Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe by Anne Applebaum, Papermac, £10 NO'l WEN II IL IlloSt insular of "Blimps" could remain indifferent to the affairs of Eastern Europe after reading Anne Applebaum's enthralling account of her travels across the borderlands between Catholic and Orthodox Christendom.
Her peregrinations take her across the flat plain which lies to the East of Poland arid to the west of Russia and so made eminently tempting to successive ways of invaders that has only just cast aside the overpowering shackles of 45 years of Soviet domination.
So unstable is the region that even today, a man may have been born under Austro-Hungarian Imperial Rule, grown up in the independent Polish state, spent his entire working life within the Soviet Union only to arrive at the twilight of life in an independent Ukraine without ever leaving his native village. As this predicament implies, everyone claims everything land, culture and even national heroes as their very own.
Thus, Adam Mickiewicz is best known in the West as a great Polish poet; but he is also esteemed by Belarussians as their patriotic bard, Mickievic. Simultaneously, to Lithuanians, he is the incomparable Adomas Mickevicius, whilst some Israeli scholars even state he was of Jewish origin. To cap it all, the Bolsheviks re-interpreted his anti-Russian sentiments as an expression of the joint Polish-Muscovite struggle against Tsarism.
Yet despite the calamitous 20th century, not all of the past has been obliterated in Ztviseheneuropa.
As a nationalist in Minsk observes to Applebaum, "the Belarussians are like fish who have been swimming beneath the ice. Armies have passed above, marching back and forth.
"Prussians and Russians have occupied them, colonised them, taught them ED
speak other languages and forget their history.
But beneath the ice they have preserved a memory of old things". Benignly, though not uncritically, Applebaum herself has marched from Kahningrad (formerly Kumlanigsberg) via Vilnius in present day Lithuania, ending her journey in Odessa (home of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet, whose fate continues to bedevil Russo-Ukrainian Relations).
A lack of familiarity with one of Europe's least explored regions is no bar to enjoyment of this book.
The account of her visit to each area is preceded by superbly written historical introduction to the locality.
To paraphrase Mr Chamberlain, these may still be far-away countries but thanks to Anne Applebaum, they are at least a little better known and very much better understood.