For All Nails #260A: East or West? Minsk at the Crossroads
by Randy McDonald
- La Presse, Section E
- 22 February 1975
"East or West? Minsk at the Crossroads"
- Wilno, Republic of Minsk
One week ago, I was in the Commercial Republic of Novgorod-Petrograd. That country, peopled in part by speakers of languages related to Finnish and under Scandinavian dominance in every area of life, has to some extent always been on the fringes of Russia, influenced by innumerable northern European currents (ethnic, economic, political) and for the time being at least destined to become northern European, drawn away from the Associated Russian Republics.
Now, I am in the land of Minsk, still a constituent state of the Associated Russian Republics but very far indeed from belonging to the Russian sphere. The people of the Republic of Minsk do not know, exactly, who they are; this has always been their problem. They do know that they aren't Russians, either in the narrow ethnic sense or in the broader political sense, and the way in which they try to underline their separateness and change their country's status will pose problems for the German Empire and Poland, both.
I talked to quite a few people on the streets: My Polish is very bad and my German worse, but the same is true of the locals. Besides, in my week-long stay in the ancient city of Wilno I had the pleasure of being escorted by Krzszytof Chorobinski, a writer for the local newspaper, the Gazeta, and around the city of Wilno I didn't need to employ my limited Russian, since the peoples of Minsk are not Russian. This is not so very surprising; Minsk has had a separate existence since it long has been the most Russian (or at least Russified) area of Poland, but it is still Polish. (Most of the locals seem to believe that half-heartedly, anyways. More on that later.)
Wilno is the second-largest city of Minsk, behind only the titular capital city, with just under a million residents in the greater urban area. It lies in the northwest, just a stone's throw from the Lithuanian border, on the Neris River. Like most riverine cities, Wilno is divided between one shore that is home to the historic district, all of the history-patina'd baroque and rococo edifices built before the partitions, and one shore that is home to the industrial sector built up since the 19th century. In Wilno, the Old Town lies on the southern shore of the Neris, and it is organized around Cathedral Square. Vilnius Cathedral -- "built in 1783," Monsieur Chorobinski reminded me as we walked past the great building, "just in time for the Russians to come in" -- is the symbol of the Polish, and Catholic, and European presence in Minsk. It is a great building, visible throughout the Old Town. Vilnius Cathedral is the core of Wilno, the citadel, the rock against which hordes of Russians have eventually broken themselves. Think of Wilno as an outpost, if you would; think of all Minsk as an outpost, something like the Jesuit-founded cities of Latin America, built centuries ago on one colonial frontier to attract the credulous natives to the ways of a Catholic civilization, whether Slavic or Latin FN1.
Minsk, though, unlike Québec or Mexico or Paraguay, remains a tabula rasa. In all other colonial frontiers settled in the course of the great European expansion over Europe's landward and seaward frontiers, whether conducted by Protestants or Catholics, Germanics or Latins, the implantation took. Minsk mysteriously ended up becoming the Huronia FN2 of Europe, peopled by individuals who do not share any particularly close bonds. Catholic civilization --here, in its distinctively Slavic Polish form -- has been grafted onto a native substrate, yet it has not uniformly taken. If there is one thing to be taken away from Minsk, it is that the people are terribly confused about their future; and in these terribly confusing times, this could prove their undoing.
A potted history first, appropriate as an introduction to this country, too often neglected: Minsk has always found itself neglected, underrated, ignored, perhaps because it has always been controlled from the outside. The fact of this external domination has never been challenged seriously, not even today when the country has a half-century of independence behind it. When it was free from outside control before independence, before recorded history when there was no one to control it, the territory of Minsk made only one significant, enduring, and uncontested contrubution to world history. (But such a contribution!) In the marshes and swampy forests to the south of Minsk, philologists and archaeologists tell us the Slavs first developed. It is from Minsk that Slavs radiated out in the rear of the Germans in the great volkerwanderung that followed the end of the Roman Empire, to Poland and Bohemia, Croatia and Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia. These human scientists suggest that, safely ensconced in the country's forests for at least a millennium before the great migration, the Slavs were able to form, to develop from humble roots to the first language family of Europe by population and land area in our current day. Minsk, it seems, is a land most friendly to the survival of fragments. The past remains present in Minsk, even the distant past; each orientation that each stage implied remains alive, if to varying degrees.
There is, for instance, Minsk's Ruthenian past. Leave any of the major cities of Minsk -- the capital city, Wilno and Grodno in the west, Vitebsk and Gomel in the east -- and visit the remoter Slavic-populated villages and listen carefully to the speech of their inhabitants. I did, and even though I am not a philologist by training, I could recognize that the villagers of Minsk speak a patois distant from Polish and closer to Ukrainian, with plenty of soft vowels. This patois --sometimes brought close to the dignity of a written language and a national standard, but never for long enough -- belongs to the clade of East Slavic dialects, being particularly close to Ukrainian and Galician. Once, in the days of Kievan Rus', the principalities of Ukraine and Galicia extended north into Minsk, using the language codified in Cyrillic by the holy men on the Dnepr and converting the locals to Orthodox (not Roman) Christianity. Minsk became separated from the Galician-Ukrainian lands only slowly, in a process of alienation incomplete until the 18th century. Very few in Minsk deny this ancestral connection. Very few believe that it justifies the claims of Kiev's expansionist parties to Minsk's land and (Christian) people, or that Minsk's history since medieval times has been perverted by the very Polish and Lithuanian Catholic influence that created this space.
There was also the Lithuanian epoch. Once, after the Lithuanians saved themselves from annhilation by adopting Roman Christianity, they created their own empire under the name of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Minsk's territories formed the largest share of this empire, indeed by some standards they dominated it. The Grand Duchy's records, repatriated to Kaunas from Russia in 1941 as an expression of German goodwill, are written not in the wonderfully Sanskrit-like language of Lithuanian, but rather in an East Slavic dialect like that of Minsk. Lithuania does lie at the easternmost frontier of western Europe, but they extended that frontier further east. The history of the Grand Duchy's relationship with the east -- first the Russian principalities then the empire created by Ivan the Terrible -- was marked by bloody wars and massacres of the peasantry. Lithuanian influence and Russian cruelties did well to detach Minsk.
(The Jewish presence in Minsk dates to the beginning of the Lithuanian epoch, when refugees fleeing German pogroms in the 14th century were propelled into the lands of Poland and Lithuania. Minsk's woods were good for the Jews, just as they were for the first Slavs, laying the foundations of the Ashkenazic Yiddish-speaking Jewish culture that would come in our own day to stretch as far away from Minsk as Montréal and Montevideo.)
The Polish period began when Lithuania was absorbed into the Commonwealth of the Two Nations before the end of the 14th century. Lithuania was brought decisively and finally to Europe by Poland, and it naturally enough sought unity with Poland to defend against Russian hordes. The European orientation of Minsk was ineradicably reinforced, united by the spread of Polish language and culture across the Grand Duchy. The peasants remained distant from this, true; the peasants of Europe always remained distant from the affairs of great nations. Soon, though, gentile towndwellers and the landed elites were as Polish in sentiment as any Varsovian or Poznanian.
In the partitions, the Russians took Minsk, just as they did Lithuania proper and Poland. The Poles and Lithuanians were European enough to resist the Tsar, and to emerge strengthened; the people of Minsk, though, were not, simply because they were not a people. The Poles of Minsk loathed the Tsar, as he destroyed Minsk's Polish nobility and Russified the countryside, even destroying the Uniate Church; the Jews of Minsk likewise came to share in this dislike, as successive Tsars claimed to discover that the blood guilt supposed by they and other ignorami (alas in charge of an empire) merited severe chastisement. Poles and Jews didn't collaborate against Tsardom, though, particularly not after the crushing of the Second Republic in the Bloody Eighties. As for the common people, what could they do but try to hide and join the Poles and Jews in emigrating westwards, to Poznán or to North America or even to distant Australia?
Poland's renewed independence, after the Great Northern War aborted the Tsarist tyranny, suited Minsk nicely. As six provinces of the Third Polish Republic, Minsk enjoyed a measure of stability and justice difficult to imagine under Russian rule, its Jews enjoyed a sort of equality (though their drift to richer friendlier places to the west continued), and its farmers enjoyed tariff protection from their Russian and Ukrainian competitors. The replacement of the imposed Orthodox Church by the indigenous Uniate Church was debated, but that wasn't a major issue. The question of land reform in Minsk was important, as the great landed estates remained, but it was not crucial. There is no particular reason that the six provinces of Poland's kresy had to form an independent state; things could have gone much differently.
That Minsk found itself the stronghold of the Nationalist party in Poland's civil war had little to do with its own problems and more to do with the fact that the magnates of Minsk had profoundly disliked the centralizing republic, and that many of their partisans were also from the east, the kresy -- General Siwiec himself was born on one of the last noble estates outside of Minsk city. The kresy produced fine soldiers, so fine that when they took Warsaw from the Federalists in 1923 after two long bloody years the Germans were alarmed enough to intervene. (Better that Germans die on the Vistula than on the Oder.) FN3 The prominence of the kresy was enough to attract Russian interest in creating a buffer state between the Russias and a German-dominated Poland, and so in 1924 the Republic of Minsk was created. Siwiec, along with the other republicans who claimed rightful dominion over all Poland, were packed off to Krasnodar to maintain their own puppet government safely out of the way, leaving Minsk under the moderates.
The Republic of Minsk is a half-century old, and its history as an independent state has been dominated by the Russian attachment. It has never been particularly onerous: Minsk has remained a nominally independent state throughout this time, Minsk surrendered bloodlessly to the Germans after a mere week of combat in the ancient woods south of Wilno in the Global War, and Minsk's membership in the Associated Russian Republics was actually welcomed as a way to keep Poland at bay. Not that Minsk didn't capitalize on its role as intermediary between Poland and the Russians, on the contrary: Polish radical exiles found Polonophone Minsk a pleasant enough place to live and publish so long as they weren't violent, German and Polish industrialists interested in the ever-promising Russian market used Minsk as a base for expansion, and Russian tourists who wanted to see "the West" but couldn't afford Western prices settled for Minsk. Minsk's misfortune has been that it has only been a middle ground throughout its modern history, caught between its largely Polish cultural reality and its largely Russian geography.
Now that the Russian confederation is dissolving amidst resurgent nationalisms and great power politics and the sheer unworkability of the structure -- how could any confederation function whose member-states had killed millions of one another's citizens in war and were not sorry for it, after all? -- the people of Minsk will be forced to choose. It isn't a luxury that they can postpone, not now that the Ukrainian government is beginning to talk of retaking an area of the 'Kuban steppe in Yugorussia that used to be Ukrainian by certain broad definitions of "Ukrainian," not now, certainly not now when the Russian Confederation is showing signs of either coming apart at its seams or trying to gather in all of the debatably Russian lands.
I have spent almost a month inside the frontiers of the Associated Russian Republics; the former frontiers, at any rate, now that the Commercial Republic is being forced into its new Scandinavian orientation. Minsk is a poor country, worse off than the Lithuania I visited four years ago -- its streets are dirtier, its low-income housing estates larger, its shops dingier -- but compared to the Commercial Republic (which I have seen), or to Ukraine or any of the Russian states (which I have not) it is prosperous.
More importantly still, Minsk -- much more than any of the other Russian states -- is fundamentally modern. Twice as many people live in cities as in the countryside; the political life of Minsk is characterized not by state and mob violence, but by more-or-less democratic elections and a national parliament; the Jews, most unlike in neighbouring Ukraine, are not driven to migrate by vicious lies spread by the state, but stay and live as best they can. The fabric of life in Minsk exists without seams or tears; it fits comfortably on the casual visitor when he walks down one street or another.
Chorobinski is aware of this, more than most people in Minsk. Chorobinski is the star journalist of the Gazeta, deeply experienced in the interminable scandals of the countries to his south and east. His first major story in the Gazeta investigated the phenomenon of young women living along the Volga being tricked into prostitution by Russian criminal rings which used Minsk as a corridor to Germany and Poland; his next, the ways in which khuligans bribed or threatened officials in Minsk's border police.
Chorobinski speaks a lightly-accented French, acquired from his education in German Lorraine, in the Polytechnic at Nancy; he jokes that he one of the last remnants of pre-partition Poland's Francophilia. "If Stanislas was king of Lorraine, it's good enough for me." He is Polish, or would pass as such to outside observers. He is, however, a man of Minsk: His father was born in Minsk to a Polonophone family; his mother, though, was a refugee who had fled to Minsk before the Global War, escaping a Muscovite civil war, allowing him to combine the casual acceptance of the native with the gratefulness of the naturalized immigrant in his sense of patriotism.
"We don't know," he tells me as we enter the great cathedral, as tourists, "what we should be. We could pretend, for a while, that it didn't matter, and it didn't. We were in the Russian sphere, but then the Russians are in the German pocket anyways, and we were making a lot of money out of the ambiguity ... But now, what are we supposed to do?"
"You're on the fringes of a big, no vast, sprawling country," I say. I look up once we pass the vestibule, at the cathedral's interior. It had been sacked by Tsarist troops when refugees seeking the protection of Wilno's bishop entered the old cathedral, and rebuilt after a generation of desuetude when Poland regained its freedoms. The stained glass windows of the procession of the Cross rank alongside anything in the Basilique de la Madeleine. "Like Québec, really. Except that the Confederation of North America is a much nicer place to live than the Russias. The size and population are right, but everything else ... "
"The easiest thing," Chorobinski says as he follows my gaze to a figure of Christ on the cross, illuminated by the setting sun, "would be to seek allies. But there aren't any to be found."
"Oh? What about, for instance, a Minsk allied with Lithuania?"
"They don't want us at all -- they only want this," Krzszytof said, turning gesturing at the old city behind us. "They call this 'Vilnius,' you know. The problem from their point of view -- the fatal one, really -- is that no one here calls it that. Sure, this was a Lithuanian city -- the Grand Duchy, not the republic. There were ethnic Lithuanians here, I know -- my own grandmother was one. But too much time has passed, you know. Wilno, well, I don't know what it is. But it certainly isn't Lithuanian now, and it probably never will be."
"Fair enough. How about a Ukrainian alliance?"
He actually grimaces. "No thanks. The Lithuanians don't have Cossacks, at least -- they certainly haven't made them the symbols of their nation. And we don't have problems with Jews, at least not like the way they do. No, we are a country of kind civilized forest-dwellers, they're a country of wild violent plains-dwellers. The old division, I suppose, between civilization and barbarism. We want to be on the right side."
"Which excludes any kind of alliance with the Russians."
"God, yes," and this time Chorobinski shudders. "The alliance that we have is killing us. Sure, we've got a captive market, but they'll take us captive if we don't pay attention, suck us in. It'll be difficult enough to reorient our trade." A mocking smile. "And my mom's a good Muscovite, so you know that if I'm talking that way about my relatives ... Our peasants and their peasants speak languages that resemble one another, but that's it. Among other things, our peasants don't have to worry about riots. At worst, they have to worry about how to get to Germany."
Chorobinski looked at me. "We're their wild east. For good, for ill. Yes, King Frederick is on the kingdom's throne, and yes, he's better than most kings. He isn't a president, though, and we're republicans -- we have to be, if we take a king then what was the point? There's culture -- they speak Polish, we speak Polish -- but we're still different. They make fun of our accents, you know -- sure, any citizen of Minsk can receive Polish citizenship if only he asks, but they look down on us. We're their wild east like I said -- we're their half-civilized frontier, we're their savages. We don't want to be that, but if we unite we'll have to live up to that role."
"Germany, Scandinavia ... Britain?"
"Yeah, like those countries have done well with their protectorates. Arabia, the Commercial Republic, New Granada ... We'd make a nice addition to that list, wouldn't we? We just want to be European, I guess you'd say. We're Western, more than the Russians and Ukrainians. We look west -- we've helped populate Poland, Prussia, Jewish communities all over. We'd be happy to be Europe's eastern march. Just so long as we're not outside."
"And if that meant being the eastern march of Poland?" I ask him.
"Maybe, after a fashion ... " Chorobinski shrugs. "Perhaps some sort of alliance, or federation?" He casts his eye towards the altar, a streamlined modern thing that looks out of place here. "If that's what it took."
"I've an idea," I say. "Why couldn't Minsk exist on its own terms? Your country has its own history, its own lively economy, 11 million people -- certainly more than Austrasia or Québec, or all the Baltic States taken together. The borders blur, but maybe it could work."
Chorobinski smiles knowingly. "It's a nice idea, but we're too small. We have to strike out for someone to be our patron. Being, what, 'Slavs of Minsk' just isn't an option. We don't even have a real name for ourselves. It's a pity, but what can be done?"
That thought remained with me as I entered Poland.
Forward to FAN #261: Thunderstruck.
Forward to 6 March 1975: Hope You Guessed My Name.
Return to For All Nails.