Cieślak on Linkiewicz, 'Lokalność i nacionalizm: Społeczności wiejskie w Galicji Wschodniej w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym'

Olga Linkiewicz
Marta Cieślak

Olga Linkiewicz. Lokalność i nacionalizm: Społeczności wiejskie w Galicji Wschodniej w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym. Krakow: Universitas, 2018. 362 pp. 39.00 zl (paper), ISBN 978-83-242-3415-8.

Reviewed by Marta Cieślak (University of Arkansas at Little Rock) Published on H-Poland (May, 2021) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version:

Olga Linkiewicz’s Lokalność i nacjonalizm: Społeczności wiejskie w Galicji Wschodniej w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym (Locality and nationalism: Rural communities in Eastern Galicia during the interwar period) poses the question of to what extent the concept of national identity took root in the rural communities of Poland’s eastern borderlands during the interwar period. Shortly after World War I, William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki famously argued that “the Polish peasant” had no sense of national consciousness, although the two pioneer sociologists lamented that fact rather than aspired to learn what it said about “the Polish peasant,” the contemporary countryside, or national consciousness as a fundament of one’s identity. Linkiewicz is interested in all these questions. Her book follows not Thomas and Znaniecki but the path paved by Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (1976) to inquire into when and how nations truly become nations, or when and how communities gain the collective or nearly universal sense of national consciousness. Focusing on Eastern Galicia during the interwar period, Lokalność i nacjonalizm concludes that despite the amassed efforts of Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, the local peasantry remained largely resistant to, although certainly not unaffected by, the idea that they should choose a side of the ongoing Polish-Ukrainian conflict and loyally adopt one national consciousness.

Linkiewicz examines three voivodships (województwa) of Eastern Galicia, Lvov, Tarnopol (today Ternopil), and Stanisławów (today Ivano-Frankivsk) particularly after 1923, when the Conference of Ambassadors of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers decided that Eastern Galicia would fall under the administrative control of the Polish state. The author considers this decision to be a turning point in the ongoing battle between Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, who had been fighting for the souls of rural Eastern Galicians long before 1923. But in 1923, Linkiewicz argues, all individuals and organizations involved in the propagation of their particular nationalist agendas had to face a new key political actor—the Polish state. The Polish state’s actual, potential, and imagined influence was now animating the actions of both Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, who, Linkiewicz writes, “expected from the residents of the countryside to demonstrate a loyal (or preferably—patriotic) attitude towards the Polish and Ukrainian nations respectively” (p. 6).

This expectation was a response to the lived experience of the rural and small-town residents of Eastern Galicia, who rarely self-identified in national terms. The region was at the time defined by what we today simplistically refer to as cultural diversity but what in reality was not people representing diverse cultural characteristics (language, religion, ethnicity, etc.) living next to each other or even together but rather people living in the world of blurred and fluid cultural boundaries. Switching between religious institutions, languages, or customs depending on social circumstances, needs, and preferences was a norm rather than an exception for a large number of rural Eastern Galicians during the interwar period. Linkiewicz is interested in how that cultural fluidity changed and to what extent it was replaced by more rigid national categories, when the popularization of the idea of the modern nation turned particularly intense. The book also responds to the common scholarly representation of Eastern Galicia as “a territory characterized by a strong presence of a sense of national consciousness.” This claim, Linkiewicz notes, confuses the robust presence of particularly the Ukrainian nationalist movement in Eastern Galicia with its actual impact on local populations. The author concludes that while self-identified, or “conscious,” Ukrainians were more numerous in Eastern Galicia than in Polesie or Volhynia, this does not mean that “the peasantry en masse supported Ukrainian independence aspirations and consciously shared the ideas propagated by the [Ukrainian] national movement” (p. 9).

Lokalność i nacjonalizm is divided into three parts, with each focusing on one larger aspect of rural life targeted by the efforts of contemporary nationalists. Part 1, “Locality,” investigates how the peasantry of Eastern Galicia self-identified but also how rural Eastern Galicians understood identities of individuals around them. The complex world of fluid cultural categories that the villages of Eastern Galicia constituted was affected by factors that Linkiewicz reminds us were not unique to the interwar period or to Eastern Galicia. Just like in other historical eras and places, identity in rural Eastern Galicia was a dynamic concept shaped only partially by the almost binary opposition of cultural fluidity and rigid nationalism. Other factors had an equally important or even more consequential impact on defining rural identities. Those included settlement patterns, transcultural diffusion, and acculturation, but also the contemporary communist movement as well as rural and urban popular culture.

A significant section of part 1 is devoted to the examination of the fluidity of religious identities among the two largest denominations in the area, Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics. Linkiewicz’s research suggests, at least to some extent, that it would be inaccurate to talk about two separate religious groups, even if census takers required individuals to determine one’s religion and most formally claimed one or the other. In reality, rural Catholics in Eastern Galicia often made religion-related choices based as much on family decisions as on simple practicalities (for example, which house of worship was closer) or appeal factors (for example, the perceived attractiveness of the Eastern rite). That, however, did not mean that religious boundaries in general were endlessly porous. Roman and Greek Catholics intermarried, mixed and matched customs, and participated in events and services organized in both Roman and Greek Catholic houses of worship. But in addition to recognizing their Jewish fellow villagers as different and separate, a phenomenon so obvious that Linkiewicz only mentions it, both Roman and Greek Catholics lived lives that also separated them from their neighbors, who belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. “A line of division,” Linkiewicz writes of Roman and Greek Catholics on the one hand and Eastern Orthodox villagers on the other, was “clear and socially significant” (p. 59). Simultaneously, choices around religion could serve as a badge of national identity, also in the eyes of those who themselves did not self-identify in national terms. One of the characteristics of those individuals whom rural communities perceived as ascribing to national identities was in fact refusal to cross religious boundaries. Local residents conflated national categories with rigid religious identities, as if the two were symptomatic of each other. Drawing from comments made by local residents in ethnographic interviews, Linkiewicz concludes, “The real Pole did not go to the Eastern Orthodox church and the hardcore Ukrainian did not appear at the [Catholic] church” (p. 76).

Part 2, “School,” focuses on what the author considers to be the institution that triggered “the most fundamental changes in the social situation of communities and in the residents’ attitudes,” despite the widespread unwillingness of rural parents to send their children to school (p. 10). Although parental attitudes toward public universal education changed between the first and the second interwar decade, several factors contributed to consistently low enrollment and attendance rates, including labor demands, financial difficulties experienced by rural families, and the parents’ belief that school introduced a system of values that directly competed with the authority of the family. None of that changed the fact that schools were the centers of nationalist propaganda, particularly after the 1926 May Coup, when “patriotic, religious, and national values education” dominated the curriculum (p. 145). At the center of nationalist tensions in schools was the requirement, introduced by a 1924 bill known commonly as Lex Grabski, to select the language of instruction via a cyclical plebiscite. Nearly all segments of rural population, regardless of their age and personal experience with education, were affected by tensions and conflicts that Lex Grabski produced. Linkiewicz argues that for many rural residents, it was precisely the plebiscite, or the externally imposed requirement to declare one language, that made national or ethnic categories the tangible aspect of their daily experience. The fact that the issue of the language choice was also attached to an institution seen as the competition and opposition to the traditional family-based world order only added fuel to the fire. Linkiewicz concludes that “for many communities, the plebiscite became the key moment constituting a clear step towards a new order of the differentiation of the social reality, including the creation of the structure of divisions based on ethnic factors” (p. 186).

Part 3, “Politics,” examines the impact of local and national politics on the life of the countryside. The author sheds light on how nationalism was promoted and propagated through the actions of Polish state institutions as well as Ukrainian national organizations. Linkiewicz notes the obvious presence of national symbols at all patriotic festivities, although after 1926, the Józef Piłsudski regime not only popularized the cult of Piłsudski himself but also propagated the myth of harmony between Poles and Ukrainians. Not surprisingly, formal state events and festivals became the breeding ground of national conflict. Poles were promoting a certain vision of national order, while Ukrainian nationalists used such events as an opportunity to counter-manifest the Polish vision of the (Polish) nation. In addition, the recurrent Polish claim of “the civilizational superiority” over Ukrainians produced the expected resistance among Ukrainian nationalists (p. 265). As part 3 focuses specifically on the political life of Eastern Galician villages, it also highlights the most obvious examples of the promotion of national symbols, narratives, and identities. That, however, does not mean that the peasanty were eager consumers of such nationalist propaganda. Most initiatives to propagate nationalist agendas, Linkiewicz argues, were schematic and full of patriotic pathos hardly tailored to the rural audience. The patriotic message appealed to the local intelligentsia and, to some extent, the younger generation but it did not sweep the countryside of Eastern Galicia. One of the most fascinating conclusions emerging from part 3 is that the members of what Linkiewicz calls “mixed communities” saw the borderlands as a place of conflict, tensions, and confrontations not only between competing nationalist and political agendas but also between the local peasantry, the Polish state, and the local agents of various Polish and Ukrainian national organizations (p. 299). This narrative undermines what Linkiewicz notes is the interwar image of Poland’s eastern borderlands as an idyllic place free of conflict that dominates particularly in memoirs and autobiographies created by Polish authors.

Linkiewicz, who is an ethnographer by training, uses an impressive array of sources to produce a rich interdisciplinary work in the spirit of the interdisciplinary field of nationalism studies. In addition to traditional archival documents and published sources, she draws from ethnographic interviews that she and her students conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s with individuals born before the outbreak of World War II on the territories under investigation. The combination of institutional archival collections, press, statistical data, published documents, and interviews produces a narrative that succeeds in creating a distinction between the ongoing attempts to nationalize the rural populations of Eastern Galicia and the actual response of those populations to the nationalization efforts without avoiding some complicated spaces in between. Lokalność i nacjonalizm illuminates both the power and the futility of nationalism at the borderlands of interwar Poland. Was national identity the primary mode of identification in the countryside of Eastern Galicia before World War II? Far from it. It was community ties, group norms, and values derived from popular religion and common cosmology that formed the foundation of how rural residents of Eastern Galicia explained natural, social, and political phenomena and how they framed their own identities. But were the efforts of nationalists—whether Polish or Ukrainian—in the area completely futile? Absolutely not. The intensified activism of nationalists during the interwar period constantly sharpened divisions and undermined the fluidity of identities and practices rooted in the customs and reality of the borderlands.

Another key contribution of Linkiewicz’s important book is that it implicitly dismisses a difference between patriotism and nationalism. Throughout the book, Linkiewicz subtly yet consistently resists the traditional distinction between “good” patriotism and “bad” nationalism. Neither does she provide any explicit assessment of nationalism. Instead, she presents her evidence in a systematic manner to demonstrate that national categories, although always introduced ostensibly to create order, produced messy conflicts. That was because in Eastern Galicia during the interwar period, like in other places and across historical eras, they were introduced into the world whose fluidity and blurred cultural boundaries, although seemingly chaotic and elusive, made perfect sense and stemmed from centuries of practice. This is not to sentimentalize the world before the victory of rigid national categories. In fact, Linkiewicz makes it clear that it was a world of conflict and tensions too, even if not necessarily of national or ethnic nature.

One weakness of this important book is the author’s reliance on national and ethnic categories to describe the world that perhaps escapes such description. While Linkiewicz proves repeatedly that rural and small-town Eastern Galicia during the interwar period cannot be described in national or ethnic categories, she also repeatedly uses them in her analysis. On the one hand, we learn that Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics freely mixed and matched elements of both denominations, that villagers of various religious backgrounds applied the tenets of popular staunchly non-national cosmology to explain the world around them, and that individuals constantly shifted between languages depending on social circumstances. On the other hand, Linkiewicz writes that “Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, more rarely Germans and polonized Armenians” inhabited Eastern Galicia, as if it was, in fact, easy to categorize the local populations using these national/ethnic categories (p. 7). Perhaps this demonstrates less Linkiewicz’s inconsistencies and more the limitations of her sources as well as our widespread inability to describe an experience that does not fit into our national mindsets. Thus this is not to criticize Linkiewicz but rather to ask whether we even have a precise language to describe the world before nation became the fundamental unit of human organization, even if we still struggle to define what nation really is.

Linkiewicz herself alludes to this issue, when she notes some misunderstandings in the scholarship that attempted to classify Eastern Galicians in national terms, when a sense of national consciousness was simply absent among the local populations. And yet she also occasionally falls into the same trap. Perhaps the most obvious example of this issue is the author’s recurrent interchangeable use of Rusyn (ruski/Rusin) and Ukrainian (for example, pp. 35, 45, 47, 280). This gets even more complicated when Linkiewicz discusses how local residents used these terms in their own recollections of the past. In these conversations, Linkiewicz notes, Rusyn and Ukrainian, both as nouns and adjectives, are often used interchangeably and in any context. However, if an interlocutor describes a demonstration of nationalism and the general radicalization of national attitudes, they always choose the term Ukrainian. It gets even more complicated when the author claims that blurred boundaries between Polish and Rusyn was part of the daily life in rural Eastern Galicia, perhaps most clearly illustrated by the use of both languages and shifting freely between the two depending on circumstances. At the same time, Linkiewicz points out that ethnographic studies suggest that divisions between what was Polish and what was Rusyn were more visible than ethnographic interviews would suggest. Again, the limitations of sources (ethnographic studies versus ethnographic interviews) and the confines of our language are palpable. Are we even able to describe a world in which nationality and ethnicity are not the foundational blocks of our identities? The fact that Linkiewicz’s book forces us to think of this question is sufficient evidence that it is necessary reading for anyone interested in how we ended up in a place where we struggle to conceptualize either our world or the world of the past without constantly tripping over the inevitability of nation and national identities.

Citation: Marta Cieślak. Review of Linkiewicz, Olga, Lokalność i nacionalizm: Społeczności wiejskie w Galicji Wschodniej w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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