Memories of Starobielsk: Essays Between Art and History
Józef Czapski, trans. Alissa Valles
New York Review Books, $17.95 (paper)

In his life, Count Józef Hutten-Czapski (1896–1993)—later known just as Józef or Józio Czapski—pursued many vocations. Some of these vocations he chose for himself, to the extent anyone can; others were imposed upon him by dramatic historical events. Born in the last years of the nineteenth century into an aristocratic, multilingual family based in Prague, he began to identify with the Polish part of his lineage and moved to newly independent Poland after the end of World War I. A gifted painter and essayist, he then spent a decade in Paris, leading a bohemian lifestyle in the company of such famed modernists as Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso. He returned to Poland in the 1930s, where he was just starting to enjoy his status as an established, nationally recognized artist when Nazi forces and the Red Army entered its borders. Czapski enlisted, was promptly captured by the Soviets, and led to a prisoner-of-war camp from which very few Polish officers came out alive. Over the past few years, a series of translations and a beautifully crafted biography, all out from New York Review Books, have gradually introduced Czapski to Anglophone audiences. The most recent volume to come out from this series collects his miscellaneous essays and—most significantly—his memoirs of the time he spent in the Soviet war camp.

Poles’ deep attachment to Ukrainian culture has often coexisted with an insistence that Poland be the superego to a Ukrainian unconscious that should not be allowed to speak for itself.

In these recently translated memoirs, Czapski calls the Ukrainian city where he was imprisoned “Starobielsk.” Its inhabitants would have called it “Starobil’s’k,” and spelled its name in Cyrillic: Старобільськ. When Czapski was being led there in 1939, he and his fellow Polish officers initially hoped that the Red Army would release them and let them join the fight against the Nazis. The awareness that this hope would not be fulfilled dawned on them slowly, with every day of their slow eastward march. Most of the locals in the villages they passed offered them gestures of friendship, including bread and chocolate. They too appeared to see themselves as Soviet prisoners after a different fashion. But “one Ukrainian peasant glared at us in deep loathing.” In his memoirs, Czapski understands this hostile attitude as indicative of the peasant’s, and not his own, moral standing. He sizes up the Ukrainians based on their preference for Russian or for Polish rule, for a more Eastern or a more Western version of Slavdom.

Today, this same Старобільськ is being besieged by Russian forces. Due to its closeness to the Russian border, it was one of the first Ukrainian cities to come under attack. The promotional copy of Czapski’s Memories of Starobielsk, which was published in its first English translation earlier this month, makes no mention of Ukraine, though, referencing only a “Soviet prison camp,” and I wonder how many would-be readers will put together on their own how directly Czapski’s book connects to Putin’s war.

The sameness-but-not of how Czapski names Starobielsk, in contrast to the city’s names in Ukrainian and in Russian, recalls how most Westerners have only in recent weeks learned the freighted difference between saying “Kyiv” versus “Kiev.” Such differences highlight how Ukraine’s long-contested villages and cities figure in the parallel, only occasionally intersecting narratives of empire and nation that have made Eastern Europe’s cultural imaginary dense but also siloed and often amnesiac. The overlap between Polish and Ukrainian cultural history has led Poland to side with Ukraine passionately, now and in the past, upon its invasions by Russia. But this same overlap, in its darker moments, also made Czapski and his aristocratic Polish friends treat Ukrainian peasants—somehow, they are always peasants—as subalterns whose opinions on Starobielsk or Starobil’s’k, as these peasants might name it, need not be recorded for posterity.

With countless migrants arriving in Poland this month, many Poles have invited Ukrainians to stay in their houses. But some others insist that Polish nationals ought to be given priority in hospital admissions over the incoming refugees, and that these refugees generally should not be treated as equal to Polish citizens. In the debates, I hear echoes of a familiar narrative that Czapski’s anecdote plays out but which long preceded Czapski: a narrative of pan-Slavic brotherhood that occasionally flips into narratives of political and cultural one-upmanship. Since the eighteenth century and well before it, Poles’ deep attachment to Ukrainian culture has often coexisted with an insistence that Poland be the superego to a Ukrainian unconscious that should not be allowed to speak for itself. Today, as the world watches Poland welcome and accommodate Ukrainian refugees, it is worth keeping this historical dynamic in mind: not to diminish the sincerity of the Polish people, but better to understand the collective stereotypes and traumas that this dramatic coming together of Poles and Ukrainians will inevitably bring back to the surface.

Both Russia and Poland have understood Ukraine as the seat of a Slavdom independent of Western influence. Yet in spite of this, both have historically spoken of Ukraine as a borderland rather than as an independent cultural formation.

Ukraine’s pivotal political and cultural place in Eastern Europe is longstanding and symbolically resonant. From the ninth to the thirteenth century, Kyiv was capital to Kievan Rus’: a loosely centralized confederation of Scandinavian, Baltic, and Slavic peoples that—at its height—stretched from the Black Sea to the Arctic Circle. In the ninth century, the Byzantine emperor, Michael III, sent missionaries Cyril and Methodius from Constantinople to Kievan Rus’ to spread Christianity within it. In the course of this mission, the alphabet we now know as Cyrillic came into being. At first, the political alliance with Constantinople helped Kievan Rus’ flourish. But with the fall of Byzantium and the rise of eastward crusades from Western Europe—and, finally, the Mongol invasion—it weakened and fragmented into small principalities, which in turn were gradually incorporated into Muscovy and into Lithuania and Poland—which eventually became the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ukrainian lands were taken over by noblemen from these surrounding kingdoms, who intermarried with local elites. Meanwhile, most of these lands’ original inhabitants were relegated to serfdom, from which many escaped to join the Cossacks—self-governing, democratic, semi-military groups of subalterns of mixed, Slavic as well as Turkic origin who staged frequent, and sometimes very successful, anti-Polish and anti-Russian rebellions.

Such a quick, back-of-the-envelope sketch leaves out many historical complexities and cultural layers. But even this simplified presentation points to a double problem that continues to haunt Polish–Ukrainian relations. Between Poland’s Roman Catholic medieval capitals—Poznań and Kraków—and Ukraine’s Greek Orthodox Kyiv, we find two parallel models of Slavic state-building and affiliation within Eurasia. For both Poland and Russia, Kievan Rus’ possesses a mythical quality as the place where Cyrillic writing and Greek Orthodox Slavdom began. As a result, both Russia and Poland have, in various ways, linked their origin stories to the region, understood as the seat of a Slavdom independent of Western influence. Yet in spite of this, both have historically spoken of Ukraine as a borderland—the country’s name literally means “the pale” (also called kresy in Polish)—rather than as an independent cultural formation or state of its own.

These projections intensified in the nineteenth century. As Maria Janion notes in her magisterial treatment of Polish Romanticism, Goraczka Romantyczna (Romantic Fever, 1975), Poles only began to insist on their distinctive national identity and genealogy after the dissolution of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 1790s. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Western Poles became faced with the pressure to become more German or more Austrian, while Eastern Poles came under pressure to learn Russian. Under these double pressures, Polish elites’ desire to imitate the West and their identification with Western aristocrats became unsustainable. But nor could Poles turn to early versions of pan-Slavism to define themselves; that way lay the cultural weight of the Russian Empire, to which they were determined not to succumb.

This sense of being hemmed in between the East and the West led Polish poets and writers to seek out their origins in eastern (now mainly Ukrainian) regions of the former Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth that were neither Westernized nor distinctly Russian. Traditionally agrarian, these regions seemed to have preserved an autochthonous Slavic culture that in certain facets may have even preceded the Slavs’ conversion to Christianity. Previously, the folklore of these regions, like their people, had been viewed by the Poles with considerable condescension. But in the early nineteenth century, this condescension became more ambivalent, tinged with nostalgia: Poles thought they saw in the people of the kresy an older, more intrinsically Slavic version of themselves. In one of the most striking legends that Poles began to circulate about the region, an eighteenth-century Ukrainian Cossack bard named Wernyhora was said to have prophesied the eventual late eighteenth-century dissolution of Poland but also its eventual return to its past glories. This new, reborn Poland, Wernyhora supposedly proclaimed, would command a territory that spanned from the Black Sea to the White Sea (i.e., the upper Baltic), reproducing the greatness of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth but also, just as significantly, combining its territories with those of Kievan Rus’.

The Ukraine that Czapski depicts in Memories of Starobielsk comes out of this cultural conjunction: we see Poles defining themselves through a romanticized vision of Ukrainians even as they refuse to hear what Ukrainians themselves think. When Czapski sees the Ukrainian peasant scowl at him in Starobielsk, the episode echoes a prior encounter with a peasant in the kresy. Twenty years before, a much younger Czapski had met a different sullen peasant while fighting the Red Army on the Polish–Russian border in present-day Belarus. The year was 1920; the territories where his platoon was fighting belonged, since 1918, to the newly independent Polish state, against which the Red Army had just conducted a surprise attack. Czapski heads a platoon sent to defend this territory from the Russians.

I was at the head of the platoon, and I had my uhlans there, a few young students among them, plucky Poles, one like a little pony, tiny. We’re riding along and we see a peasant, in a military coat to boot, looking at our troops with a sullen expression on his face.

The peasant—whose “military coat” has implicitly been stripped from a dead Polish soldier—does not support Czapski’s mission. “Clear enough,” Czapski comments. It is not hard for him to see why the peasant is scowling. “There were estates after all, the estates belonged to Poles, and the peasants dreamed of getting land, Soviet Russia had promised them that land. And here go these noblemen back and forth on their fancy horses. They had no reason to love us.”

It did not occur to Czapski to ask either peasant what their actual politics were. That they might want independence from both Russia and Poland seemed unimaginable to him.

In retrospect, Czapski feels for the peasant’s anger. But in the moment, as head of the platoon, he does not act to prevent what the “plucky” young soldier who resembles “a little pony” decides to do in the face of the peasant’s sullenness: “This little student, when he saw the man’s sullen expression, got off his horse and slapped him in the face, one-two.” Everyone around Czapski thought it “a fine act of patriotism.” Czapski himself felt sickened, but not in a way that spurred him to action. “I said—no, that’s it. I’m leaving,” he recollects. He quit the army the following day, to come back some months later after the fighting had intensified and Poland’s situation had grown more precarious. The Poles eventually won the war, keeping this unnamed peasant’s fields within the Polish border.

Czapski’s attitude toward this unnamed peasant is paradigmatic of a certain Polish intellectual of his time: a combination of empathy and alienation, an identification that seems partly understanding of, but also unwilling actively to engage with, this other man’s refusal to see himself as a fellow Pole or as a member of a Polish-Ukrainian brotherhood. Some readers might be tempted to describe Czapski’s attitude as that of a colonizer toward a colonized cultural territory. That is partly correct; but in itself, that analysis does not sufficiently capture the counterpull by which many Poles, and indeed some Ukrainians, insist on the difficulty of distinguishing where the “Polish” part of the kresy begins and ends, in geographical as well as cultural terms.

Lviv Cemetery, 2004
Cemetery in Lviv in 2015, with graves of soldiers killed fighting in Crimea. Image: Michael M. Weinstein

Czapski assumed that the sullen peasants he met in 1920, and then again in 1940, would have preferred to be citizens of Russia. That is what Putin also currently alleges and what Stalin claimed in 1920, at the start of the Polish–Russian war in which Czapski participated.

It did not seem to occur to Czapski to ask either peasant what their actual politics were. That they might not want Russian citizenship, but rather independence from both Russia and Poland, was unimaginable to him. This is the problem in a nutshell: for many centuries, Ukraine’s surrounding states have seen it, and fought over it, as an originary part of themselves. In the face of this, Ukraine has had to fight hard for recognition of its separateness from all of them.

In 2004, when I was a high school student and still living in Poland, like many others of my generation I threw myself into supporting the Orange Revolution, in which Ukrainians engaged in mass demonstrations to demand democratization and an end to authoritarian rule. At the time, Poland’s vehement support for the revolution felt like a powerful statement both of our country’s opposition to Russia, and of our hard-won capacity to recognize Ukrainians as a separate people who deserved not simply to be reunited with Poland, but to assert an independent statehood and national identity of their own. But even then, many Poles also continued to see Ukraine as a less powerful, economically submissive neighbor; the same is still true today. Before 2022, over a million Ukrainians were already living in Poland. Some of them hired legally and some illegally, they often performed low-paid service labor, working as their Polish employers’ live-in nurses, house cleaners, and gardeners.

As I follow the war in Ukraine from my safe perch in Hamden, Connecticut, I think about Czapski to remind myself why writing about Ukraine as a Polish person remains difficult. Inevitably, I find myself in a hall of mirrors in which stereotypes and projections are hard not to perpetuate. The first and last time I went to Ukraine was in 2015, toward the beginning of the conflict in Crimea. I did not go farther than Lviv, where each restaurant had a collection box on behalf of the Ukrainian army. Lviv is one of Ukraine’s cities that Poles most insistently identify as culturally Polish, and which had remained within Polish borders for the longest; I confess that this is the reason I had been curious to go there. In the restaurant I picked out for my first Ukrainian lunch, I was handed menus in English and Polish. Polish songs from the 1920s and ’30s crooned in the background, played from MP3s that had been made to sound like scratchy vinyl records.

This mass migration will force a renewed reckoning with whether we Poles have come to see Ukrainians as a people unto themselves.

One of these songs dates from 1939, the year Czapski was deported to Starobielsk. It was made famous by the film The Vagabonds, a musical comedy that was Poland’s attempt to imitate the Hollywood musical. Entitled “Tylko we Lwowie” (Only in Lviv), the song is reprised several times during the film. The two characters who perform it, Szczepek and Toniek, are homeless buskers who help an orphaned teenager escape the influence of an aristocratic older relative. Anti-elitist, the film also insists on the unity of Polish culture from Lviv to Warsaw, where the action eventually moves. In their song about the things that happen “only in Lviv,” Szczepek and Toniek articulate a kind of Polish that begins to fade into Ukrainian, with lilting vowels and foreshortened conjugations.

But the year is 1939. Lviv, like other Ukrainian and Polish cities, would be invaded by Russia five months after the film’s cinematic release. As I listened to this song in Lviv, played for my Polish ears as I inspected the menu, the class barriers and cultural barriers that it both signaled and tried to transcend had not changed much in spite of Eastern Europe’s altered national borders. In Lviv, my Polish zlotys, let alone my U.S. dollars, could buy me anything I wanted. My ample lunch added up to less than $5; next door, a half-liter of excellent vodka cost $1.50. The cemetery I wandered into after my meal was beautifully, carefully preserved. As I strolled around it, reading the Polish names that occasionally appeared on tombstones, I wished that I could think of its genealogies as my own. But really, I was a tourist. The history of this place was entangled with Poland’s in ways that my own culture’s obsession with the region had paradoxically conspired to obscure.

To think back to this cemetery as I watch the Polish response to Ukrainian refugees is to recognize that this mass migration will inevitably force a renewed reckoning with Poland’s old utopias and projections about the supposed borderlands that separate it from Russia. It will be a reckoning with whether we Poles have, in 2022, come to see Ukrainians as a people unto themselves. I venture no predictions about what this reckoning will bring, but it will certainly be difficult.