- - Sunday, July 23, 2017


By Anne Applebaum

Anchor, $17.95, 336 pages

When did you first hear of Belarus? What about Ruthenia? Do you know in which country the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, by which Russia withdrew from World War I, was signed? Most of us would fail a quiz that posed these questions. But here are some answers gleaned from Anne Applebaum’s “Between East and West Across the Borderlands of Europe,” first published in 1994 and just released in paperback from Anchor.

Belarus became the new name of Belorussia in 1991, when the country scooped up its independence as the Soviet Union fell apart. Ms. Applebaum suggests that the name-change indicated the wish to distinguish Belarus from Russia. Nonetheless, the country’s dictator invariably signs on whatever dotted line the Russian government points to.

Ruthenia is a Latin form of the word Russia. Centuries ago it occupied much of today’s Russia, Ukraine, Hungary and Slovakia. Some residents of Slovakia and Ukraine still identify themselves as Ruthenians. One explains, “All over the world good nations had been placed next to bad ones. Thus had Ruthenia — tiny, good, forgotten Ruthenia — been placed next to evil Ukraine.”

The 1918 German-Russia treaty was signed in Brest, Poland. During the preceding nine centuries Brest had at various times been in Poland, Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire. Between 1919 and 1991 alone it was in Poland, Russia, and Belorussia. Today it’s the sixth largest city of Belarus.

The frequent transfers of Eastern-European territories from state to state accrue from Europe’s many wars, incessant border conflicts, and the long-held rivalries among its peoples. These conditions have by no means ended, and that’s what makes knowing more about the borderlands that lie between western Europe and Russia important.

Anne Applebaum’s book records a journey she took from Kaliningrad, a Russian naval enclave on the Baltic, south through parts of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary and Moldova, ending in Odessa on the Black Sea. The year was 1991; the Soviet Union was breaking up. There was optimistic talk of freedom and nationhood; but equally, people were mystified.

Most knew little of life before Communist hegemony. For every patriot such as the Ukrainian Marta, who prospered as a travel agent in America, and returned to build a hotel to provide facilities and jobs for her country, there was a criminal such as her partner Gennady, who used her money and his contacts to stock it with furniture and fittings, carpets and chandeliers, then cheated her out of the ownership.

Ms. Applebaum has numerous other affecting stories of the people of these regions. There’s a man in Bieniakonie who converses as much as possible in Polish rhyming couplets because they are more esthetic. Yet he has never visited Poland because his once-Polish village is in Belarus. In Ukraine, another man comes banging on her door at night asking “Polski?” He has wads of dollars, which he wants to exchange for Polish goods that he can sell to the undersupplied lands further east.

In Kobrin, now in Belarus but in Poland when her great grandfather fled to America, she meets Boris Nicolaevich, a Russian who remembers the Jews who lived there until the Germans arrived in 1941, and took them out, 150 at a time, and shot them. Noting that the locals speak a dialect of Ukrainian, he told her that “Kobrin was Belarussian by accident. But what was the difference? Ukraine. Belarus — what did it matter anyway?”

Twenty-six years have passed since Anne Applebaum trekked through Europe’s borderlands. She says the world she discovered no longer exists; her book is therefore history. But she also notes that “History [does] not fade away.”

With most people in the borderlands disoriented by the surprising collapse of the Soviet Union, many felt little allegiance to the countries they were living in, but rather — if anything — to the nationality they perceived themselves to be. This has made building vigorous nation states difficult. Belarus is ruled by a dictator. The decisions of Ukraine’s oligarchs “have nothing to do with the welfare of ordinary Ukrainians at all.”

In the current conflict, some side with Europe, some with Russia. In Moldova the breakaway region of Transdniestria seems to have become a haven for gun runners.

Most western visitors to eastern Europe go to honeypot cities such as Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, Gdansk. Their attention is directed to elegant 18th-century palaces, handsome art galleries, historic churches — in short, to the glories that preceded 20th-century wars and occupations.

Anne Applebaum’s book is a valuable reminder of the devastation those wars wrought. Though it is beautifully written with brilliant vignettes, it also has cogent histories peppered with phrases such as “They lost everything”, “It was bombed,” “He was sent to Siberia.” It’s a pleasure to read and important to think about, so its republication now is more than welcome.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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