Anne Applebaum, Between East and West. Across the Borderlands of Europe. New York: Pantheon, 1994. 314 pp. $24.00.
In 1990, Applebaum, an editor for the London Spectator, former correspondent for The Economist, and fluent in Poland and Russian, made the first of several trips to regions hitherto forbidden to most western travellers--Kaliningrad, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldava--regions which few correspondents thought worth a visit. On the way she made a stop to see if anything remained of her family's roots in a village near Brest. Nothing did, of course, between the Nazis and the ethnic cleansing of the Soviets, little remained of the pre-war multiculturalism that was the pride and despair of the region.
Little except the multitude of ethnic prides and hatred. Applebaum skillfully weaves the stories of ordinary people whose versions of the past and present boldly contradict one another; nay, worse, who accuse the other parties of bad faith and evil motives. One who knew nothing of the region might suspect that literary license had run amok here, that she had elaborated greatly the tales told by the individuals she met more or less by chance, but those who have travelled and lived between the Baltic and Black Seas will not be greatly surprised. We all know some of those people and will recognize them quickly. In fact, some of us are those people.
Applebaum's command of the region's history is solid, surprising so, even for an experienced political reporter. That fact should comfort those historians and analysts who have toiled in recent years without much feedback about whether their labors were worthwhile or not. (She thanks several prominent British historians who read her manuscript, a practical more non-specialists would be advised to adopt.) Pre-war and Soviet-era historians were too often too much like the ordinary citizens described above. Who, after all, taught the ordinary citizens the history that they remember?
Applebaum's strength is to describe the history that disappeared, or which is on the verge of disappearing. Of entire cities, sometimes not a building survives; of entire populations, only an old lady or two, an elderly man who recalls the distant past vaguely and the recent past not at all. The nationalist historians of today, the corrupt or incompetent government bureaucrats, the politicians on the make rely on this ignorance of the past to create a new mythological past. The ordinary citizens, inured to centuries of official lies and propaganda, ignore it all. Life is too difficult to worry about ethnicity. Yet ethnicity provides scapegoats for the troubles that everyone must endure.
Altogether an interesting and provocative book. It will undoubtedly cause more than a few readers to squirm with embarrassment or anger; then, perhaps, to concede that the author at least sized up the other ethnic groups properly. But probably not. Historically, there has been a good deal of toleration in Eastern Europe. But toleration there never meant acceptance or mutual admiration. Just getting along.
Today just getting along is not easy. Nationalism, mafias, the revival of communism, the daily struggle to make a living, the deterioration of the economy and the environment. Underneath all this one finds real individuals, people who have little concern for the past or the future of the nation in whose borders they happen to be for this moment. The entire past is by no means dead--the ethnic heritage is alive and, well, one cannot say well; the most one might dare to say is that it is essential to remember that it exists.