Sunday, April 11, 2010

Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place

Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place is the kind of nonfiction that I read with a pencil in hand, constantly underlining and exclamation-marking. This book came out in 2004 and I wish I'd read it sooner. I learned so much while reading it. The 'no place' that the title refers to is that borderland area between Russia and Poland where my grandfather and mother were born. The author traveled throughout the region and sat on benches with the old people listening to their memories. She wandered through some of the same areas I traveled in.

For example, from page 111, she visits a village that the Soviets re-invented, during collectivization. Let me quote: "When I arrived there on a blustery spring day I found five elderly men sitting on a bench in front of a short row of cottages." She learns that the Germans were all forcefully removed from the area, but nobody remembers when. Then she writes, "They could have left during anyone of the progressive, prophylactic, and punitive mass mobilization efforts that shook the border zone during the long and troubled thirties and into the forties."

But Kate Brown isn't just talking about the Germans in her book. (The Germans are just my major interest). The Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews were all forced to fit into moulds that outside forces imposed. I think her main thesis in the book is that these people were happily nationless. They got along together without thinking of each other as 'other'. In the 20th century they were forced to become part of nations, rather than on the edge, on the border, fluid and flexible. Being undefined, being merely farmers, neighbors, and villagers, was seen as their major weakness. The Soviets had to categorize them according to class and then the Nazis had to categorize them according to race.

And all they wanted was to be connected to their land and their families. Instead, they were shuffled around the vast Soviet empire through deportations, arrests and war. So finally they lost that connection to their land and to themselves.

Of course, I'm making it too simple. Brown is an absolutely eloquent writer and a sensitive researcher. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Ukraine - past and present.

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