A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland (review)
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Reviewed by
Kate Brown, A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

This is a fascinating account of the Sovietization of the territories of Soviet Ukraine along the border with Poland in the 1920s and 1930s and of the German occupation of the region during the Second World War. Kate Brown has carried out impressive work in Moscow, Kyiv, and Zhytomyr and joins a number of younger scholars who contend that the encounter of Soviet power with multiethnicity led to the construction of a modern state. Brown's approach to modernity is disarmingly broad. She treats interrogations as an instance of the triumph of the literary language over oral tradition. She argues that the simple movement of human beings by deportation was a kind of ersatz progress in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s, direction becoming a bureaucratic shorthand for a sense of direction. In Brown's view, the Soviet state in the 1920s was weak, and the challenges it faced in its western borderlands were quite real.

By presenting a coherent image of borderland culture, Brown prevents the reader [End Page 152] from seeing the absence of robust national identity as an absence of society. In her account, the religious rhetoric of resistance to collectivization seems quite natural, given the importance of miracle cults in Ukraine. Brown makes another series of con-nections: of collectivization (1929–1930) to the famine (1932–1933), to the purges of the "Polish Military Organization" (1933–1935), and to ethnic cleansing (1936) and the Great Terror (1937–1938). Switching from the perspective of the peasants to that of the Soviet secret police (GPU), Brown describes a chain of cause and effect that seems persuasive (and harmonizes with recent arguments of Ukrainian historians). Although the Soviet image of border-crossing Polish spies is ever present, she makes little mention of the interwar Polish state, and some of what she says is misleading.

Despite the book's Russifying tendency (Ukrainian and Polish surnames and toponyms are sometimes misspelled or rendered in Russian), its narrative is best placed in a grand tradition of Polish travel writing: that of emigrants from lost lands of the east. A Biography of No Place exemplifies this tradition in its subject matter (old lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth not incorporated by later Polish states), its grounding in personal experience, its resort to the first person singular, its use of conversations with locals, its fine (sometime very fine) prose, and its odd moment of grand nostalgia. Brown seems not to have exploited the work of Daniel Beauvois, a pioneer in the study of the region, whose two books revealed inter- and intra-communal conflict in central and western Ukraine during the period of Russian Imperial rule. Beauvois was writing against Polish nostalgia about these borderlands, and his critique was the more devastating for being more thorough than any comparable Polish study.

The grace of the book permits the reader to overlook its main achievement as a work of twentieth-century history: to have treated simultaneously contentious issues of Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish history against the background of Soviet rule and, in the final chapter, Nazi occupation. Brown is fair-minded in her judgments and alert to the possibility that all sides in historiographical disputes may be wrong. She can stand above the fray because she has built her own perch.

Timothy Snyder
Yale University