The Spiritual Dimension in East European Culture

Bruce R. Berglund

A well-established body of Western academic work exists that perceives Eastern Europe as backward and primitive.1 Surprisingly, however, these studies have overlooked religion. The oversight is odd, as Western popular views of East European religiosity and spirituality are a key pigment in coloring the region as backward. Journalists and travelers have seen the religious devotion of Poles, Slovaks, Romanians, and other peoples of the region as setting them apart from the rest of Europe.2 In his widely read Balkan travelogue Robert Kaplan recounts a visit with the Orthodox nun, Mother Tatiana, who pauses in their tour of Gračanica Monastery to declare: “I am a good Christian, but I’ll not turn the other cheek if some Albanian plucks out the eyes of a fellow Serb.”3 The scene leaves a potent image of East European (or, as Kaplan intends, specifically Balkan) Christianity: an oath to vengeance sworn before the icons and domes of an ancient church.

This theme of East Europeans’ primitive religiosity was also evident in criticisms of John Paul II by West European and North American Catholics. Progressive Western Catholics saw John Paul as “a culture-bound peasant from behind the Iron Curtain,” a man out of touch with changes in modern society.4 However, contrasting opinions of John Paul II reveal a different facet of Western perceptions of East European religion and spirituality. While some in Western Europe and North America saw John Paul II’s Polishness as the root of an anti-modern conservatism, others saw this same Polishness as the root of his spiritual strength and authority. For instance, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared his loyalty to the new pope immediately after the papal election of October 1978, stating that John Paul II was the first major figure in the Church to have “grappled with, [and] possibly mastered, the principal philosophical question of our time, which is the question of totalitarianism.”5

This respect for the spiritual strength of East Europeans, gained from the struggles of their history, has not been limited to John Paul. Over the last quarter-century, a number of East European cultural and intellectual figures have gained wide audiences and acclaim in the West in part for the perceived spiritual content and moral message of their work. The compositions of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, with their spare movements and settings of sacred texts, have become favorites among concertgoers and CD-buyers in Britain and North America. Passages of Górecki’s phenomenally popular Third Symphony have been used in theatrical films at moments of tragedy or revelation, and the symphony has accompanied performances and exhibitions inspired by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the AIDS plague, and the Holocaust.6 The mournful strings and haunting soprano of Górecki’s composition have become, to Western listeners, a soundtrack for pathos and epiphany. As conductor David Zinman remarked, “It is like listening to the angels.”7

Similarly, the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski are acclaimed for their spiritual depth. The Dekalog series, in particular, has been ranked among the greatest religious films ever, even though Kieslowski himself disclaimed any religious affiliation.8 Poet Czesław Miłosz and theologian Miroslav Volf have been hailed for a depth of insight gained from their life experiences as East Europeans, even though their years of mature productivity came after their moves to the West. Even writers and thinkers who have disclaimed religious affiliation, such as Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, Leszek Kolakowski, Michael Polanyi, and Slavoj Žižek, have been recognized for their attention to matters spiritual and for their deep respect for Europe’s Christian heritage.9 For West European and North American audiences, life in Eastern Europe, with its history of Communism and genocide and its supposedly deeper religious traditions, has earned these figures a solemnity inaccessible to writers and artists from the democratic, prosperous, and secular West.

East European cultural figures posit that, owing to a trying history, the region possesses greater spiritual and cultural resources than the West. In the mid-1980s, two of the most renowned intellectuals to emerge from Eastern Europe published essays trumpeting the region’s contributions to European history and culture: Milan Kundera in “The Tragedy of Central Europe” and John Paul II in his encyclical Slavorum Apostoli (Apostles to the Slavs).10 Setting aside their differing philosophies, the essays share a fundamental assumption: Both the Polish pope and the Czech novelist believed their home region to be the wellspring of Europe, the source of the values and ideas that made Europe a great civilization.

According to Kundera, the Central Europe of the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Austrians was, in the early twentieth century, “a great cultural center, perhaps the greatest.”11 John Paul declared that all of Slavic Europe, from the Alps and Adriatic to Russia, was the repository of the heritage of Cyril and Methodius, a legacy of Christian unity despite the divisions between Catholics and Orthodox.12 Both John Paul and Kundera urged, moreover, that a Western Europe mired in base consumption and neglect for higher ideals (whether cultural or religious) would be saved only in rediscovering the contributions of their home region. Kundera claimed that Central Europe’s cultural accomplishments and political fate were a warning to Europe as a whole. “All of this century’s great Central European works of art, even up to our own day,” he stated, “can be understood as long meditations on the possible end of European humanity.”13 The novelist offered no prescription for how that fate might be averted. John Paul, of course, had no such hesitation. The legacies of Slavic Christianity, he insisted, would “enrich the culture of Europe and its religious tradition” and provide the “foundation for its hoped-for spiritual renewal.”14

Other cultural figures have echoed this claim of Eastern Europe as a source of moral bearing, or claimed for themselves the authority to dispense lessons to the West based on their first-hand experience of the region’s tumultuous past. In his acceptance of the 2001 Erasmus Prize in Amsterdam, Adam Michnik spoke of “the wisdom of the people who erred and are marked by original sin.” He contrasted these people to a generation that sings of its own freedom but lacks the “memory and consciousness of moral conflict,” who live untouched by bounds of good and bad, sin and happiness. Drawing on the words of Erasmus, Michnik compared those without the marks of sin to the Pharisee whose self-assurance earned the anger of Christ. Although not explicit, the association was clear: West Europeans, in their prosperity and security, had lost sight of moral bearings; they had to be challenged by the wisdom of those with original sin. And this wisdom was, in the words of Michnik, “what we will bring into Europe.”15

In claiming a moral authority granted by their experience of the region’s history, East European intellectuals repeated themes of their anti-communist writings: the principles of culture over politics, individual ethics over power, and truth over deception. In the post-1989 period, as the former Communist states have undergone political and economic transformation and joined (or queued to join) West European institutions, the former dissidents have retained their basic message: an attention to what is called the “spiritual.” According to East European intellectuals, the driving forces of European integration are bureaucratic dictates, consumerist motives, and pragmatic liberal policies. As an institution, the European Union (EU) claims to promote and protect the material wealth of its citizenry with the idea that greater wealth will bring better health care and education, more money for culture, more free time. Yet, the critics insist, prosperity and liberal rights are not enough. With varying degrees of moralizing, writers from Eastern Europe who publish in Western journals and speak in Western venues make the same charge: The European Union requires a spiritual foundation, yet this is something its leaders have refused to allow.16

President Václav Havel expressed this view consistently in his statements on EU expansion. In a 1994 speech to the European Parliament, he stated that reading the documents of integration was like “looking into the inner workings of an absolutely perfect and immensely ingenious modern machine,” a creation that, while satisfying to the brain, did not address matters of the heart. These matters of the heart, the values of Europe, “with roots in antiquity and in Christianity,” had been hidden within this machine. The result, he charged, was that many people would come to the view that the EU was “no more than endless arguments over how many carrots can be exported from somewhere, who sets the amount, who checks it, and who will eventually punish delinquents who contravene the regulations.” Havel urged that the EU had to be more than that. If it is to last, he concluded, then it must be more than the sum of its regulations.17 In this emphasis on the spiritual over the technocratic, on values and mission over market forces, the appeal of the Czech intellectual-turned-president echoed the message of Slovak bishops to their flock, to the “European souls” under their care: “Market and economic liberties alone cannot keep unity. Europe needs the soul from which spiritual unity could grow and bear fruit. This will be the guarantee of its economic and political unity. Europe needs to draw strength from its spiritual roots. Only a tree with strong and deep roots will bear fruit, the wind will not break it, and the sun will not burn it.”18

Certainly, there are fundamental differences in the moral visions of Václav Havel and the Catholic bishops of Slovakia, but, as with Milan Kundera and John Paul II, a common premise may be discerned: Eastern Europe is the place where truth and principle are defended. The idea is not new, for medieval kings and princes, both Catholic and Orthodox, saw themselves as standing alone in defense of Christendom against the false religions of pagans and Muslims.19 Their declarations, like the addresses of contemporary intellectuals, indicate more than an identification with Europe, or a longing for the appreciation of those at the center. For Christian princes of the past, as for intellectuals of today, the margins are essential. The fortunes of Europe, its wealth and power, its identity and existence, depend upon those at its frontiers.

Eastern Europe is not simply the bulwark against false religions, as medieval kings had believed, nor a wellspring of neglected beliefs or values, as Kundera and John Paul maintained. It has become the repository of truths that Western Europe has rejected. It is the center. It is Europe.

But what of the spiritual understanding of ordinary East Europeans? According to one 2004 poll, few citizens of the then-new EU member states saw themselves as defending spiritual values. Their greatest contribution to Europe, according to most respondents to the survey? Cheap labor.20 The hundreds of thousands of East Europeans, particularly Poles, working in Western Europe indicate that the economic lure of acquisition is strong—much stronger than a defense of the traditional values of Europe.21 As these people are moved—literally—by a yearning for prosperity, one can ask whether the criticisms of an amoral, materialist EU made by church leaders, Christian politicians, and secular intellectuals are directed not toward West European politicos but toward the Polish plumber and the Slovak nurse.

Still, the poetics of a spiritual Eastern Europe do have a Western audience—and Western patrons. Intellectuals and writers from the region receive awards in Amsterdam, speak at symposia in Dublin, and contribute articles to English-language periodicals. Clearly, the editors and academics who offer the invitations find some resonance in the censures offered by their East European colleagues. But why? What is their investment in a conceptual geography that distinguishes Europe’s materialist West from spiritual East? In a Europe undergoing administrative and economic unification, perhaps the projection of some deeper spirituality on the new member nations is an effort to revive cosmic-sacred character. F


1 Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994); Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Milica Backić-Hayden, “Nesting Orientalisms: The Case of Former Yugoslavia,” Slavic Review 54 (Winter 1995): 917-31; Dickie Wallace, “Hyperrealizing ‘Borat’ with the Map of the European ‘Other’,” Slavic Review 67 (Spring 2008): 35-49.

2 Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople from the Hook of Holland: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (New York: Penguin, 1988); Jason Goodwin, On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul (New York: Henry Holt, 1993).

3 Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 33.

4 The line about a “culture-bound peasant” comes from one of John Paul’s defenders: James V. Schall, “Of Inquisitors and Pontiffs: Criticizing John Paul II,” Homiletic & Pastoral Review 81 (June 1981), 19. Another admirer, George Weigel, also recognizes the Western prejudice against a pope from Poland at the start of his biography, Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).

5 The Washington Post, 7 October 1979, quoted in Schall, “Of Inquisitors and Pontiffs,” 23.

6 The various appropriations of Górecki’s symphony and its popularity are discussed in Luke B. Howard, “Motherhood, Billboard, and the Holocaust: Perceptions and Receptions of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3,” Musical Quarterly 82 (Spring 1998), 131-59.

7 Ibid., 150. As I learned from the excellent BA thesis of my student Esther Miller, American audiences and CD-buyers are likewise drawn to East European folk and choral performers for the perceived “spiritual” and “timeless” qualities of their music. Record companies, tour organizers, and music writers highlight these elements in their promotion of such performers, as Donna Buchanan explains in the case of the popular Bulgarian women’s choirs: “Bulgaria’s Magical, Mystère Tour: Postmodernism, World Music Marketing, and Political Change in Eastern Europe,” Ethnomusicology 41 (Winter 1997), 131-57,

8 “Arts and Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films,” 2006,; and Joseph Cunneen, “Kieslowski on the Mountaintop: Ten Commandments from the Late Polish Director,” Commonweal, 15 August 1997, 11-15. One scholar of Kieslowski describes the director as a “hopeful agnostic.” Joseph G. Kickasola, The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image (New York: Continuum, 2004), 34.

9 A useful introduction of Slavoj Žižek, which discusses the philosopher in his Slovene context, is Rebecca Mead, “The Marx Brother: How a Philosopher from Slovenia Became an International Star,” The New Yorker, 5 May 2003. For sympathetic readings of Žižek by American Catholic and evangelical academics see Paul J. Griffiths, “Christ and Critical Theory,” First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life 145 (August-September 2004), 46-56; and Ashley Woodiwiss, “Philosophy at the End of the World,” Books & Culture 12 (November-December 2006), 30-33. Havel’s books have received praise in Commonweal, First Things, and Books & Culture, and he was the subject of an admiring survey by James W. Sire, editor of InterVarsity Christian Press: Václav Havel: The Intellectual Conscience of International Politics: An Introduction, Appreciation & Critique (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001). For the take of the Catholic journal First Things on Polanyi and Kolakowski, see John Rose, “The Feeling Intellect,” First Things (March 2007),; and Zbigniew Janowski, “Main Currents of Kolakowski,” First Things (October 2006),

10 Vjekolav Perica, “Churches and the Twilight of the Slavic Myth,” paper presented at the conference “Religion and the Challenges of Modernity: Christian Churches in 19th and 20th Century Eastern Europe,” German Historical Institute, Warsaw, June 2006.

11 Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” New York Review of Books, 26 April 1984, 34.

12 John Paul II, Slavorum Apostoli, encyclical epistle given in Rome, 2 June 1985,;documents/hf_jp_ii_enc_19850602_slavorum-apostoli_en.html.

13 Kundera, “Tragedy,” 36.

14 John Paul II, Slavorum Apostoli.

15 Adam Michnik, “Confessions of a Converted Dissident: Essay for the 2001 Erasmus Prize,” eurozine,

16 Stefan Auer, “The Revolutions of 1989 Revisited,” eurozine, 14 June 2004,

17 Václav Havel, “Address to the European Parliament,” Strasbourg, 8 March 1994,

18 Pastoral Letter of Slovak Bishops on European Integration, 15 May 2002,

19 Ignác Romsics, “From Christian Shield to EU Member,” Hungarian Quarterly 48 (Winter 2007),

20 One-third of Poles saw their religious and moral contribution as most important, as opposed to 13 percent of Hungarians, 18 percent of Slovaks, and 7 percent of Czechs. By contrast, 55 percent of Poles, 55 percent of Hungarians, 50 percent of Czechs, and 46 percent of Slovaks saw “cheap labor force” as their contribution to united Europe. “Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia: What Will They Bring to the European Union?,” results of survey conducted by the Central European Opinion Research Group Foundation, April 2004,

21 Indeed, as one Anglo-Polish commentator suggests, perhaps the illiberal environment of Catholic Poland has been one factor in pushing young Poles to seek work in Western Europe. Irena Maryniak, “The Polish Plumber and the Image Game,” eurozine, 15 November 2006,

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Bruce R. Berglund, “Drafting a Historical Geography of East European Christianity” in Christianity and Modernity in Eastern Europe, ed. by Bruce R. Berglund and Brian Porter-Szűcs (Budapest-New York: Central European University Press, 2010).

Bruce R. Berglund is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids