- A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland, and: “Velyka Vitchyzniana Viina”: Spohady ta rozdumy ochevydtsia, and: Oti dva roky…: U Kyivi pry nimtsiakh, and: Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule
Sixty years after the end of World War II, the question of how that war was experienced within the portion of Right-Bank Ukraine that had spent the interwar era under Soviet rule still awaits a definitive answer. The work of Soviet historians on wartime Ukraine was marred by the Communist Party's rhetoric that all the Soviet peoples had stood as one in the effort to defend their country from fascism. The work of Soviet émigrés, meanwhile, was often hampered by their absence from the fighting in, and the return of the Red Army to, the formerly Nazi-occupied territories. Four books have recently appeared, however, that examine Right-Bank Ukraine's experience at the turn of the 1940s and attempt to explain what its ordinary residents believed while living under totalitarian regimes of both homegrown and foreign origin. In the process, they do much to uncover an unknown period of Eurasia's recent history.
Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place provides a sound introduction to understanding Right-Bank Ukraine as it entered World War II. By that time, Brown argues, Right-Bank Ukraine was well on its way to being cleansed of its former cultural diversity. According to Brown, the catalyst [End Page 143] for these events was efforts by Soviet bureaucrats in the mid-1920s to instill faith in socialist internationalism in a space dominated by ambiguous ethnic identities. Her argument thus places the experience of Right-Bank Ukraine at the center of the West's "reconceptualization of space" following World War I. Simply put, for the Bolsheviks to compete with and eventually conquer the capitalists' market-oriented and imperialistic modernization scheme, the "oscillation of languages and identities" in these "borderlands" had to be expunged from individuals' minds.
To illustrate her argument, Brown concentrates on places such as the Marchlevsk Polish Autonomous Region (just to the west of Kyiv) from its creation in 1925 to its disappearance from the Soviet map in 1935. She is at her best when chronicling the travails of Leninist "true-believers" such as Jan Saulevich, a Polish member of the Ukrainian Commission for National Minority Affairs, who sought to "create" as many Poles as possible in the kresy in order to convince them that the Bolsheviks' vision of the future was best. The fate of the Poles "created" by Saulevich—as well as the Germans "created" by others like him—lies at the heart of this book, because the Bolsheviks' effort to modernize this politically sensitive and topographically challenged area created more problems for them than anywhere else in the Soviet Union.
In this part of "European Russia," the triumph of the muzhik noted by Moshe Lewin was accompanied by Ukrainian Catholics becoming Poles, Russian-speaking Lutherans becoming Germans, and—eventually—the local Communists "concluding" that a mass of "fifth-columnists" now inhabited the borderlands of a country surrounded by imperialists.1 These particular peasants were supposedly not only ignoring the state's efforts to modernize itself but were also progressing along a political path that might contribute to the Soviet Union's dissolution. The biography of one of the book's chief protagonists, Ukrainian NKVD Chief Vsevolod Balytskyi, provides a glimpse of how today's Ukraine came to be. When it became clear that the...