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Alexander V. Prusin’s The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992 is a highly competent and effective treatment of modern Northeastern European history. The “borderlands” to which Prusin’s titles refers are the lands that once formed the borders of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German empires, which ran from the Baltic in the north to Bessarabia and the Black Sea in the south. Violence is Prusin’s theme, and its pervasiveness throughout the long period of which he writes provides the neophytic student of Eastern Europe with a central category to make sense of the myriad wars, polities, organizations, treaties, and actors that crisscross the pages of this neglected region’s histories. Over the course of his meticulously detailed work, a narrative emerges of a “culture of conflict,” in which both states and numerous private persons embraced ethnic violence as a means of sorting out conflicts and securing that which they considered to be their own. Prusin’s narrative divides roughly into five segments: the imperial period from the 1860s to 1914-8, the inter-war period, the Second World War, the post-war Soviet period, and what amounts to little more than a post-Soviet postscript. Prusin argues that the imperial period was one of relative peace. The empires provided an element of stability in these fractious, ethnically overlapping lands. Though both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, to a significantly greater degree, its Russian counterpart enacted policies aimed at policing the ambitions and capabilities of their border ethnic groups, the organizational structures of both states also somewhat obviated ethnically based nationalist movements, thereby preventing territorial disputes. With the collapse of the empires in the First World War and the enshrinement and selective application of the Wilsonian principle of the self-determination of nations, this all changed. With the supremely ambitious Bolsheviks on the one side, the brutal Freikorps on the other, and a number of ardent but diverse and territorially ill-defined nation-states in the center, Eastern Europe descended into something of a wild west. The interwar period resembled something of a Hobbesian war of all against all, with Poland attempting to set itself up as a new imperial power vis-à-vis Ukrainians and Lithuanians, the Baltic peoples warring with their former German and Russian lords, and the Jews desperately and mostly unsuccessfully seeking shelter from everyone’s wrath. This state of affairs only worsened after the German-Soviet partition of Poland and throughout the Second World War. The wholesale social engineering of the two great powers and the deadly methods that they embraced to effect it removed any ethical or practical restraints that had previously checked the most violent tendencies of ethno-national warriors. As always, it was the Jews who suffered the most. Prusin convincingly argues that the peoples of the “borderlands” were integral in carrying out the Holocaust. Finally, following the Soviet victory and the continued human catastrophes in the immediate aftermath of the war, Eastern Europe again achieved, or rather, suffered, a measure of peace and stability under the strong leadership of the Soviet state. Prusin, bucking the optimism of the post-cold war era and embracing the skepticism of Europe’s current crisis, sees the collapse of the Soviet juggernaut as a development as troubling as it is hopeful. He warns ominously that an Eastern Europe of small nations is again poised for ethno-nationalist violence with the specter of a prowling and insecure Russia lurking in its midst. For the time being, however, most of the states of Northeastern Europe have, after decades of conflict, achieved relative homogeneity and developed a degree of stability as states, rather than errant or amorphous nations in search of territory and borders, during what amounts to something of a Soviet tutelage in statehood. Thus, peace has, for the moment, come to Northeastern Europe. The Lands Between is a drastically under-theorized book. Prusin simply accepts the existence, identity, and solidarity of “ethnic” communities in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe as a given. Alongside the great imperial actors, Prusin takes such communities as his basic units of political analysis prior to the rise of the even more cohesive nations which, according to Prusin, they later engendered. This is highly problematic, given 1) the ruralness and localism of Eastern Europe at a time prior to the adoption high speed transit and communications and 2) the currently fashionable constructivist and even post-constructivist view of ethnicity and nationality (See Brown, Biography of No Place; Brubaker, Ethnicity without Groups; Judson, Guardians of the Nation; and Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations for just a few examples). Nor is there a theory of nationalism present in Prusin’s book, and it is by no means evident why it should have been the nation to which threatened persons of Eastern Europe turned for meaning and protection during the interwar period. Finally, Prusin’s work is rather unsatisfying concerning the post-Soviet period and the question of how peace has, to this point at least, prevailed in Northeastern Europe. His case of Moldavia as a counter-example is hardly illuminating (Latvia, for instance, also has a large Russian minority).Nonetheless, The Lands Between, though not the masterpiece that it could have been, is nonetheless something of a brilliant and coherent template for studying Eastern Europe. Prusin’s treatment of states and their relationship to society is particularly incisive. Rather than adopt the trope of the uniformly homogenizing and violence-spreading state, Prusin notes that even the most autocratic, power-hungry states, such as imperial Russia, may actually serve to stifle violence in some cases. The totalitarian states of Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany were another matter. Yet, even between Hitler and Stalin, Prusin argues that the Holocaust may have been significantly mitigated had it not been for the willing participation of many persons of the borderlands. Thus, both state and society emerge with a decidedly mixed record from Prusin’s honest reckoning.

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