Above the bank of the Dniepr the midnight cross of St Vladimir thrust itself above the sinful, bloodstained, snowbound earth towards the grim, black sky. From far away it looked as if the crosspiece had vanished, had merged with the upright, turning the cross into a sharp and menacing sword. But the sword is not fearful.
Everything passes away — suffering, pain, blood, hunger, and pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes towards the stars? Why?
– Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov, The White Guard (1925)
When Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy looked back on his time running an experimental school on the grounds of his 4,000-acre estate at Yasnaya Polyana, he was unable to include his geography lessons among the pedagogical success stories. The idealistic novelist and social reformer had done his best to conjure up the polar and equatorial regions, he had erected imaginary signposts pointing the way to Moscow and Kyiv, he had situated Yasnaya Polyana within its raion, its oblast, and its Rossiyskaya Imperiya, all for his pupils’ edification, but all to no avail. In his 1862 essay “The School at Yasnaya Polyana,” Tolstoy acknowledged that from the pragmatic standpoint of the half-literate children of Russia’s newly emancipated serfs, “it is not interesting for them to know what lies beyond our village, because they all know that there is the village of Telyátinki. And it is not interesting to know what lies beyond Telyátinki, because there, no doubt, is just such a village as Telyátinki, and Telyátinki with its fields is absolutely uninteresting.”
There were innumerable Telyátinkis scattered across the immense Russian Empire, modest settlements of the sort depicted in atmospheric canvases by Isaac Levitan and Arkhip Kuindzhi, their tumbledown thatched huts and multi-domed wooden churches folded into an incomprehensibly vast landscape of open fields and primeval beech forests. One such place was Mednoye, in the Kalininsky District of Tver Oblast. It was not interesting, you might say, to know what lay beyond Mednoye, because there, no doubt, was just such a village as Mednoye, and Mednoye with its fields was absolutely uninteresting. Yet even villages as profoundly uninteresting as Mednoye can achieve notoriety in the wider world, though rarely for positive reasons. Before being turned into corpse-strewn battlefields, the sites of epic heroism and ferocious slaughter, who had ever heard of villages like Austerlitz, Preußisch Eylau, and Borodino? Before being turned into killing fields full of mass graves, the sites of genocide and abominable lies, who had ever heard of villages like Khatyn, Łomazy, and Jedwabne? Countless souls would never learn what lay beyond those hitherto insignificant locales, where so many earthly roads ran out.
As for the humble village of Mednoye, it did possess one advantage that Telyátinki lacked: it straddled the post road from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, meaning that travelers were regularly passing through it, with some of them changing their horses at the post station, dining in a rustic roadside tavern, or spending a harrowing night upon a mattress of rotting straw in a flea-infested inn. One of these visitors was Aleksandr Nikolayevich Radishchev, a minor nobleman of Tatar descent turned novelist and proto-Tolstoyan social reformer, who described a brief stopover in Mednoye towards the end of his 1790 book Journey From Petersburg to Moscow. It was in Mednoye that Radishchev encountered that fixture of small-town Russian life before the emancipation reform of 1861 — the serf auction. “The day and hour of the sale arrives,” related Radishchev, and “the purchasers are gathering. Those who have been condemned to sale stand motionless in the room where it is being conducted … Scarcely had the terror-inducing hammer emitted its dull sound and unfortunates learned their fate — then tears, sobbing, groaning penetrated the ears of the entire assembly.” This haunting scene, or one very much like it, would later be illustrated in Nikolai Nevrev’s acclaimed 1866 painting The Bargain: A Scene from Serf Life (From the Recent Past), down to Radishchev’s description of a young woman available for purchase: “Vicious beast, monster, fiend! Look at her, look at her crimson cheeks, tears flowing from her delightful eyes.” How the law could permit this “abusive sale,” this “barbaric custom,” this “mockery of humanity,” the narrator of Journey From Petersburg to Moscow simply could not understand.
Ever the optimist, Radishchev assured himself that “the Almighty reviles compulsion, He revels in heartfelt desires,” and so the diabolical system he witnessed in action at Mednoye surely must come crashing down, on that radiant day when “the door bolts of the awful night will crack.” The great, slavering, Cerberus-like beast of Russian absolutism — “a monster stout, wicked, huge, with a hundred maws, and barking” — would not give up without a fight, and one could expect that “resilient power at its extinction will set a guard on speech and will gather all its strength so as with one final blow to crush liberty as it arises,” but nevertheless
mankind will howl in chains and, guided by the hope for freedom and the indestructible right of nature, will act…And power will be brought to tremble. At that time the consolidation of all forces, at that time heavy power will be dissipated in a single second. O day most sought of all days! I already hear the voice of nature, the primal voice, the voice of divinity. The gloomy firmament shuddered, and liberty shone forth.
It was Radishchev’s misfortune that this exhilarating vision of liberty’s heavenly apotheosis was not shared by his most important reader, the Empress Regnant Catherine II. Although the czarina fancied herself an enlightened despot, she was horrified by Radishchev’s heartfelt plea for the equality of all Russian classes before the law, habeas corpus, trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the emancipation of all serfs. Declaring Radishchev to be “a rebel, worse than [the Cossack insurgent] Pugachev,” and a “bilious,” “hypochondriacal” maniac who needed to be put down, or at the very least institutionalized, Catherine ordered the immediate suppression of Journey From Petersburg to Moscow. This ban would remain in place until the First Russian Revolution of 1905, though the work still managed to circulate among dissidents in samizdat form. Radishchev himself was tried in camera, shackled at the ankles for an added element of painful humiliation, and dispatched on a hellish two-year-long forced march to Siberia.
The exiled nobleman was able to return to Moscow after Catherine II’s death in 1796, but her successors proved little better. On September 11, 1802, Radishchev became convinced that he was going to be sent back into exile after Count Zadavosky remarked to him “Eh, Aleksandr Nikolayevich, do you still want to talk the same old nonsense? Or didn’t you have enough of Siberia?” In a panicked state, he seized a tumbler of nitric acid (kept on hand to clean his son’s tarnished epaulettes) and took a deep draught, swallowing a fatal dose of bitter poison. Barely managing to utter his last words — “I shall suffer a long time. Lord, have mercy on my soul!” — Radishchev lost consciousness, and then his life, as the resilient power of Russian autocracy delivered one final blow to the courageous author of Journey From Petersburg to Moscow. Some jesuitical dissimulation on the part of his faithful priest ensured that the suicide received a Christian burial in Saint Petersburg’s Volkovo Cemetery, somewhere in the Literatorskie Mostki, or “Writers’ Footway,” a sort of Poets’ Corner en plein air where Radishchev would eventually be joined by the earthly remains of luminaries like Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Ivan Goncharov, and Nikolai Leskov. Some consolation, perhaps, for poor Aleksandr Nikolayevich, though naturally his precise burial spot was consigned to oblivion over the years. Gone is his Verkhni Oblyazovo estate, gone is his Moscow flat, gone even is the site of his Siberian exile, now resting at the bottom of the Ust-Ilimsk Reservoir. Only his books remain, which would have suited him just fine. “It is not a stone with your name inscribed that will carry your fame into future centuries,” wrote Radishchev in his best-known work, but “your words, living always and forever in your creations … [that] will fly on the people’s lips beyond the boundless horizon of the centuries.”
Aleksandr Pushkin would later describe Radishchev, altogether uncharitably, as an “unusual criminal,” a “political fanatic, deluded, of course,” though he did credit his literary predecessor with “marvelous self-sacrifice and a kind of chivalrous scrupulousness,” venturing as he had, all alone and “without any support … to arm himself against the general order, against autocracy, against Catherine!” Admittedly noble and foolhardy in equal measure, the quixotic Aleksandr Radishchev had traveled the length and breadth of the Russia, from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and from Verkhni Oblyazovo to the Siberian village of Ilimsk, extolling the virtues of human freedom and tilting at the windmills of despotism every step of the way. In Mednoye, he had seen Romanov despotism at its most callous, and had dared to hope that one day his fellow Russians would be spared the fate of “someone in chains,” the fate of “someone locked in a fetid dungeon,” the fate of “a bullock in a yoke.” Yet the same gloomy firmament that overshadowed the empire at Radishchev’s birth remained fixed in place at his death, looming above his cold, sodden grave at Volkovskoe. The door bolts of that awful Russian night, meanwhile, remained latched firmly shut.
It was early in the autumn of 1939, and the Polish artist Józef Czapski was passing through the town of Starobilsk, now in a temporarily Russian-occupied part of Ukraine’s Luhansk Oblast. Making his way along “impoverished streets covered in slushy snow, past the houses of the town, poor straw-covered clay huts,” Czapski could see just how parlous life under Soviet domination had become. Starobilsk’s residents were peering back at him “from behind their low closed windows,” their faces gaunt and melancholy. Hunger was stalking about the villages of Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia, with bread somehow in “short supply in this land of grain.” The peasants of the Soviet Union were no longer serfs — Alexander II had done away with that shameful institution back in 1861 — but they were now languishing under something even more brutal, the “second serfdom” that attended Stalin’s farm collectivization drive. Famine, starvation, ruthless expropriations, extrajudicial punishment, and penal servitude had become unavoidable aspects of daily life in this supposed workers’ paradise. A series of five-year plans had promised modernization and industrial development, but Czapski found few signs of technological progress during his time in the Soviet Union. “As for the famous electrification you read so much about,” he wryly noted as he passed through Volochysk, “every so often there was an electric lamp blinking a wan red light, and in the city park, Stalin’s profile in red neon — that was all.”
Czapski soon encountered further evidence of material and moral decline. In one Starobilsk building he surveyed a scene of desolation and ruin, in which “the whole floor was strewn with dirty ripped papers, periodicals, books from some destroyed library.” Even more alarming, “in one of the walls of the carriage house there was a large hole made by bullets at the level of a standing man’s head. We were told that it was there they had shot members of the local bourgeoisie in 1917.” He would run across similar bullet pockmarks on the grounds of the nearby convent, where “nuns from that religious order had been executed.” The Bolsheviks had promised to throw open the gates of the czarist “prison of the peoples,” thereby unfettering the masses from the “heavy shackles of economic oppression,” but two decades of Soviet rule had brought nothing but show trials, mass killings, terror famines, dekulakization, forced population transfers, cultural genocide, and ludicrous propaganda. The revolution devoured its own children, millions were worked to death in gulags, millions more starved in the Holodomor, more still were executed in the Great Purge, and the humble townsfolk of Starobilsk and elsewhere were each day placed in the impossible position of that warrior in the old Russian folktale who, pausing at a crossroads, discovered to his dismay that “if you ride to the left, you will lose your horse; if you ride to the right, you will lose your head; if you go straight, you will lose both your horse and your head.”
Being a painter and writer of profound sensibilities, Józef Czapski, or Józef Marian Franciszek hrabia Hutten-Czapski of Leliwa, to give his full name and aristocratic title, was just the person to document the sorry state of Starobilsk and its environs, but he was no mere sightseer when he arrived at this miserable corner of the Soviet Union, with its ruined houses, ransacked libraries, and gunshot-riddled religious houses. He was, if anything, far worse off than the haggard villagers around him, being a Polish prisoner of war captured by the Soviets near Lviv on September 27, 1939, 10 days after Stalin had cynically joined in with Hitler in a new partition of Poland. Czapski and his poorly fed, exhausted fellow officers were formed into columns and force-marched from the Polish borderlands into the vast Soviet interior, where they were shunted into three far-flung prison camps: Ostashkov, Kozelsk, and Starobilsk.
Memories of Starobielsk, Czapski’s deeply affecting account of his time in captivity, would begin with the pithy observation that “at the time that it was cleared on April 5, 1940, the camp of Starobielsk [Czapski uses the Polish spelling of the town] held 3,920 Polish officers, together with several dozen civilian prisoners and about 30 officer cadets and ensigns. Of these men, 79 survived. I am one of them. All the others disappeared without a trace.” The vast majority of prisoners held at Starobilsk were executed at the NKVD (Soviet secret police) prison in Kharkiv, and hastily buried in the Piatykhatky Forest, while the 5,000 prisoners at Kozelsk met the same fate in the infamous Katyn Forest. The 6,500 prisoners held at the Ostashkov camp were murdered in the basement of the NKVD prison in Kalinin, and hastily concealed in mass graves located in the nearby village of Mednoye. Czapski, who as a youth studied at a Saint Petersburg gymnasium, and had become an acolyte of Lev Tolstoy before abandoning pacifism to serve with distinction in the Polish cavalry, miraculously emerged from behind the wire after 23 months of torment, but he would spend the rest of his life struggling with the legacy of Starobilsk.
Upon his release, Czapski was permitted to join the Polish II Corps under Gen. Władysław Anders, a military unit that had been formed by the Polish government-in-exile with Stalin’s consent. The conditions at Starobilsk had been brutal, and it was clear that his fighting days were over, so Czapski was instead tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of his imprisoned brothers-in-arms. He would be stonewalled at every turn by Soviet officials unwilling to admit to their role in systematically butchering tens of thousands of Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia at Katyn, Kalinin, and Kharkiv. Czapski had his suspicions, given that after the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 he had participated in a mission to redeem a small group of Polish prisoners from Russian captivity, an undertaking that came to nothing when it turned out that all the men had been killed by their captors. The difference in 1940 was one of degree, but not of kind. As he criss-crossed the Soviet Union on his ultimately futile quest for justice, a journey he described in his astonishing 1946 memoir Inhuman Lands: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, he witnessed more hunger, more arbitrary arrests, and more gulags. “All I could see,” he later lamented, “was death, prison camps, and the degradation of mankind.”
The truth about Katyn emerged in piecemeal fashion over the course of the 1950s, despite continued Soviet obfuscation, and in a 1958 contribution to the Polish expatriate magazine Kultura, Czapski felt obliged to address the anti-Russian sentiment building up among the Poles and other members of captive nations, and understandably so in light of the Katyn revelations and the Soviet Union’s ongoing campaign of political and cultural oppression. “That vision of an inhuman Russia that brings and can only bring destruction and evil, how could it not develop and become popular in Poland, Hungary, and in all the countries where its domination reaches?” Yet still he looked back wistfully to his salad days in Saint Petersburg, and his time as an ardent follower of Tolstoy, recalling the passage in Resurrection wherein the Russian novelist describes “young grass trying to grow in the spring even between the stones of a prison.” It was an image Tolstoy employed elsewhere to great effect, as in his 1896 journal entry painting a word picture of a small clump of burdock he had seen in a field, “black from dust but still alive and red in the center … It makes me want to write. It asserts life to the end, and alone in the midst of the whole field, somehow or other had asserted it.” The German writer Hans Fallada, standing in the ruins of post-war Berlin, experienced something along these lines as well, delighting as he did in “the life in a blade of grass in the middle of the city, in amongst a thousand lumps of shattered masonry.” This stubborn assertion of life amidst death was just the sort of thing to give a glint of hope to a prisoner of war trapped behind the barbed wire of Starobilsk, or perhaps to a civilian trapped in a bomb shelter beneath the rubble of martyred Mariupol or Chernihiv.
Józef Czapski was, to his credit, constitutionally incapable of losing hope, even the hope that “the will to fight has not died out in Russia, that a freer life, for which so many generations of Russians had died, can be achieved there, too.” Russia did not have to function merely as a “school of debasement.” It could instead be a “world of struggle and love of man.” It could be a place where, as Radishchev had envisaged it, the voice of nature, commingled with the voice of divinity, could ring out like a clarion. The Polish artist, who lived out the rest of his post-war life in French exile at Maisons-Laffitte, prayed earnestly that “if we can re-create the instinct of a lost solidarity with the other Russia, which never ceased to exist, only then can we dream of a future that will not be, in [the Polish poet Cyprian] Norwid’s words, ‘a collision of two monoliths, a void and the clashing of ultimate forces.’” Much like Radishchev before him, Czapski nurtured a vision of a Russian future where the gloomy firmament of tyranny eventually gave way to the dawn of liberty.
There were other times, however, when Czapski came back down to earth in this regard. In another essay on Russian culture, “Blok and Inner Freedom,” he acknowledged how hard it was to maintain solidarity with that almost entirely notional “other Russia.”
Russian literature, which in the course of barely a hundred and fifty years grew to be one of the greatest literatures in the world, is withering, cut off at the root by thirty years of Soviet cultural politics. It is difficult to compare books now published on the Soviet Union with what we used to think of as Russian literature, which conquered the globe. For there is no large library or bookstore in the world now where we would not find at the very least Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gorky; there is no country that hasn’t felt the influence of Russian literature in one way or another. Its glory shines everywhere, but it shines like a constellation of stars that in reality are long since extinct, but whose light still illuminate the earth, creating the delusion that the source of that light is still burning.
Czapski had hit upon something all the more relevant in our own day and age. The conservative Belgian historian David Engels, in a recent interview with Konflikt Magazin, put it this way:
Not only in Germany, but also in France, Italy and even Spain, many conservatives cultivate a rather romantic image of Russia, which is still characterised by reminiscences of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Repin and the Tsarist era, but has very little to do with today’s Russia. For many, Russia is seen as some kind of ultimate defender of the West, idealistically concerned only with maintaining and defending tradition, Christianity and national culture. The reality of the real Russia is quite different: Russia is characterised by economic stagnation, political corruption, imploding Orthodoxy, rising Islam, foreign policy cynicism, one of the world’s highest abortion rates and so on. Especially the unscrupulous use of Muslim refugees or soldiers on the occasion of the Polish immigration crisis and the invasion of Ukraine has shown what “Christian” Russia is really about.
The sweet strains of Stravinsky, the deep-rooted humanism of Dostoevsky, the colorful pageantry of Repin — all these are marvelous artistic creations, but their creators simply do not exist in the same moral universe as the despicable engineers of human misery whose work has been exhibited at Grozny, Aleppo, and Mariupol. Russia’s distant cultural stars may still cast some wan light, but that is all. Czapski’s “other Russia,” that “world of struggle and love of man,” remains wholly speculative. On the other hand, the pulverized (and primarily Russian-speaking) Ukrainian cities of Volnovakha, Chernihiv, and Mariupol; the brutally tortured, raped, and executed civilians lying gagged and bound in the war-torn streets of Bucha, Irpen, Motyzhyn, and Borodyanka, left to molder on thoroughfares named after Pushkin, Lermontov, and Chekhov; the bombed-out Hillel and yeshiva buildings, and the mutilated Holocaust memorials at Babyn Yar and Drobytsky Yar; the mangled ruins of Trostyanets, where Tchaikovsky composed “The Storm” — all these atrocities are very, very real.
The door bolts of Russia’s awful night have yet to crack.
Let us return once more to Mednoye. As we have seen, it was here that the massacred Polish prisoners at Ostashkov were secretly interred, so secretly in fact that Memorial International, a charity founded during perestroika to investigate Soviet-era wrongdoing, was not able to pinpoint the site until 1988. Exhumations of 23 burial pits, stained blue with the dye from thousands of Polish uniforms, began in 1991, the same year that two commemorative plaques were installed at the NKVD prison massacre site, now a vivarium on the Tver State Medical University campus. On October 30 of every subsequent year, a Polish delegation would visit the building, laying wreathes and conducting a solemn remembrance ceremony, at least until 2019, when the local public prosecutor ordered the memorials removed on the absurd grounds that they were “not based on documented facts.” Ilya Kleymenov, a local Communist Party politician, led the plaque removal campaign, insisting that “there is no direct or even circumstantial evidence that can be seen to prove that those events took place in the building on Soviet Street, in the city of Kalinin, and especially in Mednoye,” and that such memorials invariably have an “antipatriotic effect on the young generation.”
The State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History in Moscow, meanwhile, has announced plans to excavate the cemetery at Mednoye in a bid to uncover the remains of Red Army veterans. Aleksandr Guryanov of Memorial rightly suspects ulterior motives: “I think this is happening under pressure from the [Katyn deniers], who strive to prove that firstly, there are no executed Polish POWs there, and secondly that there are no executed Soviet citizens. They want to prove that all these graves are the graves of Red Army soldiers.” Memorial’s opposition to these plans, along with its human rights work across the Russian Federation, has not gone unnoticed by the authorities. The organization has been labeled a “foreign agent,” subjected to fines of at least 3 million rubles in recent years, and finally ordered to close its doors in late 2021. (Memorial Human Rights Centre liquidation hearings are ongoing at the time of this writing). “All of this,” the Wilson Center analyst Aleksandr Golts has convincingly argued, “is part of a bigger, sinister tendency…to privatize history and use it in their own interests; to forget about the repressions, about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and to take the history of the Great Patriotic War as a collection of myths rather than trying to learn the true story.” Those myths feed Russian ressentiment, which in turn feeds Russian revanchism. The result, as evidenced by the Ukrainian invasion, has been catastrophic.
Such indignities are by no means limited to Mednoye. In May of 2019, for instance, a memorial to Tatar victims of the Second World War was desecrated in the Crimean village of Orlovka, while in March of 2022 the tombstones of Finnish soldiers laid to rest in the Koivisto Heroes Cemetery in Primorsk were similarly vandalized, in a blatant contravention of the 1992 Russo-Finnish treaty binding both parties to protect and preserve military burial grounds in their respective territories. These crimes against cultural heritage are not victimless, and what is more they lay the groundwork for further enormities. Suppressing the truth of the Winter War helps justify Russian territorial expansionism. Suppressing the truth of the Tatar deportations helps justify brutal Russian policies in Crimea. Suppressing the truth of Katyn helps justify extrajudicial executions carried out by Russian soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries. Suppressing the truth of Ukrainian history — as seen in the revolting and openly genocidal April 3, 2022, RIA Novosti editorial “What Russia Should Do With Ukraine” on the subject of “de-Ukrainianization” — helps justify eliminationism. One can thus draw a straight line from the mass graves at Katyn in 1940 to the mass graves at Bucha in 2022.
Russia finds itself increasingly in the grip of moral insanity. The dictator Vladimir Putin predicated his unconscionable invasion of Ukraine on what Kyiv Independent journalist Ilia Ponomarenko has called “schizophrenic folk history delusions,” leveling Russian-speaking city after Russian-speaking city in the process. The State Duma lawmaker Sergei Savostyanov has suggested that “Russia may conduct a full-scale offensive on Poland, the Baltic states, and Kazakhstan as part of a global military special operation on demilitarization and denazification,” while Mikhail Delyagin, the deputy chair of the Duma’s Economic Policy Committee, has taken to musing about whether or not Russia should “destroy Azerbaijan’s oil industry with a nuclear weapon.” Patriarch Kirill, Putin’s close ally and in Soviet days an active KGB agent, proclaims it “God’s truth” that Russians and Ukrainians should be melded into one people, while preposterously adding that “we absolutely do not strive for war or to do anything that could harm others.” At a March funeral for a slain Russian paratrooper, the officiating priest, Father Gennady Zaridze, went even further, ranting and raving about “evil, Satanic spirits, Ukrainian Nazis, created by American multinational corporations,” and about how “the destruction of the USSR was a great deceit visited upon the Russians. There was no law by which the republics were dissolved. Everything that was built after 1990 is a lie. All this will soon come to light, and you will know it.” There is something vulgar about all this, and something completely deranged, rather like watching Swan Lake performed atop main battle tanks — something that actually happened at the most recent International Army Games at Patriot Park, just outside of Moscow.
Before his assassination in 2015, the dissident Russian physicist and politician Boris Nemtsov presciently warned that Putin was “trying to dissect Ukraine and create in the east of the country a puppet state Novorossiya, that is fully economically and politically controlled by the Kremlin,” while “Russia itself is sinking into lies, violence, obscurantism and imperial hysteria.” These are two related phenomena. The more Russia succumbs to historical ressentiment, the more appealing revanchism becomes. It would be one thing if this bizarre program was confined to the fetid intellectual dungeon that is modern Russia. Yet the Russian soldiers and mercenaries on Ukrainian soil, those actually tasked with implementing this unhinged vision, interpret such rhetoric as a license to pillage, rape, torture, and murder, as we are seeing at Bucha and elsewhere, as more and more Ukrainian towns near Kyiv, Sumy, and Mykolaiv are liberated from Russian control. Aleksandr Radishchev predicted that the “resilient power” of Russian autocracy, faced with its extinction, would “gather all its strength so as with one final blow to crush liberty as it arises.” Those blows have been raining down for centuries, courtesy of the Romanovs, the Soviets, and now Putin and his fellow war criminals as they seek to create an ersatz Russkiy Mir, a “Russian World,” which is apparently accomplished by having their henchmen erase entire cities from the map, torture and murder village leaders and their families, rape women and young girls, abscond with looted jewelry, children’s toys, frying pans, and washing machines, operate “filtration camps” for kidnapped Ukrainian refugees, and aggressively crack down on dissidents at home. Thus has Putin’s Russia become an unparalleled “school of debasement.”
During his imprisonment at Starobilsk, Józef Czapski once fell into conversation with Kazimierz Władysław Dadej, a pediatrician, military doctor, and passionate humanist who had also been taken prisoner by the invading Soviets. Dadej recalled the early days of the war, when he found himself walking down the streets of Ternopil “sunk in gloom.” It was at that sad juncture in the life of Dadej and his nation that an old Jewish man approached him, offering words of consolation: “Doctor, why are you so sad? The country that produced Mickiewicz and Chopin cannot perish.” From time to time the doctor would remind Czapski of those “simple words of comfort,” words that would help Czapski survive his epic ordeal, though Dedej himself was murdered at Kharkiv. Dadej’s interlocutor was right — a nation that produces Adam Mickiewicz and Fryderyk Chopin will never perish from the earth, just as a nation that produces Taras Shevchenko or Borys Lyatoshynskyi will never perish from the earth. That said, producing Aleksandr Pushkin or Mikhail Glinka will not necessarily prevent a nation from becoming spiritually twisted beyond recognition. There must be something else besides a distant constellation of cultural stars to provide that all-important will to fight for a freer life.
Another one of Czapski’s fellow prisoners was Lech Józef Piwowar, a poet, satirist, and infantry officer who would later perish at Katyn. On one memorable occasion, Piwowar approached Czapski, and “standing in the wet snow at dawn on the threshold of the smoky, crowded barracks” proceeded to read aloud one of his latest creations, “From the Road,” which Czapski against all odds was able to preserve for posterity:
In the fields ruddy patches of autumn and blood.
O song, pass by, forget!
Let us dwell on in these days turned to rubble
When the heart ripened
When in these days
So much prodigious love took root…
— when the company’s heart was dying
And the enemy threw fire from the clouds
At us, tangled in a serpent’s nest of roads,
What grew was not war, but fatherland.
Our fatherland comes by every road,
From factories, from farming towns,
And death is small here, life is vast,
And over every heaven, freedom.
In our decadent, seemingly post-heroic age, the determination and bravery of the Ukrainian people has been a revelation. Enormous swathes of their beloved country have been reduced to rubble, the Russian enemy rains thermobaric and phosphoric fire down from the skies, yet somehow the Ukrainian fatherland has only grown. Ukraine has firmly rejected the “awful night” of the Russkiy Mir in favor of their own Ukrainskiy svit, a “Ukrainian world” nowhere near as immense as the Russian Federation’s, admittedly, and nowhere near as well-armed, but a world where one day — and hopefully sooner rather than later, if President Volodymyr Zelensky is given the help he needs and crippling sanctions can take effect — death will once again be small, life vast, and over every heaven, freedom.
Perhaps it would be too much to ask for this historical moment also to be the hour when the door bolts of that awful night finally begin to crack, when the conscience of that long-dormant “other Russia” is at last shaken awake. But if Russia cannot learn the appropriate lessons from the school of debasement, Ukraine certainly can, and even in these days of rubble ,we are witnesses to something profound taking root, like young grass in a prison yard, tufts of burdock in a dusty field, or a golden stalk of wheat emerging from the steppe’s black earth. Amidst mutilated bodies and ruddy patches of innocent blood, amidst scattered land mines and cluster munitions, amidst undisguised calls for genocide and the propagandistic effluvia of useful idiots, we see an assertion of ripening life and freedom that stands in stark contrast to the savagery and spiritual emptiness of Putin’s inhuman regime.