An Open Letter to the Editors of the Monkey Cage Blog of the Washington Post Online Edition

July 23, 2016

Dear Editors,

We, the undersigned scholars, write this letter in response to the commentary by Monika Nalepa entitled “Melania Trump and the Culture of Cheating in Eastern European Schools” which appeared in the Monkey Cage blog on July 20th. Dr. Nalepa’s text was not only appalling and prejudiced, but also poorly researched and completely unsubstantiated. Frankly, we wonder what purpose it served at all. Given the current political climate in the US, what would compel the Washington Post to publish a text which traces the origins of Melania Trump’s egregious plagiarism to former socialist regimes? A text that makes an argument by calling on tired sweeping generalizations about a whole region of diverse countries, and insinuates that millions of people in Eastern Europe are backward, ignorant, and prone to cheating?

Sadly, we do understand the broad popular appeal of Dr. Nalepa’s “insider” analysis meant to shed light on the reasons for Melania Trump’s indiscretion. They resonate with her assumed readership not because they are new or the result of painstaking research into historical trajectories of education in particular countries or regions of Eastern Europe, but because they satisfy the very expectations of this audience. More than clickbait, Dr. Nalepa’s insights sound “so true” because they combine some truth — the elements of a lived reality (attending schools in one of the countries of Eastern Europe) — with caricature-like tropes straight out of the McCarthy playbook. After reading Dr. Nalepa’s musings, dozens of countries, respective histories, and geo-political and socio-political relations fade into one blurry, ahistorical and ageographical cultural no-place of “post-communist Europe.” So we are left in shock, especially considering Dr. Nalepa’s academic credentials and affiliations. We ask you to carefully consider our critique below.


Let’s start with the historical, geopolitical and cultural inaccuracies offered in the text. The first is Dr. Nalepa’s faulty periodization. She writes “it is helpful to look at the post-communist educational system that Melania experienced growing up in Slovenia. In that system, what is typically considered plagiarism or cheating was exceedingly common and even encouraged.” Melania Trump was born in 1970, meaning that she completed all of her elementary and high school education (and even some undergraduate studies) prior to 1989, commonly understood as the end of the so-called “communist era.” It also means that what we are talking about is Melania Trump’s communist-era education.


It is a gross generalization to refer to “Eastern Europe” as if it were a single nation, and not a vast region with dozens of states, languages, histories, and relationships to “communism”. To conflate the history of Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Ms. Trump’s birthplace, was part of the former Yugoslavia until 1991), with that of, for example, the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Bulgaria, the Soviet Union, or Albania, is to erase any trace of the specificities of each of these countries, their histories and their intricate experiences of “communism,” or to be more accurate, different iterations of socialism and/or communism. Yugoslavia, in its post WWII period was in fact, not a part of the Warsaw Pact. After being  expelled from the Cominform in 1948, Yugoslavia developed an alternative form of socialism, generally understood as more open to the West. Yugoslavia was also a founder-state of the Non-Aligned Movement. This makes Slovenia’s form of socialism, its political, social and cultural system quite different from the other communist countries of Eastern Europe.


Dr. Nalepa singled out the University of Ljubljana. We want to emphasize that this university is renowned for producing some of the best and most critical work in theories of socialism, political science, sociology, history, and critical theory. To argue that Melania Trump’s decision to plagiarize was a result of her education at this university is not only ill-informed, but it serves to undermine the work of countless scholars and teachers in the region, and also supports the ideology of Western supremacy in matters of politics, education, and even moral consciousness. What Dr. Nalepa did in this text is what Edward Said, many years ago, called Orientalism (ironically, Said taught at Columbia University, where Dr. Nalepa earned her PhD). Her text contributes to a long-standing discourse in which Western nations (and their scholars, journalists, politicians and others) feel entitled to proffer reductive generalizations about an already marginalized and colonized region. Said was using the term to describe the way that the Western colonizers constructed a tangled scholarly discourse about the Middle East to accompany actual colonizing efforts. The same discourse is found in the way Western scholars, journalists and others speak of  “African nations” or the “African continent” when referring to political, economic or cultural issues specific to particular nations. This same construct happens with Eastern Europe, but because of its proximity to the West, the final assessment of East European racial identity (and here, again, in forms of sweeping generalizations) is as “white but not quite” or “European but not quite,” as some scholars have argued. Drawing on Said’s work, Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova has aptly referred to this orientalization of the Balkans in particular, and Eastern Europe in general, as Balkanism, a view of the Balkans as “[g]eographically inextricable from Europe, yet culturally constructed as ‘the other’” and especially, as uncivilized.

A fitting example of such a discourse has recently reared its ugly head in post-Brexit Britain, as many in the UK have blamed Polish immigrants and other East Europeans for the poor state of the UK economy. Rising xenophobia and racism have informed some of the most troubling human rights violations and humanitarian crises of 2016, and Dr. Nalepa’s text is but one example of how discourses around marginalized peoples and regions in the world become institutionalized in academic contexts and instrumentalized by national and international media. This is what is most disconcerting to us: what is at stake when the public can blame Melania Trump’s humiliating political moment on her immigrant and “socialist” background?


Another problem with this text is its presumption that what Dr. Nalepa dubs communism was all one and the same idea across the world, or even a specific region, and that it was this homogenous ideology which was responsible for creating a culture of cheating and dishonesty. That communist ideas were indeed warped by the state systems in various countries is not a new observation. Countless scholars, artists, writers, film directors, and dissidents from across all walks of life were critical of their respective regimes. While it is well-known that such political systems have indeed resulted in repressive environments for students, to point to “communist education” as the impetus for Melania Trump’s cheating at the US RNC in 2016 is laughable at best, and irresponsible at worst. In her introductory paragraphs Nalepa writes:

“The post-communist educational system at that time was a place where the line between original work and plagiarism was often hard to discern and the issue of intellectual ownership was never discussed. (…)

Memorization was an important component of education in post-communist Europe. This was a legacy of communism, when the dominant subjects — Marxist Ideology, The Foundations of Leninism, The Fundamentals of Socialist Economics, and so on — could not be criticized in a classroom setting without raising the suspicions of the authoritarian secret police.”

One could deduce from this rather long diatribe about the ills of “communist education” (and our fear is that people will do so) that the corruption of the mind was all-encompassing, making people under such regimes mindless automatons. Ironically, Dr. Nalepa then places herself within that very framework, narrating her own experience with cheating on entrance exams to a university in Poland. The fact that she gained entrance to said university would make Dr. Nalepa herself a cheater, even if, as according to her own admission, everyone was cheating, and cheating was expected and endorsed. Yet despite this seemingly logical conclusion, we wish to stress that there is a sea of historical evidence in the form of voluminous and centuries-long scholarly work by such supposedly dishonest East European scholars. Within such a heinous system, as Dr. Nalepa would like us to believe East European education was, there were numerous intellectuals, writers, artists, and scientists who did important, and indeed crucial, work in various fields from linguistics, sociology, and art, to nuclear physics and astronomy.


As scholars who for years have taught students in North American and European institutions of higher education, we want to ask Dr. Nalepa – why did you make the decision to write this piece? You certainly (should or must) know better. Plagiarism is rampant in different ways and in different forms in both North American but also in East European, West European and other universities. What we, however, should be worried about is a different kind of cheating that has to do with financial power and privilege, an insidious form of imbalance that allows some students to graduate from universities, while others are not able to even consider applying to one.


Dr. Nalepa’s revisionist scholarly approach to the study of Eastern Europe, post-communism and so-called transition, has become very popular in various countries of the former East Bloc. In revisionist academic discourse the history and contemporary analysis of the region is usually contextualized within a general dismissal of everything communist on the one hand, and the adoption of various neoliberal discourses on the other. Such neoliberal discourses narrate the history of communism in exclusively binary terms, and celebrate and support East European transition to Western-style “democracy” and capitalism as “the end of history.” And while, on the surface, it might seem that much of the economic hardship in post-communist countries resulted from the legacies of the backward communist “mind,” as Dr. Nalepa would want us to believe, many have argued that in reality it was the result of unfettered capitalism unleashed by the international economic and monetary institutions which impose their neo-liberal policies on various states in Eastern Europe, and across the world.

This brings us back to Melania Trump and Dr. Nalepa’s commentary on her deplorable speech. These, and similar examples, are a red herring. They serve to distract from the real issue at hand: that political discourse, in the United States and elsewhere, is overwhelmingly cynical and empty. Melania Trump is only a symptom; a symptom of a corrupt political discourse in which certain phrases are repeated for ratings in social media. A discourse in which there is no substance, only style.

Dr. Nalepa’s text hides another, deeper problem, that which has set the stage for Ms. Trump’s husband’s presidency. This is an unhinged, unchecked capitalism and its neoliberal demagogy of “working hard:” Cynical elites are selling the dream of “making it,” while hiding that this is not possible under the system in which most social contracts and support networks have been destroyed and with them, any possibility of fair education, work, or health care. The racist violence of such an ideology permeates not only every aspect of American life, from Ferguson to Orlando to the convention floor in Cleveland, but beyond, to the world stage and streets of Baghdad, Aleppo and Istanbul, to the Mediterranean Sea, and voting booths in the UK. While it is appalling to read Dr. Nalepa’s words, it is even more difficult to live under the weight of such utter devastation of rights and responsibilities, disguised in profound and damaging misinformation, perpetuated by stereotypes, prejudices, and an abdication of accountable research.


Irina Ceric, LL.M., Faculty Member, Department of Criminology, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Surrey BC, Canada

Ana Grujic, PhD candidate, SUNY Buffalo, NY

Dr. Jasmina Tumbas, Assistant Professor, SUNY Buffalo, NY

Dr. Bojana Videkanic, PhD Assistant Professor, University of Waterloo, Waterloo ON, Canada

Additional Signatories:

Corina L. Apostol, PhD Candidate, Art History Department, Rutgers University, USA

Sanja Obradovic, PhD Candidate, York University, Toronto, Canada

Šejla Kamerić, Artist, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Dr. Tamara Vukov, Assistant Professor, Université de Montréal (Montreal, Quebec), Canada

Helena Beslic, Designer, Toronto, Canada

Waleed Nesyif, Filmmaker, Toronto, Canada

Dr. Eva Woyzbun, PhD, Assistant Professor, Professional Communication, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

Draško Bogdanović, Artist and Photographer, Toronto, ON Canada

Nermin Gogalić, Writer, Rijeka, Croatia

Dr. Katja Praznik, PhD, Assistant Professor, SUNY Buffalo, NY, USA

Jasmina Cibic, Artist

MPhil. Nada Prlja, Artist and SIA Gallery Founder, Skopje/London

Ana Peraica, PhD

Selma Selman, Artist, Banja Luka, Bosnia

Janez Janša, Artist, Ljubljana

Svetlana Slapsak, Prof. Anthropology of Ancient Worlds, Anthropology of Gender and Balkanology, former Dean of ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities, retired

Nebojsa Seric, Artist New York, USA

Una Bauer, PhD, Academy od Dramatic Art, University of Zagreb

Ivica Mladenovic, PHD candidate, University of Belgrade and Université de Paris VIII

Leila Topić, Curator, Zagreb, Croatia

Ljubica Spaskovska, Associate Research Fellow in History, University of Exeter, U.K.

Gal Kirn, Postdoctoral fellow at Humboldt University

Prof. Danijela Majstorovic, University of Banja Luka

Tanja Petrović, Associate Professor, Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana

Prof. Katarina Kolozova, Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities Skopje

Chiara Bonfiglioli, Post-doctoral fellow, University of Pula

Lidija Mirkovic, Artist, Düsseldorf/Belgrade

Martin Pogačar, Research Fellow, Institute of Culture and Memory Studies, ZRC SAZU

Vessna Perunovich, Interdisciplinary Artist, M.A. University of Belgrade, Faculty of Fine Arts, live work in Toronto / Belgrade

Suzana Milevska, PhD, Researcher and Curator, Polimi-Politecnico di Milano

Trajche Panov, PhD,  European University Institute, Italy

Jelena Vasiljevic, Research Associate, Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, Belgrade

Julija Sardelic, Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool

Nidzara Ahmetasevic, CODA – Open University, Sarajevo

Milica Tomic, Artist, Professor and Head of the Institute for Contemporary at the TU, Graz

Gezim Krasniqi, Post-doctoral Fellow, SSEES, University College London

Goran Janev, Associate Professor,  Sts Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje, Macedonia

Marko Zajc, Research Associate, Institute of Contemporary History, Ljubljana

Adriana Zaharijevic, Uni of Belgrade, Institute for philosophy and Social Theory

Mara Vujic, Curator, Ljubljana

Lina Džuverović, Lecturer in Fine Art Department of Art University of Reading, UK

Dr Igor Stiks, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Beti Žerovc, Ph.D., Assoc. Prof., Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana

Vladimir Kulić, Ph.D., Assoc. Prof., Florida Atlantic University

Mate Kapović, PhD, associate professor, Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Humanities and Social Studies, Zagreb (Croatia)

Željko Blaće, Artist and Curator, Zagreb/Berlin

Dr. Jonathan Blackwood, Writer & Curator, Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University. Aberdeen, Scotland

Dr. Miljana Radivojevic, Research Fellow, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, UK

Dr Martina Vukasovic, Postdoc researcher, Ghent University, Belgium

Tanja Softic, Professor of Art Practice, University of Richmond

Renata Horvatek, ADB, Dual PhD in Education Theory and Policy and Comparative and International Education at Penn State

Nina Bunjevac, Artist/Author, Graphic Novelist

Milica Popović MA, PhD Candidate, University of Ljubljana and Sciences Po Paris, Slovenia/France

Dr Mihajlo Popesku, Senior Lecturer at Liverpool Business School (Liverpool John Moores University).

Ivana Bago, Curator and Researcher, Delve | Institute for Duration, Location and Variables; PhD candidate, Duke University

Lamija Begagic, Writer, Sarajevo

Vladimir Boskovic, postdoctoral fellow, Princeton University

Dragana Okolić, primary school teacher, Utrecht

Katarina Pejovic, Dramaturg, Zagreb/ Ljubljana

Jelena Brankovic, PhD Candidate, Ghent University, Belgium

Iona Pelovska, PhD in Communication and Culture, Ryerson/York University, Toronto

Rena Raedle and Vladan Jeremic, artists, Belgrade, Serbia

Dr. Aleksandra Kaminska, Assistant Professor, Université de Montréal (Montréal, Canada)

Dr. Shannon Woodcock, Sextures Institute, Sydney, Australia

Kumjana Novakova, Creative Director, Pravo Ljudski Film Festival Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Aneta Szyłak, PhD Candidate, Curator Alternativa Foundation

Timea Junghaus, Art Historian, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Art History

Nikola Radić Lucati, Artist, Belgrade

Maria Alina Asavei, Lecturer, Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University, Prague

Olena Martynyuk, PhD Candidate, Rutgers University

Katarzyna Perlak, Artist, MA, Slade School of Fine Art

Anastas Vangeli, Doctoral Researcher at the Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences

Neven Andjelic, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Human Rights, Regent’s University London

Aleksandar Maćašev, Visual Artist, New York

Ethel Brooks, Associate Professor, Rutgers University

Ksenia Nouril, PhD Candidate, Rutgers University

Jana Bacevic, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Raluca Bejan, PhD candidate/researcher, University of Toronto

Stefanija Giric, MA Candidate, Duke University Program in Science and Society

Harun Mehmedinovic, MFA, Professor of Practice, Northern Arizona University

Sima Shakhsari, Assistant Professor of GWSS at the University of Minnesota

Gazela Pudar Drasko, Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade

Katja Kobolt, PhD, Independent Curator and Researcher, Munich/Ljubljana

Mladen Jakovljević, PhD, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Kosovska Mitrovica

Caterina Preda, Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest, Romania

Asta Vrečko, PhD, Assist., Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana

Vlad Morariu, Loughborough University School of the Arts, English and Drama, UK

Dr. Tatjana Markovic, Vienna

Tevž Logar, Independent Curator, Ljubljana/Berlin

Tsvetelina Hristova, Western Sydney University

Martin Marinos, PhD, University of Pittsburgh

Olga Kopenkina, Curator of Contemporary Art, Adjunct Professor of New York University

Hristo Bozhkov, MA student at the Centre for Southeastern European studies at the Karl Franzen University of Graz

Laura Wise, Researcher, University of Edinburgh

Dzeneta Karabegovic, Research Fellow, University of Warwick

Dr. Florian Bieber, Professor of Southeast European Studies, University of Graz

Mladen Mrdalj, PhD from Northeastern University, currently at the CIRSD

Mirna Pedalo, PhD Candidate, Goldsmiths College, London

Nikolay Karkov, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Cortland

Karla Lebhaft, PhD, Art Historian, Univ. of Zadar, Croatia

Ana Marković Čunko, PhD Student, Balkan studies, University of Ljubljana Faculty of Social Sciences

Darko Fritz, Artist, Curator, President of Grey Area – space for contemporary and media art

Adin Crnkić, PhD candidate at Faculty of Social Sciences (Balkan studies program), University of Ljubljana

Dr. Edin Hajdarpasic, Professor, Loyola University Chicago

Marta Usiekniewicz, doctoral candidate, Department of “Artes Liberales”, University of Warsaw

Neda Genova, PhD Student, Goldsmiths London, London

Maja Jović, Doctoral Researcher at University of Westminster, Visiting Lecturer

Ruben Avxhiu, Editor-in-Chief of Illyria

Didier Chaudet, Editing Director of the CAPE

Ivan Rajković, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

Miguel Rodríguez Andreu, Editor of Balkania

Dr. Kristine Stiles, France Family Professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Duke University

Raia Apostolova, PhD Student, CEU Budapest

Velina Manolova, PhD Student, Graduate Center, CUNY

Jana Tsoneva, PhD student, CEU, Budapest

Aleksandar Matković, Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade

Filip Kovacevic Associate Professor, University of Montenegro (on leave) and Adjunct Professor, University of San Francisco

Sarah O’Keeffe Zabic, Doctoral candidate, Kent State University

Elitza Stanoeva, PhD, Center for Advanced Study, Sofia

Tom Junes, PhD, Center for Advanced Study, Sofia

Jerzy Łazor, PhD, Warsaw School of Economics

Anna Adashinskaya, PhD Student, Central European University, Budapest, graduate of Moscow State University, Russia

Krisztina Rácz, PhD candidate, University of Ljubljana

Bojana Culum, Assistant Professor at the University of Rijeka (Croatia) & Fulbright Visiting Scholar at Portland State University (OR, USA)

Una Popovic, Curator at Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade, Serbia

Becky Vajdic, MA student at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI.

Johan Nakuci, PhD Student, SUNY Buffalo

Dragana Popovic, PhD, Full Professor of Biohysics, University of Belgrade.

Professor Natasha Bogojevich, DePaul University of Chicago

Tijana Tadic, Senior IT Consultant

Kristijan Civljak, PhD Candidate in International Psychology, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology; Concert Pianist, University of Belgrade

Mira Karadzhova, Journalist, New Bulgarian University

Andrea Vajdic-Pena, PhD Candidate in Human Services, Walden University

Dina Jezdic, Curator at Auckland Museum; studied at Auckland University and Humboldt Universitat

Aline Cateux, PhD Candidate in Anthropology, Lyon 2

PhD Boryana Rossa, Assistant professor, transmedia, Syracuse University, NY

Veronika Stoyanova, PhD candidate, University of Kent, UK

Dessislava Lilova, Assoc. Prof., Sofia University

Sarah Sajn, PhD candidate political science Aix-en-Provence

Ivan Ratkaj, associate professor, School of Geography, University of Belgrade

Natalia Pamula, PhD Candidate, Comparative Literature, University at Buffalo

Cover photo credit: PBS NewsHour YouTube

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