Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942 (2018)

By: Jozef Czapski
Translated by: Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Published by: NYRB Classics

A classic work of reportage about the Katyń Massacre during World War II by a soldier who narrowly escaped the atrocity himself.

In 1941, when Germany turned against the USSR, tens of thousands of Poles—men, women, and children who were starving, sickly, and impoverished—were released from Soviet prison camps and allowed to join the Polish Army being formed in the south of Russia. One of the survivors who made the difficult winter journey was the painter and reserve officer Józef Czapski.

General Anders, the army’s commander in chief, assigned Czapski the task of receiving the Poles arriving for military training; gathering accounts of what their fates had been; organizing education, culture, and news for the soldiers; and, most important, investigating the disappearance of thousands of missing Polish officers.
Blocked at every level by the Soviet authorities, Czapski was unaware that in April 1940 many officers had been shot dead in Katyn forest, a crime for which Soviet Russia never accepted responsibility.

Czapski’s account of the years following his release from the camp and the formation of the Polish Army, and its arduous trek through Central Asia and the Middle East to fight on the Italian front offers a stark depiction of Stalin’s Russia at war and of the suffering, stoicism, and bravery of his fellow Poles. A work of clear observation and deep compassion, Inhuman Land is one of the twentieth century’s indispensable acts of literary witness.

(Text taken from Penguin Random House website)

NB Czapski’s book was first published in 1949. His wikipedia page is here.

Features & Reviews

‘Józef Czapski’s Investigation in an ‘Inhuman Land’’ at (worth looking at for the images alone)

Matthew Omolesky, ‘Inhuman Land: Aleksandr Radishchev, Józef Czapski, and the Search for the Other Russia’ in The Spectator (2022)

Louise Steinman, ‘Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, Montana’ in LA Review of Books (2019) (focuses mainly on Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp)

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Inhumand Land is an apt title, for its meaning, plus the fact it’s taken from a poem by Baliński, and Polish poetry is woven throughout the book.

It makes for sometime tortuous reading; opening up a new world. The awfulness of Soviet repression under Stalin goes back to earlier Russian regimes. There is internalised repression too. It’s amazing that some had the ability to survive it – and we mainly only hear of those who do. The book is not full of blood and gore, but the horror is continual. There is much detail to absorb. For some it fills a a gap in their knowledge. The translation seems well done.  Normal life continues unexpectedly despite all the strange and dangerous events. Throughout people quote poems, often those learned at school – even those that seemed the most hackneyed now become invested with meaning.

Czapski himself is an intellectual. He lectures on Proust in the camp at Starobilsk (in French, and from memory) – an attempt to recreate normality, to hang onto one’s humanity. Why not promoted beyond Lieutenant? For one thing he didn’t want it. Why was he among the 400 or so spared from the Katyn executions?  He is also an artist, which comes across when e.g. he describes the colours of the sky. He admires how the Soviet manage propaganda, seeing its importance and devoting resources to it accordingly, and complains that some in the Polish army (not though Anders) view education and culture generally as things that can wait until the war is over. His Tolstoyan beliefs include pacifism, yet eventually he changes his mind and joins the army. (In an old family photo, taken by his father, has Józef and his siblings lined up in military fashion.) He remembers his father reading to him on the sofa. He tries to find the humanity in all situations.

The concert at which Chopin is played is an important moment for the Poles – they do all they can to turn the venue into a elegant space for the recital. The evening with Alexei Tolstoy would have been, in most circumstances, an interesting but unexceptional literary gathering; yet in this context it is extraordinary, given the war, the level of repression, the policing of literature – somehow Tolstoy’s face fitted, and he was granted certain freedoms. Saying that, the gathering was strictly one night only – when Czapski invites those he met to join him again, none accept, presumably having been warned off by the NKVD. The atmosphere in Moscow is very well conveyed. He intersperses his WW2 narrative with material from his experiences during and after WW1, referring back to the 1920s, and to Russian colonial wars. He describes the Russian soldier on the train in Uzbekistan who is polite and debonaire, but suddenly takes again the Uzbek man for no reason, and tries to kick him off the train – civilisation and barbarity co-existing him (perhaps not unlike how the imperial British behaved).

As he describes it, three or four parallel worlds exist simultaneously. There is the camp and those released and making their way without any help towards Buzuluk, teams of Poles dying here and there; the circumstances of the ordinary Soviet citizens, and those of the higher echelons; then British officers dining at a station, separated from the desparate masses outside. Then, in Persia, there is the complete contrast of the well-funded American hospital.

As well as relating his own experiences, Czapski uses other people’s stories throughout the book; part of his role as he sees it is to give voice to those who are otherwise silenced. He includes several stories told to him by other people, again extending their reach, for example the arrival of the skeletal figure still desperate to tell his story, to share what he knows, and at the end, the child who has lost her whole family and wants only to die. There is also a Pole who tells off his fellows for using too many Russian words when speaking Polish.

Stories of their parents from members of the group:
Krystyna’s father was deported to a gulag north of the Arctic Circle, made his way to Buzuluk and crossed the Caspian Sea to Persia on 20 March 1942, aged 27. He didn’t ever mention culture or poetry. Anders’ army was made up civilians – next to no officers, as they were missing – already dead.
No means of communication – the importance of railways. And of boots. The great value of shoes – walking barefoot is the worst – never take off your boots on a train was advice given to Zenon.
If you could obtain a match you’d use it to burn lice from your seams.
Most of those who returned after the Italian campaign, according to Czapski, were imprisoned. Magda’s father wasn’t, probably because he was too young. He walked through Austria to Italy, and back to Poland.

Beyond the book:
Polish has a wider range of swear words than English.
Katyn came to be the overarching name for a number of sites where the murders took place. Recent research material presented at the Warsaw Military Museum.
Norman Davies’ Trail of Hope covers the same period.

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