Imagining North-Eastern Europe. Baltic and Scandinavian states in the eyes of local, regional, and global observers/Diacronie. Studi di Storia Contemporanea/2022

The image of North-Eastern Europe appears composite and complex. While its geographical conglomeration is cut across by the Baltic Sea, it is not a coherent area at a cultural and political level. Yet, the numerous investments made by local and international actors in attempting to define this space call for a closer scrutiny of the processes of imagining and re-imagining spaces[1]. North-Eastern Europe is a repository of numerous perceptions and self-perceptions on a local, region, and global level. It is a crossroad for international routes and a point of contact for insular realities, near and distant at the same time.

In the last centuries, the history of the Baltic Sea has also been a history of how the small riparian states devised the most diverse and original strategies to coexist and emerge from the shadow of major continental players in their Eastern and Southern flanks. These strategies ranged from adapting their culture, politics, and identities in face of the most threatening existential dilemmas, in geopolitical contexts in which the transnational circulation of persons, ideas and goods made impossible the hermetic closure of state borders to foreign influences. Going international and searching for legitimation from foreign partners was the drive of ideas and practices of regional cooperation, of cultural and diplomatic initiatives with states and international organizations. The power of imagining one’s own “island” as a part of a broader entity was a resource for the states in the process of guaranteeing peace and stability in the region; for many societal groups, imagination has been (and is) an important resource for planning a better world in which to achieve freedom and emancipation. Yet, spreading utopia about unity, peace, and cooperation was also a means by which imperialist powers attempted to inscribe the small states within their areas of influence. Therefore, there are good arguments for treating analytically the act and the practices of imagining with the same methods by which processes of knowledge circulation are presently analyzed within the field of history of knowledge [2]. Like knowledge, imagination does not exist by itself: it has a historically-defined genealogy; it is produced by actors that diverge for education and social position; it is inscribed in genres and carried in media of the most different kind; it has different kinds of audiences; it may be comprehensible, endorsed, and even allowed only in determined places, and not in others.

With this monographic issue of Diacronie, we wish to analyze how the North-East European spaces have been imagined since the nineteenth century. The process of imagining that is at the base of this monographic issue is inspired by the historical attempts to tailoring together and promoting the two halves of the Baltic Sea in a common Baltic Sea Region[3] . Those soft diplomacy impulses were dictated by the perception that a link was missing, and that it was needed in order to bring closer peoples that had long been confined from each other by historical contingencies. Still, it is unneglectable that, in the present, the Nordic countries are often evoked by foreign observers as examples of perfect harmony between private interests and social justice, between integration and personal self-fulfillment – while the Eastern shores of the Baltic, simply, are not. The Nordic countries have been skillful in constructing, repackaging, and selling their image globally[4]. Analyzing the success of the Nordic brand means historicizing the mechanisms of diffusion of its cultures and shedding light on the perceptions and aspirations that the global actors have placed in Nordic spaces[5], while other nearby spaces of the European North-East are still far from receiving the same kind of acknowledgement and recognition for their achievements.

However, one feature that both halves of the Baltic Sea Region have in common is their unambiguous position towards imperialism from their Eastern flank. Identity construction in relation to the imperialist ambitions of the Tsarist empire, of the Soviet Union, and of Putin-led Russia had a great deal of influence in shaping national cultures strategically in Nordic Europe, the Baltic countries, and Eastern Europe, whose elites had the clear perception of the threat represented by the Eastern neighbor [6]. Recently, the governments of Sweden and Finland have officially applied for NATO membership, showing that security was prioritized over long-term commitments to neutrality. Matters of national security have been given priority over established features of the political and cultural discourses that had been semantised within national identity constructions [7] and interiorized by civil society actors in view of the bleak dystopias that nuclear annihilation represented [8]. This is to say that, in Sweden and Finland like elsewhere in the countries under focus, geopolitical dilemmas are not limited to tactical choices and opportunities, since such matters encompass and redefine identity constructions, self-representations and representations by others; and that imaginations can conflict with each other. Dystopic science fictions are all too close to reality, in times of geopolitical and environmental uncertainties. The utopias and dystopias contained in literature, artworks, movies and TV-series, which are the empirical sources of Nordic eco-criticism [9], are worth considering by historians who analyze imagination and its manifestations across spaces, media, and cultures. Civil society mobilization is itself a field worth of consideration for our aim, since agency is dictated by people that, before coalizing and signing petitions, imagine the future and themselves into it [10].

With the aim of investigating, from a contemporary historical perspective, the multiple imaginaries on that space that has the Baltic Sea in its middle, that includes all the Baltic riparian states, and that extends to Norway and Belarus, we have published a special issue focused on the multiple processes of imagining and re-imagining North-Eastern Europe; on the cross-regional mobility, diplomacy and cooperation; on the region’s branding and self-branding; and on the of these constructed images to reality. These processes of imagining, across contemporary history, are far from being limited to specific places, being instead the products of cultural mediations resulting from the mobility of persons, ideas, and products across spaces and cultures; and of the inferences that actors and media, as carriers, inscribe within imagining itself.

This issue includes five original scholarly articles whose thematical and empirical focuses fall within the scope of the call. Imagining, defining spaces and cultures, seeing utopic connections and planning political unifications, cultural homogenization, and mobility infrastructures, are sets of actions that all the actors analyzed in the five contributions have in common. From a chronological perspective, the five contributions cover the history of the area in the last two centuries. Jörg Hackmann presents an encompassing account of the concept of “Baltic space” and of its multiple scholarly and political usages, alongside competing terms, from the twentieth century until the present days. Hackmann’s contribution helps to clarify the usages of such concepts, and to distinguish past malevolent political attempts from better-intentioned, scholarly ones in the present. Susan Lindholm analyses the making of the German school in Stockholm during the Second World War as one of the instruments for convincing the Swedish audience that the country, and Norden more in general, fell within the Kulturvolk and Kulturraum imagined by Nazi Germany. Milena Nikolić, whose article focuses on Cold War Sweden, analyses the usage of neutrality as a nation-branding utopia implemented for guaranteeing international credibility and respectability between the two blocs. James Montgomery Baxenfield’s contribution accounts for the transnational history of Aistija, an idea for a Latvian-Lithuanian state that never was, but that was imagined in the interwar period, and after the Second World War by the exiled communities. Francesco Zavatti’s contribution traces modernizing utopias and environmental consciousness in the visual representations printed in newspapers (1930s-1999) about the bridge that connect Denmark and Sweden.

We hope that this monographic issue will contribute to give central stage to imagination in the process of historical inquiry of how actors looked at their future, between utopias and dystopias. This matter is central in times of environmental and geopolitical uncertainty. Investigating the imagination of our forerunners is the key for assessing the weight of past utopias, and dystopias, on the present. It is a process of liberation from established conventions and prejudices that historical research makes possible and that, ultimately, makes history matter.

As recently pointed out by Italian historian Egidio Ivetic with reference to the Adriatic Sea region, the interest in establishing scholarly fora that go beyond conventional, established regional frameworks, and beyond time-limited initiatives, are still very limited in number and in their aims, despite the proximity of those spaces. Other European contexts, instead, fit into umbrella-concepts such as Norden, where historians can thus have an association such as the Nordic Historians’ Association. This is so since Norden has the capability of elaborating a historiography that takes in consideration a shared regional dimension [11]. It shall be added that, on both sides of the Baltic Sea, cultural and financial institutions and scholars’ associations that favor imagining Scandinavia and the Baltic states as a region are an established reality [12]However, outside of the region, positive attempts in this sense are still too few. One notable example of a scholarly association that has succeeded in stimulating a scholarly dialogue between the region under our focus and another, distant reality, is the Romanian Association for Baltic and Nordic Studies, established in 2008 by Romanian historian Silviu Miloiu at Valahia University of Târgovişte. It is a stable means that allow scholars to network, to promote exchange, and to identify entangled histories across regional fixed schemes. It is a courageous initiative worth following the example of. In Italy, where two of the three editors of this monographic issue are based, associations for the study of the history of Norden and of the Baltic Sea Region are limited to initiatives by single universities, while a proper network of support for those categories of historians working on North-Eastern Europe is still missing. We hope that this monographic issue will work as an impulse to mobilize Italian historians towards re-imagining North-Eastern Europe, bridging together peers who have similar empirical interests but who are equally underrepresented at all levels.


We would like to thank wholeheartedly all the old and new colleagues that have accepted to contribute to the realization of this monographic issue by peer-reviewing the articles. Your time and efforts have been highly appreciated: we are in debt with you.
Paolo, Deborah, and Francesco.


[1] GÖTZ, Norbert, «Spatial politics and fuzzy regionalism: the case of the Baltic Sea area», in Baltic Worlds, 3, 2016, pp. 54-67.

[2] ÖSTLING, Johan, «Vad är kunskapshistoria?», in Historisk Tidskrift, 1, 2015, pp. 109-119.

[3] MUSIAL, Kazimierz, Benevolent assistance and cognitive colonization: Nordic Involvement with the Baltic States since the 1990s, in CLERC, Louis, GLOVER, Nikolas, JORDAN, Paul (eds.), Histories of Public Diplomacy and Nation Branding in the Nordic and Baltic Countries, Leiden, Brill, 2015, pp. 257-282; ÅKERLUND, Andreas, «Transition aid and creating economic growth: Academic exchange between Sweden and Eastern Europe through the Swedish Institute 1990-2010», in Place Brand Public Dipl, 12, 2016, pp. 124-138; LUNDEN, Thomas, «Turning towards the inland sea? Swedish ’soft diplomacy’ towards the Baltic Soviet republics before independence», in Scandinavian Journal of History, 3, 2022, pp. 347-368.

[4] MARKLUND, Carl, «The Nordic Model on the Global Market of Ideas: The Welfare State as Scandinavia’s Best Brand», in Geopolitics, 22, 3/2017, pp. 623-639.

[5] BYRKJEFLOT, Haldor, MORDHORST, Mads, PETERSEN, Klaus, The making and circulation of Nordic models: an introduction, in BYRKJEFLOT, Haldor, MØSET, Lars, MORDHORST, Mads, PETERSEN, Klaus (eds.), The Making and Circulation of Nordic Models, Ideas, and Images, London, Routledge, 2022, pp. 1-10.

[6] MYKLOSSY, Katarine, SMITH, Hanna (eds.), Strategic Culture in Russia’s Neighborhood: Change and Continuity in an In-Between Space, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2019.

[7] AGIUS, Christine, The social construction of Swedish neutrality: challenges to Swedish identity and sovereignty, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013.

[8] GUSTAFSSON, Jenny, Drömmen om en gränslös fred – Världsmedborgarrörelsens reaktopi, 1949-1968, Örlinge, Gidlunds, 2022.

[9] AHLBÄCK, Pia Maria, LASSEN-SEGER, Maria, Nordic Utopias and Dystopias: From Aniara to Allatta!, Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2022; LAHTINEN, Toni, RAIPOLA, Juha, «Introduction to the Special Issue: Environmental Change in Nordic Fiction», in Nordeuropa Forum. Journal for the Study of Culture, 2022, pp. 36-39.

[10] During the 1980s, Åland’s civil society contributed to create a research institution with focus on peace: Åland Islands Peace Institute. See PACI, Deborah, L’arcipelago della pace. Le isole Åland e il Baltico (XIX-XXI sec.), Milano, Unicopli, 2016, p. 24.

[11] Egidio Ivetic at the presentation of the monograph by BASCIANI, Alberto, IVETIC, Egidio, Italia e Balcani: Storia di una prossimità, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2021, held at Roma Tre University, 25 February 2022.

[12] PACI, Deborah, Between the Seas. Island Identities in the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2023, pp. 19-27.


Paolo Borioni – Associate Professor at Rome 1 Università la Sapienza. Earlier active at Copenhagen, Helsinki, Macerata and Temple University. His fields of research and teaching are History of political Theories and Institutions, Nordic history, Political theories, Socialdemocracy, Welfare State and Social-economic History. URL:

Deborah Paci – Researcher at Université Côte d’Azur and Adjunct Professor at Università di Bologna. Her main research projects have focused on Island studies, Nationalism studies, Mediterranean and Baltic studies and Digital and Public History. Her latest book is: Between the Seas. Island Identities in the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. URL:

Francesco Zavatti – PhD, is a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History, Institution for Historical and Contemporary Studies, at Södertörn University (Stockholm, Sweden), and at the Department of History, Lund University. His research focuses on transnational and entangled history(/ies) across European spaces in the last three centuries. URL:

Referências desta apresentação

BORIONI, Paolo; PACI, Deborah; ZAVATTI, Francesco. Re-Imagining the Baltic Sea Region and Scandinavia as NorthEastern Europe. Diacronie. Studi di Storia Contemporanea, v.52, n.4, 2022. Acessar publicação original [DR]

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