Scary tales about East Europeans

Ben Judah’s article ‘From Eastern Europe to the East End’ caused a little storm of controversial comments in my Facebook timeline twice: first, when someone reposted Standpoint’s English original, and about a week after that, when InoSMI published the Russian translation. In his paper, he undertakes a little journey across London, exploring the iconography of its ‘East-Europeanness’ and the different kinds of marginality that emerge on this way. While most of the things he observes are not far from being true, I still have reservations about Mr Judah’s general argument and his method. In short, my main criticism is that the article looks like a failed ethnography.

The author has certainly done some research. He has diligently explored the urban wastelands, met some East Europeans and had a chat over a pint with them. However the result of this work looks like anything but proper study. In fact, it is more like a homework of a schoolboy who had been given a task – to write about East Europeans and marginality. And so he did, thoroughly collecting material, digging deeper in one direction but forgetting to look sideways as well. The resulting text looks like a collection of random incoherent stories united by this one idea of marginality that they are trying to illustrate. In so doing, the author, perhaps unreflexively, falls into the trap of listing almost all the common stereotypes about East Europeans. The key image of the article is grimly simple. It encompasses the disappointingly one-dimensional figure travelling eastwards towards ‘East European London’: a dusty and stinky Polish builder on the Tube, with a can of Żywiec in his hand, surrounded by empty seats and other commuters wrinkling their noses.

ImageNow, clearly the author includes a necessary warning in the beginning of his paper: there are not only poor East Europeans. The ‘Eastern European city in London’, whose population originates predominantly from Poland or other post-accession countries, he mentions, also has Russian oligarchs, professionals of unidentified origin and refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo. As well, he concludes the paper with a comforting universalizing stance that he frames as the words of one of the ‘Others’ he observes: ‘we’re all immigrants, innit?’ This should probably serve to reduce the feeling of ‘Otherness’ imposed by the piece otherwise. Thankfully, he also brings up the theme of internal tensions and contested attitudes among the ‘East Europeans’ as well as between them and other groups in London: ‘Russian and Ukrainian people hate Polish and Lithuanian people. Eastern European people hate Indian people. Everybody hates black people. Whites hate everyone. That’s just the way it is’. This should, arguably, make the position of the author very clear – indeed, not all East Europeans are marginalised and vulnerable, and they shouldn’t be approached as a uniform and/or solidary ethnic or national group. The problem, though, is that these two ideas are merely politically correct brackets that frame Mr Judah’s actual narrative, and it is only between these brackets where one has to look for the actual point of this article.

And then it comes as a bit of a surprise that actually, Mr Judah hardly managed to put any coherent idea into this piece of his – apart from describing how life is hard for East Europeans in precarious positions in London and how super-diversity is difficult to handle in the socially and economically segregated society. Quite an insight, indeed.

But what is there, then? The article positions itself as based on the author’s personal involvement with the subjects in question. Considering the effort put into it, and the author’s talent in general, it could have been a great piece – critical, contested, thought-provoking – a truly multifaceted image of ‘East-Europeanness’. Unfortunately, it is not. Unfortunately, it is just a collection of fieldnotes – and I’m afraid, grounded in communication with a fairly small number of people. The jottings have been edited and polished, and then put together, almost randomly. The stage of analysis has been missed. The result is a collection of scary tales, but it is not a story.

Despite all the hardships, the precarious positions of migrants are hardly that one-sided. And I’m sure that Mr Judah has seen the brighter side of things during his observations. Nevertheless, he possesses the authority to show the other side, where people are largely portrayed as deprived of their agency and lacking control of their lives. Not that I’m calling to sweeten the pill: the life of many East Europeans in London is probably much more complicated than the life of Mr Judah. However, these people can be politically, socially and culturally active. They vote in elections and referendums, take part in rallies, go to salsa classes, practice meditation, do scuba diving, and play in amateur theatre – these are just the examples off the top of my head, from my own acquaintances and research subjects – all very real and, yes, marginalised to various degrees.

Why am I being so critical of Mr Judah’s work? Because his failed method eventually produces a certain discourse, the political implications of which are based upon constructing a subaltern subject. Judith Butler in her book Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997) writes: ‘The act of recognition becomes an act of constitution: the address animates the subject into existence’. The interpellative power of the words and the mode of address mean that while being named as subordinate, especially by those already in positions of power, a subject is becoming resubordinated. The East European ‘Others’, as seen through the author’s enlightened Westerner’s gaze, are portrayed as unambiguously weak, marginalised, vulnerable or dangerous. Mr Judah’s paper does not challenge the existing stereotypes about East Europeans – it reproduces them over and over again, thus painting a picture which looks like a sophisticated but ultimately still Daily Mail-ish account.

Fortunately, some of the contemporary East European migrants in the UK have started to learn to speak for themselves. It is not only up to professional journalists and policymakers to produce or contest the image of a migrant. Be it a Russian middle-class professional arguing against being labelled as an oligarch or a hitman; or a Romanian countering the stereotype of ‘benefits abusers’ and the right-wing media rhetoric, migrants today try to make their voices heard and oppose stigmatization. The ‘Other’ can represent itself from its own position: a collection of loosely connected stories like this one should not be taken as the most reliable source. But there’s one thing that Mr Judah got very right but for some reason did not expand on it: a significant part of the East European population of London are perfect conservative voters who feel aversion toward the left as well as the dark-skinned and the Muslims. This could have been a much more intriguing topic to write about for a magazine that devises itself as centre-right, instead of recycling negative stereotypes.

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