Noble and other Kolkhozy

Anna Engelking, Kołchoźnicy. Antropologiczne studium tożsamości wsi białoruskiej przełomu XX i XXI wieku [Kolkhozniki. An Anthropological Study of the Identity of Rural Belarus at the Turn of the 21st century], Wydawnictwo Naukowe Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika, Toruń 2012

“Kolkhozniki,” an 800-pages-long volume awarded the Przegląd Wschodni Prize for 2012, belongs to the most often bought monographs published by the Polish Academic Foundation. One factor behind this success may be the legendary Polish nostalgia for the “Borderlands,” free from any revisionist desire to change the established borders but strong and painful. The area described—western and eastern Belarus— is the heart of the former “Great Duchy of the Nobility,” the seat of a thousand manors and petty gentry hamlets, from which a major part of Polish pre-war intellectuals originated and their Arcadian style descriptions compose a significant part of 20th-century Polish fiction.

An additional appeal—an appeal for Polish readers but an ordeal for future translators—of the book is due to the diligence of the researcher, who quotes the statements of her interviewees verbatim. So from the pages of “Kolkhozniki” we hear, thanks to quotes longer than in a standard monograph, an extraordinary, familiar “eastern” language. “Eastern,” although in the majority of cases it can neither be called Polish, nor Belarusian nor Russian: it is not so much a collection of dialects but an amalgamation or perhaps mixture, produced by the pressure of history, an Eastern European pidgin, where Polish, Russian and Lithuanian words co-exist within one typically Slavic grammar. And, it should be added, Soviet words: bureaucratic jargon, technical terminology and horrible abbreviations covered the peasant tongue like verdigris covered a field of rye and accompany it ever since.

Anna Engelking and her team pricked their ears for verbal variations but this extraordinary transcript is just an “added value” of the book. The task they undertook was to describe the rural community of today’s Belarus, a country and region which, always poor but once bucolic and unchanging, so painfully experienced history in the 20th century.

First there was World War I and later struggle accompanying the break-up of the Russian Empire and the emergence of new states, going on up to the Riga Peace concluded in March 1921. Then we had the fiasco of state-building aspirations and the division of the country which, as it seemed for a moment, had been crystallizing on the map, between two hugely different states: the Polish Second Republic, lame, poor, not free from nationalism, Polonising ambitions, triumphalism and democracy deficits but in the last analysis European, and the Soviet Union, initially promising for many progressives and peasant activists but more and more openly revealing its atrocious nature.

It was in the Soviet Union that the nightmare of collectivization took place. The former petty gentry hamlets, settlements, yeomen farmsteads and manorial properties—a patchwork of ownership and human relations going back to Medieval settlement—into “state-owned,” that is nobody’s, collective farms (kollektivnoye khozyaystva, kolkhozy). In the east of the country, which came under the Soviet rule in 1921, collectivization occurred in the early 1930s, while in the east in the late 1940s. Two generations later this gap of two decades no longer plays a significant role. It was here, between the Bug and the Berezina, that the epicenter of Timothy Snyder’s “bloodlands” was located. The folk awarded—somewhat patronizingly—the role of protagonists of idylls by romantic poets half a century ago found itself in the Central European heart of darkness.

Talking for years with inhabitants of Polesie, Vitebsk, Grodno and Homel regions, Anna Engelking’s team was looking for the truth about identity (“an identity narrative”) of Belarusian villagers. Of course, the researchers were not after a simple answer to the question, “who they are” or“who they regard themselves as.”They wanted to recreate the categories used by the kolkhozniki to describe the world, their hierarchies of values, mechanisms they see as explaining the events of the previous century.

When we reach for such a book, we usually have some knowledge about the subject, even if limited and fragmentary: we are aware of the “long lasting” of social and especially mental structures, of the power of the “peasant ethic.” We also understand that the researchers had decided to listen to people with usually poor formal education (the limitations and fallacies of the Soviet curriculum were superimposed on the weaknesses and faults of village schools), often elderly (rural Belarus is experiencing a demographic collapse and wage migration of the young) and simply tired with their uneasy life and hard physical toil.

Reading a description of the state of rural awareness in the early 21st century, in areas often lacking a good road but equipped with TV sets and computers, you could expect a radical change in comparison to what we have had an opportunity to learn about—in various forms and through various testimonies—as the practices of “Slavic peasant cultures from the borderland of Latin and Bysantine Europe.” For in so many places of the world local cultures have not resisted the temptations and pressures of modernization and globalization. All the more so in the lands within the Soviet Union, which were modernized in a particularly brutal way and where previous social structures, forming the foundation of all beliefs and projections, were crushed—first with the disappearance of the Tsar and Court and then with collectivization.

And yet. Engelking’s volume offers an astounding knowledge, its meaning going beyond Polesie and the Vitebsk region: knowledge about an incredible vitality of categories composing the core of “Christian peasant culture” or “pre-modern mentality.” Inhabitants of the villages described are above all “locals.” They are defined by working the fields—it is the only honest labor, juxtaposed to the passivity or ephemeral occupations of the “masters,” to “Jewish” cunning or possessiveness of “strangers.” But they are also defined, very strongly, by religion—which is perhaps significant first of all as a sign of belonging to the community, of a social rather than metaphysical bond but still explaining the world both on the historical and cosmological level. As some scholars claim, this is the true “Belarusian neo-feudalism” with its basic oppositions (your own vs. stranger, master vs. serf, peasant vs. Jew) helping to comprehend the world.

This way of understanding the world was preserved in the descriptions and praises of working the land, of the toil of simple and hardworking people; in both distrust and recognition of the role of the “city”, “manor”, “intellectual”; in the description of the war, communism and the Holocaust. There is a strikingly strong belief, so characteristic for pre-modern peasant cultures, in sacred antagonisms constituting the order of the world and leaving you with just one option: to bear, suffer and wait out all the hardships. The permanence of this vision—and its incompatibility with our rationalizing understanding of historical changes—is perhaps most clearly revealed in the chapter on the perception of the situation of religious communities in the Soviet Union and later, up to the present times.

But even more important for understanding not only post-kolkhoz villages but in my view also the astounding stability of Lukashenka’s Belarus— an increasingly incomprehensible wilderness between Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and even Russia—are the notions on social order, on the relations between the “estates” and on the relations with local authorities.

First, the memory of pedigree is preserved: whether your ancestors stem from “petty gentry” or from “serfs.” Moreover, this distinction is very important and must be cultivated even if it demands offending some taboos. “And no nobleman will marry a peasant woman, of simple folk, Orthodox or whatever. […] If she not noble— no way.” This is how a respondent describes the local relations and his perspective is by no means unique.

Second, and it is difficult to say which of these two phenomena is more flabbergasting— the current local elites of power, that is usually former low-ranked communist officials who took over state property, managed to fit perfectly in this patriarchal and feudal vision of social order: they are perceived as good or bad “masters.” All possible ingredients of this vision find their use: the dream of Saturnalia and temporary role switching, longing for a profitable marriage, a dream of revolt somewhere in the back of the head. Old “benefactors”were seamlessly replaced with predsyedatsiel—perhaps often well-meaning, caring as befits a good master, perfectly ignorant of the pressures and calamities suffered by these lands. There is, of course, some great bitterness in that but perhaps also the key to the “royal secret,” the puzzle of Alexander Lukashenka holding power for almost twenty years. If gentry and peasant villages still bow down to their old-new overlords, now touring their properties not in a kalamashka [a small horse-drawn buggy] but in a 4WD Toyota, it is the students, democrats, journalists and demonstrators protesting against the Bachka who try to destroy the foundation of the cosmic order.

“Kolkhozniki” teach humility—precisely because they show the great permanence of identity narratives and visions of the world order even in those places where, it would seem, wars and totalitarianisms must have blown everything to smithereens. The epigram of the Parisian commentator Jean-Baptiste Karr “plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose”, often quoted in support of the voluntaristic vision of Prince Salina, is never completely true but in Belarusian kolkhozy turns out to be astoundingly accurate.

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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