«Our Border Mountains»: Life and Identity Politics in the Polish Carpathians

With the establishment of the Second Polish Republic after World War I, the Carpathian Mountains of the Habsburg province of Galicia became the southern border of the new country. They and their population were to reorient themselves northwards, towards Warsaw, away from the Viennese capital they had recognized for the last century and a half. Transformed into parts of Romania and Czechoslovakia, the neighboring territories of Bukowina and Hungary, with whom there had been a near imperceptible border, now were off limits to residents of the new Poland. The Carpathians became, according to the Poles, «our border mountains» - the sole defensible border of interwar Poland. Yet how defensible was the southern frontier, given that much of the border population - including the indigenous highlanders of the Eastern Carpathians known as the Hutsuls - did not think of itself in national terms?

This paper will consider life and identity politics in the Polish Carpathians in the interwar period. The peculiarities of Hutsul precarity (with continuities as well as ruptures) prompted new moves on the part of the Polish authorities in the early 1930s designed not only to help the Hutsuls economically but to turn them into loyal citizens of the Second Republic. The coexistence of this fragile yet fascinating «reservoir of the primitive» that was the Eastern Carpathians with the modernization plans sketched by representatives of the Polish military was predicated on the development of tourism and a respect for the region’s distinctiveness. Nevertheless, the «discovery» of the Hutsul region during the interwar period was decried by lowland Ukrainian activists, who, convinced that Hutsuls were (as yet nationally-unconscious) Ukrainians, painted the Polish-Hutsul encounter in the blackest of terms and sought to counter it.