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

By
F. Joseph Dresen

How "do you uncover a story that has been run over with tanks and bulldozers, and by nuclear radiation? How do you write the history of no place, of a people who were largely illiterate, many of whom were deported or murdered?" asked Kate Brown, Assistant Professor of History, University of Maryland, Baltimore County in discussing her new book A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland at a lecture on 14 March 2005. Chronicling the history of right-bank Ukraine, the region of Ukraine to the west of the Dnepr River, Brown argued that although the modern Ukrainian nation-building project describes the area as the heartland of Ukrainian national territory, historically the region was home to a mix of Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and other groups.

Historians are traditionally tied to the written word and to archives, said Brown. But that raises the question of what to do in studying a region such as this where the people who came to conquer and rule wrote the documents: "Do we take their word for it?" she asked. Brown explained that her approach was to pursue the stories of the people who lived in the region. In addition to archival research, she conducted interviews of descendents from the region in Germany, Poland, Kazakhstan, and the United States, as well as in Ukraine.

The Soviet forces that took control of right-bank Ukraine had a difficult time understanding the ethnic and linguistic mosaic of the region, according to Brown. During the 1920s, the Soviet government sent ethnographers to survey the region and determine its ethnic composition through a census. The Soviets went on to produce detailed maps showing where populations were and gave people identity cards. Brown noted that Soviet policy at the time was to promote native language education to instill Socialist teachings, and that more money was spent on such programs in Ukraine than in any other republic. However, she explained, Communist authorities found it difficult to force local residents to live within the ethnic and linguistic groups that were ascribed to them.

In the 1930s, the people of right-bank Ukraine were among the strongest opponents of collectivization, Brown stated. Communist officials were perplexed that such fierce resistance would come from one of the poorest areas of the country. They examined their ethnographic data and maps, according to Brown, and determined that people labeled "Poles" and "Germans" were more resistant to collectivization than those classified as Ukrainians or Jews. This "statistical mirage," said Brown, led to the first mass deportation of the Soviet period, in which Poles and Germans were forcibly resettled, first to other regions of Ukraine, then later to Kazakhstan.

As tensions further mounted in the 1930s with the rise of Nazi Germany, the confused, hybrid nature of the populations at the borderland grew to be a security concern for the Soviet leadership. The mass deportations were the start of the homogenization of the borderland, explained Brown.

Soviet ethnographic records were put to further tragic use during the Nazi invasion of the USSR according to Brown. The Nazi forces were easily able to determine from captured records which village residents were Jewish. She noted that the Holocaust was conducted much more simply in Ukraine than in Germany—instead of concentration camps or gas chambers, Jews were simply led into the forest, shot, and buried in mass graves.

In the waning days of the war, various nationalist Polish and Ukrainian partisan forces clashed over what would be the post-war ethnic make-up of the region. Soviet victory in the war forced a final settlement, and the homogenization of the region was nearly complete, according to Brown: "The Polish-Ukrainian transfers carried out by Poland and the Soviet Union after the war nearly cleansed the space of right-bank Ukraine of the Polish population that existed."

Brown reflected on the tragic history of the region. A succession of revolutions and wars thrust different forces into contention over the former borderland, each with the intention of making it, to their mind, a better space. The Soviets wanted to build a multi-national socialist state, but they ended deporting people of Polish and German descent from the region. The Germans saw the territory as a place for German-only colonization, but made it impossible to be a self-identified German in Ukraine after the war. Poles saw the region as a Polish national space, but provoked a civil war in their cleansing efforts. The Ukrainians would lose the battle for independence, but their vision of ethnic purity was made finally complete, Brown contended: "They're the only ones who reached their goal of homogenized Ukrainian national space after the war."

By the time right-bank Ukraine experienced its most recent tragedy, the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear disaster, the region was populated almost exclusively by ethnic Ukrainians, according to Brown. Radioactive contamination created a large stretch of abandoned towns. Today the Chornobyl disaster is portrayed as a great tragedy for the Ukrainian nation, she said, and the region's multi-ethnic past has been forgotten. However, she hopes that by studying the history of right-bank Ukraine, we can "regain" these lost places and people.

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