Between East and West Across the Borderlands of Europe

By Anne Applebaum. New York: Pantheon Books. 1994. xxi + 314. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Patricia A. Gajda

In the centuries-long tradition of informed travel literature, Anne Applebaum arranges place descriptions, vignettes, characters, and events of the present and the past into a rich mosaic portrayal of the borderlands of eastern Europe that lie between Poland and Russia, between the Baltic and Black Seas. On one level, Between East and West is a selective retelling of Applebaum's recent travels in the post-Soviet era through lands that for centuries had been part of the far reaches of someone else's empire or state, lands peopled by speakers of Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, or Romanian, as well as speakers of eclectic dialects whose telling lexicons retain the fallout from past cultural and political domination or provide the critical mass that persuades a stateless nationhood. On another level, Applebaum roots the people and ideas she encounters in historical context as she strives to understand the borderlands whose denizens have usually been on the periphery of European affairs, often neglected and left alone to develop a sense of self or nation grounded in their own languages, values, prejudices, and customs.

Applebaum's emphasis on peoples rather than polities is conveyed in the table of contents itself that identifies four parts into which she has divided the book: Germans; Poles and Lithuanians; Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians; and Island Cities. In the first short section, she encounters two German tourists purposefully visiting Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg) but affecting indifference toward the city lest their interest be interpreted as politically incorrect revanchism.

In the long second part of the book, Applebaum recounts her visits in cities and villages in the kresy (the Polish word for borderlands or marshes) filled largely with people who consider themselves Polish or Lithuanian. Here entirely different views of history prevail. Harking back to the polonization of the region in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Polish speakers remember with longing the Commonwealth as a great, unique, and multinational state, a bulwark of western Christendom against assorted eastern tyrants. Lithuanian speakers, on the other hand, remember the Commonwealth as a cheat, a system that deprived them of their language, culture, and ancient pagan traditions, a system in which degenerate Polish aristocracy trampled upon the lives and rights of Lithuanian peasants. Both harbor romantic longings for their ideal national states; both deal with illusion and nostalgia in their longings. Applebaum merely recounts their stories, and in the lacunae she deliberately leaves, she invites us to appreciate both the clash of objectives and their unrealistic sentimentality.

The third part takes the author to Minsk, Brest, and other cities and villages across the Carpathians. Minsk is drawn as the quintessential Soviet city - drab, ugly, starved of its soul. Here we meet the poet Igor who sees Belarus as the perfect postmodern country - one living in a false, Soviet-imposed culture that must be replaced with something real after completing a process of recapturing its past and reexamining its values. In Belarus, the author visits Kobrin, nineteenth-century birthplace of her paternal grandfather, then part of a Polish-speaking province of the Russian empire. Little evidence of her Jewish forebears remains except in the recollections of the Russian-speaking Boris Nikolaevich, whose pre-war colleagues in the city library had largely been Jews who were incredulous and unheeding when he warned them to escape to the forests with the partisans in advance of the Germans in 1941.

During this trek, we meet various other interesting characters. Marta, Ukrainian-born and part of the post-war diaspora to America, returns to Lwow (Ukrainian L'viv) to refurbish the Grand Hotel - a metaphor for today's Ukraine, a nation as yet undefined and unrestored. Ivan Hel, a city councilor who assumes an aura of dignity only when speaking in Galician Ukrainian, laments Ukraine's immaturity, recalling that the Israelites spent forty years in the desert purging their slave mentality before becoming truly free. Kalman and Istvan, stock comedic characters and conmen extraordinaire, transport Applebaum through the Carpathians and spread their maledictions over the various Gypsies, Soviets, peasants and Jews they encounter.

In the four cities that appear in the concluding section of the book, nationalism is at once perceived as paramount and irrelevant. Each community focuses on its own past on the rim of someone else's history. Finally reaching the last of these, Odessa, the author comes to the sea and enjoys a unique sense of liberation from the self-imposed limitations of the borderlands.

Various threads run through the book: the good and evil of nationalism, nostalgia and the importance of remembering, the paucity of Soviet "culture," the need to belong - even to such small, unrecognized nations as Ruthenia, Transdniestria, and Polesia.

Applebaum's sense of history is evident, giving both depth and clarity to her work. For example, she consistently understands a nation, in the classical sense, to be a group of people with certain commonalities, especially linguistic ones. Although she does not dictate a definition or judgment of nationalism, she endows the views of many of her colorful characters with reasonableness, irrationality, sentimentality, passion, or necessity. One of them tries to articulate the special mystical quality of Belarus; another calls for a new Ukrainian nationalism to provide the simplest vehicle for pulling all the people in the process of building the young, independent country; a third in Chernivtsi (Czerniowce) fears the rising of both Ukrainian and Romanian nationalism but believes that nationalism had never hurt anyone in this historically multi-ethnic city. After meeting all these characters and hearing their stories of national consciousness, mutual suspicion of "the other" across the new border, we are left with a sympathy for common humanity and a sense of the ambiguity, absurdity, and narrow exclusivity of some versions of nationalism.

As she recounts current developments alongside historical ones, Applebaum makes clear the importance of memory. In the Lithuanian capital, Stanislaw laments children being unable to talk with their grandparents in Polish. "When they forget their language, they lose their history, and then they know nothing." Further south, Gellert's old mother regrets that she remembers only Yiddish because she fears that her beloved and deceased rabbi grandfather cannot hear her, for he speaks only in Hebrew.

Language with its nuance and music becomes, time and again, the whisper of a people's name and the gentle heartbeat of a nation. Applebaum's sensitive treatment of its signature subtleties shows nicely that the breath of lanugage is a kiss as well as a bridge between those who share it. It can also be a chasm between those who do not.

A recurring theme through much of the narrative is the literal and figurative drabness and monotony of the Soviet "culture" that sought to displace the language, religion, customs, and other cultural expressions of the borderland peoples. Russian linguistic imperialism conquered the rich and varied local tongues. Russian technicians and immigrants came to this backcountry to replace its soul with the drab and monotonous Soviet society. Today their innocent descendants find themselves rootless and unwelcome in both worlds - Russia from which their forebears came and the new borderland states on whose soil they themselves were born and reared.

Applebaum, a British journalist living in England and Poland, writes gracefully, sensitively and with a sense of historical perspective. Although it is not her intention to stress any one nation, she seems to concentrate longer on the Polish political and cultural tradition. She quotes from Krasiński and Mickiewicz, depicts the enclave Polish communities in Lithuania and Belarus where Polish schools are organized to pass on the cultural traditions to the new generations, and records that taking on at least a veneer of Polishness implies here the acquisition of high culture and opportunity, as in the city of Brest.

The book is timely, absorbing, instructive, entertaining and well written. Applebaum communicates her keen observations with apt similes, irony, and heart.

Some minor aberrations occur that mar the narrative. The proofreader has let a few typographical errors slip in, one of which renders incomprehensible the meaning of a Polish expression. The curious designation "lady scholar" is used in reference to the controversial researcher who purportedly proved some long-standing Lithuanian claims. The term may have been one of the author's interviewees, but as it stands, the expression looks like an unfortunate and solitary example of demeaning sexist language used by the author.

Patricia A. Gajda is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Tyler.


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