BOOKS: European dreamers

BETWEEN EAST AND WEST by Anne Applebaum, Papermac £10
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SEEN as a landscape of history and politics, Europe has two earthquake zones. One is the "Burgundy" zone disputed between Germany and France, running up the left bank of the Rhine from Switzerland to the North Sea. But there is another "Burgundy" in the east. It starts on the Baltic, and stretches south through the lands of the ancient Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Ukraine to the Black Sea. This strip of borderland between greater powers - Russia and Poland - has been endlessly contested over the centuries. Its assorted peoples have been constantly told they belong to this, that or the other nation, and now they are trying wildly to invent their own "historic" identities. This ground too, trampled by Russian, Polish, Turkish, Tatar, Cossack and German armies, is drenched in blood and a seedbed for fresh wars.

Anne Applebaum, an American journalist married to a Pole, travelled through the Borderlands from north to south. She has written a book which anyone remotely concerned with east and central Europe must read. But she writes so well, with a novelist's eye for people and detail, that her book will seize readers who know nothing about this bit of the world. She knows what she is talking about, speaking fluent Russian and Polish and carrying a good education in both literatures in her head. She is not on a "quest", which allows her to use her intelligence on what is genuinely interesting.

Anne Applebaum comes from a Jewish family whose ancestor fled from these territories; she meets the usual numbskull anti-Semitism, and stands by the grave of "1137 Peaceful Soviet Citizens" (ie Jews murdered by the Nazis) which might well contain the bones of distant relations. But she makes no grand issue of that. She is almost equally revolted by the arrogance of a New York Lubavitcher in Minsk, who regards her as an assimilated turncoat.

Best of all, she understands nationalism. She knows what most of her English friends do not: that nationalism can be benign and necessary as well as atavistic and dangerous. When a Minsk intellectual tells her that "we young Belarusians can be like gods - we can create the world by inventing new words", Applebaum appreciates both the monstrosity and the wisdom of what he is saying. When a Ukrainian mourns that "real Ukrainians do not have a picture of themselves", or when a gaudy Polish woman boasts and weeps over family graves in once-Polish Vilnius, she knows that these are not just outbursts of backwardness but expressions of real need - to create free, coherent societies which make sense to their members and may one day be obeyed out of respect rather than fear.

This is a book of places and personalities. I will remember the huge Polish castle at Chocim on the Dniester, guarding a place where Europe once ended, and Applebaum's dextrous urban archaeology in the decay of once-German Kaliningrad. But, above all, her people stay in the mind. There is Father Stanislovas, a Pole who defected from Polishness to Lithuanianise himself, who spent seven years in the gulag and now lives in rooms crammed with flotsam saved from the past. There is old Ona Baubliene in her garden in the village of Perloja, still waiting for her husband to return; he went into the forest to fight for the village's independence more than 50 years ago. There is (my favourite) Pan Michal, a Polish bard and extemporiser whose village is now in Belarus. Pan Michal, who speaks in verse, is in love with dead Maryla who jilted the young poet Mickiewicz here nearly 200 years ago. Above all, there are the hopeless, not always endearing people who have been marooned by history; Gerda Petrovna near Kaliningrad who cannot admit that she was once German, or old ladies in Belarus who think that they still live in Poland and that Pilsudski is President, or Yelena and Sveta, Russian academics stranded in the dilapidated fortress- city of Kamenets.

The drunken Russian smugglers who adopt Anne Applebaum on the boat to Istanbul still think that Russia bestrides the world and is the fount of all human culture. If this book has a weakness, it is that she goes to the opposite extreme. All that is Russian or Communist is a single monster, the enemy of all that is wise, various, traditional or tender. There are good reasons to be frightened of what Russia may do and become, but it is no good being Manichean about it. This book itself shows that anyone who draws a line across that part of Europe, putting darkness on one side and light on the other, is contributing to the region's main industry: dreaming.