Book review

by Marie Arana-Ward

At the Crossroads of History


Across the Borderlands of Europe

Click here for a map from page 21 of this book

by Anne Applebaum
(Pantheon, 314 pp, $24)

THERE ARE FEW PLACES on earth as politically volatile as the lands that lie between Russia and the rest of Europe. Both coveted and despised, this protean corridor of unobstructed terrain has been a stomping ground for every grandiose politician - East or West - whose imagination was ever kindled by dreams of conquest.

"For a thousand years, the geography of the borderlands dictated their destiny," writes Spectator deputy editor Anne Applebaum in her probing portrait of the territory that embraces eastern Germany, Lithuania. Belarus, Moldova, Eastern Poland and the Ukraine. "Five centuries ago an army on horseback could march from a castle on the Baltic to a fort on the Black Sea without meeting a physical obstacle greater than a fast-running river or a wide forest. Even now, a spy running east from Warsaw to Kiev would find nothing natural to obstruct him."

And so for centuries the people of these frontiers endured carnage and plunder, slipping in and out of identities faster than a cartographer could record the changes: Mongols invaded, and then Turks, Swedes, Muscovites, Moldovan princes, Cossacks, Teutonic Knights, Polish kings, German emperors, Nazis, Soviet hordes - each raid more catastrophic than the last. The Swedes destroyed the cities, the Cossacks set fire to the villages, the Teutonic Knights brought on a holocaust, wiping out all trace of indigenous Prussians. "But most of the time," writes Applebaum, "the Polonizations and Prussifications and Russifications came to nothing. The borderlands were simply too wide and too empty, it was too difficult for any invading nation to maintain permanent rule."

Because of this failure to bring about long-term change there were, until recently, no nation-states as we know them today. "For a thousand years the people of the borderlands spoke their dialects and worshiped their gods, while the waves of invaders washed over them, mingled, receded, and washed over them again." Today a traveler can encounter a native Pole, a person raised in the Soviet Union, a citizen of the new Belarus - and they in fact may all be one man, an individual who has never set foot outside his father's village.

A borderland peasant asked his nationality in the 18th century probably would have replied " tutejszj" - "a person from here." That sense of the existential still persists. A scene in Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum captures the mindset: It is 1945, and as Soviet soldiers pour into the borderlands, terrorizing the locals, the protagonist's grandmother refuses to flee east or west, "I am not German enough!" she cries. "And I am not Polish enough, either!" She belongs to her potato field; it is the only allegiance she considers worthwhile.

After the war, it was Stalin's plan to have the borderlands "disappear into Soviet Russia: Call it ethnic cleansing, to use a phrase coined later in another context, or call it cultural genocide. Either way, it was very successful." The region was transformed beyond recognition. Whole nations slid beyond memory, and we in the West hardly took notice, Kiev became a Russian city, Lithuania a Russian province, and the colorful, variegated cultures of the borderlands were relegated to the dusty shelves of emigre bookshops.

Applebaum's Between East and West is a heroic attempt to bring the region back into our collective consciousness. Armed with 35 maps and a "forensic passion," she leads us into this forgotten land, holding a close mirror to its villains and heroes and letting us see it warts and all.

She begins, fittingly, in Kaliningrad - Koenigsberg - a district once famed as the City of Enlightenment - Kant's city - before it was purged of Prussians and reravaged centuries later by Soviet troops.

"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" someone asks her on the streets of the now hideous city. The man is a Belarusian from Pinsk, a slave laborer in a German prison factory during the war. It is the first of a multitude of encounters that will lead Applebaum - and us - to a clearer understanding of who these people are and how history has transformed their lives.

In Lithuania and the Polish kresy - the outlying, disputed hinterland - Applebaum encounters the core of hatred that has set neighbor against neighbor for 50 years. Before the war, some Jews, encouraged by Soviet propaganda, had collaborated with the communists; some Lithuanians, encouraged by the Nazi propaganda, had helped send Jews to concentration camps. "Afterward," writes Applebaum, "no one remembered that the Red Army had also murdered Jews, or hat the Nazis had also murdered Lithuanians. "The outcome had been too dire to parse history that finely: One in ten Lithuanians was either dead or deported. Several million Poles were forcibly removed from their homes in Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine, and sent West. "When it was over, the mixed multiethnic kresy had disappeared forever. Most of the Poles were gone from the region, most of the Jews were dead." But the bitterness remains.

Applebaum negotiates the region intrepidly, suffering the hardscrabble existence of a traveler in these parts, looking up improbable witnesses, hitch-hiking with drink-sodden peasants, arguing history with strangers on the street. Her insights are sharp, her sympathies far-ranging. Always there is an unblinking eye on her subjects' life stories, a finger on history, and a well-tuned ear for subtle ironies and unexpected poetry. Whether negotiating with a slick Mafia hotel manager in L'vov or bedding down with a pestiferous anti-Semitic harridan in Nowogrodek, Applebaum reveals an intelligence and sensibility that are rare in this brand of quick-sweep expeditionary journalism.

But the book is not free of flaws. As we progress from Kamenets Podolsky to Kishinev to Odessa, we sense a progressive impatience in our host. When she wraps up her trip and boards a boat for Istanbul and "the West" with a distinct sense of relief, we cannot help but recall her initial statement of purpose: that what she had set out to find was "proof that difference and variety can outlast an imposed homogeneity; testimony, in fact, that people can survive any attempt to uproot them." Applebaum's rush to be done with her book ultimately leaves her reader hanging on that question. We understand that history has made the people of the borderlands at once indomitable and chameleonesque, but that is our conclusion; Applebaum never tells us hers.

That said, Between East and West is an indispensable guide to a little-known region that may prove as decisive in our future as it surely has been in our past. As Churchill wrote when the various nations of the borderlands first proclaimed their independence, "When the war of the giants has ended, the war of the pygmies begins." We would do well to know the territory.

Marie Arana-Ward was the deputy editor of Book World, the book review section of the Washington Post when she wrote this review. She is now the editor. This article appeared in the Sunday issue of the Washington Post on November 20, 1994.