Continuing the excerpts from Kate Brown (see this post):

At the Commission for National Minority Affairs they wrote memos back and forth, smiling over the simplicity of villagers who could not identify their nationality and were ignorant of their own language. But who was ignorant of what? The peasants too thought the “bureaucrats” were ridiculous, ineffectual, and ignorant of “our village ways.” One peasant complained, “They send out an inspector who speaks in a boss’s tone of voice. He drives up, pulls out his notebook. […] We still don’t know what he wanted, he didn’t give us any advice.” It was not inborn ignorance on the peasant side or callousness on the side of the bureaucrats that drove this conflict, but rather a colliding discourse over identity. When asked who they were, villagers answered in a way that incorporated the complexities of the hybrid culture in which they lived. For them, identities were local, rooted in the soil of a particular river bed, forest, or valley. Identity represented a dynamic relationship that depended on whom one was identifying oneself against, whether it was landowners, workers, Jews, Russians, Germans, or educated urbanites. [Rest of paragraph, beginning “When asked who they were…,” quoted in previous post.]

In other words, to call the villagers in the borderlands Ukrainian or Polish is beside the point. They were, as they often described themselves, simply “local.” They made up a continuum of cultures that stood literally and figuratively on the border between Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, in a place where mass media had not yet standardized vernaculars or made boilerplates of ritual and tradition. The communists who came to rule the large tracts of land sought to systematize vernacular identities and languages, fix them in space, translate that space onto a map, and with that map gaze out from their underheated offices in Kharkov or Moscow and see all of the kingdom laid out before them, a modern crystal ball.

…Many villagers who voted for Polish schools and village councils said they wanted to learn Polish because it was the language of the Catholic Church. In fact, before Soviet power was established in the kresy, locals had organized their own underground Polish schools in order to teach catechism to their own children. The Polish language also signified culture and status; learning Polish was a way for some to lift themselves above the mass of (Ukrainian-speaking) peasants in a language-driven form of social mobility.

In short, there was no consensus on who was who, or even what nationality meant in the rural borderlands. In the end, what greatly helped to make the Marchlevsk Region decisively Polish was Jan Saulevich’s insistence on it. He and a few assistants in his office, using the tools of modern civilization, could see what no one else could see — they could pass their eyes over pine forests and low green fields and see a nation-filled landscape, bodies of Polish, German, Jewish, and Czech nationality. Saulevich’s primary task in setting up the national regions in Ukraine meant deploying what has become one of the most universally powerful tools of modern governance: the census. He needed a head count so that his office could construct another innovative tool of modern rule — a demographic map. With a map they could draw borders and make what was illusionary (or rather, visible only to the initiated) plain for all to see — concrete ethnic territories encircling tangible bodies, the smallest components of the newly forming Soviet nations.

Unfortunately, although numbers never lie, the people who wield them sometimes do. The 1922 tally of the countryside found a mere 90,000 Poles in all of Ukraine. The Polish Bureau accused Ukrainian local leaders of nationalism, skewing the results in favor of Ukrainians, and asked for a recount. Meanwhile, leaders on the Ukrainian side charged that the Polish Bureau was trying to Polonize Ukrainian villagers by establishing Polish schools and village councils[…]

The 1925 Ukrainian NKVD ruling gave the Polish cause a green light; Catholics who spoke Ukrainian were essentially seen as Poles, and this decision greatly influenced census results. From 90,300 poles in Ukraine in 1923, the number rose to 369,612 in 1926. […] The Polish Bureau felt it had won a victory[…] The job left for Saulevich’s office was to Polonize the remaining 78 percent of the Catholic population who were not “definitely Poles” but listed so on the census.” With this task before them, officials at the Commission for National Minority Affairs monitored the growth of Polish-language schools, libraries, and newspapers and chided local mayors and teachers when they continued to speak Ukrainian although they were counted as Polish.

His victory didn’t do Saulevich any good in the end: “In 1934, Saulevich was purged from the party and demoted. In 1935, he was arrested and charged with Polonizing the western borderlands of Ukraine, of falsifying statistics to make it look as if Ukrainians were really Poles so as to create a bulwark of Polishdom to be used as a springboard for Poland to attack the Soviet Union.” He was shot, like so many others, in 1937.


  1. I read a couple of books about in the last year about nationalism. I was somewhat surprised how recent the idea of the nation state is. And, what factor(s) should define a nation is still problematic and subject to disputes and wars.

  2. I think that this particular notion of “identity”, whatever it means, became current in Europe around the same time (19th century) as did “nation state”. It’s no wonder peasants didn’t know what to make of “colliding discourses of identity”. There is enough confusion on the matter to fill a book by Kate Brown.
    Can someone explain the concept of “identity” ? I’m assuming it is a concept, though it sometimes appears to be a kind of plant: “identities were local, rooted in the soil of a particular river bed, forest, or valley”. Why is it that everybody but me can talk about “identity” as if it were a Selbstverständlichkeit ? I must have been home with a cold on the day that word was covered in elementary school.
    What about the expression “to identify oneself with X” ? When X is a nation state, the expression may mean “pledge allegiance to”. Although when I pledge allegiance to the Flag, I am not “identifying with the Flag” ? Or am I ?

  3. Read the book too. I have the suspicion that the Polish that some villagers claim to be speaking is simply Ukrainian adorned with more Polish words that Orthodox Ukrainian, having read somewhere else that young Punjabis in Delhi claim to speak “Punjabi” but in fact speak usual Hindustani with several give-away Punjabi features so as to ascertain their linguistic identity as Punjabis.

  4. It should be quite easy to do, with phonological features too. If you take Standard Ukrainian and adopt g’s and undo the final -iv’s as -uv, it suddenly looks like as if it could be Polish.

  5. I suppose it is too much to hope that there is a linguistic relationship between Marchlevsk and the Marches in English, as the Marchlevsk Region would seem to be somewhat of a March (though maybe liking them is too much of march…sorry).

  6. …(though maybe linking them …

  7. @Grumbly Stu: According to Hobsbawm (Nations and Nationalism since 1780), “the modern sense of the word [nation] is no older than the eighteenth century . . .”
    Ethnic identity is a factor in the idea of a nation. And, often identity is based on language and religion. But, this is not clean distinction as religion crosses many national borders (like Christianity and Islam) as does language (like Spanish, Arabic, English, etc.)
    In addition, there are many nations with multiple languages (Switzerland, India, etc.) and multiple religions (like the U.S. and European countries).

  8. The way I understand it (world-historians please correct…), after the first world war the modern liberalistic idea of a nation-state was applied across central Europe, displacing the old hereditary and religious concept of possessed lands, whose last great representative had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the high-minded ideal of national liberty; and, as an unfortunate side-effect, promoting the idea that a nation in some sense belonged to its own nationality – cue the age of ethnic cleansing… – In the older context you can see why it might have made sense for these peasants to describe their nationality as “Catholic”.

  9. At the risk of too much of a diversion, Tom Friedman has an interesting Op-ed in the NYTimes today on the question of national identity related to what is occurring now in the Middle East.
    Essentially, he claims that the question is one of national identity (like Egypt) vs. tribal (like Libya) or sectarian (like Bahrain).
    If interested:

  10. many years ago my father had a cousin who was Ukranian. as a result of being taken from his village as a child and being used as slave labour by the nazis he picked up several languages. german, polish, rushian but because he could not speak english well, he was looked down upon as being stupid. How hard it is to finds one’s identity.

  11. rootlesscosmo says

    @grumbly stu:
    One definition of “identity” is that it’s what Mom says to Dad when asked, of teenage daughter’s prospective date, “What is he?” Typical answers in my experience include “Catholic,” “Irish,” and “black:” a religion, a nationality (or national ancestry) and, technically though not as a social fact, a skin tone, but all, depending on circumstances, perfectly satisfactory and comprehensible answers to the question. I don’t know if the same customs (mutatis mutandis) applied in Marchlevsk, but it sounds likely.

  12. A little more formal definition from “Social Identity” (Richard Jenkins): “[identity] refers to the ways in which individuals and collectivities are distinguished in their social relations with other individuals and collectivities.”
    It seems the parental question of the teenage daughter sounds like a good test. It can be religious, linguistic, ethnic, racial or whatever according to what is salient in a particular culture or context.
    An American distinction at home might be racial or ethnic where if the same person is in Asia, it might be nationality

  13. John Emerson says

    According to Wixman (Language aspects of ethnic patterns and processes in the north Caucasus) in the Caucasus a marriage is regarded as mixed if the religions are different.
    According to my Chinese teacher in Taiwan, a Chinese Muslim (Hui), her father’s preferences were that she marry another Hui, a Uighur, and American, or a Chinese, in that order. But that a PhD or MD counted as a Hui.

  14. In Egypt, the distinction is Christian/Muslim. In the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the primary distinction is Sunni/Shi’a. Elsewhere, it is tribe.
    When I was growing up in the small-town American south (mid last century), the socially uncrossable distinction was race. Among whites, it was Christian denomination (there were few Jews and no Muslims). Catholic/Protestant was a red line.

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