Crossing the Borderlands

Crossing the Borderlands
The troubled territory between Poland and Russia

IN THE UNITED STATES, THE concept of mobility is a simple one: people move, countries don’t. In the broad swath of territory east of Poland, west of Russia, south of the Baltic Sea and north of the Black Sea, mobility means something totally different: people may or may not move, but borders almost always do. As Anne Applebaum points out in Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe (314 pages. Pantheon.), „a traveler can meet a man born in Poland, brought up in the Soviet Union, who now lives in Belarus-and he has never left his village.”
An American journalist who worked in Poland and is now deputy editor of The Spectator in London, Applebaum set out to explore what the Poles refer to as the Kresy, or borderlands, during the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is a region with such a jumble of peoples-Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians and Jews-and so much bitterly contested history that most outsiders despair of ever making sense of it all. Even the legions of descendants of those who emigrated to escape its chronic conflicts-many of whom now live in the United States-usually have only the dimmest notion of where their ancestors came from. „I come from nowhere,” pop artist Andy Warhol liked to say. But Applebaum manages to locate nowhere in Warhol’s case and many others’.
The goal of Soviet leaders was to erase the rich diversity of nationalities and cultures in the borderlands, but Applebaum finds at least traces of their old glories and considerable evidence of a new consciousness. While clearly applauding the attempts to revive historical memories, she is fully cognizant of the dangers. When one national poet is claimed by the Poles, the Lithuanians and the Belarusians, even his name becomes a matter of dispute. Is it Adam Mickiewicz, Adomas Mickevicius or Adam Mickievic? It is only a short step from such disputes to denial of a minority’s rights under the pretext that it is confused about its own identity.
If Applebaum is at her strongest in tracing the strong Polish legacy in the borderlands, she fails to invoke adequately the strength of Jewish culture in the region before the Holocaust. A Jew, she encounters both chilling reminders of anti-Semitism and the newly fashionable philo-Semitism during her travels. But her quick historical sketches skip too lightly over the Jewish component of the region’s background, providing little context for these experiences.
Part history, part travelogue, „Between East and West” cannot do justice to its vast subject. But Applebaum has a good eye and deft touch in her compelling if inevitably impressionis-tic account. In describing L’viv, Lvov or LWOW- depending on whether the Ukrainian, Russian or Polish name is used- she conveys its beauty and its sadness by an evocative analogy. „When a mollusk dies, the shell remains, beautiful but empty of life,” she writes. In describing the fiercely Soviet outpost of Tiraspol, which broke away from Moldova, she observes: „The Communist symbols seemed almost quaint, reminiscent of gas streetlamps or horsedrawn fire engines.” Although her lightness occasionally slips into glibness, she takes the reader on a fascinating journey into the backwaters of Europe. In so doing, she illuminates corners that were long left in darkness and confronts forgotten histories with the latest political earthquakes, which have shifted the borders of the borderlands once again.