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A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland


A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland

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    Available in PDF Format | A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland.pdf | English
    Kate Brown(Author)
2004 George Louis Beer Prize, American Historical Association 2004 Heldt Prize of the Association for Women in Slavic Studies 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, the mosaic of cultures was modernised and homogenised 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.

"'One is drawn in by the fine prose of A Biography of No Place, and the gravity of the events it describes. An appealing account [and] unusually fair-minded... Hers is one of the relatively few studies of modern Ukraine to stand above politics and prejudice.' - Timothy Snyder, Times Literary Supplement"

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Book details

  • PDF | 304 pages
  • Kate Brown(Author)
  • Harvard University Press (2 Mar. 2004)
  • English
  • 8
  • Biography

Review Text

  • By Richard Carter on 30 August 2012

    I was very interested to come across references to this book, which is concerned with that fascinating region usually referred to as the kresy (a Polish word meaning 'borderlands') between the edges of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus, which was essentially a hangover from the days of the great Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.Having a professional interest in the former Soviet Union and especially in this region, I ordered the book - but when it arrived my heart sank as it fell open at a page that contained this:"This is not to assert a Foucaultian script of bio-power in which the state brought nationality into being and with it controlled the lives of its subjects."Oh dear, I thought, another dreary PhD thesis dressed up as a publishable but unreadable book . But if I'd left it at that I would have been making a very big mistake. Sure, there are occasional difficult to read passages as Kate Brown is indeed an academic (Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland), but these are mercifully few and far between, and it turns out that Prof. Brown has a wonderful turn of phrase when it's needed. An example occurs when she's discussing the work of NKVD (a forerunner of the KGB) officials in deciding who should be deported east from the region as spies:"They were busy men who signed off on transactions with a dash of a red pen, spilling a bit of greasy soup as they reached for the phone to make the next deal in soil, future commodities and bodies."- or, she might have said (by comparison with Belshazzar's Feast), "with the souls of men."The other way the story is made vividly real is in the many interviews she conducted in the region and in Kazakhstan, recording people's own experiences, recollections and memories. These add hugely to what is in any case an extraordinary story and really bring it to life.In the kresy, nationalities were not only inextricably interlinked but ambiguous in themselves. Here the blurb on the Amazon website is a little misleading when it says the kresy was "a region where, in 1925, people identified as Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians and Russians lived side by side" - because it depends on who is doing the identifying; people themselves in the region usually identified not as particular nationalities but as 'locals' or as speaking the 'Catholic language' or as Polissians or Volynians (or wherever else they lived).And this brings one to the heart of the book, which concerns the way successive waves of: officials from the Tsarist regime, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Polish parliamentary state and, after the second war, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, set out to define people's nationalities as they chose, forcing people into categories rather than accepting their own designations, because that's the way the bureaucratic mind works. However, it's worse than that, because this wasn't just about definition but about control: occasionally vicious but generally incompetent in the case of the Tsarists and (initially) the Bolsheviks, viciously brutal and genocidal in the case of the Nazis and powerful and effective by all parties after the second war - so that this wonderfully rich region was homogenised out of existence so that the western part became wholly Polish and the eastern part, wholly Ukrainian.This was done by forced population exchanges (by the Bolsheviks using government action and by the Nazis brutally (in most cases ) and fatally (in the case of Jews, nationalists and intellectuals). And where did the removed populations go? In between the wars, to Kazakhstan, that unlimited and supposedly empty region of steppe, which Prof Brown correctly identifies as emptied not empty - because the Bolsheviks had cleared it of its indigenous population, nomadic pastoralists who had developed a way of life that was a social and economic system that was at harmony with and wholly appropriate for the nature of the steppe. But nomads couldn't be controlled and had to be "settled" on collective farms where they could grow cash crops and free the land they "wasted" on grazing their herds - thus the "Russian big brother" could bring his civilising mission to the ignorant, primitive nomads. The result was, of course, a disaster: 1.75 million Kazakhs lost their lives in the process (proportionally, Prof Brown says, a greater loss of life than anywhere in the Soviet Union), and the need to divert rivers to water the collective farms produced environmental disasters like to shrinking and virtual disappearance of the Aral Sea.But before the kresy was homogenised, there was the extraordinary story of the Marchlevsk Polish Autonomous Region (and the book is worth the price just for the chapter describing this, "Inventory"). There, Bolshevik bureaucrats took seriously the Soviet Union's stated policy on minorities, and went about not just collecting data on the inhabitants, but setting out to provide them with the appropriate services. The population was classed as 70% Polish, 20% Ukrainian, 7% German and 3% Jewish, but before 1917 there were no Polish schools and only 4 elementary schools which taught in Russian. Then, "in just three years, official sources boasted that villagers built 41 schools: 31 Polish, 3 German, 2 Ukrainian and 1 Yiddish." And by 1930, they had founded 4 bookstores, 15 Polish-language reading huts, literary centres in most villages and so on: an astonishing change.But then, in the 1930s, it all changed again and minorities (especially Polish and German) were portrayed as spies and the whole policy brutally reversed; the officials, of course, ended up in the gulag, as did most of the minorities themselves. But for that brief time, a genuinely enlightened policy had been followed: how tragic was what followed it. Prof Brown tells this story so well, and brings out the essentially religious nature of the Bolshevik regime, where an atmosphere reigned, reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, in which the lack of evidence of treachery was not proof of loyalty but itself evidence that the treachery was doubly dangerous because the (supposed) evidence was hidden!As I have said, Prof Brown tells a fascinating story very well, apart from the occasional lapse into academic-speak (and a somewhat sniffy dismissal of Anna Reid's excellent Borderland as being journalistic. Well, she is a journalist, but she has a degree in law and studied Russian History at SOAS!). Highly recommended!

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