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The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999

Abby Drwecki

By Timothy Snyder. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003. xv + 367 pages. Index, maps. ISBN 0-3-00-10586-x. Paper. $20.00.

This volume tracks the development of national identity in the four modern states now known as Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. Snyder puts to doubt the commonsense assumption that modern nation-states and clear-cut ethnic groups exist “naturally.” Most people would assume that Poles live in Poland, Lithuanians live in Lithuania, and so on. Snyder shows that in the early modern era, when the names and boundaries of these countries first came into public consciousness, these divisions were far from clear or natural. He goes back to the Lublin Union of 1569 that incorporated parts of present-day Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus into the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and shows how the elite gentry classes of Poland and Lithuania were generally considered to be assimilated into the Polish language and high culture. The languages we would now consider “Lithuanian,” “Belarusan,” and “Ukrainian” were basically languages of the peasants and the lower classes that were disenfranchised and denied what today is considered the basic rights of citizenship.

Given the relatively cordial relations between these states, it appears that cooler heads have prevailed in the formation of the modern sovereign nation states of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus through the privileging of present-day political interests over historical grudges.

The historical narrative continues through both world wars, outlining the various partitions and border movements that carved up the territories of the former Polish Kingdom and the Grand Duchy into the Soviet, Austro-Hungarian, and Prussian spheres of influence. All the while, Snyder provides anecdotes and vignettes that show the personal “ethnic” and political trajectories of Polish-Lithuanian elites who were instrumental in ethnonationalist movements in these various territories. In order to show the constructed nature of today’s ethnic categories in historical perspective, he often points out that individuals known as Lithuanian national heroes spoke mainly Polish or that people who now live in the homogeneous territories of Poland spoke Ukrainian as a first language. Snyder uses these facts about language and class to show that instead of rising up from the grass roots, modern day ideas of ethnic identity have been formed and crafted by key members of a landed elite.

The second half of the book describes the ways in which the present borders of the relatively ethnically homogeneous nation states in this region were formed. This was accomplished through a loss of territory to the Soviet Union in the interwar period, and through a series of ethnic cleansings that occurred during and shortly after the Second World War. Poles in Soviet Lithuanian Vilnius and environs were “voluntarily” resettled (thus becoming an equivalent to the German Vertriebene), while more brutal expulsions occurred in the regions of Galicia and Volhynia that became a part of Soviet Ukraine. While the fate of the Jews of Eastern Europe is well known, the destruction of this group was only one episode in the story of northeastern Europe and in the creation of the new ethnic states in that region. The present borders of the region were decided on at the takeover of Poland by the Red Army, and the absorption of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus into the Soviet Union. While Poland lost its eastern territories, it gained a certain amount of territory from Germany, from which the ethnic Germans were likewise expelled. All of these movements were based in an ethnonationalist logic of the Soviet order-givers, a logic that stated that the nationality of people should match up with the territory of their state. It must be remembered that these cleansings occurred under the Soviet-imposed communist governments. In describing the horrific events of ethnic cleansing Snyder does not focus on gory descriptions of the events themselves, which would be an easy way to get the reader’s attention. He instead keeps these atrocities in context with the larger processes involved, giving the book an air of detached scholarship, while expressing an appropriate degree of empathy for the individuals hurt by these ethnic reshufflings. The last part of the narrative is a somewhat triumphalist tale of national reconciliation and respect according to “European standards,” with Polish statesmen and diplomats as the central characters. This part of the narrative shows how cooler heads have prevailed in the formation of the modern sovereign nation states of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus through the privileging of present-day political interests over historical grudges.

According to Snyder, modern ideas of ethnic identity have been formed and crafted by key members of a landed elite.

In short, this book challenges popular assumptions about the ways that ethnic nations arise, why ethnic cleansing takes place, and how nations can reconcile. In popular discourse, ethnic conflicts are often described as stemming from “ancient” conflicts that cannot be solved by modern statecraft or diplomacy. Snyder definitively shows the contrary: he shows that ethnic conflicts in this part of Europe can be traced to the actions of elites between the early modern period and the twentieth century, and that these conflicts have been resolved, likewise, by the intervention of elite actors. Anthropologist Frederik Barth has postulated that all ethnic groups are defined by the maintenance of boundaries. Snyder, a historian, has given us a concrete example of how these boundaries are historically formed and solidified.

This book is a tremendous piece of scholarship, drawing together sources from over thirty archives and document collections in five different countries, often making sense of source material that is contradictory and at times fragmentary. The processes described here are extremely complex, and caused this reviewer to consider the history of “Poland” in an entirely new way. The writing style is very academic and presumes a good deal of previous knowledge about general Central and Eastern European history, especially the Second World War and the communist period. A reader who is not familiar with the region’s history or current arguments about theories of nationalism might find the book difficult. Nonetheless, it would be ideal for an academic setting, such as a graduate or advanced undergraduate survey of Polish or Eastern European history. The broad time frame covered makes it appropriate for a variety of topical courses. In addition, Snyder’s clear, engaging, and often witty writing style would make this book a good piece of reading for a casual enthusiast of Polish, Soviet, or European history.

Another interesting point of this text is that Snyder refers to several cities by different appellations, depending on the nation to which it belonged at a certain point or according to usage by a certain people at a certain moment. Keeping track of all these usages can be difficult, but a “gazetteer” at the beginning of the book clarifies things considerably and is useful for reference throughout. A series of maps also provides a useful visual reference to remind readers of the location of borders and territories at different historical junctures.

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