chapter  9
Stabilizing dispersed identities, or why politics defines EU–Russia disconnections
Pages 21

In a matter of less than three decades the idea of a wider Europe dwindled from Gorbachev’s rosy expectations of a “common European home” to a comeback of border practices in their harsh material reality. This was seen either as the intention of the Estonian government to erect a wall protecting the country from Russia, or as Russia’s demonstrative liquidation of banned European food stuffs at its borders. A new compartmentalization with a new system of divisions and partitions looms large at the horizon. This chapter looks at the crisis in EU-Russia relations, with the conflict

over Ukraine at its zenith, from the viewpoint of the twin concepts of boundaries and borders that I deploy at the intersection of three broad research perspectives. One is social constructivism with its focus on symbolic interactionism as the platform for intersubjective, or mutually constitutive relations between identities in communication.1 This theoretical stream claims that each role identity is a social and communicative construct, which implies that actors making up social structures are in a position to influence others’ identities to the point of inducing changes in the collective Selves of their interlocutors, partners, and neighbours. However, what is often overlooked in constructivist scholarship is that identities can be extraordinarily resilient and possess multiple mechanisms of resistance to alterations under external pressure. The second theoretical strand is critical border studies, a discipline that is

instrumental in raising the question of how actors define and construct what differentiates them from one another, namely, borders, boundaries, and frontiers.2 Within this field of research much attention is paid to a variety of borderlines/borderlands, yet much less is said about their key political function of making political communities and forming collective subjectivities. Thirdly, in this chapter I argue that for comprehending the logic of EU-Russia

estrangement one needs to strike a balance between these two approaches through interpreting intersubjectivity more as a process of border/boundary construction, rather than as a direct impact from one identity to another. In this vein, constructivism and border studies need to be complemented with cultural semiotics as a school of thought that deals with diverse border-crossing experiences. Turning to the intellectual legacy of Yuriy Lotman, I particularly focus on his theorizing of the concept of the boundary. The key question at

this juncture is what is innovative in the multiple writings grounded in Lotman’s concepts, and how they contribute to the generation of new knowledge pertinent to a better understanding of identity discourses in/of Russia and Europe. I seek to inscribe approaches developed by cultural semiotics into the

multidisciplinary analysis of political components of power, with borders/ boundaries playing a key role herein. The seemingly paradoxical grounding of the current political debates in Russia and Europe in the semiotic heritage of Lotman uncovers his unexplored potential for contemporary political analysis and his applicability for many adjacent disciplines, including cultural studies, sociology, and theories of international relations. This underpins the role of semiotics to help understand how both construction and deconstruction of meanings in hegemonic discourses function, and how susceptible to multiple readings they can be. In terms of Lotman’s theorizing, it is of tremendous importance in what

linguistic categories a certain system describes itself: whether this self-description is conducive to foreclosure and isolation, or, vice versa, the system is open to dialog and communication with other systems. The structure of language might be inclusive (conducive to translation of meanings) or exclusive (based on self-descriptions that expulse alien meanings and ultimately lead to semantic closures). These and other dichotomies strongly resonate in the variety of Russian-European identity-driven contexts that involve neighbouring countries as well, with Ukraine as the most politically illuminating example. It is due to the resilience of these constitutive dichotomies that external

spaces become semantically structured through constructing the outside and ascribing to outsiders characteristics of irreducible alterity. These ascriptions can be mythical, since what lies on the opposite side of the border is often culturally marked as “chaotic”, “unfriendly”, “infernal”, etc. This illustrates that boundaries can be used as political tools for creating or reshaping collective Selves to distinguish one identity from another: “claiming a European identity is a mode of defining a boundary between us and them”.3