Pursuing the Truth: An Introduction to Józef Czapski's “Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941–1942”

By Timothy SnyderDecember 18, 2018

Pursuing the Truth: An Introduction to Józef Czapski's “Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941–1942”
LARB PRESENTS Timothy Snyder’s introduction to Józef Czapski’s Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941–1942, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by NYRB Classics today.


Józef Czapski was a gifted child of a fading European aristocracy, a lifelong admirer of Russian thought, and perhaps the greatest Polish painter of the 20th century — though during most of it he lived in obscurity in France. He was an introvert with the skills of an extrovert, able to speak to almost anyone about almost anything, who wanted only to compose his landscapes, portraits, and still lifes in peace. Inhuman Land, his recollection of the Second World War, is the work of a person who faced impossible demands with grace. One evening in Paris, decades after the events recounted in this book, Czapski attended a dinner party. When, unusually for him, he began to tell stories from the war, a French scholar gaped: “I had no idea what life could be!” [1]

That evening, the Frenchman listened. One must attend closely to Czapski. He was very humble. His style is descriptive rather than declarative, and he draws no conclusions. He gives voice to people and vitality to situations, which means that he withdraws himself. In this memoir, he tells us almost nothing about his life as an artist in interwar Paris and Warsaw, and very little about his confinement in Soviet concentration camps at the beginning of the Second World War.

Czapski was settling down in the late 1930s, with an atelier in Warsaw and a room near his friend Ludwik Hering in the suburbs. Just when it seemed he had found his way into life, he was summoned to war.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Czapski, then 43, was mobilized as a reserve officer of the Polish Army. The Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, falling upon retreating Polish forces from the rear. Czapski was captured by the Red Army near the village of Chmielek and sent to a camp in a former cloister in Starobilsk, in what is now the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine. About six months later, in April 1940, Czapski and a few of his fellow prisoners from Starobilsk were transferred to a camp at Gryazovets, about five hundred kilometers north of Moscow, where they met other Polish officers coming from camps at Kozelsk and Ostashkov.

Czapski, like Poland, was a victim of the Nazi-Soviet alliance known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In Gryazovets, Czapski and his comrades knew little about the course of the war, or about Poland under Soviet and German occupation. In late 1939, the eastern half of Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union, while Nazi Germany annexed some of the Polish lands it conquered and transformed the rest into a colony called the General Government. The prisoners placed their hopes in Poland’s allies, Britain and France. But in June 1940, France was defeated and British forces were driven from the Continent.

The prisoners’ fates changed a year later, when Hitler betrayed Stalin. The action of Inhuman Land begins after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. As German forces raced toward Moscow, Stalin applied an Orwellian “amnesty” to his Polish prisoners of war: he had imprisoned them for fighting his Nazi ally, and now released them to fight his Nazi enemy. By the terms of an agreement between the Soviet Union and the Polish government-in-exile in London, a Polish army would be formed from released Gulag inmates. Czapski, who was released from Gryazovets in September 1941, would be at the center of its creation. [2]

Tens of thousands of other men also made their way from far-flung Soviet concentration camps to makeshift Polish bases, first in the Orenburg region of southern Russia, and then near Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. Czapski’s job was to receive and register these fellow survivors, very often sick and starving, as they arrived in the bases in autumn 1941. Czapski writes about typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, and hunger, with a precision born of experience. The surviving men formed the Anders Army, named for its commander, General Władysław Anders. It crossed the Soviet border to Iran in spring 1942, and then journeyed through Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and finally to Italy, where, as the Polish Second Corps, it fought the Germans. It was these Polish soldiers who charged the bombed ruins of the monastery of Monte Cassino in May 1944 in one of the most daring Allied offensives of the war. In Italy, survivors of the Gulag helped inflict a defeat on the defenders of the Reich. In Inhuman Land, Czapski tells the story of how this came about. [3]

The Anders Army achieved all this with a much smaller complement of trained officers than had been anticipated. In late 1941 and early 1942, Czapski and his colleagues trained some 70,000 soldiers — but of the 10,000 officers known to be in Soviet captivity, about 8,000 never appeared. The missing men had all been held in three camps: Starobilsk (where Czapski had spent half a year), Kozelsk, and Ostashkov. Czapski was ordered to assemble a list of the missing officers and to speak to Soviet authorities about their whereabouts. When he met with NKVD chiefs and Gulag officials in winter 1941–’42 in Moscow and Orenburg, he assumed that his comrades had been sent to some especially distant camp. [4]

Czapski could not imagine then what we now know to be true: the missing 8,000 officers were all dead, murdered at Stalin’s orders, their skulls shattered from behind by bullets, their piled remains buried secretly at Katyn, Kharkiv, and Tver. In March 1940, Lavrenty Beria, the director of the Soviet secret state police (NKVD), received Stalin’s written approval to shoot the prisoners of Starobilsk, Ostashkov, and Kozelsk. They were mostly officers, and the officers mostly from the reserves: educated men, professionals, and intellectuals; physicians, veterinarians, scientists, lawyers, teachers, artists. After a quick review of their files, 97 percent of these people were sentenced to death. Czapski and 394 other prisoners from the three camps were spared and sent to Gryazovets, some because a foreign power had intervened on their behalf, others because they were Soviet informers. [5]

In April 1940, the Polish prisoners at Kozelsk were transported to the edge of the Katyn forest, taken inside an NKVD summer resort, and shot by NKVD men: 4,410 prisoners were murdered in this way. At Ostashkov, a band played as the prisoners departed for an NKVD prison at Tver, where each prisoner was bound and led to a soundproof cell. Two NKVD men held each prisoner’s arms as a third shot the prisoner from behind: 6,314 prisoners were murdered in this way. The men interned at Starobilsk were taken to the NKVD prison at Kharkiv, led one by one to a dark room without windows, and shot: 3,739 prisoners were murdered in this way. Since the prisoners of the three camps had been allowed to correspond, the NKVD could locate their homes. Right after the executions, the family members of the victims, 60,667 people resident in the eastern Polish lands under Soviet control, were deported to the Gulag. The children and the wives and the parents of the murdered men were told that they were being sent to join their fathers and husbands and sons. [6]

This mass murder, remembered as the Katyn massacre, is what Czapski escaped, although he did not know this at the time. He bore witness to the aftermath as best he could. Is it worth pursuing the truth even when it is unattainable? The answer that Czapski offered by writing this book the way that he did was in the affirmative. By the time he completed it, the death pit at Katyn had been discovered. Yet his book is about what he found while he was searching, and in that sense its major subject is an ethic. It is one that Czapski himself was far too modest to spell out: the attempt to see the world as a basic form of moral activity, one which disables evil forms of politics and enables good ones. Up until that point in his life, Czapski had been chiefly engaged in teaching himself to see. This account of the war reveals what he had learned, and what we can learn from him during our own trials with the truth.


Józef Maria Emeryk Franciszek Ignacy Czapski was born in Prague in 1896 to an aristocratic family whose estate was just south of Minsk, in the Russian Empire. He was descended from people who regarded themselves as Poles and Germans on his father’s side and Czechs and Austrians on his mother’s side — and from administrators of empire, Romanov and Habsburg, on each side. The local peasantry spoke Belarusian, as did the servants. Czapski’s father, Jerzy Hutten­-Czapski, spoke Polish to the children, although he had only learned the language properly himself at university — his own mother was a Baltic German Protestant who corresponded in English, French, and German, while his father had aspired to raise “Greeks and Romans.” Czapski’s mother, Josepha, came from a German-speaking family, the Thun und Hohensteins, brought to Bohemia by the Habsburgs to displace Czech nobles, but she regarded herself as Czech and as having changed her nationality from Czech to Polish when she married her Polish husband. In her marriage she was known as Józefa Czapska. She spoke German with him and to her older children but Polish to the younger ones. She did teach the children to sing Czech patriotic songs and dressed them for public outings in Czech folk costumes — politically inoffensive in the Russian Empire. Czapski was the fifth child of seven and the elder of two sons. His mother died when he was seven. He was educated at home in French, German, and Polish, and then in Petersburg, the imperial capital, in Russian.

These Czapskis belonged to the wealthier element of the Polish nobility, which had survived and even prospered under imperial rule. Poland had not existed as an independent state since 1795, when it had been partitioned among the Habsburg monarchy, Russian Empire, and Prussia. Czapski’s family was at home in that imperial world, and though he was raised as a Pole, he was certainly not taught to wish for Polish independence. As he was coming of age, the First World War was making an independent Poland thinkable. The three partitioning powers were at war, the German and Habsburg empires on one side, the Russian on the other. The mind of young Józef Czapski was elsewhere.

In 1917, as Russia passed through a February Revolution that promised law and rights and an October Revolution that promised class struggle, Czapski was a Christian pacifist living in Petersburg with a liberal uncle. [7] As an acolyte of Lev Tolstoy, Czapski believed that heaven could be brought to earth if men did not resist evil with force. In September 1917, he volunteered for a Polish army within Russia but was shocked to see a fellow officer abuse a Belarusian peasant. He told his superior officers that he had joined the army out of conformism and cowardice, and left it to help found a pacifist commune in Petersburg. His uncle and other connections looked out for him, but even so he spent his time searching for food in the hungry city. When this youthful venture came to nothing, Czapski departed revolutionary Russia for Warsaw in May 1918, planning to enroll as an art student in the fall. A new Poland was forming around him, but he did not identify strongly with it, and still believed that Christianity forbade the violence that many of his generation saw as necessary to create a state and establish and defend its borders. One fine day, strolling down the street eating cherries, Czapski suddenly found himself thinking about two comrades in the army who had supported his principled decision not to fight. Both of them had since been killed in action. Czapski volunteered again for the Polish Army, asking for an assignment where he would not have to kill. Such a task was quickly found.

Polish officers from the three empires were gathering in Warsaw. Among them was the man who had been Czapski’s immediate superior in the Polish Army in Russia. He received Czapski cordially, ignoring his prior desertion, and found him the appropriate assignment. Five commanders of that Polish army in Russia had decided, after the October Revolution, that they would be most useful fighting with the French against Germany. As they made their way across far northern Russia, hoping to reach France by sea, they had lost touch with Warsaw. Czapski’s assignment was to find them. And so in October 1918, Czapski was sent back to revolutionary Petersburg, his possessions in a basket and bribe money in his wallet, to learn what had become of these men. After a good deal of meandering, he found his way to an influential Bolshevik, Elena Stasova, who told him that the officers had been apprehended by Bolshevik forces and executed. [8]

One day that autumn, as Czapski was walking through Petersburg, he chanced to see a nameplate reading “Merezhkovsky” at the entrance to a building, guessed that it belonged to the symbolist poet and religious thinker of that name, and rang the bell. When Dmitry Merezhkovsky opened the door, Czapski unburdened himself: he was a pacifist at war, he told this complete stranger, and he did not know how to live. Merezhkovsky invited him in and called to his wife, the poet Zinaida Gippius: “Zina! Come! This is interesting!” Merezhkovsky told Czapski that the path to heaven was muddy, that God most valued those who besmirched themselves while trying to do right. [9]

Czapski returned to Warsaw with his news about the death of the five officers, and then enlisted as a regular soldier. Poland had been founded as an independent state while he was on his way to Petersburg, and its borders were uncertain on all sides. The most important conflict in 1919 was with a Bolshevik Russia that was seeking to spread its revolution through Poland to Germany and Europe. Czapski was promoted to the rank of officer and decorated for his courage in the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919. Extremely tall and a good rider, he cut a fine figure in an engagement with Semyon Budyonny’s famous Red Cavalry. One of Budyonny’s men shouted as Czapski raced forward: “Grab that son of a bitch!” His men liked to remember that moment. Czapski himself recalled one of his soldiers lying in the grass and puzzling over the meaning of war: “And all this for the motherfucking homeland.” That too became a saying among his troops. [10]

As Merezhkovsky had advised, Czapski made contact with the world and, in his own way, entered politics. Poland won the Polish-Bolshevik War, though the peace signed with the Bolsheviks in 1920 left the Czapski family estate on the Soviet side of the border. Czapski had dreamed neither of a communist Russia nor of an independent Poland, but he now found himself a young man with experience of both, skilled at crossing borders of various kinds. His father, Jerzy, seems to have lost his authority with his children along with his property. Czapski, in any event, was open to new influences. He was one of those rare people who knew how to love older people when he was young (and younger people when he was old).

When Merezhkovsky and Gippius decided to flee Bolshevik Russia, Czapski helped smuggle them into Poland in early 1920. The couple was joined in their escape by their friend and collaborator, the journalist and political thinker Dmitry Filosofov. These Russians thought of Poland as a messianic country that should save Europe from Bolshevism; Czapski for his part saw in them citizens of a “Third Russia,” neither czarist nor communist, a possible future. [11] Filosofov became an advisor to the commander of the Polish armed forces, Józef Piłsudski. In Warsaw, Czapski visited Filosofov every week: “I was like a son to him.” [12] In the 1920s and ’30s, guided by Filosofov, Czapski continued to read (and write about) Russian poets, novelists, and philosophers.

What Czapski wanted to do was paint. Once he returned from the battlefield of the Polish-Bolshevik War, he enrolled again as an art student, this time in Kraków, where he studied for three years. In 1924, he led a Paris Committee of young Polish painters (Artur Nacht, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Dorota Seydenmann, Jan Cybis, Hanna Rudzka-Cybisowa, Seweryn Boraczok, and others) on a venture to Paris that lasted the better part of a decade. His sister Maria joined them. Czapski had no money, since his family had lost everything after the revolution, but he did have languages and breeding and poise and charm, his artist friends, and now his sister, who looked after him even as she wrote her own books. He shone in salons, drew for Coco Chanel, talked with Gertrude Stein, listened to jazz, and sang Negro spirituals. He worked hard at his painting, had his first exhibition, wrote a history of impressionism, and planned books about Russian literature. [13]

While ill with typhus, Czapski read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Czapski appreciated Proust’s powers of concentration and recollection; he also admired Proust as a witness who sacrificed his health for his work. Above all, Czapski understood Proust, and literature generally, as a source of techniques and references that could be applied universally. When in 1939 Czapski went to war again and in 1941 found himself looking for officers a second time, he tried to connect his Soviet experiences to the Russia of his youth and the European art and literature he studied as an adult. At Gryazovets, in the guise of French lessons, Czapski lectured to his fellow prisoners on Proust. He did so from memory, treating a concentration camp as Proust had treated his cork-walled room, as a site enabling what both men called “mémoire involontaire.” His lectures were a triumph of culture over politics and thought over circumstance that would be hard to surpass. They included a pertinent expression of Czapski’s wonder at Proust: “It’s he, and he alone in this crowd, who will make them all come to life again.” [14]

The original edition of Inhuman Land begins when Czapski is released from Gryazovets and concludes when he departs the Soviet Union for Iran. [15] In his journeys through the Soviet Union, Czapski recorded what scholarship would later confirm: deportations of peasants in the early 1930s; deportations of nations in the late 1930s. He describes the displaced Ukrainians, Koreans, and others whom he saw, records what they told him, captures the sadness of human faces. He felt unequal to the task, wishing for “a new Tolstoy or Proust,” someone who could convey “the things that would suddenly give the game away in the course of 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 at least one of their closest relatives to the camps in the north.”

Czapski could almost always reach people if he could speak to them in person, but his meetings with NKVD men — disguising their complicity in the mass murder of his friends, representing a Stalinist Soviet Union that was reeling under German attack during a freezing winter — posed challenges insurmountable even for him. He noted a difference between the early revolutionaries he had met in 1918 and the officials with whom he spoke in 1941 and 1942: both killed but the latter also lied. Throughout Inhuman Land, Czapski consistently tries to speak with Soviet citizens — his hosts in the apartments where he is billeted, his companions on train journeys, nurses in hospitals — with mixed success. There was no missing the contrast between the vibrant and unpredictable conversations of the Russian intellectuals he knew and the repetitive propaganda or depressing silence of Soviet public spaces. Even so, he produced an unsurpassed document of everyday Stalinism.

Czapski began his search with the hope that he would hear again the voices of Poles he knew at Starobilsk. He ended by giving a voice to the Soviet citizens whom he met along the way.

A touching scene in Inhuman Land is Czapski’s encounter with a Jewish stranger in a Moscow hotel in February 1942. He is about to leave the Soviet capital, having failed to learn anything from Soviet officials, and feels crushed by the indifference of his surroundings. The Jew asks him politely if he is from Poland, and Czapski impulsively invites this stranger to his room. There they look at a photograph of the Old Town of Warsaw, in ruins after German bombing. The Jew bursts into tears. Czapski himself weeps, and is grateful: “[T]he poor Jew’s red, tearstained eyes saved me from total loss of faith and bitter despair.”

We tend to separate Stalinism and Nazism in our minds, but in the middle of the war in the middle of Europe tens of millions of people experienced both. Ludwik Hering, for example, saw his friend Czapski depart to fight the Germans, only to learn that he had been taken prisoner by the Soviets. Hering’s brother died in Auschwitz, after which Hering himself was arrested by Soviet NKVD officers who understood his name to be “Göring.” He could not defend himself under Soviet arrest because he had lost his documents when under German arrest. Variations of this sort of experience were the rule.

The history of Soviets and Poles and Jews and Germans was entangled in ways that Czapski’s book helps to clarify. The Jews most likely to survive German killing operations were those who had fallen victim to Soviet repressions. The largest group of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Poland were people who had been deported in 1940 from annexed eastern Poland to camps or settlements in Siberia or Kazakhstan. Czapski helped such Jews enlist in the Polish Army, even when this was not appropriate on military grounds. Among the Polish Jews who joined were Zionists, who subsequently left the army in Palestine. Menachem Begin, a future prime minister of Israel and the founder of the party that rules the country today, was discharged from the Polish armed forces in Palestine. [16]

Warsaw was a major Jewish city, home to more Jews than Palestine before the Second World War. Czapski was at Gryazovets when Warsaw Jews were placed in ghettos, in Iran during the transports to Treblinka known as the Grosse Aktion, and in Iraq during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Though Czapski was not a witness to the events that we know as the Holocaust, he did learn of them. His sister Maria lived in Warsaw during the war, helping a social activist of Jewish origin write her memoirs. She also visited Janusz Korczak, a pedagogue she and her brother both admired, in the Warsaw Ghetto — before he was murdered in Treblinka along with his fellow teachers and the children under their care. She wrote to Czapski of the murder of the family of Dorota Seydenmann, one of his artist friends in Paris. [17]

For Czapski, the Polish interwar republic, broken in 1939 by the German and Soviet invasions, was supposed to have been a homeland for all. He came to Polish identity himself through action, and Poland was for him a nation of citizens rather than a group of ethnic kindred. When Poland’s first president was assassinated by a nationalist fanatic in 1922 amid roiling public hatred of Jews, Czapski founded a student committee to protest nationalism and antisemitism. In the 1930s, his Russian mentor Filosofov was an outspoken defender of Poland’s Jews. Czapski understood his Paris Committee of artists as a microcosm of a better and more cosmopolitan Poland, and remained friends with its artists as they returned to Warsaw. [18]

During the German occupation, Dorota Seydenmann was sheltered by Hanna Rudzka-Cybisowa, one of the artists of the committee. Seydenmann left when Rudzka-Cybisowa was denounced, so as not to endanger her, and then was murdered. Artur Nacht, the second Jew of the Paris Committee, wrote to Czapski in Starobilsk, before he was sent to the Lwów Ghetto. Nacht escaped and survived to paint again after the war. The Holocaust is not a subject of the chapters of Inhuman Land that narrate the years 1941 through 1943, but the attentive reader will find the allusions.

After the war, living in political exile in France, Czapski learned more of what had happened to Warsaw Jews. Ludwik Hering, the friend he had left behind in Warsaw in 1939, was troubled by Polish reactions to Jewish suffering: he painted a carousel of happy Poles enjoying themselves as the ghetto burned behind them. [19] Though Czapski had parted with Hering when the Second World War began and would not see him again for more than 30 years, the two men kept up an extraordinary correspondence. During the German occupation of Warsaw, Hering worked as a night watchman in a tannery that bordered upon the ghetto. He observed Jewish children as they left the ghetto, hunted for food, and returned. He knew that their greatest fear was the Polish street children. He helped several Jews to escape, in some cases literally giving them the clothes off his back. In 1945 and 1946, he published two stories about the Holocaust, recording what he had seen (if not what he had done), and then never published again. Czapski pleaded with Hering to write more, and was reading his friend’s work as he completed Inhuman Land. [20]

Hering’s story “Ślady” (“traces,” “footsteps”) is a close description of the children of the ghetto and their daily search for food beyond its walls. Czapski’s similarly entitled chapter, “Śladami” (“in the traces,” “in the footsteps”), describes the face of a hungry Russian woman crossing herself before slowly eating a single small tomato. Having read that chapter, Hering wrote to Czapski of a starving Jewish woman who sees a tomato vine through a hole in the ghetto wall and smiles. The theme of helpless public loneliness was shared by the two men before, during, and after the war. Czapski had long been preoccupied with the image of “the Jewish woman in the third-class cabin.” After the war, when he returned to painting, it became “the African woman at the train station.” [21]

By the time he wrote Inhuman Land, Czapski was no longer a pacifist. The good was truth rather than peace: truth could reveal injustice; truth opened some possibility for the virtue of humanity. The two men discussed Hering’s stories as “antihuman.” The last words of Hering’s “Ślady,” following a description of the ghetto uprising and the indifference of Poles, leave little room for hope: “Fine snowflakes fall fast and thick. The sky, the earth, and the ruins of the ghetto tremble like printed words on a piece of paper that is coming apart.” There is a finality here, a reduction to black and white. Despite Czapski’s pleas, Hering stopped writing after “Ślady” was published in 1946.

For Czapski, words were like colors, to be kept in motion, in a search that did not end. The two men saw different wars and were of different characters. Hering was a perfectionist who liked to advise others. Czapski was ecumenical and industrious and liked to work alone. They loved and encouraged each other. When Czapski completed Inhuman Land in 1947, Hering was happy. When Czapski returned to painting in 1949, Hering was happier still.


In communist Poland, as in the Soviet Union, it was illegal to write about the Katyn massacre. Under communism, Czapski’s name was on a special list of those not permitted to publish under any circumstances. Today Poland is sovereign, the truth about Katyn is known, and Czapski is receiving some of the attention he deserves. Some Polish politicians now err in the opposite direction, suggesting that an air accident that killed Poles traveling to commemorate Katyn in 2010 confirmed the eternal martyrdom of the Polish nation. Czapski’s position about Polish suffering was different: rather than treating the victimhood of other Poles as an authorization for falsehood, he turned his own suffering into a search for the truth about those who suffered more than he. He quoted Proust: “Perhaps a great artist serves his fatherland — but can only do so by seeing truth, which means forgetting everything else, including the fatherland.” [22]

Despite his experiences in the Soviet Union, Czapski in his postwar French emigration kept on exploring Russia through literature and kept on making Russian friends. The historian Michel Heller, the host of that dinner party with the astonished Frenchman, put it this way: “Russian was not for him the language of the executioners and the torturers, but the language of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, of Rozanov and Merezhkovsky, of Akhmatova and Solzhenitsyn.” This was clear to the Russians who knew him during and after the war. In Tashkent in 1943, Czapski met the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Lydia Chukovskaya, and left an impression on both. Akhmatova devoted to Czapski a breathless poem that begins with the words “That night, we drove each other mad.” Four decades after they had spent a night talking on a balcony, Chukovskaya asked Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to tell Czapski that she dreamed of reading Inhuman Land. Even the distrustful Solzhenitsyn took to Czapski right away. [23]

One of the tasks in today’s Russia is to connect the 21st century with the 19th without ignoring or falsifying the Soviet history that came between. For this, mediators will be needed, and Czapski is a precious one.

The truth about the Soviet Union that Czapski sought was a lonely cause, even in the West. Were Americans and West Europeans to remember that the war began as a defense of Poland, they would find it harder to qualify the outcome as a victory. Stalin began the war as Hitler’s ally and annexed half of Poland; he ended the war as Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle’s ally and annexed half of Poland. Were Americans and West Europeans to face the facts of Soviet repression in 1939–1941, they would have to accept that the war was an alliance with one totalitarian power against another, not a triumph of democracy. To see the truth about Katyn is also to realize that the Western allies endorsed Stalinist lies about mass murder. The issue closed only with the release of Soviet documents in 1990 — 50 years after the murder of Czapski’s comrades but three years before Czapski’s death. [24]

This is the first translation of Inhuman Land from the Polish original into English, seven decades after Czapski completed his book. As new strains of untruth undermine the institutions that we take for granted, his example of truth-seeking serves us still.


Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and StalinBlack Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, and On Tyranny.


[1] Michał (Michel) Heller, “Człowiek przeszłości i przyszłości,” Zeszyty Literackie, no. 44 (2003): 93. In 1985, Jacques Cousteau called Czapski “the most astonishing man, in my opinion, whom one can meet today.”

[2] This was the Sikorski-Maisky agreement of July 1941. See Gabriel Gorodetsky, ed., The Maisky Diaries, Tatiana Sorokina and Oliver Ready, trans. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 2015.

[3] See Norman Davies, Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents (Oxford: Osprey Publishing), 2015.

[4] Among the murdered was one woman, the pilot Janina Lewandowska (née Dowbor-Muśnicka). She was the daughter of one of the commanders of a Polish army, discussed below, that Czapski joined in 1917.

[5] Czapski seems to have been spared because of the intervention of German diplomats. This was mysterious to him and remains so. One of the informers, Zygmunt Berling, was given the command of a second Polish army formed on Soviet soil, this one under Soviet control, which was allowed to fight on the eastern front and to reach Poland.

[6] More than 8,000 of the murdered were officers and more than 6,000 were policemen. Fulfilling Beria’s quotas, the NKVD also murdered at the same time more than 7,000 Polish citizens who were not in those three camps but were in prison or had been arrested in April 1940. Thus the total death toll for the Katyn massacre (a name which is used as a shorthand for murders at five different sites) is correctly given as about 22,000. See Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, and Wojciech Materski, eds., Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 2007, and my Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books), 2010.

[7] This was Alexander von Meyendorff, the parliamentary deputy, diplomat, and legal scholar, a major influence on Czapski and a memorable figure in his own right.

[8] Maria Czapska, Czas odmieniony (Kraków: Znak, 2014), 307–320. The city where these events took place was called St. Petersburg from its founding until 1914, Petrograd from 1914 to 1924, Leningrad from 1924 through 1991, and then again St. Petersburg. I call it Petersburg for the sake of simplicity.

[9] The career of Ivan Ilyin, today an influential thinker in Russia, began with a different sort of rejection of Tolstoyan pacifism. See my The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018).

[10] The first quotation is from Wojciech Karpiński, Portret Czapskiego (Warsaw: Zeszyty Literackie, 2007), 10; the second, like all remaining unannotated quotations of Czapski’s, are from this edition of Inhuman Land.

[11] See Andrzej Nowak, Polska i trzy Rosje (Kraków: Arcana, 2001).

[12] Józef Czapski and Piotr Kłoczowski, Świat w moich oczach (Żąbki: Wydawnictwo Księży Pallotynów, 2001), 128.

[13] Czapski’s recollections of Paris are scattered among several sources. On Stein, see his Tumult i widma (Kraków: Znak, 1997), 123. On spirituals, see Felicja Krance, “Józio,” Zeszyty Literackie, no. 44 (2003): 86. On national tensions among the painters, see Paweł Bem, “Ten uroczy Ukrainiec Boraczok,” Zeszyty Literackie, no. 131 (2015).

[14] Happily, they have just been published in English: Józef Czapski, Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp, Eric Karpeles, trans. (New York: New York Review Books, 2018). The French edition is Proust contre la déchéance (Montricher: Noir sur Blanc, 1987).

[15] This edition includes the chapters that Czapski later added for the German edition, which brings the action through Monte Cassino and includes his reflections on Germany.

[16] For details, see my Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015).

[17] I owe some of this information to Mikołaj Nowak-Rogoziński, who is writing a book about Czapski during the war. Maria later wrote of the Holocaust as a crime that “weighs on all of humanity and all of us still living.” She fled Poland in 1945 and joined her brother in France.

[18] On Filosofov, see Piotr Mitzner, “Rosyjski goj w międzywojennej Warszawie,” Nigdy Więcej, no. 22 (2016). On the assassination, see Paul Brykczynski, Primed for Violence: Murder, Antisemitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018).

[19] The image is best known from Czesław Miłosz’s poem “Campo dei Fiori.”

[20] Hering was at the time raising his niece to be a painter; for her recollections, see Ludmiła Murawska-Péju, “Nachwort,” in Ludwik Hering, Spuren: Drei Erzählungen (Berlin: FotoTapeta, 2011), 99–103. Czapski’s main labor of the immediate postwar years was the establishment of the journal Kultura. For a sense of its influence, see my The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

[21] For the stories of Hering in German translation, see the previous note. For the letters, see Józef Czapski and Ludwik Hering, Listy 1939-1982, vol. 1 (Gdańsk: Fundacja Terytoria Książki, 2016). On the lonely figure, see “Wyrwane strone,” Zeszyty Literackie, no. 45 (1994): 23. Writing to Hering from the United States in 1950, Czapski called the predicament of blacks “our Jewish question.”

[22] Józef Czapski, “Złote gwoździe,” Zeszyty Literackie, no. 45 (1994): 50.

[23] “В ту ночь мы сошли друг от друга с ума.” It is possible that the poem had another destinataire. See Piotr Mitzner, “Wyspa Taszkient,” Zeszyty Literackie, no. 165 (2018): 94–106.

[24] On the American and British lines on Katyn, see Jolanta Jasina, “Katyń 1940-Smoleńsk 2010,” master’s thesis, Yale University, 2011. Stanisław Andrzejewski, a Polish prisoner of war who escaped Soviet captivity, established the modern sense of the word “kleptocracy”: rule by thieves, an enabling condition of today’s untruths. See Oliver Bullough, “The Dark Side of Globalization,” Journal of Democracy 29 no. 1 (2018): 26.

LARB Contributor

Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. He is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder is a member of the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a permanent fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.


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