To the Center via the Periphery: An Interview with Maria Todorova

The name Maria Todorova is familiar to all scholars of the Balkan Peninsula and Eastern Europe. Prof. Todorova’s seminal book, Imagining the Balkans (1997), prompted a broad conversation in the social sciences and humanities about the Balkans as location and imaginary. Widely acclaimed—with a second edition published in 2009 and now translated into 13 languages—Imagining the Balkans continues to provoke. More recently, she has turned her attention to questions of nostalgia and memory, continuing her impact on the fields of social and cultural history, historical demography, and historiography.

Concerned as she is with social and cultural history, Prof. Todorova’s work has found an eager audience amongst cultural anthropologists. She was recently invited by the Society for the Anthropology of Europe to give the 2017 William A. Douglass Distinguished Lecture at the 116th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, DC. Her lecture, “To the Center via the Periphery (by way of the Balkans): Bulgarian Social Democracy and the Second International” challenged conventional wisdom about the development and diffusion of socialism in Europe. After the event I got the chance to ask her a few questions about the ideas she presented and the work of historians and anthropologists of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

—Dana N. Johnson for EuropeNow


EuropeNow “To the Center via the Periphery (by way of the Balkans)” is a richly detailed lecture challenging conventional wisdom about the existence of an East–West binary in early socialism. You ended your lecture by emphasizing the point that “[we] should be thinking of the International (and socialism at large) as an intersection in time, where different outlooks, held together by a shared worldview, meet, a polyphonic contrapuntal chorale.” For our readers who are not historians, can you elaborate on the approach to historical research and interpretation exemplified here? Is this what is known as “microhistory” or the privileging of “minor histories”?

Maria Todorova “Microhistory” is one way to put it, in the sense that by bringing to life several thousand “obscure” nineteenth-century Bulgarian socialists, I am trying to say something larger about socialism and highlight unexpected patterns and hidden connections. On the other hand, if I were to write something about several thousand nineteenth-century English (or American, if there were that many) socialists, would anyone classify this as microhistory? My last book, Bones of Contention, was about saints and their relics, about nationalism and its heroes, about archaeology and its consumers, and about socialism and its public sphere (among other things), but I framed it, tongue-in-cheek, as a microhistory. Why? Because it was geographically dealing with a “minor” topic—Bulgaria—although from the point of view of Bulgaria, this was no microhistory but a kind of total history.

You might be closer to the point with “minor histories,” but then history’s fashions are notoriously fickle, and what is major in one period becomes minor in a subsequent.  During the romantic nineteenth century, with its focus on great men and their genius as makers of history, biography was the preferred historical genre, and topics like “ordinary people,” “labor,” “women,” “social questions,” “economic patterns,” “ideologies,” and so on would have been considered “minor histories.” Nobody today would write the history of Rome like Theodor Mommsen, but it is true that it is beautifully written, and it earned him the Nobel Prize for literature in 1902. Today biographies are (unfairly) considered “minor” and, as a matter of fact, even “microhistory” is at present démodé, the call being to think large and write macrohistories…

EuropeNow You make it clear that you find postcolonial theory to be an inappropriate or inadequate framework for the analysis that you undertake in the Douglass lecture. Yet there does seem to be something persistently alluring about this body of literature for scholars of the region. (For example, Katherine Verdery and Sharad Chari have argued for bringing postcolonial and postsocialist studies together in an integrated field of post-Cold War studies that would allow for connections between different imperial projects to be illuminated).[1] Given that this topic harkens back to much earlier debates both taken up and prompted by Imagining the Balkans, would you share your current thinking on the issue? Do you see any utility to approaching the postsocialist and postcolonial conditions as contexts that rhyme?

Maria Todorova This question merits a more detailed answer (although I have written at length on the problem) precisely because the issue has been raised by anthropologists. Let me say from the outset that my objections are twofold: conceptual and political. My conceptual objections stem primarily from my formation as a historian and my insistence on historical specificity. You could consider this to be a kind of myopia, insisting to see the world closer up, in all its detail and beauty, rather than in its broadest contours. Both scales and perspectives, I think, are legitimate, but they serve different purposes and are usually attached to different disciplinary traditions.

Postcolonial studies have an established pedigree in poststructuralist theory. They challenged the theoretical models and metanarratives built on the earlier dominant paradigms of modernization, development, and world systems theory. The problem is that postcolonialism itself became a new metanarrative, though it is only fair to say that despite some conservative hysteria, it has never been really institutionalized. Nonetheless, postcolonial studies have undoubtedly achieved an honorary status even if some are positing their melancholic phase and even their end. It is thus interesting to note that it is precisely at this moment that the question of the relation of Eastern Europe to postcolonialism is being posed (not only by Verdery and Chari, but even before, although not in such a rigorous articulation, also by a number of East European intellectuals.)[2]

David Spurr has argued that the postcolonial has two hypostases: as an object of empirical knowledge, and as an intellectual project and a transnational condition that includes crises of identity and representation.[3] My objections to the application of postcolonialism to the Balkans and Eastern Europe refer mostly to the first way postcolonialism is understood.  Postcolonial studies are a critique of postcoloniality, the condition in areas of the world, that were colonies. I do not believe the Ottoman Empire can be treated as a late colonial empire. Neither can the Soviet Union in its relationship with Eastern Europe (its relationship with Central Asia or the Caucasus falls under a different rubric, although even that has been contested). But the Verdery/Chari argument rests precisely on a premise (or, rather, an unproven assumption) that Eastern Europe was under a form of colonial domination.[4] Their other premise is expanding their definition of empire and questioning [Frederick] Cooper’s insistence on formal political incorporation.[5]

Let me make the argument consecutively about the Ottoman Empire and then the Soviet Union (as an imperial formation). There is a whole body of literature dealing with issues of understanding and defining the categories empire/imperialism and colonial empire/colonialism, and the differences between them. Most careful theorists lament that “colonial” and “imperial” are often used interchangeably. What specifically makes an empire a colonial empire? Most scholars resort to differentiating typologies, maritime versus land or contiguous empires, pre-modern versus modern empires, formal versus informal. There is, however, an overwhelming consensus that modern European overseas empires from the sixteenth century onwards, usually defined as “colonial empires,” do present a qualitatively new phenomenon, and this has to do with industry, mercantilism and capitalism.

Taking a cue from this important distinction between pre-modern and modern empires, I have argued elsewhere that the Ottoman Empire was not a colonial empire in the modern sense. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, a number of features do not allow us to describe it as a modern colonial empire, with a partial exception vis-à-vis the Arab provinces for the last, post-Tanzimat, decades of the empire, when the Balkans had already seceded. Firstly, there was no abyss or institutional/legal distinction between metropole and dependencies. Secondly, there was no previous stable entity which colonized. The Ottoman Empire became an elaborate state machine and an empire in the course of shaping itself as an expanding polity, which was a whole in all its territories. Thirdly, there was no amelioration complex, no civilizing mission obsession comparable to the French or the English colonial project (again, with the exception of the Arab provinces in the final decades of the empire). Fourthly, there was no hegemonic cultural residue from the Ottoman Empire comparable to the linguistic and general cultural hegemony of English in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere, or of French in Africa and Indochina. These factors also apply as a whole to the Habsburgs. While the imperial and colonial status of the Romanov Empire is not disputed, it comes with important qualifications. On the other hand, both the imperialism and the colonialism of the posited Soviet Empire continue to be debated. Despite the quibbles over the definition of colonization, one of its broadly accepted features is the transfer of control over social organization from the indigenous population to the colonial power. This did not obtain fully among the Soviet satellites. Eastern European polities retained considerable control over the social processes, with persisting legal and religious institutions, and even elements of property relations. It seems to me that the historical evidence does not support the claim for Soviet colonization. And it is ironical that “Soviet colonialism” is posited precisely at the time when postcoloniality emerged after the Second World War, when arguably colonialism in its classical form ended. No wonder, then, why postcolonial scholars are not receptive to this parallel, especially given the role of the USSR in the anti-colonial movements. There are so many shades of sovereignty between the two poles between colony and imperial metropole: vassalage, autonomy, mandates, protectorates, self-rule, federation, confederation, consociality, dependency, “satellites,” informal or formal subordination, and so on. They all come with an elaborate social philosophy and a developed baggage of legal buttresses. Is it not impoverishing to reduce them all to colonialism and postcoloniality?

Yet it is not only an argument following from how we define colonial empires, but also one about self-perceptions. Subjectivity matters after all. None of the contemporaries in the Balkans under Ottoman rule felt they were in a colonial positionality. The only ones that insisted on their semi-colonial status were the modernizing elites of the Ottoman Empire itself, as voiced by some of its intellectuals at the time, as well as during the period of Republican Turkey. Therefore, until recently, postcolonial studies had not really made a methodological inroad in the Balkans and in Eastern Europe as a whole, in contrast to Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, immensely popular in Greece and Turkey, and widely read in some East European countries even before 1989. The same is true about the East European countries before 1989. “Colonization” was not in the East European vocabulary before 1989; it entered there after the annus mirabilis. It is also telling that Western scholars who are (rightly) contemptuous of the lingering laments of Balkan nations against the “Turkish yoke,” so easily embrace the “Soviet yoke.” Should one be pedantic about that? Maybe not. For structuralists of any kind, the Spanish empire is not much different from the Roman, the Ottoman, the British, the Russian, and so on. In a way, they are all empires and they are colonial. But I would be surprised if at any scholarly convention there would be a panel on the postcolonial sensibilities of fifth-century Gaul or sixth-century Iberia after the collapse of the Roman Empire. After all, despite its universalist articulation, postcolonialism’s genealogy and continued development is very discernible in the Indian subcontinent and in Africa of the 19th and 20th centuries. Even the nature of Latin American postcolonialism is contested.

I am insisting on a minimum level of professional rigor that is necessary for scholarship to thrive and progress. Imprecision and lack of meticulousness makes the concepts unworkable; this leads to misidentifications, misconceptions, and errors. Admittedly, the definitional rigidity can be broken in order to open up space for innovation, for new theoretical or conceptual moves. We have numerous examples in this respect, with the rethinking of the notions of “class,” “gender,” “race,” the “social,” the “everyday,” and so on, which have launched new perspectives of inquiry and have ultimately advanced knowledge. Breaking up definitional rigidity can also be motivated by considerations outside the strict advancement of scholarship, but that comes with a cognitive or ethical price. Some scholars have broadened the definition of the “colonial” and “postcolonial” for specific purposes, most often to hinge them to a broader universal theory. Granted, one can use “decolonization” as a metaphor and as a synonym for the struggle against subjugation and exploitation, but this leads us in the midst of a methodological conundrum where any form of subjugation and power hegemony can be termed colonial. Why specifically “decolonization” is used over a quantity of other analogues has mostly to do with its metaphorical and emancipatory power, evoking the saintly specters of Mahatma Ghandi and Frantz Fannon.

The emancipatory mantle of “decolonization” all too often serves as a cover for the perpetual lament of self-victimization. In a recent article, Liam Connell examines the use of postcolonial theory in relation to Scotland, and finds strong and troubling similarities between the explanations offered by early twentieth-century nationalists and modern literary criticism which reproduces essentialists models of nationality.[6] I hear the same congruent overtones between old-fashioned nationalism and ultra-fashionable postcolonialism when it comes to lament the colonial status of Eastern Europe either vis-à-vis the Ottomans or the Soviets. Ironically, the argument about coloniality is revived today rhetorically in some quarters of Eastern Europe not only about the USSR but also vis-à-vis the European Union. In highlighting the new common East European experience of marginality, some East European intellectuals call for opening up of categories that were hitherto used almost exclusively to conceptualize the non-European experience. In this vision, the application of postcolonial studies serves largely emancipatory goals; it empowers East European intellectuals by propelling them into a paradigm which by now pretends to be speaking a universal language. Indeed, Chatterjee has claimed as much: “Having traveled from Italy to India, the idea of subaltern history has now produced a generally available methodological and stylistic approach to modern historiography that could be used anywhere.”[7] We are back under the spell of grand theory, but will the lure of a new metanarrative prove to be a panacea?

EuropeNow I want to also ask you about the center–periphery frame. Many people in my own field site in Serbia speak critically about what they see as processes of “re-peripheralization” as the country becomes an outsourcing destination for Western companies and Western financial and political institutions continue to exert outsized influence. The process of EU integration seems to have only cemented the center–periphery dynamic between Western Europe and the Balkans. Do you think that work such as yours—work that challenges the geopolitics of knowledge production—can impact these material and ideological realms?

Maria Todorova Periphery has indeed become a “media shorthand for (relative) backwardness,” primarily in the economic sphere.[8] Core and periphery were introduced in the 1950s in the vocabulary of the United Nations, specifically the Economic Commission on Latin America, and were theorized later by Immanuel Wallerstein in world-systems theory, who stressed the processual and relational character of these concepts. World-systems theory was mostly used to describe the international division of labor and its repercussions on the social system. Within this framework, Christopher Chase-Dunn has developed a comparative theory of the semi-periphery, to which Eastern Europe is often (but not always) added. While criticized for its excessive economism and neglect of social class and culture, the influence of world-systems analysis is undisputed, and the notions core and periphery have entered everyday use, so much so that a “peripheral” status is accorded to all aspects of life in economically peripheral territories. But, as Osterhammel has argued, “[p]olitical geography does not coincide with economic geography, and the global distribution of cultural cores is different from that of the concentrations of military power.”[9] I myself have argued against the employment of the notion of “backwardness” in the cultural sphere.[10]

EuropeNow These topics also suggest a question about the points of connection between our disciplines. While I would say that most anthropologists seek to situate their ethnographic accounts historically, few of us receive formal training in conducting archival research. It can seem overwhelming to ferret out the ideological positions of historiography in the region (where history is so very politicized) and come to a critical understanding of the relevant background to our own research. Do you have any advice for junior social scientists trying to navigate this terrain?

Maria Todorova The historian in the archive is like the anthropologist in the field. In both cases everything depends on the questions you ask. Social scientists should not be overwhelmed by the ideological positions of historiography: these are easy to discern. The archive is a different story. Obviously, the archive is a treacherous terrain and historians, even if they have been trained, are also in danger of sinking swiftly in the archival swamp. However, documents, unlike living creatures, are not protected from careful and critical scrutiny. At least, they are passive and cannot defend themselves. True, anthropologists deal with living creatures and not only with dead paper, but the living creatures can often withdraw more successfully and hide better than the documents. In the end, both anthropologists and historians should try to achieve the “cultural intimacy” that Michael Herzfeld so eloquently wrote about.[11]



Maria Todorova is the Gutgsell Professor of History and Center of Advanced Study Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She teaches and researches the history of Eastern Europe, in particular the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire in the modern period. Prof. Todorova has authored numerous monographs, edited volumes, and collections of essays, as well as some 140 articles on social and cultural history, historical demography, and historiography. In addition to Imagining the Balkans (1997), she has explored these themes in Remembering Communism: Genres of Representation (2010), Postcommunist Nostalgia (co-edited with Zsuzsa Gille, 2010), and Remembering Communism: Private and Public Recollections of Lived Experience in Southeast Europe (co-edited with Augusta Dimou and Stefan Troebst, 2014). She is currently working on a monograph tentatively titled Life in the Times of Utopia: The Lost World of Early Socialists at Europe’s Margins.

Dana N. Johnson is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her areas of interest include migration and mobility, policy and governance, temporality, and postsocialist Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia (Serbia). As the recipient of a CES-Mellon Dissertation Completion Fellowship she is currently finishing her dissertation entitled What will you do here? Dignified work and the politics of mobility in Serbia. 


[1] Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery, “Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51, no. 1 (January 2009): 6–34, See also: Chris Hann, Caroline Humphrey, and Katherine Verdery, “Introduction: Postsocialism as a Topic of Anthropological Investigation,” in Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies and Practices in Eurasia, ed. Chris Hann (New York: Routledge, 2002), 1–28.

[2] I would mention: Dušan I. Bjelić and Obrad Savić, Balkan As Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002); József Böröcz, “Empire and Coloniality in the ‘Eastern Enlargement’ of the European Union,” in Empire’s New Clothes: Unveiling EU Enlargement, ed. József Böröcz and Melinda Kovács (Central Europe Review e-books, 2001), 4­–50.; Henry F. Carey and Rafal Raciborski, “Postcolonialism: A Valid Paradigm for the Former Sovietized States and Yugoslavia?” East European Politics and Societies 18, no.2 (May 2004): 191–235,

[3] David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 6.

[4] Chari and Verdery, Ibid, 12.

[5] Ibid, 13.

[6] Liam Connell, “Scottish Nationalism and the Colonial Vision of Scotland,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 6, no.2 (June 2004): 252–263,

[7] Partha Chatterjee, Empire and Nation: Selected Essays, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 301.

[8] Pamela Ballinger, “Whatever Happened to Eastern Europe? Revisiting Europe’s Eastern Peripheries,” East European Politics and Societies and Cultures 31, no.1, (February 2017): 44–67,

[9] Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 78.

[10] Maria Todorova, “The Trap of Backwardness: Modernity, Temporality and the Study of Eastern European Nationalism,” Slavic Review 64, no.1, (Spring 2005): 140­–164,

[11] Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State (New York: Routledge, 2005).


Published on June 5, 2018.


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