THE SHIMMERING HAZE OF VERNACULAR.

I’m finally reading Kate Brown’s A Biography of No Place (which I got for Christmas back in 2008), a book succinctly described in the back-cover blurb as follows:

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.

Comments

  1. Ukrainian is my native, and I have no idea what “the language of here” (tutai’shi) supposed to mean. That must be some kind of dialect. Or may be, it’s Ukrainian тутешній (in Russian it’s здешний).
    Any way, very interesting.

  2. >identity was tied to locality, class, profession, and social status rather than to nationality, a designation which few in the villages understood.

  3. I think that these passages overstate the uncertainties of identity in that part of the world. To a lot of people, any native of that region who’s Catholic is a Pole, and any native who’s Orthodox or Uniate is a Ukrainian. It’s a pretty simple system. If your family was never Polonized enough to become Catholic, then chances are you’re not going to call yourself Polish.

  4. “It’s a pretty simple system.”
    And there sure is a lot of precedent for it elsewhere.

  5. “It seems to me from the evidence here that “nationality” should be understood as an artificial construct.”
    I think that simplifies things too far, to the point of vulgarization. Most nationalities and ethnicities are neither artificial constructs nor very large families every one of whose members shares common descent in exactly equal measure. These are two purely ideological, unrealistic poles. Reality is somewhere in between. Obviously, for different ethnicities and nationalities reality would be located at different points between these two imaginary poles.

  6. I think that these passages overstate the uncertainties of identity in that part of the world. To a lot of people, any native of that region who’s Catholic is a Pole, and any native who’s Orthodox or Uniate is a Ukrainian. It’s a pretty simple system.
    Today, perhaps. Having read the book myself, it seems entirely believable. One of the highly-debated topics during the war in Bosnia were the “real” origins of the peoples who called themselves Orthodox Croats, Bosnian Muslim Serbs, Catholic Serbs and so on. Since it’s commonly agreed that Serbs, Croats and Bosnians were originally from the same genetic “stock,” it was easy to conflate “national” identity (Serb or Croat) with “religious” identity (Serbs = Orthodox, Croats = Catholic). You could be a Serbian Croat (meaning, a Catholic who lived in Serbia) or a Croatian Serb (meaning, an Orthodox Christian who lived in Croatia). It gets a little tricker with Muslims, who religious identity wasn’t one-to-one with any national identity, but one could similarly be a Bosnian Muslim or Croatian Muslim or whatever. It was relatively straightforward.
    That said, there were fiercely Catholic people who considered themselves ethnically Serb. Fiercely Orthodox people who considered themselves ethnically Croat. And, unbelievably – considering genocidal and religious propaganda – Bosnian Muslims who considered themselves ethnic Serbs or Croats. (The film director Emir Kusturica was born into a Bosnian Muslim family. He’s now a Serb / Serbian Orthodox nationalist!) The distinctions could be pretty arbitrary or impenetrable, and they could change. Mixed marriages and a couple of generations of the suppression of ethnicism and religion blurred lines as well. Often these people were not very educated; it was easy for many to laugh at their assertions of identity.
    In Bosnia, there’s a big divide between urban and rural life – much bigger than what I’ve witnessed anywhere in “the West,” and until the war forced people to pick sides, people weren’t necessarily aware of national or religious identity – at least not in areas of mixed populations. (I’ve met old people who were never church-going and lived in mixed villages and swear they have no idea what they “are,” even now.) Even today, debating nationalism and religious identity can be senseless when one works from sun-up to sundown and must worry about making it through the winter, or a bad harvest. Toss in the illiteracy / lack of education and geographic isolation which were normal in early 20th century rural Ukraine, and what Brown writes seems pretty understandable. To me, anyway!

  7. Bathrobe says:

    Most nationalities and ethnicities are neither artificial constructs nor…
    I should think it quite possible to regard nationalities and ethnicities as artificial constructs. For a start there’s the old dialect-language question. Without an artificially imposed standard language that everyone is educated in (say Standard Polish or Standard Ukrainian), it would be perfectly possible for people to not be sure which “language” they spoke.
    And then there are the criteria that are used. In Eastern Europe it appears religion was the defining factor (per Dee’s post). In the case of Mongolians, my understanding (which may not be entirely correct) is that the original yardstick was whether the people were followers of Genghis Khan or not. At the time there were Kazakhs (non-Mongols) who followed the Great Khan, and there were Mongolian-dialect speakers (Oirats, for instance) who did not. It was only during the Qing dynasty that the Manchus decided to officially count the Oirats as “Mongols” in categorising the peoples of their empire. Now the distinction between “Mongols” and “Kazakhs” is an absolute one. Kazakhs are out, Oirats are in. But it wasn’t originally so.

  8. In 2009, I wrote a brief article that described how a student in Sweden had organized an effort to vote for Esperanto at change.org. (My article principally was about the futility of voting for things on the web and to distinguish between change.org and change.gov, which I thought many of the participants had confused).
    Relevant to the discussion at hand, the student, Oleg Izjumenko, was identified in English as a “Russian student” which I rendered as “rusa studento”. The editor of La Ondo (which is published in Russia) responded asking, “Is the student really Russian? Their name doesn’t sound Russian. He might be ‘from Russia’, but I doubt he’s Russian.” In the end, he changed it to “ruslanda studento”. It was my introduction to how issues of nationality and identity are still very much in play in that part of the world.
    Of course, there is a group trying to change the US constitution to not automatically grant citizenship on birth, so I guess the issues are in play here as well.

  9. It’s a pretty simple system.
    Yeah, now that the brutal simplifiers have had their way. Do you think Brown invented all those quotes? The situation looked simple from the Kremlin, too; it looked a lot different to the guys on the ground trying to implement the “simple” system of nationality.
    So you think she means to say that nationality does exist, and is a real status, only the peasants don’t (didn’t) understand it?
    No, she’s talking about “nationality” as a designation on internal passports, an official Soviet way of classifying everybody that was new to the simple folk of the borderlands and that was to be of great use to the Nazis when they invaded. As Anatoly Kuznetsov wrote bitterly in Babi Yar (in the context of describing how the Germans hunted down Jews and Gypsies):

    A person’s identity card was of decisive importance. Every Soviet identity card contains, as if it were something quite natural, an entry giving the holder’s nationality—the so-called ‘fifth paragraph’. Nobody ever thought that it would one day prove fatal for masses of people. I must say that I could never understand, then or later, and presumably I never shall understand, why it should be necessary to indicate a person’s nationality in his or her identity papers.

  10. Hat, how does the author place Jews within this mosaic? To say that Jews lived “side by side” with their Christian neighbors in 1925 is technically true, but I would love to know what she means in particular.

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure what “artificial” is being contrasted with here? “Natural”? Nation-states (and derivative categories like citizenship or place of birth) hardly seem less “artificial,” especially in that Eastern European part of the world where a given village may have been within the borders of a number of different nation-states over the course of the last century. I can’t tell from the excerpts LH quotes how much the book’s focus is on the uselessness of the “nationality” category versus the point in the first quote that a once multi-ethnic area was tragically homogenized by violence (which assumes that ethnicity/nationality is a somewhat coherent concept and that saying that most people in the area more or less fit one of the five specified options reasonably well was a non-arbitrary way of describing the local population as of 1925).
    It is possible for such a set of categories to work perfectly unproblematically for 90% plus of a population yet work poorly for the remainder (especially for children of mixed marriages or the population of villlages in transitional areas etc.). It is, of course, asking a lot to assume that anyone administering a government (whether Stalinist or even sorta democratic) will be mindful that a set of categories can be generally useful without being perfect or universally applicable.
    We don’t, strictly speaking, have internal passports in the U.S. and the identity documents we have typically do not directly specify ethnicity. On the other hand, the records of my daughters’ elementary school do designate every single student by one of a limited number of approved racial/ethnic categories, and the forms they give you to fill out tell you that if you decline to provide this information for your children some school district employee will just check whatever box(es) he thinks applicable to the child based on whatever criteria are thought appropriate. So you can’t even really opt out of the system the way you could in the former Yugoslavia by claiming “Yugoslav” as your ethnic category.

  12. Hat, how does the author place Jews within this mosaic? To say that Jews lived “side by side” with their Christian neighbors in 1925 is technically true, but I would love to know what she means in particular.
    Her main focus isn’t on the Jewish population, but she has a number of things to say about their situation. On p. 5: “In the nineteenth century, the tsarist government pursued a policy of forced assimilation for Poles and Ukrainians, while Jews were both compelled to assimilate yet were also segregated. They were confined to residence within the Pale of Settlement, publishing in Hebrew was restricted, so too were economic and educational opportunities. To promote assimilation,the monarchy set up Russian-language schools for Jewish children and conscripted young boys into the army for twenty-five years of service.” As I say, I haven’t gotten beyond the first chapter, but you can use the search function at Google Books to investigate.

  13. “This reminded me of the situation in Central Asia before the Bolshevik occupation..”: well said.

  14. John Emerson says:

    Rashid-ad-din’s inventory of the Turkish tribes in his history includes Mongols and also other peoples such as the Xixia which were neither Turkish nor Mongol. It’s pretty clear that his categories were political and geographic rather than linguistic or ethnic in our sense. Bilingualism and trilingualism as well as intermarriage were common. Most tribes were multiethic and multilingual took their ethnic name from the ethnicity their leading clan.
    Roman and Greek historians, depending on the era, mixed up Scythians, Turks, and Huns. If their criteria were political, geographical, and ecological (i.e. designating nomads) this is not an error. They could just say that the Scythians of their time spoke Turkish, though as far as I know they didn’t because nthey probably didn’t care.
    There’s a lot of literature about people in many parts of the world who don’t know what their ethnicity is and don’t really care, and in some cases they decide only when forced to by bloody historical events.
    Onevote for artificiality.

  15. @John,
    “They could just say that the Scythians of their time spoke Turkish, though as far as I know they didn’t because nthey probably didn’t care.”
    didn’t Turkish tribes migrate west to the Scythian steppes much later? Also, Greeks transmitted some Scythian and Sarmatian words and names that seemed to be of Iranian language family origin.

  16. J. W. Brewer says:

    If Pilsudski had had his way, that bit of the Ukraine might have ended up in Polish rather than Soviet hands in the peace settlement of 1921, but his domestic political opponents wanted a more compact state with fewer non-Polish (e.g. Ukrainian) residents, and ended up treating the Ukrainians they ended up with rather shabbily (although, you know, better than Stalin did).

  17. Rodger C says:

    “didn’t Turkish tribes migrate west to the Scythian steppes much later?”
    Later than what? Certainly not too late for Byzantine historians to refer to any Central Asians as Skythoi, just as any Western Europeans were Keltoi.

  18. Bob Gillham says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oif0gz3O0kA&feature=related
    above link to wonderful animation by Jan Lenica “Byt Sobie Raz” I thought you’d all like it.

  19. A confusing identity mosaic? Well well well … I’m pretty confident that the residents weren’t so confused about their identity, but rather they may have been confused about their best interests and how to advanced their interests the best. In a region just ravaged by the atrocities of Civil War and Polish-Soviet War (BTW my own family ended up in Polish concentration camps under Pilsudsky). Especially given the general post-WW1 consensus about the propriety of ethnic cleansing, it would have been clear to any peasant that the his and his fellow villagers choice of “public” ethnicity may have the most grave consequences for their well-being. Their governance, their rights, their property all might hinge on who they said they were.
    The “nationality” has been, and still is, viewed in those parts in terms of “ancestry” (something inherited from your parent) (as opposed to language, class, or religion, despite the obvious correlations). Using identifiers such as “Catholic” or “local”, the responders were most likely trying to obfuscate the nosy government investigators, in a shrewd peasants’ way (they knew who they were but they wouldn’t trust the govt. not to use this knowledge against them).
    Remember, this comes from a region which championed usage of identifiers such as Неизвестный or Непомнящий when the govt. forced the peasants to use surnames (literally “Mr. Unknown” or “Mr. Not Applicable”).
    Or, and lastly, the word тутошний is common in Russian vernacular.

  20. John Emerson says:

    Steve: The Byzantines may have called the Turks Scythians. I’m not actually sure, but there never was much precision. They could refer to concrete politico-military groups of nomads by specific names, but their generic naming might still be sloppy by our standards.
    To a degree it might just be elegant style, the way we might refer to someplace by its Latin name.

  21. I have heard, and it kind of fits the timeline, that the Scythians disappeared form the steppe and showed up in what was going to be Afghanistan as the Pashto, about the time the Turks showed up on the steppe, at least in those Central Asian cities.
    “Yeah, now that the brutal simplifiers have had their way.”
    Yeah. The examples I was thinking of were the Catholic/Protestant dichotomy in Ireland and the Inquisition in Spain rooting out the remnants of foreign imperialism, or whatever.
    Nationalities may or may not be artificial, but in Europe at least they arise out of states and not the other way around. States formed around dynasties rather than language or whatever because they are political entities after all. Half the time language didn’t matter at all; the rulers and the ruled didn’t have to share a common language because they had nothing to talk about together.
    And then after the dynasty falls or the state fades into history there is nothing left of it but the ethnicity that has taken shape in the mold of the vanished state.

  22. John Emerson says:

    It’s generally agreed that the descendants of the Scythian-speaking Scythians are the Ossetes or As in the Caucusus, who played a considerable role in the Mongol Empire. The Pashtu may be somehow related, but actually ethnic identity on the steppe was very fluid and slippery.

  23. Take it however it applies here, but I felt enlightened when my daughter recently explained to me the difference between Rome and Greece as taught in French éducation civique classes.
    In ancient Greek ‘nation-states’ someone from outside could never become a Greek. In Rome you could become a Roman (citizen) after years of service, military for example, with all the benefits that being Roman brought.
    This thinking obviously links to a French minister statement during last years deportations of roma travellers that ‘ethnic minorities don’t exist here’. Which meant of course that you are either French or not, regardless of ethnicity, but was taken with outrage throughout the world.

  24. residents weren’t so confused about their identity, but rather they may have been confused about their best interest
    I’d agree with Mockba on this. Remember the excerpts from Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire you quoted here with Jewish and Mordvinian people resisting being classed as such? Nazis using Soviet documents to round-up Jews is one extreme example, others include deportations of whole ethnic groups (Chechens, Crimean Tartars) and nomenklatura restrictions on career promotion of certain ‘nationalities’ (members of ethnic groups).

  25. J.W.Brewer
    forms they give you to fill out tell you that if you decline to provide this information for your children some school district employee will just check whatever box(es) he thinks applicable
    Is that really true? Does no one object? In the UK similar questions are on separate forms which are not obligatory and described as ‘for statistical purposes’.

  26. I’m pretty confident that the residents weren’t so confused about their identity, but rather they may have been confused about their best interests and how to advance their interests the best.
    So your position is that completely illiterate peasants who had had minimal experience with any polity larger than their village (and I’m not talking about being overrun by waves of soldiers from various sides) had a sophisticated understanding of modern ideas of “nationality” which had been invented less than a century previously? I’m sorry, but that seems very implausible to me. I think you’re looking at things from a modern perspective that is inapplicable to these people. I’m very aware of the dangers of looking down on peasants and underestimating their awareness of their own interests, but there’s also a danger of falling over backwards into an equal and opposite error in the attempt to avoid that one.
    Anyway, the point is not that the residents were confused about their identity, it’s that their understanding of their identity was incompatible with the slots the authorities wanted to stick them into.

  27. I think you’re looking at things from a modern perspective that is inapplicable to these people.
    excuse me, i know i’m not to participate here, but just can’t go w/o refuting this
    one is sure if aware of one’s family and village connections, of the language on which one speaks, so one really would know what one’s given nationality is, however uneducated peasant and dark one is

  28. “one is sure if aware of one’s family and village connections…”: I’ll bet.
    “…of the language on which one speaks”…: how so? To take an obvious example from a century or two before – how could a peasant have known whether the Low German dialect he spoke was “really” a dialect of Dutch, or of German?
    “…So one really would know what one’s given nationality is..”: “given”? Eh?

  29. @ Hat
    So your position is that completely illiterate peasants who had had minimal experience with any polity larger than their village (and I’m not talking about being overrun by waves of soldiers from various sides) had a sophisticated understanding of modern ideas of “nationality” which had been invented less than a century previously
    that’s a pretty dramatic overstatement of my viewpoint :)
    I think that the villagers had far better understanding not just of their “tribal / ancestral identity” but also of its place in the larger picture than they were willing to admit.
    With the rulers and the borders changing in an unpredictable way, but predictably demanding allegiance to the powers that be, and with the tempers flaring, they would have known that clarity kills and ambiguity saves. The trend of Eastern Europe’s early 20th century was clear, that the political and military power rested with the ethnic groups. One didn’t have to be literate or well traveled to grasp that the villagers’ fates now depended on the jostling of the nationalities, and one’s gotta be careful lest one picks the wrong side.
    “Паны дерутся, а у холопей чубы трясутся”, they used to say, and they meant it.

  30. John Emerson says:

    In Eastern Europe there was a special problem in that before 1917 villages were constantly being passed back and forth between Russia, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Poland (when Poland existed). And in the old days there was much more dialect diversity from town to town and region to region. And there was a lot of intermarriage. And most peasants had little contact with any of the formal written languages, not any special emotional investment in their own dialect.
    Even in the educated 20th century there are questions. For example, in the book “The Martian of Science”, the five physicists all identify a Hungarians, even though all are Jewish and of German Jewish descent. Whereas Ernest Gellner, a Czech of German Jewish descent, was willing to be a Czech but found that he was not wanted, so he became British.
    In Musorgsky’s circle “German” sometimes seemed to be a code word for “Jew”, since Rubenstein and his group were mostly German and mostly Jewish (though to us, they are all Russians.)

  31. J. W. Brewer says:

    Sashura, the official word from the bureaucrats at my state capital is: “Whenever possible, students should be allowed to self-identify their race and ethnicity. At the elementary and secondary levels, students’ parents or guardians are typically the more appropriate source of race/ethnicity information. If self-identification is not practicable or feasible or the respondent has been provided adequate opportunity to self-identify, but still leaves the item blank or refuses to self-identify, observer identification should be used. In this case a student records officer from the school or district will be required to identify the group to which the student appears to belong, identifies with, or is regarded in the community as belonging.” (from p. 4 of this: http://www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/sirs/2010-11/Race-EthnicityDataCollection11-10-09.pdf)
    On balance, I think it’s often beneficial to have the statistical data that results from this process, which is not to say that the data collection isn’t full of difficulties or insensitivities or petty cruelties, especially in borderline cases that don’t fit the categories well. Whether a better process (in terms of the quality of data generated or in terms of being smoother around the edges) could be devised that could in practice be competently administered by the sort of people who work in administrative capacities in our public school system is a question I don’t know the answer to.

  32. J. W. Brewer says:

    To be fair to the bureaucrats, that should probably read “identify the group(s)” because the forms now do provide for the offspring of certain mixed unions by taking a check-all-boxes-that-apply approach to the “race” question (although there’s no “other” box, which is a problem as the available options in the aggregate do not cover 100% of humanity). OTOH, the separate Hispanic-or-not question is binary, so offspring of unions that are mixed in that dimension get to pick either option, but not both, or some third thing.

  33. On balance, I think it’s often beneficial to have the statistical data that results from this process
    This is the standard excuse for intrusive questions from the Powers that Be. Somehow, it often turns out that the results are not beneficial to the people pressured into taking part. That may not be the case in this instance, but I tend to take the side of people who say no to the powers that be.

  34. Whether a better process … could be devised
    One simple solution is to replace pigeon-holes with open-ended question: which group you feel you belong to? With an option to say ‘none’. Racial/ethnic casting is very suspect.
    It’s also a case of creating unnecessary work for themselves.
    Паны дерутся – у холопов чубы трещат is how I know it.
    In Musorgsky’s circle “German” sometimes seemed to be a code word for “Jew”
    I think it was more like ‘foreign’ or ‘academic’. Chaikovsky was too German to the ‘mighty few’(кучка). And Lenin had a nickname ‘German’ and ‘Herr Professor’ among the early social-democrats.

  35. John Emerson says:

    German + Jew + academic, then. Musorgsky (one of my favorite composers ever) was anti-Semitic, so he mixed and matched. Opposition to the style of the Tchaikowsky / Rubenstein group was both anti-academic and national. Anti-Germanism was a big factor in both Russian and French music around that time.
    Another thing Musorgsky called Tchaikowsky was “Sadyk Pasha”, after Tchaikowsky’s Polish namesake Czajkowski (Chaikovsky), a Polish revolutionary who fled to the Ottoman Empire and became a military figure there. (Adam Mickiewicz died in Turkey.)

  36. J. W. Brewer says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an enthusiastic supporter of the bean-counting status quo, I think there’s much to be said for the proposition that “It’s a sordid business, this divvying us up by race,” and I wouldn’t necessarily object if there was a [other/none-of-the-above/decline-to-state] box. The US census traditionally asks check-the-box questions when it comes to race/Hispanicity but open-ended questions when it comes to East-European “nationality,” i.e. whether you’re best described as ancestrally Polish or Ukrainian or Rusyn or Ruthenian or Moldovan or Moldovian or Moldavian etc etc etc. (The 2000 census long-form question for that was phrased “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?”) But open-ended questions yield crappy data because of problems of coding and aggregation etc. (e.g. should you lump people who respond “French” together with those who respond “French Canadian”?), so the reason we do that is probably frankly because, in American political/legal/public-policy life, nothing all that important hinges on having particularly good data about the size and geographical distribution of the Ruthenian-American population compared to the higher-level racial/ethnic categories.
    U.S. governmental bean-counters do, for various historical reasons, seem to have a very strong aversion to treating “Jewish” as an ethnic/ancestry designation in addition to a purely religious one (and we have an equally strong historical aversion to the government tracking religous-affiliation data for the civilian population). This perhaps avoids certain Eastern European problems, but it then causes others because the descendants of Ashkenazic families that all lived on the same street in Vilna/Wilno/Vilnius/etc/etc/etc a hundred years ago will answer fill-in-the-box ethnic-origin questions somewhat randomly with “Russian” or “Polish” or “Lithuanian” precisely because, in many cases, they don’t identify particularly closely or strongly with any of the available options, because back in the Old Country they didn’t identify as being any of those “nationalities.” This makes crappy data even crappier.
    Now, maybe crappy data is on balance a perfectly acceptable result of avoiding excessively intrusive data collection. My point is only that there are trade-offs here, and there can be reasonable disagreement as to where to strike that balance.

  37. In America the connection between ancestry and self-identification is markedly more vague because of its melting-pot potential. Some ethnic groups in Ukraine and Russia also emerged in melting-pot situations, and they were also characterized by an (unusual) disconnect between self-id and ancestry.
    One example is the Cossacks and their acceptance of esaped serfs who needed to hide their roots. Their self-id was largely to the chain of command. Relocation of the Cossack Hosts further muddied the waters. I recall a conversation with a gal from Nevinomyssk who self-id’s as “Khokhlushka” (which would mean Ukrainian in Russian vernacular, but she insisted that no, she wasn’t Uke). Of course the Cossacks of Nevinka do descend from XVIIIth century transferrees from today’s Ukraine, but are tallied as ethnic Russians in the census.
    Another notable melting-pot community used to be that of the Teptyari, the sharecropper migrants to the pasturalist landgoldings on the fringes of the Great Steppe. Originally largely Christian and Finno-Ugric speakers, the Teptyari later included Turkic speakers, Pagans and Muslims. For a while they were lumped together with forest-dwelling Finno-Ugric Meshcheryaki, but over the course of the XXth centuries they gradually developed self-identification as Tatars.
    And of course sometimes a well-defined ethnic group adopts what seems to be a fluctuating self-id not because they don’t know who they are, but simply because they won’t be pidgeonholed into the choices of a multiple-choice form. Like South Asians in the US with the standard choice between Caucasian and Asian (or Other of all stripes, and sometimes even Black). Or like white Americans involved in genetic research, where the ancestry choices simply don’t include “American”! It makes a large %age of the respondents to choose “Other:Caucasian” (with all its misspellings), “Other:White”, “Other:American”, and even, with a surprising frequency, “Native American”.

  38. John Emerson says:

    “American” is a census category now. It seems to mostly be white, especially Appalachian, Southern.
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a7/Census-2000-Data-Top-US-Ancestries-by-County.svg

  39. Another notable melting-pot community used to be that of the Teptyari, the sharecropper migrants to the pasturalist landgoldings on the fringes of the Great Steppe. Originally largely Christian and Finno-Ugric speakers, the Teptyari later included Turkic speakers, Pagans and Muslims. For a while they were lumped together with forest-dwelling Finno-Ugric Meshcheryaki, but over the course of the XXth centuries they gradually developed self-identification as Tatars.
    Wonderful! I love this stuff.

  40. On the census form, I mark my daughter’s race as “Other” (she’s golden brown in skin color). I mark “Yes” for the question “Hispanic?” because she identifies as Hispanic (as her biological parents do and her mother and I do not) even though she doesn’t speak Spanish (and nor do we), though her biological parents do.
    My grandson’s father doesn’t live here for census purposes, but he probably put down “Black or African American”. I put down the same for my grandson himself, and marked him “Yes” for Hispanic, even though he is now two generations removed from Spanish-speakers (and that by biological ancestry only).
    I’ve never had a long census form to write “Hiberno-Deutsch” for myself, and “English/Scottish/Dutch” for my wife. Mysterious are the ways of ethnic identification.

  41. melting-pot situations
    Mockba, you seem to be referring to several different census/studies?

  42. I haven’t heard about Jan Saulevich before, so I looked him up. Here is a biography in Ukrainian with a police photo of him. Saulevich perished in the purges of 1936/37.

  43. J.W.Brewer, John Cowan – thanks for explaining this, I didn’t realise how complex it might be.

  44. To respond further to Zackary Sholem Berger: Now that I’ve read further, I can say that she devotes a lot of thought to the subject of Jews and their relation to both Christians and Soviet power. On page 74:

    Perhaps the histories of Jews and Slavs are difficult to link in part because this particular terrain, where Christian and Jewish cultures mingled, no longer exists. Jewish culture in the kresy, together with most of the Jewish population, is largely gone now, destroyed in the Nazi Holocaust. [...] Histories have followed the course of purified space and have also been nationalized into separate narratives about Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews, in effect turning memory into distinct ghettos. In these narratives, Jews and Christians existed in a tenuous imbalance that periodically erupted into violence, with Christians falling upon Jews in paroxysms of pillage and murder. [...] The memory of the pogroms makes the gap between Jews and Christians seem especially unbridgeable, yet it obscures the daily interconnectedness of Jews and Christians in villages and towns of central Ukraine.

    She goes on to tell the astonishing story of the return of “the renowned heir to the great Chernobyl dynasty, Rabbi Shlomo Bentsion Tverskii,” from New York to Kiev in 1929. You’re probably thinking, as I did, “bad move,” but in fact he moved in with his extended family, eighteen people in all, and had only temporary problems:

    At the time of the rabbi’s return circumstances were difficult. Because of the antireligious campaign, Rabbi Tverskii was categorized as a “leader of a cult,” and city authorities threatened to evict the family from their state-owned apartment. One of the rabbi’s disciples wrote a letter to Stalin in the name of the tsadik, protesting that in America Reb Tverskii had praised the civil rights of the first socialist state, only to return and find his existence in Kiev squeezed from all sides. Miraculously, the letter was answered. A letter from Stalin’s office arrived at the Kiev city council telling the Kievan officials to leave the rabbi alone. And they did. Throughout the thirties, the rabbi continued to hold court, to teach, study, and pray with his followers as he always had, as had his father and his grandfather before him, down through the long line of Tverskii sages. [...] For the Sukkoth festival, the Hasidim built a hut of pine branches and straw on the balcony of the apartment. When the moon was new, the rabbi and his Hasidim descended from the third floor apartment onto the street and there they prayed, danced, and met the new month — on the street, in full view, in central Kiev, in the midst of the Great Purges.

    He died a natural death on September 17, 1939, “the night the Red Army invaded eastern Poland.” Obviously this is an exceptional case, but the fact that it happened at all is a real eye-opener.

  45. U.S. governmental bean-counters do, for various historical reasons, seem to have a very strong aversion to treating “Jewish” as an ethnic/ancestry designation
    Anyone else curious as to why this is?

  46. Sashura, several more personal stories of tangled ethnicity/nationality:
    My wife, though not Jewish religiously nor by Jewish law (which is matrilineal), is of recent Jewish descent, her father being a non-religious Jew with two Jewish parents. Her grandmother did teach her mother how to make matzo-ball soup, though….
    My half-brother, though born in the U.S., is a dual national in Ireland (where he lives part of the year). How? He showed that our father’s parents were British subjects born in Ireland and not yet citizens of the U.S. when my father was born in 1904. He therefore was a British subject born abroad, and therefore my brother is an Irish citizen by right of birth. So would I be, if I wanted it, but my daughter cannot be by Irish law.
    My maternal grandfather was a German born in Russia who moved to Germany in 1911 and to the U.S. in 1921, leaving him trilingual, but with a permanent distaste for both Germany and Russia as states. He was drafted into the German Army, and spent the war years on the Eastern Front as a translator — by family legend, telling Ukrainian soldiers they would be shot if they didn’t talk.
    My mother identified as purely German, moved to Detroit in 1930, and didn’t find out she had become an American by feeling until she returned to Germany for a visit in 1937 and was appalled by the complete Nazification of her (maternal) ancestral village. One day in 1939 she took a little trip to Canada for a picnic on her bicycle (no formalities needed then). But when she found out that England had declared war on Germany that day, and that she was now an enemy alien in the British Empire and subject to being interned for the duration, she hid herself and the bicycle in a drainage ditch and didn’t sneak back across the border until after dark. Fortunately, by 1941 she had become an American citizen as well. (She abandoned her German citizenship by operation of law at that time, so since I was born in 1958 I am not a German citizen.)

  47. But when she found out that England had declared war on Germany that day, and that she was now an enemy alien in the British Empire and subject to being interned for the duration, she hid herself and the bicycle in a drainage ditch and didn’t sneak back across the border until after dark.
    Good lord, what an experience! Glad she made it back without incident.

  48. Now I’m thinking of what may be the first German sentence I ever learned (although I guess “Ich bin ein Berliner” was earlier): “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.” (Line 12.)

  49. In telling this story, my mother always portrayed it as a gross overreaction on her part, and no doubt it was. Less than a thousand Germans (aliens and naturalized Canadian citizens) were ever interned in the whole of Canada, and most of them seem to have been people who there was some evidence against. Scandalous enough, but hardly a thorough and exhaustive purge.

  50. thanks, John,
    what a mix, I suppose it’s typical of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, you make it sound so easy, but there must have been a lot of drama and hard decisions to ‘move’ from one place to another.
    And what a story about your mother, but she must still had strongly identified herself as German, if she felt she had to hide?
    didn’t find out she had become an American by feeling until she returned to Germany for a visit in 1937
    which reminded me of Kressman Taylor’s Adressat unbekannt.
    a propos Germans in America, is Jennie Gerhardt still read and well-regarded? At school we had it for home-reading.

  51. Sashura,
    As far as I know “Jennie Gerhardt” is rarely read these days (I was born in the 1960s). It may be well regarded by Dreiser fans, but Dreiser enjoys nowhere near the popularity in the US that he does in Russia. I was shocked when I first got to the USSR to discover how popular he still is there. I think Sister Carrie is still required reading in some high schools, but Dreiser doesn’t seem to enjoy a lot of buzz out here in the American provinces. LH probably has more insight into what the New York literary circles think.

  52. I don’t have any particular insight into the New York literary circles, but Dreiser has been pretty much completely forgotten—Sister Carrie is the only book people might be able to name, but I’ll bet hardly anyone reads him any more. I think the general consensus is that he wasn’t a very good writer but was “important” in his day. I have to admit that if I’d ever heard of Jennie Gerhardt, I’ve long forgotten that I had.

  53. J. W. Brewer says:

    My 11th grade English class was actually required to read Sister Carrie (this is almost 30 years ago), but I think that was an idiosyncracy of the particular teacher rather than an indication of common or general U.S. public high school practice of the day. I don’t think too many, if any, of us were inspired by the experience to want to go out and read more Dreiser on our own . . .

  54. ah, I suspected it might be so. I can’t say Dreiser stirred any powerful passion in me personally, but I do remember that we had long discussions in class.
    I was shocked when I first got to the USSR to discover how popular he still is there.
    This isn’t very unusual, is it? Another name is probably Jack London, is he? Anyone remember Upton Sinclair? We used to read him too. It’s just that different cultures adopt foreign authors in different ways. There is a scheduled programme on BBC Radio 4 on why Russians waver on how to treat Tolstoy, while his stature in the West never diminishes. It’s this Sunday – trailers sound promissing.

  55. Sashura: In 1939 my mother felt herself to be American, but in fact she was still a German citizen, and thus subject in principle to internment in Canada.
    The trouble with Dreiser is his style, which is detestable. He’s one of those people who may do much better in translation. Dorothy Parker asked rhetorically “What writes worse than a Theodore Dreiser?” and replied “Two Theodore Dreisers.”
    Sinclair is more often read in history classes than literature classes. My daughter was offered the opportunity to read The Jungle in her history class on the Gilded Age, but chose to read Charles W. Chesnutt‘s The Marrow of Tradition instead.

  56. Poe is another who is more impressive in translation than he may deserve (though of course he’s several levels above Dreiser in quality).

  57. “All sensible men to whom English is native are distressed at the French enthusiasm for M. Poë, the author of “Jamais Plus“. Nobody in France seems to be able to learn, ever, that Poe’s verse is dreadful doggerel and his ratiocinative fiction absurd and his aesthetics the standard lucubrations that go over in Young Ladies’ Study Circles and on the Chatauqua Circuit. The reason is, of course, that the French translate their whole culture into Poe before they even start to read him. They think his formalism is their formalism and his scientific speculation the speculation of D’Alembert. They think the giddy early-nineteenth century misses who swooned over the architectonics of Eureka are the same overcivilized courtesans who once bestowed their favors on the brocaded inventors of ingenious mathematical machines and, for that, on homespun Le Bon Franklin.”
         —Kenneth Rexroth, “The Poet As Translator”
    I don’t agree with this view of Poe (or Poë), but Rexroth’s view of the French view of him may, for all I know, be quite sound.

  58. Yes, he’s too hard on Poe, but his general point is (in my opinion) valid. (I’d mention Jerry Lewis, but that would be a cliche.)

  59. The quotation about Rabbi Tverskii reminded me of this bit from Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. (Pedantic note: most of the text below is from the 1968 Whitney translation, with the stuff in [[double square brackets]] from the 2009 Willets translation: this is an artifact of how I assembled the text out of online bits and pieces.)

    Goryainov-Shakhovsky! The little old man, slovenly in his old age, would sometimes smear his black corduroy jacket with chalk, at other times would pocket the blackboard rag instead of his handkerchief. He was a living legend, made up of a multitude of “absent-minded professor” jokes. He had been the soul of the Warsaw Imperial University, having moved to industrial R[[ostov]] in 1915, as one might move to a cemetery. Half a century of scientific work brought congratulatory cables from Milwaukee, Capetown, Yokohama. And then he was purged in the interests of “freshening up” the staff. He went to Moscow, and returned with a note from Kalinin: “Don’t touch this old man!” It was rumored that Kalinin’s father had been a serf of the professor’s father’s.
    So they did not touch him. They did not touch him in a way that was awesome. He might write a research paper in the natural sciences containing a mathematical proof of the existence of God. Or at a public lecture on his beloved Newton he might wheeze from behind his yellow mustaches: “Someone just passed me a note: ‘Marx wrote that Newton was a materialist, and you say he was an idealist.’ I reply [said the old man]: Marx was wrong. Newton believed in God, like every other great scientist.”
    Trying to take notes on his lectures was frightening. The stenographers would be driven to despair. Because his legs were weak, he sat right at the blackboard, facing it, his back to the auditorium, and wrote with his [[right hand, erasing with his left, and mumbling to himself incessantly. It was hopeless trying to understand his ideas during a lecture. But Nerzhin and a fellow student, taking it in turns, sometimes managed to write it all down and went over it in the evening. They were awestruck, as though they were gazing into a sky filled with twinkling stars.]]
    Well, what had happened to him? When R[[ostov]] was bombed, the old man had been shell-shocked and had been evacuated to Kirghizia half-alive. Then he had returned, but he was apparently no longer at the university but at the Pedagogical Institute. So he was alive? Yes, alive. Amazing. Time flies and, then again, it doesn’t….

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