Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Life and Works of Harold Karlovich Belger


G. S. Zhugenbaeva
The creative legacy of Harold Karlovich Belger (1934-2015), social and political actor and literary translator, provides vivid material for the study of the social and political history of Kazakhstan in the 20th and 21st centuries…
Belger’s family migrated to Kazakhstan during the second wave of ethnic deportations. For the German population, including those who already lived in Kazakhstan at the time, life was dramatically changed by the Declaration of the Sovnarkom and Central Executive Committee of 26th August 1941 regarding the resettlement of Germans from the Saratov and Stalingrad provinces and the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
Historical sources describe the mechanism by which Germans were transferred to Kazakhstan and redistributed there. Under the early conditions of the Great Patriotic War, measures were taken in the republic to prepare the economy for a large number of resettled forced labourers. In accordance with the initial plan, all of these labourers were moved to rural locations. All the work was carried out by Soviet and Party organs, sub-divisions of the NKVD.[i] The creation of new collective and state farms was envisaged, the deportees were also accommodated in locations which had previously received migrating Germans.
Belger’s works describe the collective fate of the German and Kazakh peoples. His poetry demonstrates his humanism, his devotion to universal values, and his respect for the culture and religion of the Kazakh people. As such, Belger was the first to receive a prestigious state decoration of Kazakhstan (Orden Parasat).
An argument for achieving unity between two peoples, with different languages and cultures, was demonstrated in the life of this author, who spoke Kazakh artfully and busied himself in literary translations from Kazakh into Russian and German (translating authors such as B. Mailin, Kh. Esenzhanov, A. Nurpeisov, A. Kekil’baev, D. Doszhanov and others). Various translated manuscripts of well-known Kazakh authors and poets can be found in Belger’s personal archival collection (lichnyi fond), including A. Kekil’baev’s ‘Warm Snow’, A. Nurpeisov’s ‘Dying Sea’, and works by the great poet Abai such as ‘Autumn’ etc.  Works by the repressed Kazakh authors B. Mailin and Kh. Esenzhanov have also been published in Russian using Belger’s translations…[ii]
Alongside all this, the documentation left behind by Belger includes materials connected with his socio-political opinions. These include rough copies of undelivered speeches, numerous interviews about the fate of the deported peoples, letters to his compatriots and so on. In his interview with the newspaper Ana tili, the author stated that ‘two thirds of Germans have already abandoned Kazakhstan. It’s a shame that they’re losing the departed. I’m talking about Germans. In the homeland of their ancestors they are not, for the most part, demanded, and the soul of the Kazakh Germans remains here.’[iii]
When Kazakhstan gained independence it opened up new horizons for Belger. In 1987-1997 he joined the staff of the Presidential National Council for State Policy, in 1989-1995 he served as the head of the German national-cultural centre and so on.
The creative works of Harold Belger are an entire page in the history of the Kazakh people. Epistolary study of this writer and statesman is valuable from a methodological point of view and is varied in terms of the historical material to which scholars will return again and again.
G. S. Zhugenbaeva is Head of the Department of Historiography, Source Studies and Modern Methodology at the Valikhanov Institute in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Translation by Alun Thomas.



[i] Of the 289 documents included in the collection, prepared by the archivists of Kazakhstan, The Declassified War: ‘Special Folders’ of the Kazakh Communist Party, 1941-1945 only 7 were previously known to the public. All the rest were concealed as a matter of the highest secrecy. These are materials on life at the home front: the reception of evacuated enterprises and citizens, their redeployment, the instigation and operation of defensive efforts, the deportation of peoples on ethnic grounds and the formation of a labour army.
[ii] Presidential Archive of Kazakhstan F. 152-NL, Op. 1, D. 27, 31, 33, 34, 49.
[iii] Presidential Archive of Kazakhstan F. 152-NL, Op. 2, D. 103, l. 9.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Cycle of Violence: The Uprising of 1916 in Semirechye

Aminat Chokobaeva


In August 1916, the native nomads[1] of Semirechye rose in a popular rebellion that for weeks reduced the colonial presence in the region to several beleaguered towns and settlements. Colonial authority was restored by September 1916, but the uprising proved to be a formative experience for the region and its multi-ethnic population. Beginning initially as popular resistance to the labour draft conscripting the native men for labour in the rear in WWI, the uprising grew increasingly violent, ushering in the period of turmoil and civil war as destructive in the peripheries of the collapsing empire as in its centre.

Tsarist soldiers on manoeuvres in Central Asia, 1916 Source: StanRadar

The roots of the uprising lay in the agricultural colonization of Semirechye in the decades before the war, but the dynamics of the uprising remain less clear. The first mass protests against the labour draft took place in the sedentary areas of Turkestan before spreading further to Semirechye and further still to the Steppe. It is in Semirechye, however, that the uprising claimed most victims, both among the settlers, who lost over 3,000 men, women and children, and in the native communities, which by 1920-21 declined by approximately 150,000 persons.[2] But what explains the lethality of the uprising in Semirechye?

My research suggests that both the rebels and the colonists were driven in their actions by fear. In the course of increasingly violent interactions, the two groups came to see each other as a threat to their wellbeing and survival. Furthermore, archival data, including telegrams, letters, and numerous depositions by witnesses and participants demonstrates that the resistance to the draft first took peaceful forms and it was the repression with which the colonial administration responded to peaceful protests that escalated the violence and led to the uprising proper.

The official announcement of the draft was made in Verny, Pishpek, and Przhevalsk uezds in the first half of July. The initial response to the draft was panicky flight across the border. The first crossings into China began immediately after the announcement of the draft in Przhevalsk uezd on 13 July. The majority of those fleeing were young unmarried men of draft age.[3] By the end of the month, the exodus of the nomads to China took on a more organized form; families and entire clans crossed the border. Some observers noted the sudden rush of Kyrgyz buyers at the local markets and the steep rise in prices on horses and staple foods.[4]

Not everyone was willing or able to flee. Soon, mass crossings gave way to mass protests led by popular leaders who opposed the draft and called on their communities to resist it. Wary of potential disruptions to the draft, the administration targeted these “agitators” and their supporters for arrest. In the second half of July, the authorities seized dozens of people suspected of agitation against the conscription. On July 17 alone, 34 “agitators” were arrested in 3 volosts of the Verny uezd.[5] According to native depositions, many of the arrested were executed.[6] The wave of arrests failed to quell the discontent and angered the native society. The deployment of armed police, Cossacks, and soldiers to arrest the native leaders and break peaceful protests mobilized the nomadic communities and galvanized resistance to the authorities and the colonial society at large.

As the resolve to resist hardened in the native society, Kyrgyz and Kazakhs routinely threatened and warned native administrators and Russian scribes that “they did not wish to implement the draft” and “would rather die here, at home, than on foreign soil. Even if all of them were executed, they did not wish to work and would not give a single man.”[7] Instances of resistance to the draft were reported in all volosts of the oblast and across the Muslim communities. On 7 July, the Dungans of the Dzharkent uezd told a Russian scribe that they “would rather die” than become labourers at the front.[8]

The festering discontent of the nomads reached a point of no return in early August. The first violent clashes between the authorities and the nomads happened in the Lepsinsk uezd of Semirechye between 24 July and 1 August, when a border patrol attempted to detain families crossing the border. The fleeing families opened fire in response.[9] Two incidents that followed in the wake of the events in Lepsinsk mark the beginning of the rebellion proper with attendant violence and targeted assaults on European settlements.

Between 3 and 6 August, the Kazakhs of the Verny uezd clashed with the local police who arrived in the area to collect – by force if necessary – the lists of new recruits. In both instances, the police fired into the crowd in an attempt to disperse the crowd of increasingly agitated nomads. Although it is ultimately unclear who fired the first shot, it is clear that both groups feared each other. Nomads were intimidated by soldiers’ guns, but so did soldiers fear large crowds.

The dispatch of a punitive expedition consisting of a Cossack sotnia, one infantry company, and a settler militia terrified the nomads of the Verny uezd and further convinced them that the authorities were intent on destroying them. The flight of panicky Kazakhs to the neighbouring Pishpek uezd between 6 and 7 August spread further panic among the Kyrgyz of the Pishpek uezd.[10] From there, the rebellion spread and became increasingly violent, escalating into a self-perpetuating cycle of violence where the violent suppression of protests by the authorities led to further disturbances thereby triggering a new wave of repressions.

Aminat Chokobaeva is completing her PhD at the Australian National University. Her dissertation examines the late Tsarist and early Soviet state-building in southern Semirechye, the borderland colony with the largely nomadic native population. Her previous publications include a chapter “Krasnye kyrgyzy: sovetskaia istoriografiia vosstaniia 1916 goda” in Poniatiia o sovetskom v Tsentral’noi Azii, published in 2016; and an article, “Socialist Promises, Ethnography and the Building of a Kyrgyz Soviet Nation”, published in September 2015 in issue 3, volume 69 of Asiatiche Studies – Études Asiatiques 


[1] It would be more correct to say that the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, whom I call nomads, in fact practiced transhumance – short-distance seasonal migrations while maintaining permanent winter camps and engaging to a limited extent in agriculture. I use the term “nomads” or “pastoralists” to stay true to the original sources describing Kyrgyz and Kazakhs as “nomads”.
[2] Thanks to the records kept by the colonial administration we know the exact number of the Russian victims. How many Kyrgyz were killed remains, however unknown; although some of the punitive expeditions reported on the number of “rebels” – including the non-combatant population – they killed, the information is patchy at best. It is possible to come to a rough estimate of the decline in the nomadic population by comparing the population statistics of the 1897 and 1925 censuses. The resulting number of 100,000-150,000 Kyrgyz (excluding Kazakhs) is an aggregate inclusive of the victims of violence and related starvation and disease. See G. Krongardt, "Demograficheskie aspekty istorii vosstaniia 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane " in Vosstanie 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane (sbornik materialov nauchnoi konferentsii, posviashchennoi 75-letiiu vosstaniia), ed. V.  Ploskikh and J. Junushaliev (Bishkek: Ilim, 1993), 49-53.
[3] “Protokol doprosa svidetelia Tulembaia Diusebaeva o polozhenii v Przheval’skom uezde Semirechenskoi oblasti v iiule 1916 g. – posle ob”iavleniia tsarskogo ukaza o mobilizatsii, 21 sentiabria 1916 g.” in Piaskovskii, A. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda V Srednei Azii i Kazakhstane: Sbornik Dokumentov (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1960), 354.
[4] “Protokol doprosa mirovym sud’ei 4-go uchastka Przheval’skogo uezda svidetelei – zhitelei sel Semenovki i Grigor’evka o nachale vosstaniia i rassprave vosstavshikh s zhiteliami etikh sel, 11 noiabria” in E. S. Kaptagaev, ed. Vosstanie 1916 goda v Kyrgyzstane. Sbornik dokumentov (Bishkek: Tsentral'nyi gosudarstvennyi arkhiv KR, 2011), 149-50.
[5] Edward D. Sokol, The Revolt of 1916 in Russian Central Asia (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1954), 118.
[6] “Spravka, sostavlennaia iz rassprosov zhitelei Aulieatinskogo uezda dlia voennogo gubernatora Syrdar’inskoi oblasti A. S. Galkina, 30 sentiabria” in Kotiukova, T. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda v Turkestane: Dokumental’nye Svidetel’stva Obshchei tragedii (Moscow: Marjani, 2016), 228-29.
[7] Raport pisaria Al’dzhanskoi volosti Dzharkentskogo uezda Komarova nachal’niku Narynkol’skogo uchastka A. Podvarkovu o nevozmozhnosti sostavleniia mobilizatsionnyh spiskov, 11 iiulia” in Piaskovskii, A. V., ed. Vosstanie 1916 Goda V Srednei Azii i Kazakhstane: Sbornik Dokumentov (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii Nauk SSSR, 1960), 324-25.
[8] Raport i. d. nachal’nika Dzharkentskogo uezda N. N. Stupina voennomu gubernatoru Semirechenskoi oblasti M. A. Fol’baumu o vystupleniiakh kazakhov, uigur i dungan protiv mobilizatsii na tylovye raboty” in ibid, 329.
[9] “Doklad i.d. voennogo gubernatora Semirechenskoi oblasti A. I. Alekseeva general-gubernatoru Turkestanskogo kraia A. N Kuropatkinu o prichinah i khode vosstaniia v oblasti” in ibid, 371.
[10] “Iz protokola doprosa mirovym sud’ei 4-go uchastka Cherniaevskogo u. inzhenera M. Tynyshpaeva ob istorii vzaimootnoshenii rossiiskoi vlasti s kazakhami, st. Cherniaevo, 5-25 fevralia 1917 g,” in Koigeldiev, M. K., ed. Kazak Ult Azattyk Kozgalysy (Almaty: Otkytaia biblioteka Kazakhstana, 2011), 107-110.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Unplaced and Unwelcome: A Story of the Yiddish School in the Ukrainian Shtetl

Maryna Batsman

In 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed. The Bolsheviks began to reform nearly every aspect of pre-revolutionary life. The Jewish community received unprecedented support. The new state banned anti-Semitism and prosecuted its perpetrators criminally.

However, when it comes to Ukraine, the story was not that linear. The Soviet power came out of the Civil War. It substituted the UNR Government, which gave Jews the right of national personal autonomy in 1918. For that reason, the situation of Ukrainian Jews was unique. Having significant autonomy in political and cultural matters, they found it harder to negotiate with the Soviet power. Later, many of them became members of EVKOM, the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs, and Evsektsiia, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party, with the goal of attaining national-personal autonomy.[1] The Jewish Section was an intermediary institution for Jewish Affairs. The higher power tried to take more control over it, whereas many Jews perceived it as a Soviet institution full of traitors who, for the sake of gaining power, abandoned the interests of their own community.

A similar fate befell the Yiddish-language Jewish school. There is still a debate as to what extent it was ‘Jewish’. Was it Jewish because the language in which it operated was Yiddish? Before modernity, this rotten ‘dialect’ was not a language of study for the Eastern European Jews. It was a dream project of Jewish socialists and Yiddishists, who perceived it as the national language of Jews. Soviet officials welcomed the idea of Yiddish language; Hebrew, in conjunction with Zionism, was rejected as bourgeois.

On the other hand, was the Yiddish school Jewish because of the religious subjects in its curricula? These did not last long; the hours devoted to studying old Hebrew language and the Bible were steadily shortened. After all, did such subjects make any sense if the children were told that they should be free of religious prejudices and celebrate the “Red” holidays instead of Jewish ones?

In the 1920s, the Yiddish school was a solution for poor Jewish children who attended it. It was a solution in an allegorical sense as well: it aimed to dissolve the high, sophisticated, and incomprehensible Soviet ideology to the level of understanding of ordinary people. Until the 1930s, when the screws were twisted too fast and the national school system centralized, the school tested the high ideology on the local population, waiting for its feedback. From then onwards, the pupil, a central figure of attention in the 1920s[2], lost its significance in promoting the ideology. It was the state who dictated its interests to all.

Nonetheless, the Yiddish school was a Jewish school because it was attended by Jewish children. Moreover, it was Jewish because it was still in the shtetl, together with Ukrainian and
very often Polish schools. Finally, it was Jewish because it was the realization of a dream of many Yiddish-Jewish-Soviet educators.

Many have heard about the experiment of Makarenko’s colony in Poltava, Ukraine, a colony designed to turn young robbers into respectable Soviet citizens. Only a few know about Malakhovker Jewish kinder-koloniye in the Moscow area, Makarenko’s predecessor, which was visited by Jewish artists like Marc Shagal and Solomon Mikhoels. However, few have ever heard about the childrens’ colonies in Pushcha-Voditsa, Kiev, or Albinovke near Zhytomir. Some of these institutions remained only as ghosts on a paper, while others were indeed realized.

The plan of Kitayevo children’s school with garden near Kiev.
Fond 166, inv. 1, file 246, TsDAVO Archive, Kiev, 1919.

The material situation in these schools was dire. As a temporary solution, some schools had to settle in old buildings, expropriated properties of merchants, or in Talmud-Torahs.[3] The schools lacked buildings, teachers, and money. Many teachers worked in dreadful conditions and had to take care of Jewish (and non-Jewish) orphans devastated by typhus.

“Let’s go to the garden, to the lake, let’s do physical exercises” – the new school called the Jewish child, famously known in Yiddish literature as a pale, sick, and unhealthy, very alien to nature (which was a goyish[4] thing). Pedagogues of a new Soviet school saw the child’s development not only as intellectual and moral, but also physical. Going to nature and introducing common physical activities broke old world of unhealthy religious learning. Soviet power was supportive to these novelties: to the extent they facilitated building up a new collective. Inspired by the newest pedagogical reforms, Yiddish (Jewish) teachers brought up the new generation of the Soviet Jewish men and women, or at least were supposed to do so.

Jewish Yiddish School in Zhytomir, 1938. Source: YadVashem

However, in the 1920s, Jewish kids continued to attend old schools and study with private teachers to learn Hebrew, celebrate Pesakh, and eat kosher.[5] Although the Soviet Yiddish school did not become the most desirable and popular place to get an education, its story resembles the sad fate of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. Being declaratively accepted and appropriated as part of the official policy of the state (korenizatsiia), it was nonetheless short-lived. Besides, being part of the state policy, it did not remain Jewish anymore. Nor was it a fully-fledged part of Soviet culture. The Yiddish school failed to create the new Soviet man and it was canceled in 1937.[6] The state took its power back by promoting violence, repressions, and anti-Semitism.

Maryna Batsman is a 2nd year Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. Her dissertation is dedicated to forming the Soviet Jewish identity in and beyond the state-sponsored interwar Yiddish school. In her MA Thesis, “Crafting a Jewish School System for Soviet Ukraine: Interwar Nationality Policies and Yiddish Pedagogical Writing”, she explored the ambivalent figure of a Jewish cultural activist, who was at the same time Jewish educator and Bolshevik propagandist, and his role in formation of the secular Yiddish school system from 1918 to 1923. Her fields of interests include: Yiddish literature, modern architecture, innovative pedagogy.



[1] Gitelman, Zvi. 2010. Evsektsiia. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Evsektsiia (accessed April 21, 2017).
[2] The Jewish orphan who lost the parents in pogroms was an ideal model for creating the new Soviet man. In the 1920s, the pedagogues often discussed the children’s individuality and autonomy of making decisions.
[3] Jewish religious communal schools for poor children.
[4] Non-Jewish.
[5] See Shternshis, Anna. 2006. Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Indiana University Press.
[6] As a part of the official policy. Some schools were closed later. See Schulman, Elias. 1971. A History of Jewish Education in the Soviet Union. Ktav Pub. House.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Russian, Little Russian, Hardly Russian: Cossack Colonists and the Ambiguities of Belonging in the North Caucasus

Oleksandr Polianichev 

Since the mid-1990s, the reconceptualization and re-examination of the Russian imperial experience, often referred to as the “imperial turn in the Russian historiography, has led to the emergence of the burgeoning body of scholarship focused on imperial borderlands. Taken from the margins of historiography to the center of historical debates, the study of imperial rule at the edges of the Romanov monarchy has substantially de-peripheralized many imperial peripheral territories in terms of their relevance for the Russian imperial enterprise.

The history of the Russian imperial expansion in the North Caucasus, the field of research that for a long time remained predominantly a domain of military historians, has also been studied through the new lenses. Many scholars lay stress on the commonalities between the Russian imperial behavior in the North Caucasus and colonial practices of the Western European empires in their overseas possessions. Orientalism and numerous techniques of the typical colonial toolkit were characteristic of the Russian rule over these territories during much of the nineteenth century. However, what these studies often tend to neglect while referring to the “Russian” imperial presence or "Russian" colonizers is that the notion of “Russian here itself requires a nuanced reconsideration and cannot be taken at face value even if the discourse of the day might suggest otherwise. 


The map of the Caucasus with the territories of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Line Cossack hosts colored blue and red respectively (1858). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The westernmost part of the North Caucasus provides a particularly challenging problem. From the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, this region was colonized almost exclusively by people of Cossack estate and of Ukrainian/Little Russian origin. Although those Cossack Ukrainian speakers persistently figured in the official parlance as “Russians,” a closer look at sources reveals a fascinating entanglement of allegiances and loyalties of this community, which institutionally existed as the Black Sea Cossack host (after 1860 renamed the Kuban Cossack host). As the Cossacks settler colony was interwoven into a web of various cross-cultural engagements with indigenous Adyghe people, Great Russian-speaking CaucasuLine Cossacks, and career Russian militaries, the Black Sea Cossacks identifications and the sense of belonging were constantly re-negotiated. Furthermore, after the late 1860s, hundreds of thousands of peasants from central regions of the empire were allowed to move to and settle in this region, eventually outnumbering the Cossacks themselves. This created yet another long-lasting encounter, in which both the Cossacks and the newcomers formulated their understandings of self vis-à-vis each other. Contrary to what the authorities expected, many Cossack communities did not feel much affinity with those who they saw as aliens, making the idea of welding of the Cossacks and peasants infeasible in the short run. 

In the early 1860s, the military administration of the Caucasus launched a plan of the mass expulsion of the Adyghe highlanders from their territories and the simultaneous colonization of the vacant lands by the “Russian element.” The “element,” largely comprised of the Cossack Ukrainian speakers, proved to be reluctant colonizers who strongly objected to leave their households. This dramatically affected the perception of them on the part of enraged authorities. In the eyes of the latter, Little Russian Cossacks appeared as an extraneous, malignant, and contagious part of the healthy “Russian body, which could only be cured by vigorous Russification. Effectively, the Black Sea Cossacks emerged from this colonial situation as non- or, rather, not-yet-Russians. 

The Kuban Cossacks in Ekaterinodar, the administrative center of the host (1868). Source. 

Starting from the 1880s, however, the partial reversal of the governmental policies and priorities and the new accent on the restoration of the primordial, unadulterated Cossack way of life led to the reinvention of the Black Sea Cossack particularism. Their Little Russian specificity came to be seen as a vital source of the conservative traditions and the inherently Cossack virtues, as opposed to the corrupting influence of non-Cossack settlers. For the local elites, laying stress on the particularity of their community’s past also meant securing estate and regional privileges and, most importantly, rights to land. Their particularism was not framed in national terms and was essentially indifferent to the purposes of either Ukrainian or Russian nation-building. Clearly, Cossack elites tended to associate themselves with Russianness, broadly understood, but only as long as it was beneficial and as long as the imperial framework existed. 



The imperial past of the North Caucasus shows us that cultural, social, political, and military developments at the margins of the empire were instrumental for shaping the content of Russianness and defining its boundaries. In this and many other ways, the periphery and the center mutually constructed each other. The case of the North Caucasus also challenges the efficacy of some established tools of historical analysis. The notions of “colonized” and “colonizers intermingled and coalesced, familiar hierarchies took bizarre twistsideas of “ethnos” or “nation” did not take root. Here and elsewhere, however, studying the periphery does not have to entail seeing it as a mere space of exceptions, curiosities, and provincial exoticism. Rather, it may invite us to reflect upon what we are used to thinking of as “normal” in the Russian history.


Dr. Oleksandr Polianichev is a former PhD candidate at the European University Institute in Florence and a research fellow at the New Europe College in Bucharest. His dissertation,  entitled “Rediscovering Zaporozhians: Memory, Loyalties, and Politics in Late Imperial Kuban, 1880-1914,” examines how the idea of the Kuban Cossacks as the vestige and the heir of the Zaporozhian host affected the relationship between this region and the imperial center.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Refraining from ‘periphery’: The first German handbook of Polish history, the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ and its transfer to 19th-century Polish historiography

Elżbieta Kwiecińska
The idea of the ‘civilizing mission’ has been most frequently considered within the framework of Western colonialism. For instance, it was used by British Empire in India to legitimize political power. Nevertheless, it also appeared in East-Central Europe as a transfer from Western Europe: from German to Polish national thought. The same concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ used by German authors to orientalize Poles was then reinterpreted by Poles and adapted to orientalize Ukrainians.
In German national thought, the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ appeared for the first time in Richard Roepell’s book Geschichte Polens (‘A history of Poland’), published in 1840. It was the first national history of Poland written by a German-speaking author for the German public. Unlike earlier German authors such as Leopold von Ranke, Roepell considered Poland to be a part of Europe. According to Roepell, Poland joined Europe as a result of adopting Christianity in 966 BC. After that, however, it was the Germans who ‘civilized’ Poles. Roepell adopted the Kultutaurträgertheorie (‘the theory of carrying a culture’), whereby Germans were considered a superior Kulturvolk (‘cultural nation’) and Poles were regarded as an inferior Naturvolk (‘nation in the state of nature’). As a result, Poles needed a German ‘civilizing mission’ because, according to Roepell, they were of a lower culture. [1]

The title page of the first Polish national history written in German.
Richard Roepell, Geschichte Polens (Friedrich Perth: Hamburg, 1840).

The meaning of the German ‘civilizing mission’ to Poland was strictly connected to other neighboring concepts, including colonization, culture, and Bildung (‘enlightenment’, ‘education’). Roepell described ‘German colonization’ as the result of the fact that German ‘culture’ stood ‘higher’ than the Polish one. By ‘German culture’ he meant German language, customs, law, and legal acts. Roepell claimed that the ‘German culture’ carried by ‘German colonization’, together with Western Christianity, formed ‘the Western culture’, which Germany brought to Poland. The main result of the ‘German mission’, he indicated, was the increase in the Bildung of the Polish people. [2]
The concept of the ‘German civilizing mission to Poland’ was borrowed by Karol Szajnocha and reinterpreted as a ‘Polish civilizing mission to Ukraine’. Regarding Roepell’s Geschichte Polens, the Polish historian Karol Szajnocha wrote to his friend Eustachy Rylski that it is ‘very necessary’ for teaching Polish history (he did not describe the other mentioned Polish handbooks in this way [3]) and offered to lend Rylski Geschichte Polens. [4] Szajnocha’s admiration for Roepells’s book might have been the reason why he borrowed and appropriated some of his concepts. The same way in which Poland was ‘the East’ for Germany in Roepell’s Geschichte Polens, Prussia, Lithuania, and Ruthenia/Ukraine were ‘the East’ for Poland in Szajnocha’s works. In his first article, ‘View on the general history of Poland’ (Pol. ‘Pogląd na ogół dziejów Polski’) published in 1847, he used the term ‘civilizing mission’ for the first time in Polish thought. According to Szajnocha, Poland, the same as Germany in Geschichte Polens, carried in its ‘enlightenment’ mission (Pol. oświata; German Bildung) to the East. [5] Szajnocha placed Poland in the ‘universal history of an enlightened humankind’ between the ‘main team of the nations of Western Europe’ and the ‘hordes of Eastern barbarians’. He called that position the ‘double face of Polish history’. [6] Unlike Poland, which was an integral part of the West, the author insisted that Prussia, Lithuania, and Ruthenia needed to join the Polish state to enjoy ‘enlightenment’. [7]


Karol Szajnocha's first article, 'View on the general history of Poland' (1847)
Both Szajnocha and Roepell used the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ to ‘the East’ in order to show their nation’s value and contribution to the history of ‘the West’. Edward Said famously stated that the Occident needs an Orient as a complementary concept. Following Said, both Polish and German authors created Orients of their nations in order to prove their nation’s ‘Westerness’. Examining the concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ also provides us with an insight into the intellectual history of Poland and Ukraine as European ‘peripheries’.

Elżbieta Kwiecińska is a PhD Researcher in History at the European University Institute. The working title of her PhD project is: ‘The concept of the ‘civilizing mission’ as a cultural transfer: German, Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish intelligentsia in Prussia and Habsburg Galicia and orientalism (1840-1918)’.



[1] Roepell, Richard, Geschichte Polens (Bei Friedrich Perth: Hamburg 1840), Polish translation: Roepell, Richard, Dzieje Polski do XIV stulecia (Wydawnictwo ‘Poznańskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciól Nauk’, Poznań 2005), p. 333.

[2] Roepell, p. 334.

[3] Those other three were the following handbooks of Polish historians: Joachim Lelewel’s Dzieje Polski synowcom opowiedziane (English: “The history of Poland told to the offspring“), Jędrzej Moraczewski’s Dzieje rzeczypospolitej Polskiej (English: “The history of the Polish Republic“), Adam Naruszewicz Historia narodu polskiego (English: “The history of Polish nation”).

[4] Klemens Kantecki, Żywot Karola Szajnochy., in: Dzieła Karola Szajnochy (Józef Unger: 1878), pp. 299-300.

[5] Karol Szajnocha, Pogląd na ogół dziejów Polski, ‘Biblioteka Narodowa Zakładu Ossolińskich’, v. 1, 1847, p. 2

[6] Karol Szajnocha, pp. 9-10.

[7] Ciągłe to odbijanie jest oraz środkiem dopełnienia innej misji przeznaczenia dziejów naszego narodu, to jest środkiem bronienia Europy od barbarzyństwa wschodu, do którego i wszystkie pomniejsze w około dawnej Polski mieszkające, a przez długi czas pogańskie lub różnowierne narody, jakoto: Prusy, Ruś, Litwę policzyć także wypada. Odbijając bowiem w sobie oświatę zachodniej Europy, oświeca Polska nią także owe pomniejsze wschodnie narody, przywodzi je do przyjęcia tejże samej oświaty, rozprzestrzenia tak coraz dalej granice europejskiej cywilizacyi, usuwa przeto coraz dalej od Europy granice i niebezpieczeństwa wschodniego barbarzyństwa, i nadstawiając wreszcie pierś swoją dalszym azyjskim ludom, na których podobnegoż jak na swoich najbliższych sąsiadach dzieła ucywilizowania ich dokonać nie jest w stanie, dopełnia tak za pomocą owego ciągłego odbijajia w sobie oświaty europejskiej, przeznaczonego sobie obowiązku bronienia Europy.
in: Karol Szajnocha, pp. 24-25