Borderlands between imperialism and nationalism

Adjusting in-between identities to radical regime change in modern East Central Europe

Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 326



Existing scholarship on borderlands has often pointed out that borderland identities typically survive radical changes in political regimes and administrative borders that are decided outside of local reach, on a central level. In East Central Europe, throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, borderland people changed allegiances and belongings to several states during the span of a lifetime. This panel brings together papers that look at the role of informal identities, grounded in local self-understandings that often elude officially designed identities. Such identities habitually display striking transnational world views, which transcend formal division lines and outlive violent ruptures like the two world wars as well as changes in forms of government from empire to nation-state. The papers in this panel address the question: how did vernacular understandings of geography, memory, language and religion anchor local self-identification in face of the fluidity of political regimes? By investing the in-between space they dwell on with symbolism and memory, borderland inhabitants have dealt with intersecting normative systems and categorizations – an ability that could make the difference between deportation and survival. The papers within this panel analyze large-scale manifestations of power writ-small, linking localities to prominent centers of power and revealing the transnational connections of borderland elites, being able to address and adapt to quickly changing agents of power. In short, this panel is about the role of mass politics in small places caught between violent transformations in politics and ideology.


Petru Szedlacsek (Max Planck Institute for Human Development Berlin)


Petru Szedlacsek (Max Planck Institute for Human Development Berlin)

Catherine Gibson (European University Institute Florence)


James Koranyi (University of Durham)


Catherine Gibson (European University Institute Florence)

Andreea Petruescu (University of Vienna)

Steven Seegel (University of Northern Colorado)

Petru Szedlacsek (Max Planck Institute for Human Development Berlin)



Catherine Gibson: 'Phantom borders' and the consolidation of regional identities in interwar Latvia

This paper explores the continuing influence of pre-World War I ecclesiastical, administrative and linguistic boundaries in interwar Latvia, despite the newly formalized state borders as a result of the Treaty of Riga signed in 1920 with Soviet Russia. By applying the concept of ‘phantom borders’ (Phantomgrenzen) to the case of Latgale – the borderland region of eastern Latvia – Catherine Gibson’s research examines how the concept of "Latgalian" as a term of regional self-identification came to be consolidated in Latvia during the early interwar period. More broadly, it reflects on the question of the transition between "imperial" and "national" perceptions of space, and the interplay between national and regional forms of identification.

Andreea Petruescu: 'Stiliştii' in Bessarabia during the interwar period: A case of failed national identity

This paper contributes an analysis of the violence involved in the standardizing drive targeting the post-imperial western borderland of the Russian Empire, called Bessarabia, by the Romanian nation-state, as it played-out over an apparently trivial matter like changing calendars. In the context of Bessarabia’s radical transformation from a multi ethnic and multi-confessional imperial periphery into a prominent Romanian province after World War I, Andreea Petruescu’s paper focuses on the plight of the rural community called "stiliști" that refused to adopt the Gregorian calendar and rejected the new standardizing identity imposed by Bucharest. What these conflicting identities consisted of and what were the consequences of this development for Romanian nation building in the Besserabian borderland are the leading questions of this contribution.

Steven Seegel: A map man’s transnational life: Arkadz Smolich and the contested geography of Belarus after World War I

Drawing from social biography and the history of science, this paper re-examines methodological currents in borderlands and transnational scholarship by evaluating the "European-ness" of the life and death of Arkadz Smolich (1891-1937), a renowned geographer and cartographer in the history of Belarus. Educated as a soil scientist in the Russian Empire in the tradition of Vasilii Dokuchaev, Smolich first was a student activist from a family of Ukrainian-Belarusian Orthodox priests, who became engaged in social democratic movements after the 1905 Revolution. He supported Belarusian independence in Minsk and Vilnius after World War I, and traveled to Germany and Poland, but was unable to find a Western patron. When he repatriated as a "bourgeois expert," in Lenin’s designation, to communist Minsk in 1922, he became the first chair of geography and scientific expert on regions in the Gosplan era, at the newly formed Belarusian State University. Involved in "affirmative action" campaigns in the Belarusian SSR, he was eventually charged with conspiracy, arrested in 1930, and deported to Ishim, in Tiumen oblast’. Smolich never returned "home" to Belarus. He was executed near Omsk in 1938, by the NKVD. Steven Seegel’s paper explores colonial epistemes and practices in geography across the Soviet divide in the 1920s-30s, looking at the usefulness of "European" not as a universal norm or category, but as deeply symbolic, emotional, provincial and local.

Petru Szedlacsek: Regime change during World War II in a Hungarian borderland: Szekler identity between fascism and communism

This is a study on the effect of World War II in the Hungarian-speaking borderland of Transylvania, called the Szeklerland, while it changed hands from Greater Romania to fascist Hungary and again to Romania in the eve of communist take-over. It investigates the ability of Szekler elites to maintain their monopoly over representing their region, while complicitly taking part in often conflicting policies of domination and control targeting the Szeklerland that were alternatively designed by Budapest and Bucharest, such as the Holocaust and socialist reforms. Petru Szedlacsek’s paper argues that Szekler elites skillfully adapted the ideological resources emanating from the two major centers of power to local identity in order to maintain their position as legitimate spokesmen for their community. 

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