Insight Poland

An Inhuman Land: How Jozef Czapski described Putin’s Russia seventy years ago

Warsaw, Poland – More than 70 years ago, Jozef Czapski was one of the thousands of Polish soldiers released from Soviet prisons and tasked with reconstituting a Polish Army within the communist state. His autobiography of that time, “Inhuman Land” recounts his exploits throughout the sprawling country and the various atrocities he witnessed.

His account not only echoes present-day Russian society under Vladimir Putin’s mobilization, but also presents the reader with a grim truth.

Prague-born, Captain Jozef Czapski was an odd individual to find in a Polish military uniform. He was a pacifist in his early life who looked upon Russia with a certain fondness. While he did see combat in the Polish-Soviet War, his most important tasks were on the periphery of warfighting, tasked with finding a small group of murdered Polish soldiers supposedly being held in the USSR.

In the Second World War, he held three primary tasks. He was to again try and locate murdered Polish officers who were supposedly strewn across the USSR, though this time on a much bigger scale. He also helped receive the thousands of Polish soldiers and citizens escaping the Gulag and trying to enlist in the new Army. He finally then worked in the propaganda department of this newly constituted army, the Polish Second Corps.

Fast forward to present day, and Russia again finds itself in the grips of brutal totalitarianism. Vladimir Putin has hoarded power on a scale not seen since Stalin. And much like in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the country tolerates no dissent, going as far as imprisoning single fathers and shuttling their children to orphanages for even the slightest critiques. This has created a sense of fear and need for silence analogous to the Great Purges of 1937-1939.

It is true that there is more oxygen for news and expression in Putin’s Russia than in Stalin’s. The prevalence of the internet and VPNs allows Russians, especially the younger generations, to access information that would have never been available to most Soviet citizens. The borders are also far more porous than in the 1930s and 40s, allowing tens of thousands of war-averse Russians to flee. However, there are a number of similarities between now and then that Czapski was able to capture during his experiences as an officer in Stalinist Russia.

A broken record

One of earliest encounters described in his book highlights how abysmal the state of the Soviet Army was in the summer of 1941. Upon coming across a group of conscripts, Czapski writes how one of them pleaded for water. “Give us some water… Give us some hot water, they’re not giving us hot water…tobacco or food but they’re telling us we’ve got to fight the Germans.” The conscript is then admonished by a Politruk. This echoes current day when the Russian Army, especially at the start of the war when soldiers were fighting with spoiled rations and half-century old rifles.

The treatment of ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union is also noted by Czapski. When on a train, he describes a scenario in which he meets a soldier and as they are talking, an Uzbek man enters their cabin. While initially friendly, the soldier quickly pivots and becomes violent with the Uzbek man. He screamed, “Get lost, you Uzbek scum,” and began to violently kick the old man. He also noted how none of the other passengers intervened or even reacted to the outburst of violence.

The callowness in how the (presumably) Russian soldier treated the Uzbek is akin as to how the current Russian government cynically treats ethnic minorities. As has been noted many times, Russian casualties have been disproportionately high in the regions with high concentrations of ethnic minorities. As outlined by the Guardian, the regions of Buryatia and Dagestan have suffered disproportionately high casualties.

While what Czapski witnessed was not the same type of racism exhibited by the current regime in the Kremlin, both instances illustrate how the various minorities that composed Russia and the Soviet Union were viewed as less valuable than ethnic Russians.

Moscow to Kuybyshev

However, it is on the train from Moscow back to Kuybyshev that Czapski truly hits on the similarities between today’s Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union. At one point, he meets members of the privileged class of Soviet citizens. After interacting with them, he laments how “every word was an ostentatious declaration of their blind devotion to today’s government and today’s system […] a total lack of criticism, or worse – a total incapacity to think for themselves.”

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been numerous reports of those who have gone along with the propaganda espoused by the Kremlin. The motivation for this devotion varies. On the one hand, there are individuals who simply profit off the current system and are scared to see it vanish. Then there is a small number of individuals want to continue the war. Regardless of the motivations, Czapski captures the sheer frustrations outside observers possess watching people espouse the senseless whims of totalitarianism.

Having become exasperated with the mindless repeating of propaganda, Czapski vents in his book: “Where had all that diversity gone, all that exuberance and courage to think things right through, which had been so typical in prerevolutionary Russia and not just among the intelligentsia?” Like in Putin’s Russia, they fled, were imprisoned, or simply killed. Later during the journey, Czapski notes the use of fascism in Soviet propaganda. He notes, “[propaganda] papers were constantly comparing the occupation of Poland’s eastern territories with the victories of Suvorov, and we were all described as cowardly fascist bandits.” The use of previous military glory and the portrayal of the enemy as fascists sound ominously familiar.

A lesson for all

Various media outlets have reported on how difficult it is to conduct their jobs in the current Russia. People are hesitant to give interviews, there is a lack of freedom of movement, and significant personal risks faced by Russian and foreign journalists. That is why the writings of Czapski are so important. He is giving the reader a glimpse into Putin’s Russia while writing about Stalin’s Soviet Union. The lack of criticism and critical thinking, the absence of those willing to challenge the regime, the use of fascist scapegoats, and the treatment of ethnic minorities could all be ripped from today’s headlines.

At first, it would be tempting to simply conclude that it appears that if history does not repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. However, this does not penetrate to the greater threat that Czapski’s book outlines. What this account illustrates is that it is so easy for opposing voices and dissent to be snuffed out. As stated above, Czapski bemoaned how there were no competing voices in the public sphere compared to the end of Imperial Russia and the early days of the revolution. In a little more than 20 years, all that remained were individuals blindly repeating party slogans, either out of earnestness or fear. In today’s Russia, again after a little more than 20 years, the messy but vocal 90s have been replaced by individuals parroting Kremlin propaganda.

The primary conclusion one might draw from “Inhuman Land” is to think that Russians are just susceptible to this type of government or way of thinking. However, Czapski notes that all nations are susceptible to authoritarianism, brutality, and ignorance of atrocities committed in the name of a nation.

In a tremendous amount of courage, at the height of the Cold War and Polish subjugation, Czapski writes on how his own beloved nation committed acts of brutality, all with the passive permission from the nation. The pacification of Ukrainians in Eastern Galicia, the internment camp Bereza Kurtuska used by the Sanacja government to detain political opponents, and the general repression of political dissent all occurred during Poland’s independence. Despite what nationalists and conservatives may exclaim, even the oft-martyred Poland is susceptible to authoritarian repression that is tolerated by the general populace.

The comparisons between the Soviet Union as seen by Czapski and current day Russia should not be seen as a commendation. They should be seen as a warning.

By Daniel Jarosak

Daniel Jarosak does contract work for the US government. He has an educational background in Central and Eastern Europe and has contributed to New Eastern Europe and Lossi 36.