A sharply observed account of war behind the Russian lines from an accidental observer.
Czapski (1896-1993) had the misfortune of being caught between larger armies at the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact that divided his country. Thousands of his Polish comrades were executed in the Katyn Forest, an atrocity that he investigated after the war; for his part, he and thousands of other soldiers were sent to the gulag deep inside Russia. When Germany attacked Russia, Czapski and his fellows were freed to join the Allies, but their newly constituted Polish army had to get across the Soviet Union and into territory occupied by friendlier allies. His account of how they made their way to Iran and then to British-occupied Iraq makes up the heart of this book, reporting on things seen and heard along the way as well as on life in the camp: “There was never enough medicine, as in these circumstances even quite large stocks ran out at lightning speed.” Along the way, Soviet agents took away officers of the command, some, it was said, to staff an alternate version of the army for an occupied postwar Poland, but some for other purposes: “Studying Lenin, and one or another, more or less sincere or calculated game with the Bolsheviks, had not been of any help to that dear, lost boy.” The author sees things through an artist’s eyes, sometimes offering arresting images, sometimes simply chronicling the destruction of the Eastern European art world between two brands of totalitarianism (“his synthetic sculptures of cats and birds were worthy of Brancusi,” he writes of one long-forgotten comrade) and its replacement with something else: “I did not see a single picture that wasn’t atrocious or hopelessly mediocre,” he writes of the rising wave of socialist realist art. His reports are astonishing portraits of life in wartime Russia, when many anti-communist Russians welcomed the Nazi invaders and were only too glad to participate in ethnic cleansing.
A good complement to Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk, Primo Levi’s The Truce, and other accounts of wartime dislocation.