Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Wild East

I grew up fascinated by the Wild West. My first heroes were frontiersmen and the history of the mountain men, the scouts, the buffalo hunters shaped my whole life. They led me to Sisters, wanting to live among woods, streams and mountains in a vestige of the bygone frontier.

My explorations of frontiers took me to other lands that experienced similar conditions — South Africa, Australia, the British Northwest Frontier in what is now Pakistan.

But of late I’ve become obsessed with another frontier — one that remained “wild” for centuries and saw the greatest scale of human conflict in human history: The Wild East. Russia, Ukraine, Poland.

What an incredible history. My family just finished watching “With Fire and Sword,” a 1999 filming of a classic Polish historical novel recounting the 1647-48 uprising of the Ukrainian Cossacks against the Polish-Lithuanian nobles. Poland was then the most powerful nation in Central Europe. A decade of strife would fatally weaken her. Great movie, even better book.

I’ve been reading about the Russo-Polish War in 1921 and how the Poles stopped the Red Army from conquering Warsaw, which could have opened the floodgates to the Bolsheviks, allowing them to penetrate into Germany.

Wendy Holzman of Sisters put me in touch with her daughter, who is studying for a PhD, focusing on the Soviet Partisan movement during World War II. I'm looking forward to some lively e-mail discussions on this rich topic. How I envy her discovering all this at a young age! There's a lifetime's worth of history to mine!

This is some of the most dramatic stuff I’ve ever encountered, played out on a scale that almost dwarfs the imagination. Over vast geographic distances, over steppe, river and mountain, cultures clashed for centuries, now fighting, now trading, intermingling, conquering and receding. And it continued to play out into the 20th Century. You can still see it playing out right now, as Russia rises again and reasserts its "Eurasian" identity.

It’s heady stuff and it’s history few in the West know. The Wild East. Much wilder than anything I knew of before, for much longer. For me, a new frontier to explore.

Jim Cornelius, Editor

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