Sunday, February 14, 2010

Appreciation: Kate Brown's Report from Nowhere

Kate Brown has written a wonderful book* on the shadowy roots of statehood in the void between Poland, Russia, the Ukraine and heaven knows what else, fit to stand on the shelf with Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and John Scott's Seeing Like a State, but she seems to have paid the price for it by spending a lot of her youth in disagreeable, not to say muddy, places. Her focus is the kresy which, as she says, "has no definite polity becaue it was never the seat of power but always the peripherey, whether rulers arrived from the north, west, or east. ... Never the center of things, the kresy has played the role in east-central Europe of an arena in which warring parties have time and again fallen into the exhausted embrace of worn-out prize fighters."

Setting aside a tangled prehistory, Brown asserts that it was the Soviets who did most to imposes nationalist/ethnic identities in Eastern Europe--ironic, for an ideology so committed to internationalism--and then turned on its progeny when they began to stand on their own feet. Her particular focus is Dovbysh, once Marchlevsk, once burned (i.e., from above, from Moscow) with the peculiar destiny of becoming a center of Polish culture and society. "Dovbysh," she says
is classified as 'a rural settlement of the urban type,' a Soviet euphemism which translates as a village with a population and industrial base nearing that of a town. It means Dovbysh lacks both the conveniences of the city and the charm, the space, and greenery of a village. The result is a sludge, lots of it, washing the overtaxed infrastructure in human and animal excrement.
"In order to reform" she continues, "modernizing societies first take stock. ... Jews were relatively easy to count. .... Germans too were distinguished by religion and tradition. ...
The Polish population, however, was more ambiguous. Although the official statistics listed the population of Poles in the Marchlevsk territory as 70 percent of the total population, less than half of tht number actually spoke Polish; fewer than half of those spoke it well and used it daily ... When asked to stste their nationality, many peasants replied simply "Catholic." One peasant said he spoke quite well the "Catholic language." Other peasants said they spoke po-chlopski, "in the peasant way," or "in the simple way" (pro-prostomu) or "the languge of here" (tutai'shi). Investigastors went form location to location reporting that no two villages were alike, each place contained a different blend of language, ethnicity and social composition.
This sometimes-comical chasm of bewilderment and incomprehension certainly doesn't excuse, but it may help to explain, the epidemic of paranoia, emanating first from Stalin himself, that turned the Bolshevik regime into an enemy of the people. Brown's account reminds one of nothing so much of Mark Twain's story of his uncle who "went to bring the good news to the savages, and they et him." Only here as so often, it may have been the "savages" who got the worst of it.

*A Biogrphy of No Place: From Ethnic Boderland to Soviet Heartland.

1 comment:

John Emerson said...

The Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires were non-national and anti-national and the area is still a hodgepodge, with a lot of tiny language groups still hanging on. Persecuted groups migrated from one of them to the other (even into the Ottoman empire), and wars moved large areas from one empire to another.

Bela Bartok was a self-identified Hungarian, but spent his early life in parts of Greater Hungary which are now in the Ukraine, in Romania, or in Slovakia.

He was a sort of weird underdog multi-nationalist -- he was a Hungarian nationalist visavis Germans and probably Russians, but also supported Hungary's many minority nationalities against Hungarian chauvinism.