Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia 1941-1942’ by Józef Czapski.

5 November 2020

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia 1941-1942 by Józef Czapski. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones with an introduction by Timothy Snyder. 480pp ISBN 978-1681372563 (New York Review Books, New York, 2018)


This book about Soviet Russia is a revelation.  Many of the things it reveals are familiar to anyone who has read Gulag memoirs from this period, but they are here recounted by a witness, whose cultural hinterland was forged by membership of mitteleuropean intellectual and artistic circles before and after the First World War.  That makes his sensibilities quite different, and his account of travels through the inhuman land of the title all the more stark and shocking.

Józef Czapski was first and foremost an artist, writer and critic, well-known in post-war Polish émigré circles as a regular contributor to the literary journal Kultura.  He had enlisted in the Polish army during the First World War but it was his experiences as a Polish officer in the Second World War that give him a unique place in history. Between April and May 1940, when Germany and the Soviet Union were sharing the spoils of Poland under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, more than 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were rounded up by the NKVD and secretly murdered in the Katyn forest. Only 395 members of the officer corps avoided that fate. Czapski was one of them.

When the Germans tore up the pact and attacked the USSR on 22 June 1941, Czapski joined the Polish Second Division under General Anders.  The Polish government-in-exile in London, represented by Defence Minister General Sikorski,  had signed an agreement with Soviet Ambassador Maisky under whose terms all Polish citizens held captive in the USSR were to be released from Soviet prisons and camps and given transport and supplies to enable them to gather around Anders and leave the Soviet Union safely to join the allies under their own flag.  Czapski had been given the job of discovering the whereabouts of all the officers who had been captured by the NKVD.  He never got any straight answers from any Soviets in any position of authority, but the stories he heard from his compatriots and his conversations with Soviet officials and regime patsies (he describes a very telling meeting with Ilya Ehrenburg, whom he had first met in Paris between the wars), left him in little doubt.  

Inhuman Land weaves its stories and eye-witness accounts with Czapski’s thoughts and experiences of his previous times in Russia, both as a student in St. Petersburg before the Revolution and during the Polish-Soviet War.  His insights and comments about what he observes in 1941-1942 are embellished by the deep knowledge and understanding that he has accumulated, and the memoir is made unforgettable by these.  

In his introduction, Timothy Snyder, whose own book Blood Lands deals with the Katyn massacre, describes Czapski’s memoir as “an unsurpassed document of everyday Stalinism” [Not the sort described by Sheila Fitzpatrick, who coined the phrase in her book of that title.  Snyder’s use of the phrase in this context is no accident. – TC]. Czapski recounts the minutiae of daily humiliations, cruelties, inhumane acts of violence, deportations of peasants, deportations of nations, deliberate, frequent and mass executions, starvation, cold, official obfuscation, impenetrable bureaucracy – he recorded what later scholars, such as Snyder himself, would confirm.  And that is where the power of Inhuman Land lies: the feeling that you are a witness to living history as it unfolded.  

Czapski felt unequal to the task:  “Nobody could possibly understand it – it would take a brilliant writer, a superb observer, a new Tolstoy or Proust, Russian or Polish, to describe the atmosphere that prevailed in Russia, at every moment, and the things that would suddenly give the game away in the course of an ordinary, everyday life – a small gesture or a memorable glance. It wasn’t the difficult conditions or the hunger – all that was less awful than the suppression of humanity, the mute look in the eyes of people among whom just about everybody had lost one of their closest relatives to the camps in the north” [p. 77]. Czapski’s own humanity and compassion shine through his writing and his sense of belonging to his own Polish people and the humane, ethical and cultural values of a world he wants to inhabit with them, give his writing a luminescence that sears itself on the mind’s eye.  

Inhuman Land is peopled by those Czapski encountered on his journey and the narrative is punctuated by the stories of individuals who unburden themselves as he writes down what they say in his notebook.  Some read like verbatim accounts and stop your breath with what they reveal.  Lieutenant Sołczyński’s story makes up almost the entire chapter titled “Inhuman Land.”  This man went through hell as a Soviet prisoner and witnessed the most terrible cruelties and hardship.  At the end of his story, which fills more than ten pages, he tells Czapski: “I dragged myself here [to Buzuluk, not far from Kuibyshev, the Polish Army Second Division’s assembly point. -TC] with the very last of my strength because I wanted to die in your company.  It’s not about the bread you’re giving me or money, I just wanted to see at least one man who would give me compassion” [p. 107].

As the Polish army makes its way south to Tashkent in Soviet Asia, they make camp in Yungiyul.  The landscape is strange and unfamiliar.  They are a long way from home.  It is Easter 1942.  An impromptu field altar has been erected in the valley, with a small crucifix shrouded in purple, and a priest in a white chasuble is officiating:

A quiet, very quiet crowd of soldiers and compatriots had come from all over: women, old people and children. Most of them went up for Holy Communion. Amid the silence the altar boy chanted: ‘Jesus Christ, dear Lord, O, most patient Lamb.’  The crowd, shyly praying, took up this hymn with emotion. 

There was still shade in the valley, but the sky was gradually clearing; above the rare, dark streaks of cloud it no longer looked lilac but pale-blue, green, milky, lemon-yellow in the east, and at a great height woolly white cloudlets floated in the spring sky – just like in Poland … [p. 220]

The artist’s palette informs Czapski’s descriptions of nature, yet the feeling of alienation and longing is palpable, the tears only just held back.  

When Czapski finally crosses the Soviet border into Iran, after lengthy inspections and controls, his Polish truck driver squeezes his arm and says, “Well, Captain, paradise is behind you now.”  It is the perfect coda.

Inhuman Land was published in this new translation by NYRB classics in 2018.  

The history of its earlier publications is complicated. An earlier edition was published very soon after the war, and subsequent editions included additional  passages.  Part Two, which deals with Czapski’s experiences as an officer in the Polish Army Second Division once he had left the Soviet Union, was added much later at the request of his German publisher, and then appeared in other foreign editions.

This latest English-language edition has all the care, accuracy and contextual information one could expect, and includes marvellous excerpts from Polish poets, admired by Czapski and beautifully rendered in English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

The style veers between the immediacy of his Soviet notebooks, the hastiness of getting down his own memories written from his hospital bed in Iran, and the more contemplative and wide-sweep observations that Czapski added later, some on his own initiative and some at the request of his publisher. 

It is a document like no other I have read.

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