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Yale University Press
Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine

Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine

by Timothy SnyderTimothy Snyder


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The forgotten protagonist of this true account aspired to be a cubist painter in his native Kyïv. In a Europe remade by the First World War, his talents led him to different roles—intelligence operative, powerful statesman, underground activist, lifelong conspirator. Henryk Józewski directed Polish intelligence in Ukraine, governed the borderland region of Volhynia in the interwar years, worked in the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet underground during the Second World War, and conspired against Poland’s Stalinists until his arrest in 1953. His personal story, important in its own right, sheds new light on the foundations of Soviet power and on the ideals of those who resisted it. By following the arc of Józewski’s life, this book demonstrates that his tolerant policies toward Ukrainians in Volhynia were part of Poland’s plans to roll back the communist threat.

The book mines archival materials, many available only since the fall of communism, to rescue Józewski, his Polish milieu, and his Ukrainian dream from oblivion. An epilogue connects his legacy to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the democratic revolution in Ukraine in 2004.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300125993
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/10/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 801,916
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Age Range: 1 - 17 Years

About the Author

Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University.

Read an Excerpt

Sketches from a Secret War

A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine
By Timothy Snyder

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Timothy Snyder
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12599-3

Chapter One

Matters of Trust

Józef Pilsudski's coup d'état of May 1926 has the strange character of an old silent film, somehow played too slowly and with too few actors. It was a violent affair in the end, although Pilsudski believed that his personal authority would suffice to prevent any opposition. It was a military putsch, although the army never really took sides, or rather took both sides. It was a civil war, fought mainly in Warsaw, or rather in a few neighborhoods. Both Pilsudski's troops and government loyalists were concerned to avoid casualties. Traffic police told pedestrians which streets to avoid because of the bullets. Citizens trapped in apartment buildings by gunfire found ways to bring tea to nearby soldiers. Józewski heard talk of the flying bullets on his southbound tram, and got off a few stops early. With brushes and paints in hand, he marched to Saxon Square, to the general staff, and reported for duty. The brushes and paints remained in the staff room. In Józewski's terms, contemplation met action. Pilsudski seized power; Józewski watched-and gave away signed copies of his study of Hamlet.

Thetragedy of the end of democracy presented the opportunity for government by a trusted few. Trust was central to Pilsudski's thought. Pilsudski was a lifelong conspirator who had succeeded. In his youth, he had been exiled to Siberia, and brought back a native mastery of the Russian language and a native distrust of Russian institutions of power. During a quarter-century of illegal work among Polish socialists, Pilsudski had trusted his comrades and only his comrades. It was they who distributed his socialist newspaper in the 1890s, they who set him free from Russian captivity in 1900, they who followed him during the Revolution of 1905 when he chose military conspiracy over proletarian revolt. Generations of conspirators were formed around and formed by Pilsudski, the youngest being the soldiers of the Polish Legions and Polish Military Organization he commanded during the First World War. Józewski, who finished university in 1914, belonged to the last generation to conspire with Pilsudski to build and defend an independent Poland. His intelligence work in Ukraine in 1919 and 1920 had made him one of Pilsudski's youngest "men of trust."

After the coup, Pilsudski faced a political task rife with contradictions. He had come to power promising to end the chaos of parliamentary government, but had no ready substitute for democracy. He claimed with some justice to speak for the country, but knew that the National Democrats would win free elections. He believed that Poles had to be educated to be prepared for democracy, but his own actions during and after the coup were hardly edifying. He was a former socialist who believed that communists threatened the existence of the Polish state. He desired to create some simulacrum of a political center, but had no political party of his own. At every stage of his career he had burned bridges, the coup itself being the latest daring move to enchant some and alienate others. The ideas of the 1920s offered little to Poland's leader. Pilsudski was increasingly suspicious of ideals and theories as he aged. He offered no transcendence, no end of history, and precious few plans. Pilsudski was charismatic but had no inclination to show himself in public. He was no Mussolini. Rather than praising the nation, he expressed his disappointment that independence had turned out so badly.

Poland was too important to be entrusted to the Poles. Pilsudski sought to govern by way of personal connections, by the comrades he still trusted in 1926. He encouraged his "men of trust" to build small conspiracies within and around official state institutions, to settle affairs in his chambers in the Belvedere or in their apartments in Warsaw. It was at about that time that members of the Soviet politburo, other old conspirators of the Russian Empire, fell back into the same habit. Pilsudski met the Soviet envoy in the private apartment of his foreign minister. In Warsaw, it was difficult to understand the workings of power in terms of offices and titles. Pilsudski set the tone by winning an election to the presidency but declining to hold the office. Józewski, thought to be a member of Pilsudski's real cabinet, monitored the work of the government for two years after the coup. He considered this, the period of his greatest power in Poland as a whole, to be a transitional moment of enlightened absolutism. In the evenings, he would drop by to see his friend Maria Dabrowska. Józewski and Dabrowska also made daytime appointments to walk in the gardens of Wilanów Palace or to see Charlie Chaplin films. Among trusted friends, Józewski would speak of politics; in her diary Dabrowska recorded none of the content of such discussions. About form, though, she was eloquent: "He is an uncommon man, entirely absorbed in politics, but in politics of the high style, beautiful, cold, noble, devoted to ideas, yet as crafty as they come. I see in him a phenomenon very rare in Poland, perhaps aside from Pilsudski he is the only such."

Hidden within Pilsudski's and Józewski's distrust of the nation was a certain idea of the state. Some people could be trusted, and others could not. Those who could be trusted were thought to represent the destiny of the nation, even though they had in no sense been elected by the people, and even though they disdained ideologies that would provide theoretical sanction for rule by elites. Pilsudski considered his victory in the coup of May 1926 a verdict of history. History, though, was made by individuals. This was programmatic irrationalism, grounded in shared experience rather than ideological commitment. These conspirators had won Polish independence, as they knew, despite the indifference of many Poles. In the 1920s, the Polish nation disappointed them again by choosing the National Democrats and therefore national mediocrity. After 1926, they believed the more strongly in the importance of individuals. Since Poland was so weak, individuals had to find a way to protect her. This was no modern creed that privileged a class or a nation, or sought to harness the power of the masses to the institutions of a state. It was neither prodemocratic nor antidemocratic; it distrusted the people, but proposed no ideological vanguards or organized paramilitaries to rally or replace them. There was no young seed of totalitarianism here, but rather a weary devotion to independence. In practice, this meant mildly authoritarian rule by the anointed few, and a slightly ham-handed cult of Pilsudski.

All three members of the Volhynian artistic fraternity quickly found positions of responsibility in the new regime. Yet one of them, Jerzy Stempowski, found the new regime distasteful. Stempowski, like Józewski, had moved from their artists' commune to the council of ministers in 1926. He soon retired to more apolitical work in the state agricultural bank. Watching from the wings the drama of Pilsudski's regime, Stempowski became an excellent critic of theater. He wrote a study of a classic Polish Romantic comedy that included an analysis of Pilsudski's regime. Action itself, he argued, was no substitute for an ordered worldview, and irrationalism, no matter how charming, was ultimately self-defeating. "On the surface it might appear," he wrote, "that the act itself, done from the sheer irrational joy of action, should possess the simplicity, resonance, and transparency lacking in the superficial activities of the rationalists, bound by logical coherence to be concerned with thousands of side effects. Yet this is not the case. We know that the actions of tyrants, based in conditions of unlimited freedom, are in fact half-measures, hesitations, unexpectedly reversing upon themselves and destroying their own premises." Where Józewski imagined hidden depths, Stempowski saw meaningless transience. "If the world is taken to be chaos denuded of form and content, an act taken in chaos is written in water. The irrationalist is uncertain of his own action." "The fragility and inconsistency of the irrational act make tyrants impatient and jealous as they attempt to stage their works." "The great stage director is very impatient and jealous." He meant Pilsudski.

A secret policeman wandered with this text through the cafés of Warsaw, trying to find someone who would explain the offending reference. The anecdote, as Stempowski told it, was funny not because a secret policeman was reading literary criticism, but rather because the secret policeman could not understand the essay. Although the hero of this story was none too bright, in the early Pilsudski era intelligence work could be seen as an occupation fit for a Warsaw intellectual. (Stempowski himself, the critic, had once collected intelligence. He was active in western Europe during the Polish-Bolshevik War. Posing as a journalist, he gathered intelligence from open sources on the Near East and the Caucasus. In what was apparently his last mission, he posed as a Scandinavian journalist in order to interview the Bolshevik delegation at Riga in 1921. Although Stempowski knew Greek, Latin, English, French, German, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish, he knew no Scandinavian language, and his cover as "Rajmond Nihölm"-a name that only looks Scandinavian-seems not to have lasted long.) In some sense, intelligence was the perfect occupation for the traditional intelligentsia of Poland, which had long desired to convert cultural attainment to political achievement. Indeed, officers of the Second Department complained to their superiors that their complimentary places in the theater were too far from the stage. Pilsudski, who took a keen interest in intelligence work, hoped that Poland's intelligentsia could be kept between the two options represented by Stempowski and his less artful pursuer: service to the state, or friendly critique from the Left.


Socialism was accepted. What had to be excluded from Polish life was communism. In the 1920s, communism was at once a temptation to Poland's literary elites, a radical program for Poland's evident social and national inequalities, and the ideology of a hostile foreign power, the Soviet Union. While the National Democrats and their allies had governed Poland after 1923, the Soviets had founded their Communist International, which subordinated national communist parties to the demands of international revolution (as seen from Moscow). Communism could not be defined so easily as a Russian threat, when the Communist International included three parties based on Polish soil: the Communist Party of Poland, the Communist Party of West Belarus, and the Communist Party of West Ukraine. In 1926, Pilsudski and his allies still had their wary eyes on Moscow, but realized that their first step was to confront communism in domestic political life. Their settling of accounts with communism began at home.

The Bolshevik Revolution had forced a choice upon Poles of leftist politics. Some, like Józewski, became anticommunists after a direct confrontation with Bolshevik methods. Others accepted Russia as the homeland of the revolution, and subordinated themselves to the Communist International. Socialists around the world faced the same choice: to become communists and accept direction from Moscow, or to work within a given nation-state to win elections as social democrats. In Poland, the choice was more dramatic, as the Soviet threat to the country's existence was immediate; and socialists, whether they chose communism or anticommunism, had few illusions about Moscow's methods. In Paris or New York, one could afford to be ignorant, or fickle, or narcissistic, or wrong. In Poland, the communist choice meant supporting the immediate partition of Poland and the attachment of its eastern lands to the Soviet Union. A French communist was not asked to concede Alsace and Lorraine; an American communist need not endorse the return of California and the Southwest to Mexico. In Poland, communism was not a theory that could be supported in principle, but a revolution that could be anticipated as a real possibility in one's own lifetime in one's own country.

Yet partly because the communist choice was so obviously imminent and weighty, Moscow had difficulty controlling Polish communists. The Communist Party of Poland had been formed from two socialist parties, each older than Lenin's Bolshevik Party. Because the Polish revolutionary tradition had been directed against Russian rule, subordination to Moscow was not an automatic reflex. Polish socialists had known the Bolsheviks as obscure and exiled revolutionaries before 1917, and could not be overawed by their personalities. Moreover, the Communist Party of Poland operated in an environment of free expression, and had to contend with rival parties for membership. It had trouble subordinating itself to directives from afar while appealing to constituencies in Poland, and this problem grew worse with the passing of the revolutionary moment. After Lenin's death in January 1924, Moscow's demands began to resemble the side effects of an internal struggle for power. Polish communists were too well oriented in Bolshevik politics not to notice this, and fell into the habit of treating their own party as their own affair. This brought them into conflict with Stalin, who took responsibility for Polish affairs in the Communist International.

Until 1926, Poland's communists could at least orient themselves against Polish governments of the Center-Right. Pilsudski made their situation more complicated. During the coup d'état, Polish communists supported Pilsudski in Warsaw and the provinces, some of them on the barricades. Party leaders offered Pilsudski their services, and rail strikes prevented hostile troops from reaching Warsaw. Moscow (probably Stalin) instructed Polish communists to support Pilsudski, on the logic that Pilsudski could then be overthrown, and the communist revolution in Poland completed. This did not happen: as Pilsudski put it, he made a "revolution without revolutionary consequences." As during the Polish-Bolshevik War, the Bolsheviks were disappointed with the Polish laboring masses, who again failed to see the communist revolutionary imperative. As Pilsudski discretely installed his new regime of trusted men, the Soviet politburo ordered Polish communists not to support Pilsudski for president, as they wished to do. Stalin then distanced Moscow from the whole affair, blaming the Polish communists themselves for the "very great error" (his own) of supporting Pilsudski. Polish communists had indeed supported Pilsudski, some because they saw him as a man of the Left, some because they preferred his rule to that of the National Democrats, some because of Moscow's instructions. This was Pilsudski's first, and paradoxical, victory over communism, which he owed to reputation. As Stalin blamed the Polish communists for his own mistake, party unity suffered. By June 1926, a few weeks after calling them to the barricades to support Pilsudski, Moscow required Polish communists to call him a "fascist." In these circumstances the Second Department penetrated the party, reporting in 1926 that "we're now sitting very deep inside and have every possibility of observing their behavior."


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