„This is why I write history from the viewpoint of human rights”, says Daniel Beauvois in his book on Polish nobility in Right-Bank Ukraine. While Russian officials attempt to disown the stiff-necked Polish nobles, both parties agree on exploiting the labor and denying rights to those working the land. Beavois describes how the struggle for the land between Polish landowners and Russian state apparatus, “despite its national and political importance, was a tiny war in the midst of an ocean of human misery”. The peasants in question, perhaps not yet seeing themselves as Ukrainian but decidedly distinct from the Polish landowners and Russian administrators, defied the constraints imposed on them until their world was swept away by war and revolution.
This book could not have been written by a Polish historian. Beauvois’ writing is at odds with the collective Polish image of the lost Eastern borderland as an Arcadian space of harmony, presided over by the benevolent Polish nobleman whose homestead was the stronghold of Polish nationhood and of higher culture on the threshold of Asiatic Russian empire. Peasants do not feature in this idyllic picture at all.
The omission of the Ukrainian peasant from the mental landscape of Polish past is not terribly surprising in a nationally divided history. But the Polish peasant does not fare any better. Peasants are almost completely absent from the narrative of Polish struggle for freedom and independence which dominates the popular and official version of Polish history. The 1794 Kościuszko insurrection is the one notable exception, but that episode is only included in the narrative in its toned-down version, its social radicalism defanged and erased. The Polish peasant is only notable in the uprising of 1830 and 1863 by his absence. They were not his fights. Crucially, the broad masses of ethnically Polish peasants play no role in the miracle of 1918 when Poland comes back from the dead.
When they do appear, it is as a subject of reproach: they lacked national consciousness, they did not support those fighting for their freedom from foreign oppression, their stolidity and conservatism was an obstacle for real progress for Poland. Peasants are a constant disappointment to the exasperated Polish inteligent, beaurocrat, and politician. Time and again, they betray Polish nationhood. They fail the Polish national idea. This disappointment is rooted in the assumption that they indeed owed something to the national idea, the charge of betrayal – that this is where their loyalty was supposed to be. And yet, why would they owe anything to the national idea? The bearers of that idea were the pauperized heirs of the very landowners whose livelihoods were based on the peasants’ forced labor. The national idea held no attraction to them. It only demanded their loyalty.
The frustration with peasants lingers in historiography to this day, in curious ways. They are never what historians want them to be. I recently sat through a panel discussion of two prominent Ukrainian historians and a guest from Poland (all men, including the moderator, but that’s a different subject) about memory of the traumas of the twentieth century and all those charges rang through their arguments again, exasperatingly. I found a pet peeve. Not that I lack those.
What remains, I suppose, is to follow Daniel Beauvois’ lead and try to write history from the viewpoint of human rights. The tired cliché of giving the voiceless their voice back springs to mind. But the peasant masses never lost theirs and were never shy about using it. They made their opinions known, time and again. Eastern Europe has a long history of peasant rebellions; the most recent one in Poland was the Great Agrarian Strike of 1937: millions participated. Peasants are not an inscrutable force locked in a magical mindset of semi-pagan superstition. They have their voice.