The Borderland Peoples of Eastern Europe

The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture
by Larry Wolff
Stanford University Press, 2010, 486 pages, US$27.95

The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe
by Tomasz Kamusella
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 1140 pages, $53

Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe
by Andrew Wilson
Yale University Press, 2011, 304 pages, US$35

These three books circle around a conundrum: why in Central and Eastern Europe didn’t the inhabitants set up self-governing, independent states with defined borders as they did in Western Europe? Why were territories so shifting, why were the locals so dominated by others? In his History of Europe the British historian Norman Davies sees Europe as a small peninsula of the vast Eurasian land mass. At its western end exist littoral states, whose shape is determined by the sea: England, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states. Coasts create defined borders that can’t be changed. With the exception of Italy, these countries formed themselves into reasonably homogenous nations some centuries ago. They were not as a rule successful in permanently subduing adjacent races, though not for want of trying. The littoral states were seafaring people who eventually put their expansionist energies into developing empires overseas.

Central and East European nations are principally situated on inland tracts of land, part of the vast Eurasian land mass; many have limited or no outlets to the sea. They were, moreover, dominated by four imperial powers which were constantly trying to push into their territory: Germans from the north-west, Russians from the north-east, Austrians from the south-west, and Ottomans from the south-east. Hemmed in on all sides, the aspiring nations in this area were victims of internal colonialism. The eastern imperial powers set up vast multi-lingual, multi-ethnic empires, which were, depending how you looked at them, the “prison-house of nations” or the “kindergarten of nations” (Ernst Gellner). The Russians use the phrase “the near abroad” for their colonial possessions adjacent to the imperial heartland, a phrase hard to comprehend from our West European perspective.

Since the collapse of communism a great outburst of scholarship re-examining the borderland areas of Eastern Europe has been taking place. Now for the first time the past is becoming unfettered, less subject to national and imperial misinformation. Archives previously unavailable are being opened up by younger researchers who are not in the grip of old grievances and ideological allegiances. The editorial director of Yale University Press’s series on Soviet documents, Jonathan Brent, has described the many pitfalls awaiting the researcher in his book Inside the Stalin Archives. Jonathan Brent, Larry Wolff and Timothy Snyder are all American university academics descended from Jewish families who migrated to the United States a few generations ago from the border regions of Eastern Europe.

Just as our own personalities are not monochrome but made up of the layers of the various peoples we are descended from, so nations are amalgams of the various states and races they have absorbed. In his most recent book, Vanished Kingdoms, Norman Davies draws attention to the fact that nations periodically die or are assimilated by others. Non-existent nations are neglected not just because the victors write the history, but because, as Davies points out, historians are naturally drawn into explaining the origins of what exists today. To remedy this gap in the historical record, Davies devotes substantial chapters in his book to sixteen important European realms which no longer exist. Some were in Western Europe, such as Burgundy, Savoy, Visigoth Toulouse and Aragon, but others were in the east: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Baltic Prussia, Galicia, the kingdom of Montenegro, Ruthenia and the late unlamented Soviet Union.

Timothy Snyder is now justly famous for his book Bloodlands, on how Stalin and Hitler operated their killing machines, not in Germany and Russia proper, but on the territory in between. In his earlier book The Reconstruction of Nations (2003) Snyder provides an interconnected history of five peoples since the joint Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed in 1569: Poles, Belarussians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians and the non-Slavic Lithuanians. This Commonwealth, which was ended in 1795 by the final partition of Poland, stretched at its most extensive from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Within it the Poles ruled the Ruthenian and Ukrainian lands, and the Lithuanians the Belarus ones. Like the later Austro-Hungarian empire, this vast kingdom contained many races and creeds who couldn’t be moulded together into the unified state their Polish-Lithuanian rulers desired. Over the decades, power in the Commonwealth gradually moved from the Lithuanians, who founded it, to the Poles, whose culture, being linked to Western Europe, had a higher status. Polish rulers acted like nobles, which angered the other races of the Commonwealth. At crucial junctures this prevented unity in the face of German, Russian and Austrian encroachments. 

The languages of the various Slavic groups merge into each other in a continuum, especially in the border regions, so they become like dialects of each other. The Slavic people called Rusyns, or Ruthenians, live on the slopes of the Carpathian mountains, mainly in the part of today’s Ukraine west of Lvov, but also over the borders in adjacent Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. Their ancient origin is indicated by their name, which derives from the original “Rus”, inhabitants of Eastern Europe; the Muscovite Slavs much later inappropriately adopted the generic name “Russian” as part of their imperial takeover. In medieval times the Ruthenians’ existence was recognised by an area known as the Rus Palatinate or Galician Rus, which was taken over by Poland in the 1340s. The Ruthenians are the only Slavic group never to have achieved statehood, except for a brief moment in March 1939, as Davies notes. When the Nazi vassal state of Slovakia which ruled them tottered, they announced the formation of a Ruthenian state, only to be overrun by Hungarian-German militias over the next few weeks.

Belarus is the region between Poland and Russia. A people contiguous to the Ruthenians, the Belorussians achieved statehood only in 1921 and independence in 1991, though the name Belarus can be found on old maps. The area of Belarus is a large, flat plain with no mountains, coasts or other defining features, which makes it vulnerable to takeover, as many autocrats, including Hitler and Stalin, were quick to realise. The people and language of this area were originally called Ruthenian, not Belarussian. Belarus means White Ruthenian, not White Russian as is often believed. Andrew Wilson in his book on Belarus says the name may also mean “virgin” Ruthenia, the area never conquered by the Mongols. The Belarussians were ruled by Lithuanians, Poles and Russians at various stages.

The old Commonwealth had six principal languages: Polish, Lithuanian, Old Slavonic, Latin, a Slavic peasant vernacular, and Yiddish. The Ruthenian language was a forerunner of Belarussian and Ukrainian. Peasants of Slavic provenance in these borderlands talked in a range of dialects which were intelligible to each other. A Ruthenian-Belarussian peasant vernacular existed from medieval times, but was gradually superseded by a Polish vernacular, which was understandable to most Commonwealth peoples, unlike the non-Slavic Lithuanian.

In the countryside the peasants in the old Commonwealth were by and large Ruthenians, Belorussians and Ukrainians, whereas the Poles and Lithuanians were the ruling gentry, and the Jews the urban traders. Snyder shows that, remarkably, historic Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuanian, had about 5 per cent of its inhabitants as Lithuanians. The majority were Poles and Jews, with the Belarussians and Lithuanians living as peasants in the surrounding countryside. Lvov, now the main city of western Ukraine, had more Poles than Ukrainians. To complicate the picture further, some eastern Slavs moved from Orthodoxy to Western Christianity under Polish and Vatican influence. The Union of Brest in 1596 created the Uniate Church, a halfway house between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The Uniate Church was strong in borderland areas like Ruthenia and western Ukraine, and became a rallying point and carrier at certain stages of Ukrainian nationalism. But as a hybrid it did not help the growth of Belarussian nationalism.

Over time Ruthenian-Belarussian identity faded under pressure for increased Polishness. The Cossack uprising in Ukraine in the 1650s spelt the death knell of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The ruling group in the Ukraine was split between Polish gentry, Ukrainian nobles and the Cossacks, the loose cannon in the arrangement. In this situation no political compromise was possible. In league with Muscovy, the Cossacks staged a devastating revolt, fomented by resentment against Polish overlords. When the dust cleared the only winners were the Muscovite Slavs, who from the 1670s got a grip on the eastern half of Ukraine. As Snyder shows, this event went a long way to determining the modern shape of Russia, Poland and the Ukraine. The Muscovites now claimed that the foundational Kievian Rus Slavic patrimony had been inherited by Moscow. They thus invented their version of “Russian” history, claiming that most eastern Slavs were really Russians, to be ruled by them. Ukraine they renamed Malorossiya, Little Russia. Muscovite “Russia” was founding its colonies at the same time as it was founding itself, so there was from the start a blurring between the two. Russian became the dominant Slav language. As the old riddle goes: What’s the difference between a language and a dialect? A language is a dialect backed by an army and a navy.

Poland was partitioned from 1772 to 1795. The tragedy of Poland being gobbled up by Prussia, Russia and Austria has been widely acknowledged, but it was just as tragic for adjacent borderland countries. Belarussia (including its high Jewish population), Lithuania and much of western Ukraine went to Russia. A large crescent-shaped swathe of Slav lands, which joined the territory of the Carpathian Rus to the Polish region around Cracow, was renamed Galicia and given to Austria. So the Slav peoples were now hopelessly divided on arbitrary imperial lines. Further border changes in subsequent centuries made the problems worse. 

Larry Wolff’s book is on the history of Austrian-ruled Galicia, which existed from 1772 to 1918; Norman Davies also has a chapter on Galicia. When Prussia and Russia decided to dismember Poland in 1772, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa at first protested bitterly against it, as the Poles were fellow Catholics, but she eventually took Galicia. As Frederick the Great acidly remarked of her hypocrisy: “The more she weeps, the more she takes.” As Wolff shows, Galicia was an artificial construct, split between Catholic Poles in its west and Ruthenian Uniates in its east, with Lvov as its capital—Cracow was at this time smaller than Lvov.

The Austrian rulers in Vienna were German-speakers with a quite different culture to the Slavs in the distant north, and their rule and style were never accepted there; Emperor Franz Joseph, a legendary figure to Austrians, was openly mocked in Galicia. Galicia sadly became a seat of inter-Slav rivalry. In peaceful times the Poles and Ruthenian Slavs of Galicia naturally allied themselves against their imposed Austrian overlords. But in revolutionary times such as 1846, when the Poles rose in insurrection seeking independence, Ruthenian peasants used the opportunity to slaughter their hated Polish landlords. Class triumphed over religion and their common Slav background.

After the unsuccessful 1863 Polish rising against Russia, the Belarusian peasantry were torn between three unsatisfactory options: failed Polishness, Lithuania with its different language, and the Russians who by absorbing them had denied them national status. Galicia became a repository of the idea of a Uniate Ukraine, a notion not allowed in the Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine. 

Galicia had 800,000 Jews, 10 per cent of the region’s population. Some Galician towns had a majority Jewish population. Brody, an important trading town near the Russian border in northern Galicia and the birthplace of the novelist Joseph Roth, was over 70 per cent Jewish. There was also a strong German influence in the region, memorably recreated in the memoirs of Gregor von Rezzori, who was from an Italian family who served as high officials under the Austrian regime in Czernowitz in Bukovina at the far eastern end of Galicia. Von Rezzori’s memoirs best capture the feel of daily life in these remote provinces. German colonists were numerous in eastern Europe from late medieval times. (The surname Schwab, prominent in Australian rules football circles, derives from German Swabians who settled in Romania.) Von Rezzori points out that imitation of German habits (baronial halls, hunting, drinking songs, duelling, fretwork villas, and so on) was common because local cultures had achieved no status, so disordered were they by larger outside forces. Von Rezzori’s third volume of memoirs, An Ermine in Czernopol, and Roth’s collected letters, A Life in Letters, have been published over the last twelve months.

Snyder demonstrates the effect of these constant shifts of allegiance on the Galician town of Kolomya, which is today in the Ukraine:

In 1939–41 and 1945–91 Kolomya was a town in south-western Soviet Ukraine, between 1941 and 1944 a town in the Nazi Generalgouvernment, before the Second World War a town in Poland’s Stanislawow province, before the First World War a town in Austrian Galicia, before 1772 a town in the Polish Kingdom’s Ruthenian province.

In her book on the borderlands, Between East and West, Anne Applebaum tells us: “A traveller can meet a man born in Poland, brought up in the Soviet Union, who now lives in Belarus—and has never left his village.” As a response to these changes many borderlands people habitually called themselves tutejszy (locals) rather than having any larger regional or national identification. Territories did not exist in their own right—the word Ukraine simply means on the periphery or edge.

In the nineteenth century, in order to overcome their historic disabilities, the various Slavic and other “unhistoric” peoples of Central and Eastern Europe became embryonically consciousness of being distinct entities, and pressed for statehood and independence. Tired of having their situation described by others, they struggled for internal self-definition. But there was at any time a tension between nationalists’ dreams and the reality. They suffered from what historians call “primordialism”. They looked back to the supposed medieval glories of their race, cancelling out the intervening period of subjugation, and tried to create new nations on exclusive ethnic-linguistic lines, without their historic enemies. Galicia disappeared as a separate region at the end of the First World War, going to Poland. After the Second World War the region was split once again, with the western part going to Poland and the east to Ukraine. The two world wars and the rise of communism and fascism greatly complicated the project of independent nationhood.

Tomasz Kamusella is a forty-five-year-old Polish academic who has published widely on the connections between language and politics. His book on these problems is an encyclopaedic, 1000-page survey which brings linguistic and historical inquiries together. Language, he believes, has been the crucial marker in this region, not religion as in the Balkans. Nineteenth-century nationalists strove to break down the empires into their constituent nations which would be, on the West European model, constructs where race, language, territory and borders more or less coincided. This is called by today’s researchers ethnic-linguistic homogeneity. Older transnational languages with prestige, such as Latin, German and Old Slavonic, which had been used for trading, administration and diplomacy, were now superseded by “official” national languages in each country. Kamusella quotes a nineteenth-century Czech nationalist, Karel Borovsky, expounding the reasons for this:

Wherever your language and nationhood are disregarded, you are oppressed, no matter how liberal the country may be. Where your language is excluded from schools and offices, freedom is taken away from you, from your nation, more than by police or censorship.

As Kamusella notes, it was ironic that those who pushed for this linguistic homogeneity were themselves multi-lingual: the first pan-Slavic congress, held in Prague in 1848, conducted its proceedings in German.

From our West European perspective we see the First World War primarily as a struggle between England and Germany, but Kamusella explains its origins in the “multidimensional instability” caused by the weakened empires and the rising nationalisms of the east:

Seeking to weaken loyalty to the tsar in occupied areas of the Russian Empire, Berlin and Vienna encouraged local ethnolinguistic national movements. In the case of Austria-Hungary, it was like trying to put out a fire by dousing it with petrol and the national movements of the Dual Monarchy wasted no time in grasping this message.

At the end of the First World War the empires of the east collapsed. The postwar settlement was based on Woodrow Wilsons’s ideal of self-determination: smaller nations should have their day in the sun. But as Kamusella documents, the new nations ran into the old problems. Nationalism was in theory a noble aim, given the way the imperial autocracies had ruthlessly suppressed their captive nations. Czechoslovakia, formed in 1918, ran into the same problems as the Austro-Hungarian empire it had just escaped from. In the empire one country, Austria, had dominated; it had given a form of independence to Hungary, but the Hungarians, being nationalistic, did not bestow on the many minorities within their borders (such as Croats, Slovaks and Romanians) the same rights to independence and self-expression they themselves had just been granted. This pattern was repeated in the new Czechoslovakia, where the Slovaks were granted a form of autonomy from Czech suzerainty, but neither they nor the Czechs fully respected the rights of their other minorities. Much the same thing happened in Poland and other newly liberated nations. These toxic paradoxes caused as many problems as they solved.

Between the wars, rulers of the new states used a variety of administrative means short of terror and murder (such as forbidding minority languages in schools, transfer of populations, and forced assimilation) to keep their own ethnic group firmly on top. Two opposite pressures were at work: attempts to achieve homogeneity within neat borders coincided with the rise of dictators whose rabid ideologies were tearing the region apart. In the Second World War the previous rule book, which had imposed some restraints, was torn up. Early in their careers when they were not in power, both Hitler and Stalin were intensely interested in the question of nationality and race. They too were products of this striving for national homogeneity. In power they became imperialists with a nationalist cast of mind, though that sounds a contradiction. They carried out crude nationalistic polices on a grand scale, moving whole peoples around at will. We see the Second World War primarily in terms of military strategy, but when Hitler looked at maps he saw no place in continental Europe for Jews, Gypsies or Slavs. Hitler and Stalin created a new type of multi-national, multi-ethnic empire, not content, like imperial rulers in the past, to oversee a diverse citizenry. They wished to achieve a new supranational purity by mass killings, expelling whole peoples and atomising those that remained.

The Wilsonian settlement after the First World War set up small nations. The settlement after the Second World War, in contrast, set up blocs of nations, the Soviet one and the Western one, in response. The result, but not the aim, of the two world wars, was to achieve the ethnic-linguistic alignments the earlier nationalists had desired, but at horrendous cost. After 1945 many nations were racially homogeneous. Between the wars more than one-third of Poland’s population was non-Polish; after the war it was about 95 per cent ethnically Polish, with its Jewish, German, Lithuanian, Ruthenian, Ukrainian and Belarussian minorities gone.

Small ethnic groups, like the Ruthenians and Silesians, are re-emerging and striving for limited local autonomy: small and local are beautiful. There is now, apart from the treatment of the gypsies, little overt persecution of minorities—multi-ethnicity and minority rights are in vogue. On the other hand, Putin wishes to reassert Russian hegemony in the borderland regions. After all that suffering the wheel has turned full circle again.

Patrick Morgan, who lives in Gippsland, has been contributing to Quadrant since the 1960s, often on Central and Eastern Europe.

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