It is as well to begin with the problem of typicality, which always presents itself in a study of this kind and can create uncertainties in the minds of laymen and professional anthropologists alike. Poland is a large and diverse country with over thirty-five million inhabitants. Just over three hundred of them live in Wislok, and the reader is therefore entitled to ask what general conclusions may be drawn from a detailed study of this one village.
Other anthropologists have had to confront a similar problem. Few of them have resolved it so explicitly as Paul Stirling in his study of a Turkish village in Anatolia, and to my mind he deals with it most satisfactorily. The reader is informed that there can be no such thing as a 'typical' village, and Stirling's "Turkish Village" in fact gives a composite picture of two very different settlements, situated quite close to each other geographically. However, the anthropologist does write in his introduction that he set out to select " an orthodox Muslim, Turkish-speaking village of modest size, fairly far away from the direct influence of the cities, on the plateau which forms the largest part of Anatolia", and, whilst the "typical" was nowhere to be found, "it was at least possible to avoid choosing villages with obvious peculiarities". Hence, although the anthropologist is concerned "to offer a model of social structure" and not to make general statements about all Turkish villages, nevertheless, it is important for Stirling that his villages resemble the other villages he has visited and that in key respects geography, economy, religion and ethnic profile - they should conform to preponderant statistical norms for the country.
In some contrast to Stirling's endeavor, let the distinctiveness of Wislok be understood at the outset:
1. Location. Despite her forever changing frontiers most of Poland has always consisted of low-lying plain. Wislok is located in the Lower Beskid section of the Carpathian Mountains, adjacent to the most stable frontier Poland has had; before 1919 this was the Hungarian frontier, since then it has marked the boundary with Slovakia.
2. Economy. Whereas agriculture has long dominated in lowland regions, in this region it has often been subordinate to an upland pastoral economy and to forestry.
3. Ethnicity. Although never separated from Poland politically throughout the centuries that it has been inhabited, the local population was not Polish until very recently. Before 1947 Wislok and most villages of this region were inhabited by Eastern Slavs who called themselves Rusnaks ('Ruthenes'). They spoke a language that is generally classified as a direct of Ukrainian and is still alive in the region today.
4. Religion. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church dominated in Poland, the Rusnaks belonged to the Orthodox and Greek Catholic (Uniate) Churches, employing the Byzantine rather than the Latin rite.
Wislok certainly bore close resemblance to hundreds of other villages in the Rus regions of the mountains (which included territory presently divided between the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary), but it must be granted that this has always been a rather exceptional region in the Polish national context, whilst the present community in Wislok is a distinct oddity. Yet it was not as a curiosity that I became interested both in its history and in its contemporary situation. My main interest was the general transformation of the rural scene in Eastern Europe in the socialist period, and my particular reason for going to Poland was that, alone among the states of the Soviet bloc, she avoided mass collectivization. I wished to inquire just what this major difference entailed, both at the local level and for the development of the national society, with particular reference to the persistence of 'peasantry'. The project seemed all the more timely as the country plunged into political and economic crisis in 1980-1. The bulk of this book presents information I gleaned about a single community; let me now try to show why, given my main interests, a village unlike most other villages proved to be a singularly instructive setting for fieldwork.
Introduction to Wislok
The village occupies a narrow valley in the Lower Beskid Mountains, close to the source of the river which also bears the name Wislok (pronounced Vees-wock). This river joins the San north of the town of Rzeszow and eventually flows into the Vistula (see Map 1). The town of Sanok is located on the San, at a point where the foothills of the mountains begin to merge with the plain. With brief exceptions, Wislok village has always belonged to the district of Sanok, the town being 38 km distant by the most direct route through the mountains. This district was historically part of the voivodeship (county) of Lviv (L'viv to Ukrainians, Lwow to Poles), but, when this city was incorporated into territories of the Soviet Union after the Second World War, Rzeszow became the new provincial capital. Finally, since 1974 this south-eastern corner of Poland has been administered as part of a new, much smaller voivodeship with its center at Krosno (see Chapter Five for details of the present system of administration).
The village also belonged to a Rus zone which preserved its separate identity until 1947. In common with the Rus population of most other villages of this zone, the inhabitants of Wislok were then forcibly evacuated from the mountains and dispersed at the other end of the country on territories 'regained' from Germany. The background to this tragedy is supplied in Chapter Two, which outlines the pre-socialist history of the village and the slow development of national consciousness amongst its inhabitants - a process which culminated only after the dissolution of their communities.
Many villages of the Rus zone disappeared permanently in the 1940s. In some areas, notably the more remote parts of the Bieszczady Mountains, resettlement did not begin until the 1960s. But in Wislok, and other villages where economic conditions were similarly favorable, resettlement by ethnic Poles began almost immediately after the deportation of the indigenous population. Immigrants to Wislok have therefore experienced the whole gamut of socialist policies over more than three decades. Their experience has differed, however, from that of the inhabitants of Polish villages in other regions, in that the formation and maintenance of this community have been more directly influenced by the socialist political environment, both by the general uncertainties this has created and by particular fluctuations in central government policy.
The population figure has been quite stable since the early 1960s, at about one-eighth of that of the pre-1947 community. However, continuing high turnover is an indication that the social integration of diverse groups of settlers has proved more difficult to achieve. Most were poor families who came to Wislok from the overcrowded lowland regions of southern Poland, mainly from the voivodeships of Rzeszow and Cracow. Later these were joined by more heterogeneous elements, and occupation became a more significant marker than diversity of origin. Forestry workers formed one major group, and State Farm employees another. Some immigrants who began by working in the socialized sector were later stimulated to commence independent farming operations, in which case they would be more likely to build permanent homes in the village. A number of industrial workers, attracted to the region in the course of an extensive public works program in the 1960s and 1970s, also settled as private farmers. Finally, some members of the indigenous population have been allowed to return since the late 1950s.
Obviously a rural community starting, as it were, from scratch in the socialist period is an exceptional case. In the Polish case it is not in fact so unusual, and recent developments in Wislok may usefully be compared with the evolution of hundreds of other villages which obtained a new, Polish identity as a result of the frontiers established after the war. It seems that social integration proceeded more rapidly in the western and northern territories obtained from Germany, partly because both agrarian and industrial conditions were more favorable here, and partly because the resettlement processes were better coordinated and speedily concluded. In contrast, in the former Rus zone resettlement was delayed, due to difficulties presented by the terrain and also to the legacy of the violent conflict which had precipitated its evacuation. Reconstruction was particularly slow in the Bieszczady Mountains, apart of the former Rus zone which became popularly known as a Polish Texas', as a frontier zone and melting pot of classes, religions and nationalities. No sharp natural boundary separates the Bieszczady section of the Carpathians from the rather gentler, rolling hills of the Lower Beskids; geographers may assign Wislok to the latter, but in the minds of most of her present inhabitants she falls within the section of Bieszczady.
This regional identification is interesting evidence of the self-perceptions of the new settlers, but it is nonetheless misleading. A village in Bieszczady proper, where the Forestry Commission and the State Farms dominate and the traditions of independent peasant farming have weakened substantially, would indeed throw little light on the fate that has overtaken the Polish peasantry as a whole. But in Wislok, formation of the new community began almost at once in 1948, and the salient feature of the local economy remains what it has been for many generations past independent family farming. This is no longer the case in many Polish mountain villages with a long and continuous history of upland farming. All too frequently, proximity to new sources of employment in towns, the expanding tourist trade, and other factors, such as the influx of dollars from relatives abroad, have undermined the farm economy. Wislok is not immune to any of these factors. However, the special circumstances in which the community took shape, its relative isolation and the character of the relationship locally between the public (socialist) and private (peasant) sectors make this an excellent laboratory in which to study the effects of socialist policies upon the peasantry. At this point, the question 'Why Wislok?' must revert back to the question 'Why Poland?'.
Introduction to Poland
Why Poland? Because no other state in the Soviet bloc has almost four-fifths of its agricultural surface in the ownership of more than three million private farmers. The Polish agrarian structure is quite remarkable in contemporary Europe; the parallels sometimes ..........................
Page prepared by Walter Maksimovich
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© LV Productions Originally Composed: April 8th, 1996
Date last modified: May 30th, 1999.