The pursuit of Europeanness in East-West migrations

Photo: Jordan Ladikos/ Unsplash

Author: Daria Krivonos

What imaginaries of ‘Europe’ circulate among migrants and who can become included in the space of Europeanness? To understand these processes, it is important to think of Europe as a racialised space tied to global histories of colonialism but also of symbolic internal divisions that exist within Europe itself – such as ‘East’ and ‘West’.

“I have always dreamed to live in the West” or “I have always dreamed to live in Europe” is a response I would often get when I asked young Russian-speaking migrants about what had brought them to Finland. The question that emerged out of my fieldwork was not what young Russian-speakers wanted to do in Finland but rather where they wanted and imagined to be. What mattered to my research participants can be described as the symbolic geographies of Europeanness – the space where they had imagined to advance culturally, socially and symbolically within the global imaginary that divides the world into the ‘West and the rest’.

Upon arrival, however, many have found themselves in a position of not full Europeanness and not living up to the standards of European whiteness. In other words, quite often they are not seen as peers to the Finnish majority. I suggest that in order to understand my research participants’ desires to become European through migration and the ways they are seen as Others in Finland, there is a need to look into internal hierarchies of Europe that symbolically divide it into ‘the West’ and ‘the East’.  It then becomes clear that not all Europeans are regarded as equally European, and not all white people are seen as equally white. This invites us to think of the racialised genealogies of these global statuses and the desires that they produce.

The idea of Europe and Finland across the East/West divide

Scholars in postcolonial and critical race theory have argued that Europe has defined the South and the Orient as a polar opposite in the processes of colonially constituting itself. This critique has focused on the colonial legacies of race in Europe. European whiteness has been assembled relationally to Blackness and other racialized non-white positions (Fanon, 2008). According to this critique, race then is not an exception to the values of Europe but is at its very core.

Where would young Russian-speakers moving to Finland and imagining it as ‘Europe’ fit in this discussion on (post)coloniality? While my research participants imagine Finland as a space where they could emancipate themselves from failed socialist modernity and post-Soviet space, Finland’s own belonging to Europe and whiteness should be further historicized.

Racialised Others have been used to claim Finland’s own belonging to ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’. The struggles over whiteness and belonging to Western modernity have been important in the claims of Finland as an independent nation, where its own whiteness has been produced at a cost, such as for example, through racism against the Sami and Roma. Finland’s historically in-between position across the East/West divide still haunts the national imaginary, where Russia and Russianness become a constitutive Other against which Finland’s belonging to (Western) Europe is maintained. This points to the inherent instability of Europe and whiteness.

Boundaries of whiteness inside Europe

While attempting to become fellow-Europeans after migration, young Russian-speaking migrants feel that they are regarded as Eastern and more ‘traditional’. For instance, Russian-speaking women are seen as sexually accessible. Economically, many Russian-speaking migrants often experience a status discord where their education and qualifications are misrecognized after migration, which channels them to low-paid economic sectors or unemployment.

It often becomes difficult to approach this position as they appear as ostensibly white people who do not easily fit into the discussion of postcolonial non-white Others of Europe. It is important to remember, however, that whiteness is not merely a matter of skin pigmentation but a structural position of advantage and privilege tied to the colonial formation of Europeanness.

Eastern Europe and the East have themselves been the product of othering processes in the West, as the scholarship on coloniality in Central Eastern Europe has argued. In fact, in the discussion on race and Europe, Western and Eastern Europe are often conflated. As a result, Central and Eastern Europe is often erased from the vision of Europe altogether. In addition, existing research has demonstrated the ways Eastern Europe has been constructed as a lesser Europe constantly lagging behind Western Europe (Ivasiuc, 2017).

There is a need to look into intra-European distinctions and construction of whiteness to understand the ways Othering may work in East-West migration. The imaginaries of the West and Europe that Helsinki embodies to my research participants, and the positions they occupy after migration, invites us to think not only in terms of North/South axis but East/West. It also makes visible the effort it takes to become considered as white, European or Western. Racialization as the process of imagining and producing the (Eastern) Other is central to the divisions within Europe itself.



Fanon, F. (2008) Black Skin, White Masks. NY: Grove Press

Ivasiuc, A. (2017) “Securitizations of Identities and Racial Eastern-Europeanization”. Europe Now, Retrieved from