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A few words about the project and about who and why needs it

One of the characteristics of the diverse space, both geographical and cultural – that, for want of another term, is often called post-Soviet – is some sort of isolation, an incomplete and insufficient presence on the world stage. The countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union (many against their will) mostly remain in the shadows. They are rarely written about until current events spotlight the faces and fates of those who live in Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan. These events, in most cases, are tragic and therefore they command an immediate reaction on the part of the international community. At such moments the lack of expert knowledge becomes particularly evident. Sources of information about what is going on in these countries – the lives of the people, what they say, what they hope for – remain very scarce. Scarcer yet are publications that would inform their readers about these countries regularly, without reference to a news agenda. Crucially, a story of continuity, of how these national cultural spaces work and along what power lines, what subjects are discussed and how these discussions relate to the themes and topics that would interest the Western reader – simply is not told.

Perhaps, it is time to correct this situation.

Amid the Russian aggression in Ukraine and its consequences, immediate and delayed, for everyone who lives in the territories that were once determined by the borders of the USSR, this information vacuum is becoming even more evident. It’s not only the West that knows little about us – we ourselves know little about each other, and the Russian language has gradually ceased to be a universal language of communication. Nevertheless, Russia’s war in Ukraine (and the constant threat that today’s Russia poses to its neighbours and its own citizens) requires a new kind of attention to those united not only by a common geography but also by a common history, a common trauma – to their own neighbours, their problems and hopes.

A dialogue between countries as well as the need for knowledge and understanding is essential at all times. Normally language barriers are overcome through consistent efforts, cultural and educational programs, manifold forms of mutual exchange. The economic and historical circumstances of the past decades left little room for such an exchange between, say, Kazakhstan and Moldova; books and films made outside Russia that would see the light and be widely discussed in the post-Soviet space, practically disappeared. Cultural export has stopped working — and successful careers of some authors have only made it more apparent.

The Russian language, it seemed, was to become a platform for a conversation between countries where until recently it was a compulsory part of school curriculum. But one of the distinctive features of Russian culture in recent decades has been an imperial indifference to everything that is going on in the near abroad: in Russia, the post-Soviet space remained something of a periphery if not a province. Despite the effort of a handful of promoters of culture and independent institutions, there have been very few translation and exhibition projects representing the work of cultural figures from neighbouring countries. The revolutionary events in Belarus compelled the Russian audience to pay attention to Belarusian poetry, protest art, theatre projects — but state censorship in combination with a controlled media market prevented this interest from acquiring any real breadth. For many years in Russia there were almost no publications that would constantly tell us how culture, politics and social life interrelate in the countries that are still considered familiar. Now that independent media have been outlawed in the territory of Russia, such publications have no chance to appear.

Apart from what you want to read or write about, it is important who it is who writes. When one of the so-called post-Soviet countries becomes a matter of interest for the outside world, it will be written about by someone from the outside. A journalist tasked with writing an essay may (or may not) have experience of work in a particular country, may (or may not) speak the language spoken there; this is a matter of the resources of the publication ordering the article. But the smaller and the farther from Europe the country in question, the greater the chance that the choice of speakers for the article will be determined by accidental factors such as personal connections of its author, notebooks of his friends. The language barrier impedes a journalist in getting acquainted with local publications and bloggers. Due to the closed nature of cultural space, the names of public intellectuals are not always well known. The resulting picture goes through a chain of filters that make it somewhat distorted: incomplete knowledge of the material (the only kind of knowledge an outside observer can have), misunderstanding of local contexts, haste-induced errors – these factors all play a part. The articles, however, can still be excellent – but they cannot replace accounts of those who know the situation from within.

What can the alternative be?

● horizontal platform with equal representation of different countries
● freedom of editorial policy, absence of external control
● independent sections
● steady stream of articles about every participating country
● expertise: section editors, journalists, analysts, public intellectuals tell about their countries
● multilingualism: articles are published in the original language and translated into English and Russian
● rotation: once a year one section editor gives way to another – this will make it possible to attract a wider participation

OSTWEST MONITORING is an international multilingual project aiming to give voice to public intellectuals from Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova (the list of participating countries will grow). From Brussels or Berlin, all these countries seem to be far away in the east but from the inside, the reality looks quite different – and the conversation about the East, the West and their interrelations becomes even more interesting. But wherever our authors and readers are, we hope to offer to the latter what they are lacking today: first-hand information and the possibility of a new and fuller knowledge of each other.

Our audience is anyone interested in receiving information about the intellectual and social life in these countries from those who know them from the inside and can offer a more comprehensive and often a less predictable viewpoint. We also have in mind Western readers wishing to know more about what is going on in these countries, and journalists who we would be happy to put in touch with our editors and speakers. For those who cannot read our articles in the original language or in English, we provide a Russian version – and promise that later we will add more languages. Russia itself is not yet represented on OSTWEST MONITORING – its participation will require further thought. Besides, we expect that things that currently concern the people of Armenia, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova can be discussed without a Russian presence.

We wish you a great read!

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