The Eastern Borderlands A description of the collection Digital documents
The Digital National Library Polona is proud to present the collection Kresy Wschodnie (The Eastern Borderlands). This collection embraces diverse publications safeguarded in the National Library that concern Poland’s former eastern territories.
The collection has an open character. It is to be successively expanded with new positions, for instance, ones that until now could not be included because of relevant copyrights.
The documents associated with the history and culture of the interwar Republic’s eastern borderlands are also presented in two voivodeship libraries, to wit, the Kujawsko-Pomorska Digital Library (the Vilnensia Collection, the Lituanica Collection) and in the Podlaska Digital Library (the Cultural Heritage Collection). The holdings of those two libraries and the National Library’s Polona provide a vast mosaic of the multifaceted past of Poland’s onetime eastern borderlands.
The project is co-financed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.
To display the list of digital documents from this collection click "Publications list" in the menu on the left side of the screen
Presentation of collection: Jarosław Kurkowski. English translation: Philip Earl Steele
The Eastern Borderlands
The term kresy is understood and defined in sundry ways. Nonetheless, it is a concept of enormous importance for Polish national consciousness and national culture. Literally meaning “lines”, the plural noun kresy suggests frontier lands and originally referred to borderland military outposts protecting Podolia and Ukraine from Tatar incursions and Cossack forays in the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Thus, kresy came to mean the Commonwealth’s south-eastern territories. To a limited degree, Americans might do well to think of the kresy as they do the frontier, their onetime beckoning West. For that matter, the kresy in Polish imagination are similarly fraught with legend. Indeed, Polish literature concerning the kresy also gave rise to the myth of that land’s chivalric ethos, swashbuckling panache, and valiant deeds. After the Commonwealth’s final partitioning by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1795, in the 19th century the kresy began to have a new, expanding, and mythologized meaning – something that was fostered by the reigning philosophy of culture during Romanticism, with its affirmation of local patriotism, of the folk, with its love for artifacts embodying the past, its fascination with ethnography, history, and archaeology, and its weakness for the metaphor of a lost Arcadia. The decisive role in this was played by Wincenty Pol’s poem Mohort, written between 1840 and 1852, and published in 1854. On the basis of accounts taken from surviving veterans, Pol suggestively characterized the life and customs of frontier-soldiers out on the kresy. Mohort, the main hero, is the last of the Commonwealth’s knights – and he valiantly defends his post against all odds. The kresy are conceived geographically in Pol’s poem, as “the Tatar borderlands” between the Dniestr and the Dniepr rivers. This “rhapsody” was enthusiastically received and remained popular with readers for long years. Moreover, the kresy permanently entered the canon of the most important concepts for Polish national and political consciousness – as well as for Polish scholarship, literature, and publicist writing. Under the influence of political events the extent of the kresy stretched to embrace ever more territories to Poland’s east, including the old Commonwealth’s north-eastern lands. It soon came into practice that “Kresy” (with a capital ‘K’) signified the geographical name for the whole of eastern lands to have come under Polish influence and rule. As J. Kolbuszowski explains (in: Kresy, Wrocław 2004), the idea of the union of those lands with the Commonwealth and the integration of their cultures with Polish culture writ large typified popular imagination in the late 19th century. All the easier, therefore, is it to understand why the publicist organ of Polish conservatives in Kiev from 1906 to 1908 was titled Kresy. Geographically, the kresy were identified with Ziemie Zabrane, “the seized lands”, that is, the vast territory between the eastern border of the Kingdom of Poland and the eastern border of the Commonwealth prior to 1772 (excepting the lands along the line running from Lwów to Wilno). From 1772 to the close of WWI this huge swath was under Russian partition. Especially after the collapse of the Poles’ November Uprising of 1830-31 against Tsarist rule, “the seized lands” were subjected to intense Russification and efforts to fuse them into the Russian Empire. In the most eastern areas “Russian tradition and the expansion of Tsarist civilization” gradually made inroads and partially even supplanted Polish culture as based in the Latin West (L. Zasztowt, Kresy 1832-1864, Szkolnictwo na ziemiach litewskich i ruskich dawnej Rzeczypospolitej, [Schooling in the Lithuanian and Ruthenian lands of the former Commonwealth] Warszawa 1997).
Poland’s new territorial shape after 1918 brought about yet another geographical change to the concept of the kresy. The kresy came to refer to the lands lying along Poland’s entire eastern border (as defined by the Treaty of Riga, 1921), together with its two most important centers Wilno (Vilnius) and Lwów (Lviv), cities which hitherto had not been thought of as part of the kresy. Following the Second World War that new territorial scope of the concept survived and became an important element both of society’s historical memory of Polish state sovereignty there and the forced shifting of Poland’s state territory westward, as brutally carried out by the USSR and Poland’s new communist masters. During the People’s Republic of Poland the various forms of the word “kresy” were censored, and therefore excluded from public life and speech.
The National Library’s collection reflects that most recent interpretation of the kresy: the eastern lands of the interwar Republic that were lost to the USSR at the close of World War Two. This includes the voivodeships of Wilno, Grodno, Polesie, Wołyń, Tarnopol, Stanisławów, and portions of Lwów and Białystok voivodeships. Notably, only the voivodeships of Stanisławów and Tarnopol were part of the original, Old Polish kresy. Thus, one need not in this collection look for publications concerning those regions and places known from history and literature that are associated with the more eastern parts of the Commonwealth’s kresy – ones such as Kamieniec Podolski. Słuck, Targowica, and Chocim, as they were not part of the interwar Republic.
Regardless of the evolution of the meaning of “kresy”, they were always associated with outlying lands cross-pollinated by diverse cultures, lands sharing closely kindred languages, ethnic origins – and lacking both clear, lasting borders and/or categories of difference. Many of the more general definitions of “kresy” stress not only their territorial character (one ever associated with being a vast borderland), but first and foremost how the kresy were a cultural, linguistic, and religious melting pot, a meeting ground and transit zone for many cultures. Today the term “kresy” is also applied to other regions that meet those conditions, though we Poles then use an adjective for clarity (e.g., “Kresy Zachodnie” – the western kresy). Thus, in order to avoid any possible confusion, this Collection is titled Kresy Wschodnie – The Eastern Borderlands.
In the period of Old Poland the kresy and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were an altogether unique realm in Europe, one where Western civilization (as cultivated by Latin Poland) commingled with Byzantine-Ruthenian civilization like nowhere else. Thus, the Commonwealth’s eastern borderlands were a place where the historical, cultural, and state traditions of Poles, Lithuanians, Byelorussians, and Ukrainians coexisted and blossomed. The centuries-long union between Poland and Lithuania gave rise to the development of an inimitably rich cultural mosaic, a veritable civilization of its own that conjoined East (including Islam) and West. Indeed, despite inevitable tensions, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth brought forth standards of tolerance, coexistence, and federal concepts in statecraft that were unparalleled in Europe. To a certain degree that tradition was resurrected on the kresy during the interwar period, although in this instance the coexistence of a many nations, cultures, and religions did not take place without violent conflict. For during that era of nationalism in Europe, ethnic tensions proved much more difficult to resolve than in early centuries. This of course was aggravated by the state efforts to Polonize the peoples of the kresy, an area nearly all Poles then viewed as Polish. In this sense the kresy are not to be treated as peripheries far from the centers of intellectual life and its main thrusts. This is made clear when we reflect on the achievements of scholars and scientists hailing from Stefan Batory University in Wilno and Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów.
Thus, there is little need to justify the creation of a large collection devoted to the topic of Poland’s eastern borderlands. After all, the enormous interest in the kresy among Poles both at home and abroad gives the collection practical meaning. Moreover, for many people who come from the kresy, the topic is hugely important, even vital. For others, particularly the young, it is a history that is ever being rediscovered – whether through family ties, readings, contacts, or travels. The best evidence of this is in seen in the numerous new book publications, scholarly symposia, cultural festivals, and the ever more popular visits to the onetime eastern borderlands of interwar Poland and the old Commonwealth.
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A description of the collection
The Eastern Borderlands Collection comprises altogether diverse publications that offer two differing aspects of historical retrospection. The first is that of materials having historical significance at the time they arose, and the second is that of source material for historical reconstruction.
In order to illustrate the manifold richness of issues surrounding the eastern borderlands it need be explained that in creating this Collection we had to carry out a selection of items from all types of library collections. Hence, the Eastern Borderlands Collection boasts books that portray everyday life, guidebooks for tourists, memoirs, souvenirs, magazines and journals, along with documents on social life and iconographic materials (albums, photographs, postcards, graphic art, and drawings) that are all the more valuable as they oft’times show architectural monuments that no longer exist.
Publications pertaining to the eastern borderlands are also preserved in the Podlaska Digital Library (PBC). As Podlasie’s eastern location would suggest, of special significance in the PBC is its vast treasury of materials on the interwar Republic’s eastern lands that were lost to the USSR in result of World War Two. Podlasie voivodeship shares a wealth of historical and cultural ties with Lithuania. Indeed, until 1569 (the year Poland and Lithuania enacted their constitutional union) Podlasie voivodeship was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This shared history and cultural heritage energize the research that Białystok’s scientific and academic centers carry out in studying today’s Lithuania, Byelorussia, and Ukraine.
The libraries that are participating with the Podlaska Digital Library possess in their own holdings numerous publications pertaining to the kresy. They include not only studies and monographic works, but most especially precious source documents. The Podlaska Digital Library also makes available periodicals published in Wilno that entail a proud legacy of the Lithuanian capital’s dynamically developing scholarly and literary center.
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