European “Siberia”

I’m now delving into a new topic for my postdoctoral research and explore the world of women labour activists in the Habsburg Galicia at the turn of the centuries. One of great books that I’ve read on Galicia is “Oil Empire: Visions of Prosperity in Austrian Galicia” by Alison Fleig Frank. It’s a splendid book overall – not only for the students of Galician history, but also for those with an interest in the history of oil industry. 

As I spent the last five years researching and writing on the history of the Russian and Soviet penal system in Western Siberia, one passage in particular has drawn my attention. It jumped at me simply because I’ve stumbled across the too familiar trope of Siberia many times, but did not expect to find it here.

Discussing the early days of the Galician oil industry, Fleig Frank writes: “External participation in Galician industry was accompanied by overt and hidden attempts to “civilize” the province and its inhabitants, or, conversely, to develop appropriate strategies for dealing with the lack of civilization in Europe’s own “Siberia.” (p. 75) On the next page, she continues: “Traveling to Borysław in the early 1880s was an onerous task not to be undertaken lightly. Although it was connected to the Austrian railroad network via an extension of the Dniesterbahn in 1872, travel remained arduous. First, the visitor would be subjected to the discomforts and hazards of Galician train travel, immortalized by General Stumm’s complaint in Robert Musil’s 1930 novel The Man without Qualities: “But do you know what it’s like?! It’s like traveling second class in Galicia and picking up crab lice! I’ve never felt so filthy helpless!” After arriving in Borysław’s train station, which was itself two kilometers from the town, the hapless visitor would struggle to find a hackney carriage to take him the remaining distance along a dirt road that was impossible for a pedestrian with city shoes to navigate.”


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