Dr. Chodakiewicz on majorities and minorities in the Intermarium

March 15, 2012  |  KOSCIUSZKO CHAIR

On 22 February 2012, Prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz spoke on the majorities and minorities in the Intermarium. This event constituted the eleventh in a series of ongoing lectures on the European region between the Baltic and Black Seas.

The vast area stretching from the Gulf of Finland to the Crimea always was and continues to be ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse. As previously clarified in Dr. Chodakiewicz's introductory lecture, the Intermarium's majority nationalities are the Ugro-Finnic Estonians (closely related to the Finns); the Baltic Latvians and Lithuanians (the last Indo-Iranian arrivals in this part of Europe); the Eastern Slavic Belarussians and Ukrainians; and the ethnic Romanians of Moldova, who belong to the Romance family. Within this context, the Slavs certainly form the great majority of the Intermarium's population, although they also often disagree about their identity.

The region became quite heterogeneous under the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, eventually, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish-Lithuanian state offered rights and liberty, attracting both settlers and refugees, on the one hand, and interlopers and invaders, on the other. What emerged was a colorful ethno-cultural mosaic composed of Ruthenians, Lithuanians (Samogitians), Poles, Armenians, Tatars, Jews, Karaites ("Talmudless" Jews), Scots, Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, and others. In terms of religion, the area was inhabited by adherents of Roman and Greek Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam.

Following the partitions of the Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century, this diversity was challenged through Russification attempts, but not seriously undermined. The Muscovite conquerors deported insurrectionists to Siberia; strove to exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions (divide et impera); and forbade the Jews from migrating to large cities (e.g. St. Petersburg and Moscow) outside of the Pale of Settlement. Yet, the Tsarist regime was an old-fashioned autocracy, rather than a modern totalitarianism, which limited significantly its impact on the societies of the Intermarium. In spite of official anti-Semitism and even pogroms, Wilno/Vilnius remained the "Jerusalem of the East," and Jews who converted to Orthodox Christianity were no longer subjected to anti-Jewish legislation. The local nationalities may have had plenty of reasons to complain, but the territories between the Baltic and Black Seas had not yet become the "bloodlands."

The Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia turned an oppressive rule into a murderous yoke. For instance, Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, upon Lenin's orders, employed mustard gas against Belarussian peasants in the wake of the Green Oak rebellion. Of course, he also gassed ethnically Russian peasants in Tambov and other regions. In general, the Bolsheviks used ethnic and class categories interchangeably vis-à-vis ethnic non-Russians. For example, Lenin ordered his henchmen to "treat burghers and Jews with an iron rod." In this context, "Jews" referred generally to townspeople, and the Soviets interpreted these instructions quite loosely, treating the vast majority of the population - regardless of religion and ethnicity - with an iron rod.

Although the Polish victory over the invading Red Army in 1920 spared the western edge of the Intermarium and the Baltics from the Cheka for two more decades, the Bolshevik murder and terror machine waged a war on the population of the region's eastern part. Thus, millions of Ukrainians (and others) perished in the Terror-Famine and tens of thousands of Poles were massacred during the Polish Operation of the NKVD. The Kremlin also implemented many other "nationalities operations" throughout its vast empire and sought to force a "Soviet" identity on its population.

The Second World War, launched through the cooperation of Moscow and Berlin, struck yet another major blow to the Intermarium, which both sides proceeded to cleanse ethnically further. The Nazis focused mostly on the Jews, killing off the overwhelming majority of the region's Israelites, but murdered other groups indiscriminately as well, including Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarussians. The Soviets slaughtered and/or deported members of all ethnicities. Poles in particular were viewed as enemies, and shipped off to Siberia or "resettled" to communist-occupied Poland. Meanwhile, Sovietization continued, and droves of Russian-speaking Soviet colonists were injected into the Intermarium. Needless to say, this created discord between the locals and outsiders. For instance, the Soviets shipped in Volga Tatars into areas populated by local Tatars - who considered themselves Polish or Lithuanian patriots - expressing surprise that the native Tatars failed to identify with the Sovietized ones from Tatarstan.

The implosion of the Soviet system allowed diversity to return to the Intermarium. Yet, harmonious pluralism is complicated by the fact that the majority nationalities, after decades of an alien yoke, wish to organize themselves along the nation-state model. This certainly worries the minorities, the most ubiquitous of which are the exogenous "Russians" (Soviets), and the indigenous Poles and Jews.

This situation attracts foreign intervention, much resented by the majority nationalities. The most aggressive and vociferous in this regard is Moscow. Even so, the Latvians recently rejected a referendum making Russian a second language. Warsaw remains mainly docile, the Europeans fear antagonizing Russia, while Washington limits itself to intervention on behalf of the Jewish minority. Meanwhile, the Turks and Saudis have been attempting to penetrate local Muslim (mostly Tatar) communities. The latter have failed with the native Tatars but have enjoyed greater success with students from Arab countries.

In general, majority-minority relations constitute a challenge to the successor states of the western edge of the Soviet Union. There are encouraging signs, but also reasons for concern. In Lithuania, the indigenous Poles are subjected to discrimination on several levels (e.g. Polish-language signs or name spelling are prohibited). In Belarus, the fate of the minorities depends on the whims of "Europe's last dictator," Aleksandr Lukashenka. In Ukraine, the Russian-speakers from the eastern and southern parts of the country pose a threat to the very existence and integrity of the state, especially since they - like the secessionist Russophones of Transnistria - enjoy the support of Moscow. In western Ukraine, meanwhile, rabidly nationalist outfits of the "Svoboda" Party variety have been raising their heads, although their importance should not be exaggerated. There is hope that relations between majorities and minorities will improve once the peoples of the Intermarium rediscover their pre-communist and non-Soviet past, on the one hand, and learn to transcend folkish ethnonationalism, on the other.