NOTES FOR READING

KATE BROWN, BIOGRAPHY OF NO PLACE

 

 

Benedict Anderson famously imagined how communities imagine themselves, how a patch of land becomes France or Indonesia, rather than any other concept. Often, these secular territories replace older sacred landscapes – look for instance at the Four Corners country in the US, and how the four states divide up an ancient sacred landscape that was once unified. Kate Brown has done something much more radical, in taking a territory that has no such clear identity, that is pure borderland: “Her ‘no place’ is left-bank Ukraine, the borderland between shifting Polish-Lithuanian and Russian empires -- the wedge of land made notorious by Chernobyl and its cloud”. She shows the different frames that can be placed upon this territory, and in so doing, she touches on “mainstream” history – the Soviet era, the Holocaust – but also shows how many such events take place on the fringes of her central story.

 

Though her book has much to recommend it, I will identify some of the central themes that strike me. In each case, I would like you to find events and passages that illustrate these themes, or perhaps contradict them.

 

Brown notes that “today's independent Ukraine is a creation in which the streamlining of hybrid identities into national groups, the deportation of people as national minorities, the Nazi imposition of racial hierarchies, the Holocaust, the Soviet annexation of Polish territory, and the Polish and Soviet population transfers all played major roles in creating unambiguously Ukrainian nation-space." What were the other roads not taken in this story?

 

What events particularly grabbed you or struck you in this story?

 

Which of the documents quoted had a particular impact on you?

 

The central theme of the book is how we determine who we are – or if you like, what masks we wear. Often, our constructions of identity seem fundamental and never-changing, whereas in fact they can change radically in a few decades. A hundred years ago, Central and east Europeans defined themselves at least partly by the monarchy to which they swore allegiance. Later, various forms of nationality came to the fore. How do national identities change, come into being, and decline or die? Do they arise from below, from the grassroots, or are they imposed from the cities and the elites? How far does change derive from ideological and academic theory?

 

How do people define themselves in terms of who they are not? How are out-groups and enemy groups defined? What role did the Jews play in this process? What do Jews symbolize to their enemies?

 

What role does science play in the definition of race and ethnicity?

 

What was the impact of technological change on these identities? How was the countryside changed in thee face of mechanization and capitalist agriculture?

 

How do definitions of local community change in the processes under way here?

 

What does “modernity” mean to the inhabitants of the kresy?

 

Reviewer Karl E Loewenstein offers a nice summary of Brown’s main three characters:

 

The three main characters of Brown's narrative are Jan Saulevich, the first head of the autonomous district, Vsevolod Bolytskyi, the security chief who had him arrested, and Karl Stumpp, a German professor brought in by the Nazis to racially purify the kresy. Each tried to force the denizens of the kresy into preconceptions that did not fit. Saulevich created Poles, Bolytskyi turned them into traitors because of their Polishness, and Stumpp tried to discover the Germanness in them.

 

 How does Brown bring these figures to light? How might another historian have illustrated this story through other narrative forms?

 

How exactly did Saulevich try to “create Poles”? How successful was he?

 

What presence did the state have in the localities before the twentieth century? How did this presence change as the century progressed?

 

What role do schools and education play in the process of making identities?

 

What role do history and memory play in the process of making identities?

 

What role does language play in the process of making identities?

 

What role does military service play in the process of making identities?

 

How do issues of gender and changing gender roles feature in Brown’s story?

 

What was the role of paranoia and conspiracy theory in defining such areas as loyal or subversive?

 

Why do states engage in ethnic cleansing?

 

For modern minds, it seems incomprehensible that pre-20th century inhabitants should have been so unconcerned with their nationality. They must have been something? In fact, these world-views seem quite difficult for us to understand. They "made up a continuum of cultures that stood literally and figuratively on the border between Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, in a place where mass media had not yet standardized vernaculars or made boilerplates of ritual and tradition."

 

Do you think Brown exaggerates the constructed nature of national identity? Are there places where she seems to place her own ideological/theoretical approach over and above what the evidence itself would strictly support? Bohdan Klid writes that, Brown “attempted to explain how the kresy disappeared with hardly a trace and how this borderland region was transformed into relatively homogeneous nation-space. Her anti-modernist approach has resulted in providing valuable insights into this process. However, the reader should be aware of her negative view of twentieth-century nation-building.” Is that fair comment?

 

Does Brown exaggerate or romanticize the self-sufficiency of the earlier inhabitants of the Markhlevs'k region? In what ways were they tied in to wider networks and state affairs?

 

Ultimately, is the lesson of Brown’s book that national identity is often a response to the successful exercise of brute violence and armed terror?

 

Based on the experience of this region, how should we approach the events of “1939-45”? Is it not fairer to see “the war” as part of a continuum of violence and ethnic cleansing that began in the 1920s, and continued well into the 1950s. When did “the war” begin? When did it end? (see http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/j/p/jpj1/chronicles.pdf  for my own discussion of these questions).

 

How did religion feature as a characteristic of the pre-modern world-view? How did the modernizing states fail to understand this factor?

 

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, some of the worst bloodshed in human history occurred in the “Three Bs,” the area between the Balkans, the Baltic and the Black Sea. Does the present book help us to understand the extraordinary ferocity of the violence? Was it new historically?

 

Based on this book, should we see the atrocities of the Nazis as less exceptional? In the 1980s, German historians engaged in a ferocious debate over whether the Nazi atrocities should be seen as a response to Stalinist horrors. How does Brown contribute to these arguments?

 

How does this book help us understand “the Holocaust”?

 

Tell me about the Volhynia massacre

 

Think of the lessons of this book as they apply to the processes of state-formation and creating national identity as they would operate in the era of decolonization in Africa and Asia. What lessons does she offer?

 

Does this book contribute to debates about national self-definition in other regions and eras, for instance in contemporary Africa – or even in North America? In an important article, Brown explores “Gridded Lives: Why Kazakhstan and Montana Are Nearly the Same Place”. And she does it quite convincingly! Is the difference between the Ukraine and, say, France or the US, that events in “No Place” just happened more recently?

 

What are the lessons of the book for a modern Europe trying to create a new continental identity supplanting the older nation-states? And moreover they are doing it in the face of mass migration and religious/cultural conflict.

 

What other criticism would you have of Brown’s work? What other questions might you ask of her material? What other interpretations might you offer?

 

Finally…. David Hensley very kindly points out to me a recent interview with Kate Brown from Harpers:

 

http://harpers.org/sb-six-questions-kate-brown-1158926209.html