The first chapters of this book are giving me a case of the Yabbuts. Finding Poland is mostly a family chronicle, concerning Matthew Kelly’s great-grandmother and her two daughters, and how they went from pre-WWII eastern Poland to later life in the United Kingdom. By way of Kazakhstan, Iran and India.
To get to why members of his family came such a long way around, he of course has to situate them in the first place, and that is in what is now Belarus, then eastern Poland. And to do that, Kelly must sketch the region’s complex history. Which is what gives me the Yabbuts. His abridged history of the region is mostly very good, but periodically I find myself thinking, “Yeah, but…” and considering either an omission or something else about his point of view.
Before World War I, the particular area where his ancestors settled had been part of the Russian Empire. After that war, and the Polish–Soviet War, it became part of independent Poland. Kelly writes, “New settlers represented the imposition by a distant government of a new socio-economic elite, often alien in language, religion and culture.” And I thought, yeah, but does that imply that the Russian imperial capital was a less distant government? Much more likely is the perspective from the preceding paragraph, “the departure of one set of landlords saw the arrival of another.”
A few pages later, he’s describing the deeper background: “The first is that citizenship of the Commonwealth [of Poland-Lithuania] — and the political rights that went with this — was limited to the nobility, known in Polish as the Szlachta.” And I thought, yeah, but a greater proportion of the Commonwealth’s population at the time could vote for Parliament (and, not incidentally, thereby indirectly elect the Commonwealth’s king) than could vote for the Parliament that sat in London. In fact, enfranchisement in the UK would not reach a greater share of the population until the Great Reform of 1832. That’s not the sort of thing that is absolutely essential to know for the story of Kelly’s family, but it does color one’s perception of the region.
A few more pages later, Kelly is writing about the development of Ukrainian, Lithuanian and (to a lesser extent) Belarusian nationalisms, in contrast to and sometimes against Polish nationalism. The list of three us understandable, as all three nations presently have states on the map of Europe. And I thought, yeah, but what about the Ruthenians? If you’re tracing the story of nationalism in the region, surely you should expend a few sentences on one that didn’t lead to statehood; when you’re looking at historic contingency, you should mention some of the other paths that are possible.
All of this is to say that I am enjoying the book and looking forward to the rest. I like histories I can argue with. They have a perspective, they have a point of view, and even the details are telling. I suspect there will be less arguing and more for me to just enjoy in the other four-fifths of the book, as Kelly tells a story of what happened to members of his family. It’s a good start.