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A Biography of No Place: From Ethnic Borderland to Soviet Heartland

4.3 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674019492
ISBN-10: 0674019490
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Editorial Reviews

Review

A Biography of No Place is one of the most original and imaginative works of history to emerge in the western literature on the former Soviet Union in the last ten years. Historiographically fearless, Kate Brown writes with elegance and force, turning this history of a lost, but culturally rich borderland into a compelling narrative that serves as a microcosm for understanding nation and state in the Twentieth Century. With compassion and respect for the diverse people who inhabited this margin of territory between Russia and Poland, Kate Brown restores the voices, memories, and humanity of a people lost. (Lynne Viola, Professor of History, University of Toronto)

Samuel Butler and Kate Brown have something in common. Both have written about Erewhon with imagination and flair. I was captivated by the courage and enterprise behind this book. Is there a way to write a history of events that do not make rational sense? Kate Brown asks. She proceeds to give us a stunning answer. (Modris Eksteins, author of Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age)

Kate Brown tells the story of how succeeding regimes transformed a onetime multiethnic borderland into a far more ethnically homogeneous region through their often murderous imperialist and nationalist projects. She writes evocatively of the inhabitants' frequently challenged identities and livelihoods and gives voice to their aspirations and laments, including Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, and Russians. A Biography of No Place is a provocative meditation on the meanings of periphery and center in the writing of history. (Mark von Hagen, Professor of History, Columbia University)

From the Inside Flap

This is a biography of a borderland between Russia and Poland, a region where, in 1925, people identified as Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians, and Russians lived side by side. Over the next three decades, this mosaic of cultures was modernized and homogenized out of existence by the ruling might of the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, and finally, Polish and Ukrainian nationalism. By the 1950s, this "no place" emerged as a Ukrainian heartland, and the fertile mix of peoples that defined the region was destroyed. Brown's study is grounded in the life of the village and shtetl, in the personalities and small histories of everyday life in this area. In impressive detail, she documents how these regimes, bureaucratically and then violently, separated, named, and regimented this intricate community into distinct ethnic groups. Drawing on recently opened archives, ethnography, and oral interviews that were unavailable a decade ago, "A Biography of No Place" reveals Stalinist and Nazi history from the perspective of the remote borderlands, thus bringing the periphery to the center of history. Brown argues that repressive national policies grew not out of chauvinist or racist ideas, but the very instruments of modern governance - the census, map, and progressive social programs - first employed by Bolshevik reformers in the western borderlands. We are given, in short, an intimate portrait of the ethnic purification that has marked all of Europe, as well as a glimpse at the margins of twentieth century "progress." Kate Brown is Assistant Professor of History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 322 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (September 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674019490
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674019492
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #655,849 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
A Biography of No Place is not really a biography of the borderland region in Ukraine, but rather concerns the creation and evolution of ethnic and national identities by competing actors inside and outside the region. As Brown shows, the idea of nationality was often imposed on the region, where both nationality and ethnicity had previously been non-existent or fluid.

While the book takes some detours, for me it ultimately succeeds in condemning the 20th century as the century when the modern nation state successfully imposed it's will over all of Europe - leaving millions dead as a result. In addition to many other lessons, the book really points out the pitfalls in viewing historical conflicts as one ethnicity vs. another. Reading the book left also me wondering if modern economic development in any way correlated with the existence of clear national and ethnic typologies or vice-versa?

One of my criticisms of the book include the author often going into vague historical psycho-analysis without providing concrete sufficient evidence to bolster her claims. The chapter entitled "Ghosts in the Bathhouse" is also ultimately unsatisfying as the author seems to suggest that the ghosts, faeries, and rusalki of the region might actually be real. Some readers might dismiss a good portion of this chapter as post-modern equivocation. The author also never really clearly explains the history the Ukrainian Catholic Church or defines "Ukrainian Catholics."

Overall though, the book is engaging book for anyone interested in the history of Ukraine, Soviet history, or more generally the creation of the modern nation state and ethnicity in Europe.
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Format: Paperback
Although Kresy often is used by Poles in reference to the eastern half of Poland confiscated by the USSR in 1939 (during the Nazi-Communist war against Poland) and again in 1944 (following the Teheran betrayal of Poland), the author refers primarily to the areas just east of the Riga line.

Throughout the interwar period, Ukrainians had been accusing Poles of skewing the census to minimize the Ukrainian population in the Kresy. Ironic to this, Poles living in the Soviet Union, the 1922, accused Ukrainian officials of deliberately undercounting the Polish population of the then western parts of the Soviet Ukraine. (p. 41).

Brown comments: "At the turn of the century, Poles counted as 3-5% of the population but retained 40-50% of the manorial land in the Volynia, Podolia, and Kiev provinces." (p. 242). Although Poles were strongly overrepresented among large landowners, the Soviet Communist and Ukrainian nationalist propaganda that characterized the local Poles as wealthy landowners was manifestly incorrect. Most large landowners were not Poles and, of course, the vast majority of local Poles were not large landowners! Still, the Polish presence and influence in much of the Ukraine was considerable despite over fifty years of tsarist efforts to de-Polonize the area. (p. 4).

The author elaborates on the Marchlevsk Polish Autonomous Region in the Soviet Ukraine. Founded in 1925, it was located 60 miles ESE of Rivno (Rowne) and 40 miles east of the Riga line. (See map, unmarked page ix). It shows the complexity of nationality, and the ambiguity of any line dividing Poles from Ukrainians. About 70% of the population of Marchlevsk was nominally Polish (p. 21), although there were cities such as Proskuriv, Novograd-Volynsk, and Zhytomyr (30% Polish: p.
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Format: Paperback
I found the "Biography of No Place" to be a real page turner. The description of the region was so intriguing I didn't want to put it down. I highly recommend this incredibly iInteresting history of a place I never knew existed.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Kate Brown's monograph recounts the lives dislocated in the borderland between 1920 and 1953. The borderland between Poland and Russia is known as the kresy (Polish for borderland and is a region known as Marchlewsk, or the Ukrainian vernacular Markhlevs`k - for this review it is referred to as the kresy). In her opening lines she states that the kresy has gained recent notoriety partly due to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Throughout its lifetime, the kresy has been a melting pot of race; however, never has a single homogenized nationality emerged. This is largely due to the efforts of Bolshevism, in the early years, and later, the destruction caused during the Great Patriotic War, or WWII. She emphasizes that the Jews, Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians were the majority of the people dislocated during Stalinism. Her narrative is constructed as an outline that, "tells a particular story about the modernizing, standardizing aims of the twentieth century." (2) In other words, the aim of Browns book is to document the destruction wrought in the pursuit of "progress".

Brown argues that gender and class played in the crafting of a regional identity that, "was tied to locality, class, profession, and social status rather than to nationality." (40) Each occupying nation sought purify the nation-space of the kresy. She not only targets the dislocation of ethnicities within kresy, but also shows how national identity was cultivated over time. Her argument is complex and posed from an anti-modernist perspective that dictates that societies are built from "bottom to top".
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