Growing up during the Cold War, I envisioned Eastern Europe as a vague collection of entities between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two important countries of the region. Poland, to me, was a land over which German and Russian armies fought, and Ukraine and Belorussia (as it was then) were just bits of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin pretended were independent enough to be member states of the UN. This year all that changed when I read Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Snyder is well known now for his 2010 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I have not yet read), but the earlier book completely reoriented my ideas about the history of the region. Snyder does not view the countries he writes about as sideshows, and he does not treat any one of them as central (with the others viewed from that perspective) – he takes all sides equally seriously and presents all points of view simultaneously, which doesn’t make for easy reading but is invigorating and winds up leaving the reader far better informed. Furthermore, he keeps pointing out the potential futures that people saw as real possibilities but that we have forgotten about (example: Stalin almost gave Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vil’nya to Belorussia instead of Lithuania; he seems to have changed his mind at the last moment and had all the Belorussian activists sent to the Gulag instead of put in high official posts), and he reminds us of the effects of self-deluding propaganda (to quote Snyder: “When Lithuanian troops marched into Vilnius on 28 October 1939, they were shocked to find ‘instead of the princess of their fairy tales, the streets of alien Wilno, unknown, speaking a foreign language’”). And once you’ve read Snyder, you’ll be equipped for Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a suspenseful, sexy, funny, and occasionally devastating look at the last seventy years or so of the history of western Ukraine (much of which was part of Poland in the earlier years) through the eyes of an ambitious young woman dedicated to advancing her career as a television journalist while digging up difficult truths about the past, her family’s and her country’s.
Leaping across European Russia to the Urals and beyond, we come to another book that changed my view of history this year, Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what European colonization of the Americas was like; I suspect most people are far less familiar with how Russia wound up ruling the vast area between its heartland and the Pacific and what its relations with the various natives of the region have been. I know I was, and I’ve been reading about Russian history for a long time now. This book does not give you the view from the other side (for that, you’ll want James Forsyth’s A History of the Peoples of Siberia, which I haven’t read, or anthropological looks at specific peoples, like Bruce Grant’s In the Soviet House of Culture, about the Nivkh of Sakhalin, and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s The Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective, about the Khanty of northwest Siberia, both of which I have read and can recommend), but it lays out in gripping detail, with plenty of quotes from contemporary sources, what the Russians were up to and the various ways they dealt with the people they ran into as they headed east. A couple of extracts will give you an idea of how he sets local events in a larger context. In the first chapter, he compares the Cossacks who carried out the conquest with Westerners like William of Rubruck, who visited the region and felt themselves in a new world: “The Cossacks, however, never entered a new world because unlike William, they had not been sent to a new world and because they had no ‘public’ that wanted to hear about new worlds. Most important, however, the Cossacks’ own world was not as starkly divided into the Christian and non-Christian spheres as was William’s. Rather, it consisted of an apparently limitless number of peoples, all of whom were assumed to have their own faiths and languages. This was not a temporary aberration to be overcome through conversion or revelation — this was a normal state of affairs whereby foreigners were expected to remain foreigners.” And on the change of attitude in the early nineteenth century: “More important, by the late 1840s both Siberians and Circassians — as well as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and numerous aliens and exotic sons of nature — had become largely irrelevant to the world as conceived by the Russian intelligentsia. The increasingly alienated cultural elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg had discovered a noble savage with whom it would concern itself to the exclusion of most others: the Russian peasant.” Most of the book is concerned with the Soviet period, and it does a great job of untangling the competing approaches (all proclaiming themselves unimpeachably Marxist-Leninist) and the ways (almost uniformly unpleasant) in which decisions reached in the Kremlin wound up affecting people trying to make their livings as they always had, from hunting and herding and fishing. The book focuses on Siberia, but uses it as a lens with which to view Russia, the Soviet Union, and humanity.
Ian Frazier has no need of my recommendation, and his Travels in Siberia got enough rave reviews and awards that you’re very likely aware of it, but just in case: it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read. Frazier was so fascinated with Russia he learned the language and read all the histories and early accounts he could find, and he makes the people he travels with and encounters as three-dimensional and vivid as the characters in a good novel. Don’t miss this book.
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