This is a biography of a borderland between Russia and Poland, a region where, in 1925, people identified as Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, and Russians lived side by side. Over the next three decades, this mosaic of cultures was modernized and homogenized out of existence by the ruling might of the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, and finally, Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. By the 1950s, this “no place” emerged as a Ukrainian heartland, and the fertile mix of peoples that defined the region was destroyed.
I’ve only read the first chapter so far, but it has some passages very relevant to LH concerns, which I will excerpt. The context is the situation described here, the development of thousands of little ethno-territorial units in the 1920s; Jan Saulevich, vice secretary of the Ukrainian Commission for National Minority Affairs, is scouting the Ukrainian hinterland in 1925 to try to find a suitable place to establish a Polish autonomous region:
Once Saulevich and his inspectors arrived in the villages, they encountered an even greater problem: they could not see nationality. Because of the distances and the difficulty in traveling, the lack of communications, and an incoherent consumer economy, villagers lived in isolated subcultures that eluded standardizing taxonomies. Investigators sent ambiguous reports back to Saulevich: “There is no one picture of the border region. There are many; the picture is diffuse.” Or investigators found that people supposedly belonging to different nationalities were indiscernible: “Ukrainians and Poles hardly differ from one another in their material existence beyond their conversational language—however, language too is problematic because the local Polish sounds very much like the local Ukrainian.” Another investigator stated the problem a different way: “The issue of gathering conclusive evidence on the Polish population is hindered by the fact that people, especially the rural population, are bilingual.” Language, dress, religion, the social and ethnic composition of the populations, changed from village to village, which made it difficult to fix nationality in place, as the definition of what it meant to be Polish shimmered about in a haze of vernacular. And yet Saulevich and his staff set out to encircle and chart nationality, such as “Polishness,” assuming that it existed in some definite, invariable form. Perhaps Saulevich was thinking he would find a peasant version of the secular, aristocratic Polish culture into which he was born on his family’s country estate in the northern reaches of the kresy….
Eventually the Marchlevsk Autonomous Polish Region “was founded in the borderlands, a place considered the most backward, poor, and un-revolutionary part of Ukraine,” centered on the town now called Dovbysh:
Although the official statistics listed the population of Poles in the Marchlevsk territory as 70 percent of the total population, less than half of that number actually spoke Polish; fewer than half of those spoke it well and used it daily, and only a tiny percentage read in Polish or knew Polish literature, culture, and history. Rather, a majority of the people described in the census as Polish spoke a number of dialects of Ukrainian influenced by Polish, and — except for the fact that they were Catholic — lived in economic and material circumstances largely indistinguishable from the surrounding population of Ukrainian peasants. In short, after the aristocrats and the educated people had left, it was hard to tell the difference between Poles and Ukrainians because both were simply peasant. Thus the first and greatest problem facing the leaders of the Polish region was to determine the minimum official criteria for Polishness. For to be Polish in a Soviet and proletarian setting was a yet unwritten text, while to be Polish in the old way — religious, aristocratic, bourgeois — had become a crime.
When asked to state their nationality, many peasants replied simply “Catholic.” One peasant said he spoke quite well in the “Catholic language.” Other peasants said they spoke po-chłopski, “in the peasant way,” or “in the simple way” (po-prostomu), or “the language of here” (tutai’shi). Investigators went from location to location reporting that no two villages were alike; each place contained a different blend of language, ethnicity, and social composition. Village council chairmen said they had no Poles in their village, but they did have a large number of “Ukrainian Catholics,” which made no sense to anyone at the Polish Bureau because everyone knew Poles were Roman Catholics while Ukrainians followed the Eastern Rite. A Ukrainian teacher wrote in to say that in his village over 80 percent of the villagers were Polish, spoke Polish, and were Catholic, but they had once been converted from Ukrainian Orthodoxy and the teacher was not sure whether the local school should be Polish or whether the village should be restored to the original Ukrainian of several centuries before. Meanwhile, other villagers described themselves as szlachta, Polish gentry, but said they had forgotten the Polish language and wanted a Polish school to help remember it. In several villages, locals identified themselves as Poles and spoke well in Polish, but the village officials explained they had written them down as Ukrainian because “they were born in Ukraine.” Rejecting this logic, one village wit quipped back, “If a man were born in a horse barn, would you call him a horse?”
…When asked who they were, villagers answered in a way that incorporated the complexities of the hybrid culture in which they lived. … In the borderlands, identity was tied to locality, class, profession, and social status rather than to nationality, a designation which few in the villages understood. Nor were identities permanently fixed in an indelible genetic imprint. National identity was a characteristic that could change depending on marriage, education, and fate. “Nationality was not a race, but a choice,” the Polish memoirist Jerzy Stempowski notes; “A Pole could become a German,” or “if a Pole married a Russian, their children would usually become Ukrainian or Lithuanian.”
I’ll be quoting more later; for now, if you’re interested in the subject, see my “Elective Ethnicity” post from 2003.