“I want to explore the contribution of Eastern Europeans to the debates on colonialism and racism” – 5in10 with Olga Linkiewicz

Olga Linkiewicz is Assistant Professor at the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences. She specializes in social history of modern Poland, history of social sciences, and memory studies which include fieldwork experience in Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland. She earned her PhD in history from the Polish Academy of Sciences (2009). In 2010 she was awarded the Polish journal Polityka Prize for Young Scholars and in 2011/12 she was Fulbright Commission Fellow at New York University and Columbia University. Her forthcoming book Localness and Nationalism: Rural Communities in Interwar Eastern Galicia (in Polish) uses retrospective ethnography to reconstruct social practices and attitudes of villagers in their own terms. She is currently a Research Fellow of Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

I feel childhood is beyond my grasp despite intense memories. Perhaps my desire to discover came out of the confluence of the imaginary and the real. There are three elements of this mix that immediately spring to mind. First, I was reading a lot, and the books ranged from Greek mythology and The Chronicles of Narnia to popular detective stories (sometimes really bad ones). The other two are related to my family and my personal experience. In retrospect, difference and diversity were a part of my world then. My paternal great-grandfather’s family came from Germany to a village near Konin and then to Warsaw. My great-grandmother was from Danzig and she barely spoke Polish throughout the interwar period. Unrelated to my family’s German heritage, I spent every summer in the former East Prussia region. Ostrów (Werder) on Gil Wielki Lake (Großer Gehlsee) is a small village near the town of Iława (Eylau) in northern Poland. This place shaped me in many ways. In the 1980s, the majority of inhabitants were Ukrainians and people from mixed Greek-Catholic, Roman-Catholic, and Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox Church) families resettled in 1947 – in the course of the Operation Vistula (forced resettlement of Ukrainians from the southeast to the so-called regained territories in the north and northwest of Poland). I remember I felt confused about the language I heard: sometimes it was a Polish dialect, other times – Ukrainian. This illustrates a phenomenon called diglossia: the use of two languages under different conditions by the same community. I don’t mean to give the impression that I understood what this was all about, but I have returned to these glimpses later in my work. Otherwise, the place was full of mysterious stories which stretched my imagination. All kids – local and Varsovians – wandered around destroyed houses, cherry orchards, and old graveyards, where headstones had inscriptions in German blackletter.

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

In a sense, the first point was my family home – in all of its locations. The members of my family, despite having very different personalities and contrasting views, had thankfully one thing in common: they all enjoyed reading. I was surrounded by books, and books were always a refuge from the outside world. The next decisive stage was college. I wanted to do something interesting, and cultural anthropology presented an exciting prospect. My first field trips to Belarus and Ukraine in the late 1990s and a trip to Russia in 1997, which included the Khibiny mountains on the Kola Peninsula and Solovki, are still with me. This was my Eastern Europe on the ground. Things shifted toward more serious academic research when I moved to the Manteuffel Institute of History (IH PAN) in 2001. The seminars led by the late Jerzy Jedlicki made me realize how little I knew about history. For someone who graduated in cultural anthropology from the University of Warsaw, it was an entirely new environment. But I felt welcome. And, finally, my Fulbright award to New York posed a considerable challenge. I didn’t have any serious experience of an academic stay abroad until the summer of 2012, when I came to NYU and Columbia University. These were intensive ten months of hard work and getting to know American academia. Since then I’ve returned to the United States quite often, not only to maintain contacts with friends and colleagues but also to travel (I’m a big fan of Amtrak). Apart from places and institutions, people have also shaped particular phases of my academic life. In the early 2000s, Włodzimierz Mędrzecki found my ideas interesting and patiently supervised my dissertation on Eastern Galician peasantry. Later, I discussed my work intensively with my former partner Tarik Amar. I think of these relationships as mutual interactions rather than “formative influences”. They compelled me to think and write in a way I might not have otherwise.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

It depends what you mean by “academic mobility”. Attending ten conferences in a row (spending most of the time in the hotel) probably does have an effect on how we think, something that someone who happened to be on the wrong side of the Wall before 1989 would agree with. Actually, the agency of mobility is the recurring theme of the book I am currently working on. The book traces transnational connections between studies of race and ethnicity in East Central Europe and related endeavors carried out in the United States from the interwar period up to the early Cold War. It is based on the Polish example and tells a story of social scientists: Poles and Polish Jews whose work was involved in domestic and international politics. After WWI scholars met more often than before – during conferences and fellowships (such as those from the Rockefeller Foundation), and because of emigration. And these encounters resulted in a constant exchange of knowledge and experience which, in turn, led to the increase of collaboration and competition. I want to explore the exchange in detail, in particular the input of Eastern Europeans to the international debates on colonialism, racism, antisemitism, and other related big questions of the time. To write this book, I am conducting research in the United States and other countries. But, in the first place, I doubt whether I would have conceived the project in this way if I had been working at one institution the whole time. I owe a great deal to colleagues from the United States and Germany. So, yes, I think mobility is important.

Which key insights from your research do you consider to be the most surprising for general audiences? Why do you believe this to be the case?

I can only hope that people do not find my work boring! My first book Localness and Nationalism: Rural Communities in the Interwar Eastern Galicia (in Polish) tells a story of peasants and petty nobility of Greek-Catholic and Roman-Catholic denominations who lived together in what was then the eastern borderlands of the Second Polish Republic (present-day Western Ukraine). As you know, twentieth-century Eastern Galicia is a matter of dispute, especially between Poles and Ukrainians. Few historians, however, have looked at the life of the Galician village in detail. And if they had, they would have talked about political activists rather than average inhabitants. On the basis of the interwar census statistics, Polish and Ukrainian historiographies tend to ascribe all inhabitants of Eastern Galicia either to Polish or Ukrainian national groups. My aim was to investigate the life of ordinary people, in order to show that the villagers’ identification was more complex and based on vernacular cosmology they all shared. A dialect of Ukrainian was a language of everyday communication; people mostly went to the Greek-Catholic church regardless of their denomination, and they celebrated holidays together. “We were mixed,” my interlocutors would say. At the same time, their coexistence was full of rivalry and hostility, and this was the state of play before the impact of nationalism. The awareness of hierarchy and divisions was essential to the people’s worldview. According to it, neighbors, newcomers, and strangers represented a civilization of lower or higher level. This is not to say such worldview patterns were exceptional or extraordinary. Pierre Bourdieu describes similar judgements of others in the French province of Béarn; John Campbell finds them in Greece. Nationalism changed the village throughout the interwar period. But so did urban and mass culture – this was not an isolated world. Still Eastern Galicia was “a local reality unto itself,” as Timothy Snyder has put it in his Reconstruction of Nations. I wrote this book not only for scholars but also for people who have roots in the region or those who are interested in borderlands as a phenomenon.

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) have inspired you recently?

Archives and fieldwork help me to come up with ideas and, perhaps for this reason, I usually think about multiple projects at a time. I love archival work. I reach a level of concentration that is difficult to get elsewhere. And archives as institutions are themselves a rich source of peculiar stories and captivating interactions. So, to my mind, inspiration is not only about ideas. It is also about a certain type of excitement – I know that if I lose it, I won’t be able to research and write anymore. But you were asking about other scholarly work: The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine and Ann Stoler’s Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times are among those books I look forward to reading. I often return to classics of anthropology and other less well-known works – such as Honour, Family and Patronage by John Campbell.

Citation: “I want to explore the contribution of Eastern Europeans to the debates on colonialism and racism” – 5 in 10 with Olga Linkiewicz, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, https//:trafo.hypotheses.org/10484

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