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Between the Lines of Guide-Books

March 16, 2011

I’ll admit – even on vacation, I’m still getting my history fix. Of course, I don’t usually hang out on beaches in my downtime (a favorite quip of mine is: “I’d rather go to Bulgaria (or fill-in any random unknown entity) than Bermuda”). I love devouring tourist guide books to help get to know a new place. I also like using them in new places I’m living during research trips — just because you live somewhere doesn’t mean you know all that much about it in the early stages. In addition to the sight-seeing, I always make sure to check out the history sections, since I find it mind-blowing to think anyone condense 2000 odd years of history into 5 little pages of print. What a skill!

Over the years, I’ve grown more interested at looking for what is often said and not said in these mini-cultural universes. I’ll admit: almost any piece of written material, especially a cultural guide, is going to bear the ideological markings of its era and provenance — so that’s not exactly news in itself that guide books display certain prejudices, assumptions, or expectations about their own time period. For me, it’s figuring out what those markings are and why they are there that’s the fun part.

Recently, I’ve run into some curiosities in two tour books – one for Vienna, the other Kyiv. To start with Lonely Planet Vienna Encounter guide, I read the following in the history section of the guide in reference to the 20th century. First, there is mention of Hitler’s rise to power, followed by his enthusiastic entrance in Vienna. Then we skip right to the “heavy” Allied bombing of Vienna at the end of the war, followed by the “raping and pillaging by the Red Army [that] further scarred an already shattered populace” (p.149). No war at all. No holocaust. No enslavement of the Slavic people. Straight from Hitler to Russians raping the Viennese. Yes, the Russians did rape a lot people in Austria and it was an extremely awful revenge, but it need be noted it was revenge. The Austrians committed plenty of war crimes on Slavic soil themselves, not to mention their involvement in the event known as the “Holocaust.”

In the author’s defense, I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of room to tell the entire story of the war. Still there could easily have been made mention of the fact the Austrians participated in the most destructive and violent assault on a group of people, namely the Slavs, in modern history. How interesting would it have been if she had written: “Following Hitler’s rise to power, the Austrians joined in Hilter in an attempt to enslave tens of millions of people and wipe out another six million altogether. The Austrians also participated in the rape of millions of Slavic women.” Of course, you wouldn’t see that in an Austrian tour guide put out by Lonely Planet! We, the good Westerners, all know the Slav is “supposed to loot and rape,” not the cultured central Europeans. This mindset has a long history — cultivated and modernized during the Cold War, yet dates back for centuries. I’m not claiming the author harbors some deep-seated hatred toward Slavs (she likely does not), in fact, it has nothing to do with any type of self-conscious activated racism or xenophobia, rather this type of discussion of the Slavs stems from an unconscious plane underneath where ideologically programmed understandings of other cultures reside, often times dormant, until you need to do a quick synopsis of the Second World War (apparently). For more on this, I’d recommend Slavoj Zizek’s artice, “The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape,” on perceptions of how minorities acted during the Katrina crisis.

The second item comes from a series of guidebooks entitled, “Orangevyi Gid” (or Orange Guide) for the city of Kyiv produced by a Russian company (Russian language). I’ve actually never used a Russian guidebook before so I was curious to see what they were like. While I’m still working on the guide-book, something did catch my eye. One of the exposes on the main attractions of Kyiv focused on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti. As a Westerner, the one item I would have assumed that would be mentioned on the full-page depiction of the square (glossy photo included) is the Orange Revolution (p.21). The Orange Revolution, a massive protest of the 2004 presidential election, is easily the most identifiable event connected to the square for anyone in the world, and for that matter, in all of post-Soviet Ukrainian history. And apparently, it didn’t warrant even a mention in passing. The Orange Revolution does show up in the history section, where it is touched upon in very brief, neutral language (“a political fight”). She notes the protests were “led” by Yushchenko and there is no mention of election fraud or posioning.

There are three other one line refs to the revolution, but only in the noting of places or exhibitions in the city. As for the 2008 Lonely Planet book on Ukraine (not just Kyiv)…there are 23 references to the Orange Revolution. In fact, it’s noted on the first page introducing the city. I’m not going to get into the long political history here, but if you’re familiar with post-Soviet Ukraine/Russia politics, it should not come as a surprise that a Russian produced guide-book for Kyiv skipped out on the most widely known political event in the last decade.

In parting, it’s important to bring up the fact that a large number of people using these books likely do not have enough historical knowledge and/or the right kind of critical thinking tools to figure out what they’re being fed (apologies if I’m thinking mainly about Americans), whether it’s Americans thinking about those raping Russians or Russians thinking about those disobedient Ukrainians. We can only hope they might accidentally talk to some natives on their trips and work to dislodge the ideology they bring with them (not sure what the carry-on fee is for that these days). Only two small examples provided here, but both kept me entertained. I’m sure there are many more in these two books alone. Alas, I have other work to do and I’m sure there are a few comp lit dissertations that deal with the topic in much more detail and a lot more Lacan and Heidegger than I’m qualified to use.

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