a personal and above all nostalgic tribute to our childhood and school paraphernalia (God forbid that your notebook’s corners were bent over!) The journal’s name is also a reference to samizdat, writings that were voluntarily enclosed within the limits of a writer’s workspace, not to be read, distributed, or commercialised within the outside world, but secured in personal notebooks.

In addition to our attempt to evoke a tangible form of nostalgia, KAJET is a platform where we can freely disseminate a revised perspective of eastern Europe, and this vision is transmitted both through content and form. It only makes sense for us that the visual identity is representative of the area and the social critique that it aims to convey.

Kajet’s design is striking, as is its amazing photography. A small-circulation print journal is a brave choice in today’s media environment. Why did you choose print, and who are your audience?

Petrică & Laura: We fight against the abundance of information (and very often misinformation) that harrasses us on a daily basis. Most of the times this bombardment takes place online, so by choosing recycled paper, we extract ourselves from the noise. And although this limits our scope of reach, we do not deceive ourselves that this is not a niche publication, because it is. For the first issue we had an overall print run of 1,000 copies, whereas for the second we have put in circulation an overall of 4,850 copies (out of which a considerable amount has been included in Stack Magazines’ own distribution network of subscribers).

With help from Stack Magazines, we hope to enlarge our audience and to popularise not just the project itself but also the underlying discourse regarding the future of Europe in general and the eastern European one in particular.

“We fight against the abundance of information (and very often misinformation) that harrasses us on a daily basis”

Ultimately, we don’t believe that print is dead. Of course long gone are the days when newspapers used to be the only means of information, but you’d be surprised how varied our readership is, from Hong Kong to Stockholm, from Zurich to New York, or Warsaw to Sydney, the interest in the region exists and cannot be ignored. Having said that, we are still aware that such a project cannot change perceptions en masse regarding eastern Europe, but if with each issue we manage to provide a new consciousness to at least some of our readers, it means that we are doing something right. Of course, we also see printed matters to still be piercing political weapons; let’s not forget about this region’s past, where printed content could be a form of dissidence, one that currently bears the spirit of samizdat.

Who are your authors? And why did you decide to publish in English, rather than German or even in the languages of the region?

Petrică & Laura: In addition to commissioning various artists and writers, we place great emphasis on the open character of our project. For each issue we launch an open call for entries based on an eastern European theme that we find both timely and timeless. We cherish greatly the interdisciplinary nature of our initiative, as we work with visual artists, illustrators, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, architects, graphic designers, poets, musicians, undergraduate and PhD students, IT programmers, and the list can go on.

Inset from Kajet Journal. Source: Kajet Journal.

From the very beginning of this project, we have been aware of the fact that the west (here represented by the English language) has done us a huge favour in spreading our eastern European agenda to take over the world. This also made us mindful and cautious that, in order to reach one of our most important objectives – that of decolonising eastern Europe, the publishing industry, and the way printed matter is scattered across the globe – we had to make a compromise and accept a tender form of self-colonisation. We paradoxically embraced the English language as a tool of spreading knowledge; instead of seeing this choice as a limitation or a cause of invalidating the legitimacy of our project, we acknowledge that in order to prompt any kind of social change or to stimulate any sort of shift in the popular perception vis-a-vis eastern Europe, we do not only have to appeal to western readers, but we also have to – quite literally – speak their own language.

However, this does not mean that our eastern European readership is less important; on the contrary, it transcends a simple writer-reader relationship, as we believe that there is a certain responsibility on our behalf regarding the means through which we choose to represent other eastern Europeans. We have a steadfast ambition to be accepted by the eastern European community, for eastern Europeans to identify with our content, and for them to feel represented by it. If this is not the case, then the journal becomes simply useless. We like to believe that this almost contractual exchange between writers and readers is based on a bifold process of empowerment. After all, this is a process whose ultimate purpose is to provide eastern Europeans with a louder and sharper means of expression.

Your first edition opens with a Manifesto, in which you say that “as eastern Europeans who have decided to come back home after (varied) experiences in the west, we attempt to dismantle the aura of mythical irrationality that obscures the popular belief, together with the region’s counterfeit sense of inferiority against the powerful, the prosperous, and the advanced.” What were those experiences in western Europe, how did they inform your decision to found Kajet? 

Petrică & Laura: Our project departs from the premise that there is a sharp contrast between what happens intellectually, socially, or culturally in the east and how these ideas are disseminated within the western sphere. It is as if the traffic between eastern outsiders and and our more privileged western equals works exclusively in one direction: as though works of art or manifestations of culture can move only eastward, whereas anything originating in the east is deemed to be mocked, ignored, or rejected (at best), or consumed, appropriated, metabolised, and absorbed (at worst). And KAJET started precisely out of this kind of frustration.

At the same time, if we are to actually think about the patronising sentiments of disdain and superiority coming from the west, most of them stem from a lack of awareness regarding what is happening outside their own bubble. Some may call this ignorance, but we think that this may not be entirely the case. Instead, we believe, that such sentiments have been perpetuated through repetition and unjustified fear by mainstream media looking to sensationalise subjects and sell stories.

Furthermore, most of our Dutch/British/foreign colleagues, professors, neighbours, etc. were driven by a self-declared desire to know more about this mythical place we came from. And although the desire was most of the times stained with outrageous (as well as hilarious) claims, we appreciated their effort and took it upon ourselves to address this deficiency through print.

Nevertheless, KAJET remains a personal project, a therapeutic one, that we hope can help us recover from our anxieties and our own sense of inferiority against the other “better” citizens of the world.

No publication about eastern Europe is complete without navel-gazing about the term we use for the region. You’ve written that “eastern Europe is more than a sheer pile of debris awaiting reconstruction,” and that the image of “lagging behind or being late bloomers” is a “terminological cloak” which drapes from Tallinn to Tirana. Is this what defines “eastern Europe” for you?

Petrică & Laura: This is a good time to come back to the previous rhetorical question regarding the ability (or lack thereof) to easily pinpoint eastern Europe. By negation, if this area is neither western European, nor Russian, then what is it? The intricacies of the region are greater than ever. How come that Prague is regarded as more eastern European than Vienna, despite that it is situated further westward? Are Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia part of Central Europe, or what Milan Kundera and others refer to as Mitteleuropa? Should the Balkans – the plot of land stretched between the Adriatic and the Black Sea – be seen as a sub-region of eastern Europe or a completely different territory? What about the Baltic region? If we are to base our rationale solely on ideology, how eastern European is the post-Soviet side of Eurasia? Alternatively, how much can we leave behind from the legacy of the Cold War imagination when we try to understand the intricacies of a region such as eastern Europe? Perhaps we’d be uselessly adding fuel to the already existent terminological debates if we were to go on like this.

Instead, what we are interested in is the ideological, political, social, and cultural differentiation made through discourses and practices through which Europe is divided in two separate, self-contained spaces: western liberalism as prosperous and eastern post-socialism as retrograde; the civilised and the barbarians; the core and the periphery; essentially, the west and the east. Eastern Europe is not just a (as one of our articles from the first issue ironically puts it “scary and different and, for the everyone’s sake, far away”) geographical part of Europe. It is an imagined, translocal community, that comes with its own quirks, embellished with both perils and delights.

“Eastern Europe is an imagined, translocal community, that comes with its own quirks, embellished with both perils and delights”

But what is even more perplexing regarding eastern Europeans is the disabling lack of capacity to understand themselves. So rather than being interested in the cultural geography of the area, we’d say we are more keen to engage with its psychogeography. Molded by a distinct social and cultural hybridity, eastern Europeans have been on a perpetual journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and approval regarding their roots and origins. In fact, we are defined by this constant feeling of uneasiness; we are utterly incompetent to come to terms with our own past, while this alienated sense of rootlessness and isolation, alongside a majestic sense of inferiority, seems to have marked us forever. These are all sentiments that we have firmly anchored within ourselves, and undoubtedly our desire to explore eastern Europe stems from them.

A lot of writing about Poland or Hungary uses that kind of teleological language. Beyond the “democratic backsliding” of governments in Budapest and Warsaw, there’s even talk of a “reversal of the transition”, a process which some analysts considered completed. With Romania and Slovakia potentially following their neighbours’ concerning examples, is it time to call this style of populism ahead of the curve?

Petrică & Laura: The transition – explored critically either as an absolutist necessity of the post-communism condition or as a forever undergoing project of catching up – is a subject that we deal with consistently in our work. Although some argue that the transition hasn’t been sharp enough, that it hasn’t achieved a desirable degree of westernisation, the free market is clearly both king and queen in eastern Europe, as much as it is almost elsewhere around the world.

What draws the eastern European case apart from others is the context in which the free market has been adopted: on the ruins of utopia. Post-socialist eastern Europe has been fully dragged into the neoliberal capitalist universe, but this happened with a strident twist: its already characteristic position at the (semi-)periphery has stood still, ever present and more bitter than ever. In this regard, eastern Europe has borrowed the governing strategies of capitalism and is currently suffering miserably: a minimal state, the disposal of highly educated yet precarious labour, nationwide privatisation and retrocession, dependence on multinational corporations and banks, accumulation of debt as a way to subjugate the individual, and ultimately, a predominantly aged population with most labourers leaving the region for a better life in the west.

What draws the eastern European case apart is the context in which the free market was adopted: on the ruins of utopia

And while we see this kind of transition to be long realised, there is, as you said, a new wave of backsliding and retrogression happening at democracy’s most basic levels. One reason for this is that the mainstream political imagination is limited as well as limiting: some are smitten with populist visions of gliding back in the Belle Époque and the subsequent glorified interwar period, to the pure, traditional Orthodox family, to restoring so-called true, ancestral values (which are nonetheless the invention of modernity) where iron hand autocracies represent the only viable alternative. Others are still captivated by the American/European dream and enamoured by the prospect of an Occidental utopia guided forward by de-politicised technocrats who will tame our barbarian innerness and re-civilise eastern Europe through a governing exclusively for a decaying middle class. We refuse to believe that an alternative to both of the aforementioned cults does not exist.

It sometimes seems political debates in Central and eastern Europe are still fighting perceived (neo)communism in various guises, over 25 years after its collapse. As such, the ghosts of communism are still seen to have an explanatory power for so many societal ills, which possibly weakens a more critical analysis of the western ideal which is to be embodied. Boris Buden even links this “mimicry,” the figure of “children learning democracy” to a form of colonialism. From your first volume, it seems that you agree.

Petrică & Laura: Undoubtedly, a review of today’s eastern Europe that exclusively focuses on the perils of communism is doomed to provide no fruitful outcomes. Communism in post-communism becomes either a mnemonic device for the nostalgic masses, or a key element of a legitimising witch-hunt unfolded by the transition’s winners. For instance, the discourses that view homophobia or poverty as the last living remnants of the former communist regimes are nothing else but part of the hegemonic mold through which all shortfalls of contemporary capitalism are artificially explained.

This kind of colonising – as well as patronising – discourse makes its subjects believe that eastern communities were cut off from their so-called normal historical development by nothing else but communism, and that only now, although belatedly, they are getting accustomed to the normal way of life, that they are essentially catching up with the rest of the developed world. And in post-communist capitalism there is nothing more important than this process of catching-up, of emerging, and recovering the time lost during communism.

This is a sentiment that has been buried deep in the post-communist social imaginary, to the extent that it is now engrained in the anxieties and the sense of inferiority that most easterners unwillingly comply with. And thinkers like Srećko Horvat, Igor Štiks, Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, or Boris Buden have been talking about this for at least the past decade or so. Anyway, it is interesting (and somewhat scary) to see how the discourse has developed over three decades of post-communism and how it continues to degenerate in the future.

Ultimately, it is obvious that while clearly delineated political systems seem to be losing trust, ground, and legitimacy, we could indeed be faced with similar situations to those in Hungary or Poland, where fanatically anti-communist rhetoric is deviously intertwined with right-wing mobilisation and anti-democratic principles.

Nostalgia for the communist past can have many causes and takes many forms. But among citizens of post-communist Europe one thing that lingers is still an abiding sense of the state as a social provider, even if it routinely fails to meet those obligations. Do any “ghosts of the communist past” still have emancipatory potential?

Petrică & Laura: Unfortunately, the rhetoric of transition has been fixed on destroying the legacy of socialism through mischievous attempts of rewriting the past. But the so-called ghosts or zombies survived in most cases through collective nostalgia. Therefore we are still able to find fragments of the recent past with its inner dynamics and complexities, with failures, as well as accomplishments, with a living history of detachment from the capitalist world, an environment which in itself should provide social and cultural critics with a great deal of inspiration.

Even though most products of the past have been either destroyed or rendered pointless by the winners of the transition, present-day eastern Europe remains a living trace of the past. In addition to a sense of inclusiveness, as well as a rule for the many instead of the few, the legacy of communism teaches us about a powerful internationalist dimension, one that leaves room for a post-national model of humanity to emerge, one that has the potential to break the unbearable spell of neoliberalism.

Source: Kajet Journal. Having said this, the emancipatory potential of nostalgia shouldn’t be ignored: the past shouldn’t be regarded as a sensitive topic, whereas its passive dimension shouldn’t be exaggerated until acceptance. Nostalgia after all is an acute indicator of the contemporary bleak state of affairs and embodies an emerging desire to build toward a better future. This nostalgia is the result of an impulse that opens up political questions at their most basic political, as well as human, level. The ensuing nostalgia–regardless of it form, be it ostalgia, yugonostalgia, or simply a nostalgia toward the bygone times – can indeed function as a proficient method that condemns the contemporary ruling elites, as well as the underlying status-quo.

However, in order to stimulate change, we need to replace the sentimental, teary side of nostalgia with a proactive, engaged, and radical nostalgia, one that has its fists raised up in the air. Only in this way ghosts may have emancipatory potential. Otherwise, they will be kept at the level of electoral promise and political opportunism.

Your current edition, released last month, asks whether there are utopias after utopia. But it seems to me that after 2008, a lot of old certainties have collapsed on the other half of the continent, and people are seeking new political alternatives. This could be a major challenge to how we’ve been invited to view eastern Europe in the continent’s cultural geography. What lessons does post-socialism have here, and what comes after it?

Petrică & Laura: The second issue begins with an extensive discussion regarding the idea of a utopian eastern-futuristic society that is based on hope. Instead of futile, fragmentary explosions of despair, we argue that we need to organise a mechanism for social autonomy that can empower new subjectivities and sensibilities. A new social model that borrows from the past yet is upgraded for the needs of the many in contemporary times: in this regard, such a model of the future needs to balance the failures of the past with an actually emancipatory movement inclusive of all human beings, that is also aware of the surrounding ecosystem.

Such a post-(or even anti-)national mankind needs to be recognised as a vital position in the current state of affairs, where new visions arise from the idea of an emerging class without a nation. An eastern society of the future (but perhaps not only eastern, for the west needs also to be liberated) should be built around the action of learning how to practice hope. Hope in this sense acts as a new terrain for a struggle of the future, insofar as hope itself is actively sustaining thought into action, discourse into praxis. After all, in this desert of transitioning in perpetuity, we don’t need to wait for an oasis to reveal itself, but to actively pursue it.

We need to bring the politics of imitation to a halt and to start assembling our own eastern future

It is upon the current distrust of business elites that we can start building. Instead of turning toward profound conservatism (just like Hungary or Poland did), however, we need to bring the politics of imitation to a halt and to start assembling our own eastern future. Even more so, in the case of postsocialist eastern Europe, it is the very fluid history of the region that makes it the perfect site for critically delving into its troubled relationship with the notion of utopia. That is why, we argue, it is especially in the context of post-socialism, that we must continue to juxtapose the current desolate order with a well-established ideal.

With utopia itself becoming utopian – a forsaken relic of the past and a symbol of failure to many, our second issue seeks to revive a hopeful perspective upon everyday life, as well as politics, in eastern Europe. After all, post-communist countries of the former eastern bloc were not exclusively established upon velvet revolutions, as for the most part they were guided forward by the iron fist of military violence and economic remodelling toward systemic material scarcity and an addiction to private funding: in Darko Suvin’s words, a violent transition dependent on tanks and banks. The recent history teaches us that the deficiencies of the 1980s were swapped – without a coherent intermediate passage of recovery – with the catastrophic hopelessness of the 1990s, with a depression of the soul and body alike.

As you rightly noticed, we do seem to assemble the entire issue around an open-ended question (Is there room for utopia after utopia?) However, we like to think that this question is by no means rhetorical, as it has a clear answer, and that answer is an affirmative one. Hoping that this sort of spoiler hasn’t cast off any potential readers but has intrigued them, we do believe that a better future, a utopian future awaits us, if we learn how to build. After all, this is what the second issue is about: how do we use our radical imagination in order to build a better future and what mechanisms and strategies do we employ in order to ignite our advancement toward utopia…

Your third issue will be about “struggle,” against a “dogmatic present and apparently inescapable future.” What does this struggle mean to you, and what other issues are in the pipeline for Kajet?

Petrică & Laura: Our interpretation of struggling inside eastern Europe can be actually very broad, but the third issue will be focusing on: how should the act of struggling against the emergent status-quo look like? What conditions do we need to create in order for our struggle to be fruitful? Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, where should this struggle take us?

The kind of eastern Europe we envision through KAJET shall remain open toward the possibility of a socially reformed tomorrow. By changing the paradigmatic understanding of the region, what if eastern Europe is better off as a space of transcultural existence under continuous construction, or a transitory stage toward an improved geopolitical arena of a revolutionary future that can allow us to form an experimental post-Europe – an environment marked by the legacy of shared upheaval, the existing time of collective struggle, and the potential of joint cooperation in pursuance of social change and social revolution. After all, struggling remains completely ineffectual if it does not follow a thoughtful scheme toward a better future. Struggling shall not be just about past/current conflicts; instead, we consider that struggling needs to be planned, and it is only through perceptive planning that we can redeem our salvation.

We usually take projects one at a time, so for now all our attention is focused on trying to spread around our second issue and on putting together our third.

 

About the author

Maxim Edwards is a journalist, assistant editor at OCCRP, and a former editor at oDR (from 2015 to 2018). He writes on nationalism, migration, minorities and memory, with a focus on eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. His articles have appeared in Foreign PolicyAl-Jazeera, Al Monitor, EurasiaNet and the Forward among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @MaximEdwards.


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