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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Tomasz Kamusella - Teaching the history of multi-lingual, multi-ethnic central & eastern Europe

This week we hear from Tomasz Kamusella, an interdisciplinary historian of modern central and eastern Europe. He is the author of several monographs on language politics, nationalism and identity, including Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria (Routledge, 2018), The Un-Polish Poland, 1989 and the Illusion of Regained Historical Continuity (Palgrave, 2017) and The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe (Palgrave, 2009). He teaches courses on central and eastern European history at the University of St Andrews. You can find out more about his teaching and research on his staff page.

PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests

I am an interdisciplinarist, specializing in the history of language politics and nationalism in modern central Europe. I am Reader in Modern History, based in the School of History at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK. I come from the historic region of Upper Silesia, nowadays shared by the Czech Republic and Poland. In the past, this region used also to be part of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Upper Silesia, alongside its multi-ethnic and polyglot past, was the initial source of inspiration for my research. I wrote a PhD dissertation on this region’s history in 1848-1918, and that is how my academic career began.

PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?

Practically, all my teaching is based on my own research and fields of specialization. At the postgraduate level I make the point to offer my own articles and books as required reading. These constitute a point of reference for further students’ readings and discussion. At undergraduate level, I teach one year-long module on ethnic cleansing and genocide, alongside two semester-long modules, one on ‘The Rise of the Nation State in Central Europe (1810 - 1923),’ while the other is devoted to ‘Stalinism, Nazism and Central Europe (1912 - 1941).’

When I arrived at St Andrews in 2011, I offered these two semester-long modules on the lands of partitioned Poland-Lithuania in the long 19th century, and on the post-Polish-Lithuanian nation-states in the 20th century. These modules ran only once and then failed to recruit, so I broadened them, first to include the modern history of the northern half of central Europe, that is, including Czechoslovakia and Hungary, apart from the Polish-Lithuanian lands. This change did not help. Next, I offered the options on all of central Europe, meaning, with the addition of the Balkans. No takers again. Hence, drawing a clue from the perennial popularity of my year-long module, I rejigged the 20th century option to authoritarianism and totalitarianism in the first half of the 20th century. Many students believe that this should be just another run-of-the-mill module on either ‘Hitler’s Germany,’ or ‘Stalin’s Soviet Union’, but I have tried to keep a general module on the history of central Europe in the 19th century in order to offer interested students more grounding in this area. Predictably, this module recruits poorly, typically anything between two and eight students. Should this not improve, I may be forced to cut on the 19th century altogether. In such a case I would offer a module on the post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav wars after the fall of communism. Although, I hope, it will not come to that.

Rather few students are keen on central or eastern European history at the postgraduate level. That is why the MLitt program devoted to this area, established in the early 1990s and co-run by four schools (Art History, History, IR and Modern Languages), went defunct in 2018. Within the framework of the Modern History MLitt, the co-taught module ‘Perceptions of Central and Eastern Europe’ tends to have some takers (2-3). But typically a student interested in central Europe needs to take a Directed Reading module, designed for guided individual study. In line with my research, I tend to contribute to modules offered within the MLitt program in Transnational History.

PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery, borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?

Actually all teaching on central European history during the last two centuries is on the shifting peripheries and borderlands, first, in relation to the imperial centres (Berlin, Istanbul, Paris, or St Petersburg), and then vis-à-vis the capitals of a constantly growing number of nation-states. On top of that, interwar and wartime central Europe, from the geopolitical perspective, finds itself strung between totalitarian Germany and the totalitarian Soviet Union. Whereas, after 1945, the region – split by the Iron Curtain, and with the biggest number of nuclear warheads anywhere in the world positioned on each side – became at once the very periphery of both enemy blocs and the very centre of the globe’s Cold War confrontation.

The main challenge for students is to get a working command of all these changing political frontiers and morphing lattices of a wide variety of polities. However, Paul Robert Magocsi’s Historical Atlas of Central Europe, now available as an e-book, is of much help in this regard. The problem is that the majority of history students from western Europe and North America are averse to using maps and atlases. Unfortunately, this attitude results in problems with their essays and exams. A grasp of the spatial dimension of social and political history is a must, even a foundation for understanding central Europe in the modern period.

In my modules I also try to focus on the neglected history of stateless nations and ethnic groups, especially Jews and Roma. These two peoples/nations/ethnic groups each at 10-12 million people have lived in diasporas coterminous with central (and eastern) Europe. At the same time, the history of the Moravians or Samogitians is of crucial importance, respectively, for the emergence of the Czech Republic and Lithuania as nation-states.

PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?

For the last half a decade or so, at St Andrews, individual students and a variety of student bodies have been increasingly vocal on the necessity of including non-western (non-European) history in our teaching. I stress the point that my remit of teaching on and researching central (and eastern) Europe, in essence, is devoted to non-western history. Although from the purely geographic perspective, the area constitutes two-thirds of Europe, in the heads of the majority of British and North American students the received concept of Europe is de facto limited to western Europe plus Greece. The eastern limit of such a notional ‘Little Europe’ is Germany and Austria. They have a very blurry awareness of central Europe, despite the fact that it corresponds to the eastern half of today’s European Union. At times students simplistically equate it with ‘(western) Russia,’ or refer to it in a rather unconsciously negative manner as ‘the countries between Germany and Russia.’

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As remarked above, although my modules address students’ requests for more teaching on the non-western past, there are rather few takers. What seems to spook many if not most is the multilingualism of central Europe. Obviously, they realize that other areas of the world are also polyglot, such as Africa or New Guinea. Yet, in the postcolonial countries, the former colonial languages function as these polities’ official or de facto language of public life, administration and education. Hence, in most cases a student can attempt an in-depth research essay or project on an aspect of the past of Kenya or New Guinea exclusively on the basis of English-language primary sources. This is not possible in the case of all central Europe’s polities run exclusively through the medium of the local indigenous languages. No insightful essay or dissertation on the Hungarian economy in the 1920s can be written without the use of Hungarian-language material.

PH: What do you think a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian Imperial/Soviet history looks like?

At present, the vast majority of literature and teaching on Russian Imperial/Soviet history, be it in the Anglo-American world, or in Russia itself, focuses squarely on the Russian (Russkii) ethnic core, often further limited to Moscow and St Petersburg only. The ethnically Russkii peripheries tend to be excluded, let alone the non-Russkii areas. Generalizations reached on this basis often sound like a repeat of Russian imperial views on the empire. Just to give an example, when I review books on Russian imperial history or mark essays devoted to this subject, the category of the Russian nobility (dvorianstvo) often pops up. Yet, almost never authors are aware that at the turn of the 19th century, in three-quarters this nobility consisted of Polish-Lithuanian nobles. The ratio had fallen only slightly to two-thirds by the early 20th century. Nor are researchers and students aware that Polish was a Russian official language of administration from what today is Lithuania to what nowadays is the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv between the late 18th century and the 1830s.

Likewise, when the Russian imperial or Soviet past is discussed and researched, rarely any documents and literature are consulted in a language other than Russian. It is as if delving into Slovak history exclusively through the lens of Hungarian-language literature, or into Polish history exclusively through the lens of German-language literature. Obviously, this tendency comes from the acutely monolingual practice of ‘global history,’ typically pursued with the use of literature and primary material almost exclusively in English or yet another former colonial language, be it French or Spanish.

Judging by St Andrews University’s Library, the structure of holdings are still very much geared to the realities of the Cold War, with precious few books and material on other post-Soviet countries than Russia itself. The change in this respect is slow, and in turn, keeps teaching wed to the Cold War patterns. For instance, three decades after the breakup of the SU, no serious discussion has been devoted to the country-specific varieties of the Russian language. A student who wants to acquire this language goes to Russia, though as well she could get enrolled in an excellent Russian language course be it in Latvia or Mongolia.

Last but not least, while much interest and space have been devoted to the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states, eastern Poland or Moldova during World War II, practically no attention has been paid to the 1944 Soviet annexation of Tannu-Tuva, a country the size of Greece in the midst of Asia. The Euro- and Russki-centric character of Russian/Soviet studies remains largely unchanged.

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Albert Dexter
Albert Dexter
Oct 13, 2023

Tomasz Kamusella, a dedicated historian, illuminated the intricate tapestry of multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Central and Eastern Europe. To delve into the world of computer science research proposals, visit With passion and precision, he unraveled the region's rich past, fostering a deeper understanding of its complex identity. As he shared his knowledge, he inspired countless students to explore the fascinating history of this diverse area.

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