Why is Eastern Europe Backward

The countries of Eastern Europe—except for Bohemia— are economically weak while historically they are non- Western and peripheral.

Research by Marian Małowist (1909–1988) and Witold Kula (1916–1988) was introduced into the global academic circulation by a star of economic history, the Frenchman Fernand Braudel, and the controversial but still adored patron of Marxist sociologists of globalization, Immanuel Wallerstein. The picture of Eastern Europe shaped by these researchers dominates in the global economic history. Eastern Europe from the 16th century to the 20th-century interwar period is presented as one of the first peripheral regions of the world capitalist economy with the centre in North-Western Europe. Weak economically and oppressive politically, it unsuccessfully attempted to pull itself out of backwardness. Social inequalities were running deep here and the relations between the lord and the serf were more despotic than in Western Europe.

In Poland this picture was and is treated by historians, such as Jerzy Topolski (1928–1998) and Andrzej Wyczański (1924–2008), as highly controversial. Among experts on social sciences and the general public it is virtually unknown.

I promote Kula’s and Małowist’s studies among researchers and commentators as useful for understanding Polish social and economic history, including the most recent one after 1989. It seems very valuable to me that they open the history and present of Poland to comparisons with other peripheral countries—usually non-Western and often postcolonial ones, undermining our attachment to our self-image as Europeans.

Latinos of the East

The ideological message of both Kula’s and Małowist’s interpretation is clear. First, economies that come in touch with more developed economies—through international trade— succumb to a dependence on imports. Such cheap products as unqualified labor, grain, coal, cotton or tomatoes can be also delivered by other peripheries, so countries dependent on exports of raw materials have a limited impact on prices and in the long term they become subject to exploitation.

Second, since the times of the expansion of capitalism from North-Western Europe to the peripheries, social classes acquired an international character. The majority of global lower classes are located on the peripheries and global elites are concentrated in the countries and metropolises of the capitalist centre: in Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th century, in London and Paris in the 18th century, in New York in the 20th century. On the peripheries, the higher rungs of this global social structure are virtually non-existent. International merchants, and today managers of global corporations, arrive only for brief stays. Upper middle class that is the richest bourgeoisie and today’s local managers of global companies, come from the center or try to copy the lifestyle of their bosses from the main headquarters.

Witold Kula presented elaborate comparisons between Eastern Europe and the Americas in the colonial period as well as between Eastern Europe and Latin America in the period of “unsuccessful industrialization” in the 19th and 20th centuries, as he called it. Despite the geographic liberties he took, which sometimes irritate historians, these comparisons are interesting. Comparing the relations between Eastern Europe and American colonies with the West, Kula created such analogies as serf-slave, nobleman- senor, farm-plantation, grain-cotton: “If, despite low productivity and the cost of long sea transport, the products of these »colonies« (Eastern Europe on the one hand and American colonies on the other) win and are sold for good money on English and Dutch markets, it is possible only thanks to paying less to the labor force, which is cheap because of being not free: in servitude in Europe, in slavery in America.”

In the 19th and 20th century, Southern Europe and Latin America were supposedly similar to pre-socialist Eastern Europe, for the countries composing this region are “agricultural countries with strong feudal relics, a strong landowning class and great overpopulation of the country- side.”They were characterized by “insularity and exterritoriality of means of industrial production owned by foreign capital as well as by great social, technological and cultural contrasts.” In the 1960s Kula was convinced that had it not been for state socialism, Eastern Europe would recall Southern Europe and Latin America—poor, with authoritarian rule and social contrasts. “If you have any doubts if such a structure would have a permanent nature, look at Portugal, Spain, Greece or Latin American countries.”

The West, the East and Russia

Significant features of the geographic area of Eastern Europe emphasized by Kula were serfdom lasting up to the 19th century and unsuccessful attempts at industrialization undertaken later than in Western Europe but earlier than in other parts of the world. Therefore Kula placed both Poland and Russia in Eastern Europe.

This constitutes the important difference between the concepts of Eastern European character proposed by Kula and Małowist. In the works of the later, serfdom does not belong to the essence of Eastern Europe, in contrast to exports of raw materials (corn from Poland, ores from the Balkans, stock animals from Bohemia and Hungary), which in late Medieval period led to an international division of labor which was unfavorable for Eastern Europe and to a dependence on markets in developed countries. In Małowist’s interpretation the burdens of serfdom, growing since the 16th century, form an important factor of the emergence of this mechanism but just one of many possible such factors. This is why in the East of Europe, best characterized in the book Wschód a Zachód Europy. Konfrontacja struktur społeczno-gospodarczych [The East and the West of Europe. Confrontation of Social and Economic Structures] published in 1973, Małowist includes areas between the Baltic and southern Adriatic, that is both north of the Danube, where serfdom persisted until the 19th century, and in the Ottoman Balkans, where it had never existed. But the servitude-based Russia did not belong to this region, for in the 16th century its despotic state structures banned trading contacts between Western merchants and local gentry, with the government controlling this trade.

In a slightly similar vein as Małowist, Kula explains Eastern European backwardness not only through domestic socioeconomic structures but also through “external influences,” for the course of development in a backward country cannot be explicated without a reference to international trade relations. Both scholars assumed that a strong influence of this kind was present in Poland as early as in the 16th century, when grain trade with the West started flourishing. They were criticized for that by Andrzej Wyczański and Jerzy Topolski: their detailed calculations showed that only a small part of farms and grain production was exports-oriented. They argued that in the early modern period, that is from the 16th to the 18th century, international trade had no significant influence on the development of any country and supra-local national economies were only starting to appear. The growth of some economies and failure of others depended on internal factors, also non-economic ones, such as population density, wars and epidemics.

In our times, a similar position is taken by Markus Cerman, the author of the book Villagers and Lords In Eastern Europe 1300–1800 published in 2013. He points out that the division into the Western European land of liberty and the Eastern European land of subjugation and serfdom was not so clear, for personal subjugation was less common than the feudal duty of working for the lord. At the same time serfdom was exchangeable for rent, therefore, generally speaking, it was not so different from the duties of peasants towards their overlords in Medieval and Early Modern Western Europe.

Modernisation on the Peripheries

The main participants of the Eastern European debate have long been dead. Economic history is asking different questions than in the 1960s and 1970s. But the works of Kula and Małowist and the debate on backwardness conducted forty years ago seem still relevant and inspiring to me, for they remind us that:

1. The countries of Eastern Europe (excluding Bohemia, industrialized early, dominated by the bourgeoisie and more prosperous) are economically weak while historically they are non-Western and peripheral, and in contrast to non-Western peripheries they lived under the influence of economic, ideological and cultural contacts with the West; 2. The post-1989 transition was another attempt at a peripheral modernization imposed from above, similar to other peripheral roads to Modernity;

3. Like in the case of previous attempts at modernization in Central and Eastern Europe, it is imposed from above and motivated by the desire of local elites to achieve the lifestyle of Western elites and be culturally recognized as Europeans;

4. As usual, attempts at modernization on the peripheries are accompanied by a fervent ideology. Kula’s argument that ideological intensity is proportional to the lateness of modernization is convincing. While the pioneers of industrialization espoused a liberal ideology, in Prussia and Germany it was nationalism and in Russia—communism. Europeanization—accompanied by the “return to Europe” slogan in the 1990s and“being European” after the 2004 accession— is another modernization ideology, that is, as Karl Mannheim defines it, a justification for the political and social order being what it is;

5. Wage migrations, typically taking place from Eastern European villages to Western industrial centers and big cities, form an underestimated element of our social history as well as our regional and national identity. Migrants from our region, together with the Irish and emigrants from Southern Europe, at the turn of the 20th century were pioneers of wage migrations. In the 20th century, this response to backwardness became common on the remaining peripheries. In the memory of the most industrialized nations of the West we are like Sicilians or Greeks, remembered as cheap laborers (we repress this element of our identity and are ashamed of it);

6. Arguments, political and even partisan divisions in Central and Eastern Europe can be interpreted as arguments about how to treat our peripheral status. The main line of division runs between those accepting this status and those who feel humiliated by it. The former see opportunities for development within the existing international order, while the latter rebel against it from nationalist or anti-capitalist positions;

7. Condemnation for the supposedly lazy, frivolous and financially dissolute Greeks, Spaniards and Italians, common in the Polish public discourse, means assuming the German perspective in looking at the crisis and at the division of “old Europe” into the German centre and Mediterranean peripheries. Geographic analogies proposed by Kula remind us about the similarities in the economic situation of Eastern and Southern Europe on the eve of Modernity. Understanding these peripheral European identities may be cognitively and politically more profitable than focusing on the studies of Germany, France and England.

So what are the ideological options for us, representatives of Eastern European middle class, who work with words and ideas, also in the West? The attitude which I regard as beneficial for the region, cognitively honest and psychologically bearable is as follows: let us recognize (following Kula) backwardness as a permanent feature of regional economies and confront it—intellectually and in terms of identity—recognizing what is Central European in us but also cultivating what we share with other European and non-European peripheries.

Anna Sosnowska

Scholar, University of Warsaw, author of Zrozumieć zacofanie. Spory historyków o Europę Wschodnią (1947–1994).

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