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A Feminist Gulag

Marxist and feminist historian Katherine R. Jolluck may very well be a pioneer in applying her radical ideology to Polish studies in English. She has resolved, alas, to practice her deeply convoluted methodology on the history of Polish women in Stalin’s Gulag.  In her Exile and Identity: Polish Women in The Soviet Union During World War II (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), Jolluck deconstructs Polish female prisoners and deportees to reveal their alleged baseness, nationalism, bigotry, and intolerance. Thus, the scholar depicts Poles in Siberia in the crooked mirror of her methodology.

In reality, we receive two books under one cover: the first concerns deportations and the other identities. The former can be logocentric; the latter is Marxist-feminist through and through. In a way, we could obtain a decent monograph out of that mishmash if we just removed all the accretions of the author’s leftist ideology. Instead, what results from the oxymoronic attempts to marry logic and radicalism is a clash of civilizations playing out in the scholar’s mind to the great detriment of scholarship in general and the study of the Gulag in particular.

This clash reveals itself by systematic othering of Polish women. Thus, Jolluck excludes them and treats them as anomalies, alleged weirdoes, and even, sometimes, the archetype of all evil deriving from, naturally, the “patriarchate,” which, the historian alleges, they blindly followed.

The strongest point of Exile and Identity emerges when Jolluck paraphrases or, better yet, quotes profusely from the Hoover Institution archive’s documents generated by or about the exiles. Any historical accuracy disappears when the historian commences to “critique” them in congruence with her radical ideological preferences.  Her commentary tends to turn into stultifying propaganda.

Jolluck believes that the main problem seems to be that Polish women were allegedly victims of the stereotype of the “Polish Mother” (Matka-Polka) and Polish patriot, which dominated in interwar Poland (pp. 89, 98, 140).  The stereotype strengthened the “patriarchate,” from which Polish women were either unwilling or incapable of freeing themselves. Therefore, they were incapable of appreciating the liberating opportunities that materialized together with the Red Army’s arrival in Poland’s Eastern Borderlands in September 1939. Later, the Polish women could not appropriately – that is, in congruence with Marxism-feminism – find themselves in the Soviet exile.

Furthermore, instead of taking full advantage of the Soviet paradise, the Polish women stubbornly clung to their reactionary prejudices. According to Jolluck, the worst outcome was that the forced exile conditions to the USSR caused an absolute leveling and equality of suffering, which resulted in the strengthening of all their patriotic and religious prejudices. That means that their tragedy caused the solidification of solidarity among Polish women of all social estates and classes. Maintaining and strengthening faith and patriotism, as well as saving families, became the basic priority for the victims of Communism. However, national solidarity excluded individuals who either violated it or refused to belong to it. Thus, national solidarity was intolerant, which earns it Jolluck’s opprobrium.

Thus, the author insinuates that the Polish victims do not deserve compassion and sympathy because they themselves made “the Other” victims of their intolerance through their nationalist and religious attitude. Polish women presumptuously expected that all other women should be like them. They demanded that all good patriots conducted themselves in congruence with the “Polish Mother” and good Catholic code of honor.

As a result, Polish women implacably criticized Jewish women from Poland for their insufficient Polish patriotism; they impudently rejected Soviet women for their Communist churlishness and lack of culture; and they dismissed Kazakh males and females, allegedly in a racist vain, as uncivilized “Asia.”

Naturally, it is all the fault of the “patriarchate” and “Polish nationalism” (p. 283). In this manner, Jolluck conjures up a false reality, where she splatters around happily with her ideological kith and kin stung by Hegel. As a result, for example, Jolluck is utterly lost as far as the sources of Polish women and men’s identity. Identity, or self-definition, is the most valuable in every unique individual. Individual identities that are compatible fuse and join in collective mentalities. As far as Polish women deported to Siberia, it was precisely their national identity based upon Polish patriotism, the Catholic faith, and Western civilization that constituted a common point of reference. Their collective mentality, therefore, clashed with the Marxist Soviet anti-civilization. Jullock is incapable of processing and comprehending that because such reality would challenge the ideological phantoms she serves.

Exile and Identity is a flawed effort that reflects the dilemma of a vicious circle, or perhaps even a kołobłąd – dog chasing its own tail – according to Feliks Koneczny’s nomenclature. Jolluck endeavors with stubborn futility to adhere to contradictory civilizations at the same time. She mixes logocentrism with Marxism-feminism with a fatal outcome. Generally, it appears that Jolluck either attempts to manipulate the reader with nimble dialectics or she is incapable of drawing logical conclusions from the phenomena she purports to describe, because each event, which the author depicts truthfully, she immediately appends with a Marxist commentary that through the force of inertia aims either to relativize or even negate the meaning of the initial descriptions of the historian. Simultaneously, as a pioneer of this kind of phantasmagoria in Polish historiography, Jolluck serves her flock of followers as the founding commissar of political correctness in deconstructing the Gulag.

It can be plainly seen in her nomenclature. For example, for our ideological pioneer, a pregnant woman does not carry a child in her but only a “fetus” (p. 147). Is she not aware of sonograms? If it moves, it’s a baby, as they say. Yet, this is one of the tell-tell signs of her ideological affliction. To the drums of Marxist-feminist ideology, therefore, the Poles are sexists and bigots (p. 80). On the other hand, because Polish women were allegedly terrorized by “patriarchy,” they projected “weakness and passivity” (p. 105). Of course, Jolluck rejects the notion that Polish ladies expected from men chivalry and respect, both concepts hated and, simultaneously, incomprehensible by Marxist-feminists. However, both in Poland and the Soviet Union, Polish women displayed courage and initiative. One should not confuse good manners and cultural norms, which derived from upbringing predicated on the intelligentsia and nobility paradigm, with “weakness and passivity” – unless one sports the blinders of Marxism-feminism.

“The female body as a social construct” (p. 148) is yet another ideological contortion of the author as far as nomenclature. This entails pretending – by mimicking Jolluck’s beloved Judith Butler of “gender fluidity” fame (p. 183) – that the female body exists not as an objective biological entity but only as an alleged invention of the “patriarchate.” Already in her introduction, the author of Exile and Identity triumphantly stresses the “fluidity” of the concepts such as “nation,” “gender,” or “class” (p. xxvi). Thus, the narrative quickly becomes a mishmash of moral relativism with an absolutist teleology of Marxist dialectics. This is a patented and guaranteed Pavlovian reflex of the methodological school worshipped by Jolluck.

There are also other ideological deformations. For example, the author graces us with a revelation that interwar Poland persecuted its citizens more than the Soviet Union (p. 182). The historian claims that the Poles were even worse than the American racists (p. 234); and that the Poles were responsible for the alleged “colonialism,” naturally in the Eastern Borderlands (p. 244). According to the historian, in 1945, the Red Army fulfilled a “beneficial function” (p. 250) because Communism brought equality and, thus,  our ideologue insinuates, it was good (p. 259). Yes, indeed, Stalin brought equality of death, starvation, and exile only to install Communist overlords to tyrannize the survivors for the next 50 years.

Jolluck suffers further that Poland’s Constitution of April 1935 lacks inclusive feminist language, sensitivity training us to the fact that everything is expressed in masculine cases. This is a sad example of mirror imaging complements of the mental straightjacket of American academia. Likewise, the historian rages that the Polish women in the Gulag believed in “human nature” (p. 261), immutable, permanent, just like the Catholic Church teaches, including female nature, common to all ladies. Oh, the horror of horrors!

Our feminist further pouts that in their recollections from the Soviet hell, Polish women condemn sexual perversions, which they ascribe mainly to degenerate Soviet women. This is undoubtedly another sign of Polish prejudice, perhaps even racism. Polish women did not enjoy lesbian orgies (p. 272). Imagine that. This is a total lack of tolerance and openness. Throughout, Jolluck juxtaposes such allegedly uncouth and redneck Polish opinions with enlightened and sophisticated musings of such Jewish-German Communists as Margaret Bubber-Neumann or Elinor Lipper. The author does so only because she approves of their class analysis, reflecting her own way of looking at the world (p. 275). Most Polish women unequivocally rejected such a prism. Thus, one should not compare apples and oranges. Each individual was looking at the same thing but saw something different.

Let us admit, however, that grains of truth percolate here and there in Exile and Identity. Once in a blue moon, there is a gem of deep thought bashfully staring at us. However, such delightful moments are imprisoned almost immediately in a straightjacket of Marxist-feminist ideology. For example, while discussing the process of turning Polish children over to Soviet orphanages, the researcher sets up a false dichotomy between “Polish nationalism” and “the love and humanity.” According to her, Polish women professing the former would allow their children to die instead of handing them over to be Sovietized. Others chose contradictory values, and the child lived.

However, the horrifying choice was different.  The child either lives and becomes a Communist (or, under different geographic conditions, a Nazi, because the mechanism was the same), or the child remains with the mother who radiates a decent civilization, thus “the love and humanity,” and not the Communist civilization of class struggle and death, which obtains from Jolluck’s Marxism, including in its feminist variant that, in addition, champions the struggle between the sexes. It was for those reasons that Polish women considered the Soviet Union as “foreign and wrong” (p. 71).

Women do not live in a vacuum. Men exist as well. From time to time, the author refers to the lot of Polish men in the Gulag. How different was their predicament from the female experience? Jolluck fails to enlighten us. In reality, it differed very little, or not at all. To treat women in isolation for the benefit of the author’s ideology serves to castigate the “patriarchate,” but it lacks much scholarly value.

In other words, Jolluck judges mid-20th century Polish women through the prism of contemporary standards of Marxism-feminism. This is an anachronistic approach. However, paradoxically, because of Marx’s dialectical formula’s timelessness, the result is that in some places, the author’s interpretation differs little from the standard narratives of Stalin’s times. For example, Bolshevism and feminism appear to be one and the same as far as slave labor is concerned. According to the Marxist interpretation, women are just as much slaves (pardon, happy citizens) as other Soviet subjects. This is about egalitarianism, you see. Both women and men were forced to work in the USSR.

However, the Poles cared about freedom, this including the freedom to choose not to work. For Polish women and men, forcing slave labor upon females insulted honor and chivalry, which irritates Jullock. Therefore, according to her analysis, Polish women considered themselves too magnificent to lower themselves to physical work. The feminist scholar fails to comprehend that the objection to slave labor did not derive from the rejection of work as such but, instead, was a form of resistance against slavery (pp. 66-67). At such junctions – and there are many – one is hard-pressed to shake off the impression that Jolluck either surreptitiously or subconsciously purveys a Communist narrative. Such is the “logic” of Marxism-feminism.

It is characteristic that Jolluck fails to grasp in this context that the idea of Polishness is a universal badge of honor, and not a narrow ethno-nationalist label (p. 212). Polishness and Polish nationalism were not ethnic but cultural. In this sense, anyone could be a Polish woman or man out of choice, so long as she or he adhered to the dominant cultural norms. These included an intelligentsia-nobility culture of service and good manners, as well as patriotism and faith, naturally with a reference to Catholicism mainly. One did have to be neither an “ethnic” Pole nor a Catholic to qualify as Polish. This Jolluck misses completely and comprehends not despite her own Polish roots. Perhaps she was not taught any of that at home. Alternatively, perhaps, her decent reflexes of a child from a nice and simple family, without proper intellectual reinforcement and faith, crumbled under the steamroller of Marxism-feminism, which seduced the rootless historian in college.

This personal tragedy reflects the lack of Jolluck’s intellectual preparedness to tackle such a complicated subject, which she decided to examine in Exile and Identity. For example, she is incapable of transcending the economic analysis of Polish women in the interwar Kresy. Yet, it was not economy but culture that constituted the main ingredient determining Polish identity there. Class analysis does not suffice. The author here is deaf and blind, as they say in Chicago.

In this context, it is clear that instead of worshipping such false idols as Joan Wallach Scott and her drivel about feminist class struggle (p. 299 n. 4), Jolluck should familiarize herself with the work of such insightful scholars as Elisabeth Fox-Genovese about the antebellum South and her subtle analysis of black slavery and the culture of the white plantation owners. This will certainly be more helpful to understand, as well as compare and contrast, the Polish landed nobility and its culture, on the one hand, and the experience of the slaves in the Gulag, on the other.

Exile and Identity would definitely gain if Jolluck could reach the intellectual heights charted out by Ewa M. Thompson. But, alas, the feminist author cannot. Instead, Jolluck belongs squarely in the incestuous intellectual club of the Left. Its main commandment is to repeat its platitudes ad nauseam to drum them into the acolytes’ heads as the truth revealed. If all the leftists agree on something, it means that they must be right. Everyone outside of the club’s donkey choir is thus excluded. This is a significant loss for scholarship in general and the studies of the Polish experience in the Gulag in particular.

We cannot wait for either Jolluck or someone from her stable to decide to concentrate on Polish Christian prisoners of Auschwitz and other German Nazi concentration camps. We can just imagine scrutinizing the victims through the same prism of “Otherness.” We can anticipate that – just like the Siberian exiles – the Polish women will be depicted as inferior victims at best or despicable at worst and, thus, not progressive. They will be truly unworthy of the whole spectrum of our sympathy for many reasons. First, they were patriotic (“nationalist”). Next, they were religious (“bigots”). Moreover, they had false consciousness, because the “patriarchate” duped them. Or they were conscious reactionaries and, therefore, “gender traitors.” This feminist slur shares the same moral dimension as “race traitors” with the Nazis.

Andrea Dworkin provided the original feminist paradigm for such ideological narratives a while ago. Moreover, the reader will be left wondering whether such offerings as Exile and Identity’s Marxist-feminist agitpropaganda reflects coyness or suffers from cognitive dissonance. The worst outcome of this exercise is that Jolluck and her comrades poison with their nefarious methodology the next generations of students.

Is there a bright side at all here? One guesses that other feminists will read Exile and Identity and, therefore, within their sect, they will not only reinforce their false Marxist and feminist stereotypes, but they will derive a smattering, even if in a warped shape, of a tragic history of Polish women exiled and imprisoned by the Communists. Will that moderate the leftist ideology of the feminists? I doubt that. This will not even allow them to reflect that their own totalitarian ideology is co-responsible for the horror of the Gulag.

At best, we can hope that thousands of years from now, if all other books burn, but the output of Jolluck and her stable somehow survives, a logocentric historian will be able to get rid of the ideological straightjacket to discover – like an archeologist, the suffering, sacrifice, and heroism of Polish women brought up on the religious and patriotic paradigm. Hopefully, nobody will be forced to endure the Gulag in the future, including a feminist one.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

Washington, DC, 25 September 2020


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1 comment

Andrew D Sorokowski February 25, 2021 at 8:07 am

This review exposes the intellectual conformism all too common in today’s academia.
One footnote: when the Red Army invaded the eastern kresy, the reception was in fact mixed. Except for a few communists, the Poles resented the incursion, and some landowners and their families were murdered. Some of the peasants, whether Ukrainian or Polish or Byelorussian, did welcome the Reds. Many were later disillusioned, especially when the Soviets attacked the Greek-Catholic (as well as Roman Catholic) Church. The Ukrainian intelligentsia — again, except for the few communists — were very skeptical of the Soviets’ promises of liberation. In addition, the pitiful condition of the Red Army troops shocked people used to the higher cultural and economic conditions of Poland. Ukrainian historian Vladyslav Hrynevych provides interesting details of all this in his recent study of public opinion in the USSR during World War II.
Thank you for this trenchant review.

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