Letters From Minsk: Warsaw, Conrad and the Katyn Woods

The signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939, which doomed Poland. The Soviet leader Josef Stalin (top right) congratulating the German foreign minister. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the fifth in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

At the main Warsaw train station, I struggled to find a place to check my luggage (okay, saddle bags), coins for the locker, and a tourist office that might have a street map of the city (again, my phone was beyond its GPS affiliations). Once freed of my burdens, I rode into downtown Warsaw on a succession of bike lanes that were heavy with bus and car exhaust.

At night, the bright lights of Warsaw make it look like Berlin or Stuttgart, but on a cloudy March day it can still feel as though it is a constituent part of a socialist republic.

Warsaw 1986 – Behind the Iron Curtain

The first time I saw Warsaw on a bicycle was in 1986, when I persuaded my newly-wed wife to ride around what was then communist Poland, locked behind the Iron Curtain.

During our courtship we had both read Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, set in the Polish Masurian lakes region—it’s a novel about the World War I battle of Tannenberg—and it seemed like a romantic idea (at least to me) to ride through Masuria.

We loaded our steel touring bikes and panniers onto a Pan Am jet and flew to Warsaw, where after unpacking the boxes we rode into the city, which in those days had only a handful of old German cars and trams running on undulating rails. At night, to save on coal and fuel, the city streets were dark.

In 1986, the Solidarity movement was about five years old, and Lech Wałęsa was still working at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, even though he had the Nobel Prize for Peace in his locker, perhaps next to his lunch pail.

We spent about ten days riding around Poland, meeting many Poles who were involved in Solidarity. It was something of a safe-house tour. We went from Warsaw to Katowice in the south, with side trips to Gdansk (on the Baltic coast) and Auschwitz (outside Krakow).

In Warsaw we had coffee with descendants of the writer Joseph Conrad and in Gdansk, after a detour to Westerplatte (where the first shots were fired by the Germans on September 1, 1939, to begin the war), we rode to the shipyard, with the bright idea that we would wait in front of the main gate and shake hands with Lech Wałęsa when he came off his shift.

We had no problem finding either the shipyard or the employee gate, and installed ourselves on a bench, waiting to greet Wałęsa when he got off work at noon.

The plan was foolproof except that everyone coming out of work that day in Gdansk (there were hundreds) looked exactly like the Solidarity leader—they all had disheveled hair and droopy mustaches. After an hour of waiting, we figured out that Wałęsa’s appeal was that he was Everyman.

Summer Reading Lord Jim

On this visit I had worked out a bike ride to fill in the six hours that I had between trains, and my first stop, a brief one, was at number 47, Nowy Świat—now in a plush neighborhood—where Joseph Conrad had lived with his father when the future writer was four years old.

Growing up I was assigned Lord Jim in the summer of the seventh grade and Heart of Darkness in high school, and had they been my only exposure to Conrad I might have dismissed him as someone whose books are slow-going.

As a graduate student at Columbia University, however, I became friends with Professor Edward Said—of Orientalism and literary fame—and during one of our conversations he pressed me to keep going with Conrad and give his books another chance.

I did, and finally, in my twenties, I clicked with Conrad, reading through many of his novels as if in a long conversation with Marlow on his barque in the River Thames.

Nor have I forgotten Said’s remark about Conrad—that his books “are about the dislocations of identity, who we are or who we dream we are.”

Joseph Conrad Comes of Age

For all that Conrad was Polish, he spent very little time living in Poland, although to be fair it only became a country again in 1919, when Conrad was near the end of his life.

Conrad was born in 1857 in Berdychiv, which is now in Ukraine (southwest from Kyiv), but then was in western Russia. In earlier times the town was Polish. (It was also the hometown of Balzac’s wife, Madame Eveline Hańska, whom he married, in Berdychiv, in 1850 shortly before he died. And it was the birthplace of the famed World War II Russian foreign correspondent and novelist, Vasily Grossman, who wrote, among other books, Life and Fate.)

Conrad’s family name is Korzeniowski, and his father, uncles, and other ancestors fought for and dreamed of independence for Poland.

In 1861, when Joseph and his father were living at Nowy Świat, the country had been scattered to the winds of many empires (Prussia, Austria, and Russia, among them). It was more an idea than a place.

At age 16 Conrad went to sea, initially from the south of France, and for much of the next twenty years he was before the mast in the many corners of the world where later he would set his short stories and novels. (Lord Jim takes place in Southeast Asia; Heart of Darkness in the Congo. As they say of Celebrity cruise ships: “Wonder awaits.”)

An uncle said to the young Conrad heading to sea: “Wherever you may sail, you are always sailing towards Poland.”

At 36, Conrad made the improbable choices—as a Polish merchant seaman—to write books in English (his fifth or sixth language) and to live in southern England, which he did until he died in 1924. (I like his words: “I always went my own road and on my own legs where I had a mind to go.”)

The 2010 Presidential Air Crash

From 47, Nowy Świat, my legs took me toward the rebuilt old town, the original having been destroyed in World War II.

The old town in Warsaw isn’t to be confused with the Jewish ghetto, which was also destroyed. (All that remains of the ghetto is a few “fragments” that now form a memorial that is surrounded by modern, high-rise apartment buildings.)

In the old town I was searching for the marble plaques that were erected in recent years to memorialize the large government delegation, including the Polish president, who died when its plane crashed on approach to a foggy airport in Smolensk, Russia in 2010. They on their way to a service in remembrance of the Polish officers who died in the Katyn Forest just outside Smolensk.

There was more than an element of Shakespearean tragedy in the loss of the best and brightest in the Polish government while on a mission to heal the wounds of Katyn, where Stalin ordered in 1940 that some 22,000 captured Polish officers be liquidated.

The year before, following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939, Russia had invaded Poland from the east and divided the occupied country with Nazi Germany.

In the process, many Polish officers and men were captured, and many of the arrested officers ended up at a prison camp near Smolensk, a city in western Russia near the border with Belarus. On Stalin’s orders, the imprisoned officers were killed at Katyn (and at other locations around Russia and Belarus).

I was interested to find a monument to the 2010 plane crash as I was always surprised that it had not led to more bitter recrimination between Poland and Russia.

Was Russia somehow responsible for this latest tragedy, even if “pilot error” in fog was the official cause? Would Poland ever get over this second tragedy, if it had never gotten over the first one?

Riding around the old town I discovered that there are two monuments to the victims of the air crash. One is made of black marble—a somber stairway to heaven—and the other is a collection of tablets in front of the presidential palace, with the names of those who died.

What’s unspoken at both memorials is the anger that remains in Poland over the cause of the crash. Russia has held on to the black boxes from the doomed plane, as well as the wreckage, which has served to prolong Polish anger at Russia that dates to the partitions of the 18th century, if not well before.

Smolensk 1975

Looking at the tablets in front of the presidential palace—a policeman on duty “encouraged” me to dismount from my bicycle—I was reminded of summer 1975, when I spent several nights in Smolensk, as part of a student trip to the Soviet Union.

I had spent the spring semester of my junior year at a program in Vienna, where I had studied dissident literature with Professor Max Peyfuss, whom I much admired. (I also “took” ballroom dancing that semester, which came with a less challenging reading list.)

At the end of the semester Professor Peyfuss offered a trip to the Soviet Union, although just before we departed (on Czech Airways via Prague) for Moscow, the Russians revoked his visa, probably on account of his dissident pursuits. (In his spare time he edited an underground magazine.)

Without the company of Professor Peyfuss (a replacement was found to lead the trip), some twenty students headed to Russia, where, for whatever reasons, the local travel co-ordinator (I think it was Sputnik) had lost or cancelled many of our hotel reservations. In the language of samizdat, we were “non-persons”.

Instead of basking in the glories of Moscow and Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then called), we were shunted around Russia on a succession of night trains, one of which took us to Smolensk. (“I have seen the past, and it’s broken…”)

Because I love trains, I was enchanted with this aspect of Russian incompetence. During the two days that we were in Smolensk our group swam in a nearby lake, attended the philharmonic, read books in the park, and danced at an Intourist hotel. When I think of Russian summers, I think of Smolensk in late June.

Rumors of War

One day in Smolensk at the lake, I was sitting by the water, and the guide assigned to us was talking about the Napoleonic battles (during his 1812 invasion of Russia) that had taken place around the city. It was then that the conversation turned to the Katyn Forest, which was nearby.

At that point I knew little of the Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers. Perhaps my father might have mentioned it when I was growing up, as he was well versed on East European military affairs. But in summer 1976, especially in Smolensk, Katyn wasn’t anything that anyone discussed, least of all with a minder from the ministry of tourism.

The Russian guide didn’t completely dance around the issue, but she stuck to the Soviet Union’s party line, which was that no one knew what had happened to the missing Polish officers. What was most likely, she said, was that the Germans had exterminated them, as they had killed 3 million Jews in Poland.

Only when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the 1980s did Russia begin to come to terms with this grim aspect of its Stalinist past.

Polish academics and mourners were given access to the woods near Smolensk, and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, released a trove of documents that made it clear that the NKVD (the police for internal affairs) had massacred the Polish officers in April-May 1940.

When the Polish government delegation, led by President Lech Kaczyński headed by plane to Smolensk, it was to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre, which remains fresh in Polish minds.

All 96 members of the delegation died in the crash. For a perspective, imagine Air Force One crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2071, and then hearing from the Taliban that the cause of the crash was “pilot error”.

Katyn in Warsaw

Only after figuring out that I would have a day in Warsaw on my way to Minsk did I realize that the city now has a renovated Katyn memorial museum, which opened in 2015 on the grounds of the Warsaw Citadel.

I figured out its map co-ordinates and rode there from the old town, which took less than ten minutes although a few times on the ride I found myself getting lost on poorly sign-posted roundabouts and once had to carry my bicycle across a busy road.

Near the museum entrance there was a rack for bicycles. The ticket clerk gave me a brochure and a map, and told me to follow the scripted path through the memorial, which inside has exhibits and illuminated walls of found objects—buttons, medals, watches, forks, etc.,—that once belonged to those killed, the cream of the Polish military.

Built at the cost of millions, the new Katyn Museum has won a number of architectural prizes. This is not a small dusty museum with a few glass cabinets and faded regimental flags, but a lavish series of brick staircases, walkways, parks, gardens, benches, archways, exhibits, and carefully planted trees, which are meant to transport the visitor from the Warsaw suburbs to the Russian forestland and there to reflect on the lives lost in one particular clash of civilizations.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact

In the museum what caught my eye was a display cabinet devoted to the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact that placed Poland—as for so much of its history—between the ravenous jaws of Germany and Russia.

A photograph shows a facsimile of the treaty, and in the background there’s a smiling Joseph Stalin. On my train rides to Warsaw I had read several accounts of the treaty, all of which sounded like passages from Conrad. (“And this also, said Marlow suddenly, has been one of the dark places of the earth.”)

In Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, Tim Bouverie writes:

Late on the night of August 21 the official German news agency announced that “the German and Soviet Governments have agreed to conclude a Non-Aggression Pact with each other” and that the “Minister for Foreign Affairs, Herr von Ribbentrop, will proceed to Moscow on Wednesday, August 23 for the purpose of concluding the negotiations.” Stalin had made his choice.

His “choice” was to divide Versailles Poland between the two dictatorships.

Hitler, however, was not present in Moscow for the signing ceremony; for him, Russia remained an anathema. But he was waiting expectantly for the news in Berlin, knowing cynically that the signed treaty would allow him to devour much of Eastern Europe.

British historian Christopher Thorne ends The Approach of War, 1938-1939 (another book I was carrying) on September 3, 1939, when the British government sent an ultimatum of war to Germany, should it not withdraw immediately from Poland. Thorne describes the telegram’s arrival in Berlin:

The interpreter took the document over to where Hitler and Ribbentrop waited in the Chancellery. They read, and there was silence; then, with a savage look at Ribbentrop, Hitler asked: “What now?” Outside the room Goering muttered: “If we lose this war, then God have mercy on us.” Goebbels stood alone in a corner; he looked downcast and absorbed with his thoughts. Between them, these men, their movement, and the nation which had spawned and followed them had brought war to an unhealthy Europe. The timing and circumstances had been to a certain extent fortuitous. The responsibility was not.

The German-Russian pact doomed not just the Polish nation and its officer corps but some six million Jews who were caught in the vice between the two powers. As historian Paul Kriwaczek writes of the fate of what he calls “the Yiddish Nation”:

Its time was, roughly, from the eleventh century to the middle of the nineteenth, when the last vestiges of its autonomy were abolished—though the dispossessed remnant survived for almost another century, until the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact delivered one half of Poland’s Jews into the arms of Hitler’s mass murderers and the other to the hardly less psychopathic if more incompetent depravity of Joseph Stalin’s commissars.

In this man-made earthquake, the officers at Katyn, as well as the Polish nation and European Jewry at large, fell along the fault lines.

Next: The Warsaw Ghetto. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.