Weekend Reading

Only one must-read this weekend from here in soon-to-be-stormy Appalachia:

A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come, an epic, semi-autobiographical article by historian Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic magazine.

Ms. Applebaum has written extensively on the former Soviet Union and East Bloc, including a book that was really seminal for me, called Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, about a 1991 road trip across just collapsed eastern Europe. A Washington Post columnist married to Radek Sikorsky, a former Polish Foreign Minister, she’s uniquely positioned to write a first-person account of the changes in Poland over the past not quite thirty years.

And there have been astonishing changes. On my first trip to Warsaw, in March and April of 1992, state-owned enterprises, the stores in the buildings that lined the streets, had largely gone bust, and newly private commerce from Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to Tiranë, Albania on the Adriatic, was largely carried out through an ad-hoc system of hastily-assembled kiosks between the storefronts and the streets, Here is an example from near the Warsaw train station, a snapshot from 1992:

Today Warsaw presents as a modern, if still Stalinesque architecture-afflicted city.

But all is not well, in Poland or as Ms. Applebaum describes, Hungary and other parts of eastern Europe as well. Her article is well worth your time as a marker of the state of the region today. Especially if, as we look to be here, you are shut indoors with a storm raging outside.

Next week we return to Africa with a post on 3 Quarks Daily at the beginning of the week. I will repost it here next Wednesday. See you next week.

 

 

If You Know the Words Zapad & Suwalki…

… you’ll enjoy the photographic essay, Inside the Suwalki Gap by Timothy Fadek at RoadsandKingdoms.com. It’s a nice orientation to the region where the quadrennial Zapad (“west” in Russian) Russia/Belarus military exercise has been underway for two days now.

The photo above is Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The only border between the Baltic states and another NATO country is the 64 mile wide Suwalki Gap, where Lithuania touches Poland. See more Poland and Lithuania photos at EarthPhotos.com.

Rock Star Pope

KrakowChurch

One afternoon in the autumn of 1978 I came screaming across Atlanta in my Chevette, rushing from a job fifty miles up the road, hurrying to meet my friends at the IHOP. My adulthood so far was a scramble of post-college roommates, general naïveté and a bad job, with all the self confidence that just having been turned down for a VISA card would allow.

I paid no attention that day, October 16th just like today, when a puff of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel announced the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years. Karol Wojtyla, the vicar of Krakow (his church, above), chose the regnal name John Paul II.

If we’d said things like that back then, looking back I’d have said, Whoa, dude. It was a pretty darned fateful day. 

•••••

Josef Stalin scorned the church. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” he would sneer. The year he said that, 1935, was a long time ago. But on December 1st of 1989, eleven years one month and fifteen days after that puff of smoke in Vatican City, Stalin’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, came hat in hand to Vatican City, pleading that the Pope return the favor with a visit to the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s heir needed the Pope more than the other way around, and John Paul II was noncommittal, replying that he hoped “developments would make it possible for him to accept.”

•••••

I do not believe in Catholic doctrine. That autumn day in 1978 I didn’t believe in much beyond my disc-jockey job, rock bands of the moment and girlfriends. But with hindsight, with time enough to have visited Krakow and Gdansk, and Warsaw as both Soviet satellite…

WarsawThen

and today…

WarsawToday

I respect that Polish Pope for his hand in shaping the events that puff of smoke helped set in motion back in October 1978.

•••••

Pope John Paul II came to visit Dubrovnik, where we happened to be visiting, on my birthday in 2003. We stood close enough to the Popemobile to be able to read his watch.

Pope

Web Resources for War News

RussianTroopsTweet
Me, I got this uneasy feeling. It may be that them what know ain’t saying and them saying don’t know, but the Polish PM and NATO are queasy, and when the Russian UN ambassador calls for “humanitarian intervention” and the Putin team uses RT to wail it, it looks like boxes are being checked for an invasion. The U.S. Defense Secretary is in the region, saying as much. It’s a good thing everybody’s got so much confidence in our president.

I’d guess it would start overnight one night, and since we’re seven hours earlier here on the U.S. east coast we might find ourselves up all night one night soon working the internets and the news channels. Just in case, here are a few internet resources and live TV feeds from the region:

The Interpreter translates news from Russia
Espreso.tv from Kyiv has a live feed
TV5, Kyiv live feed
UkrainianJournal.com, in English
The Kyiv Post
The Carnegie Moscow Center and especially Demitri Trenin and Lilia Shevtsova (click “latest analysis”)
Tons of links from Johnson’s Russia List
Life News live TV from Russia. Some call it the information arm of Russian intelligence.
Russia24 live feed
Ukraine News1 in English
The Warsaw Voice in English
thenews.pl, news in English from Poland
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, which runs a live Ukraine blog during the day, CET
NATO’s blog
Live stream from Spilno TV. Not always on.
Ukraine at War blog in English.

I’ll add more as I find them. Please suggest others, if you like.

Short Bits, Warsaw

WagonLit

Sleeper service from Prague to Warsaw in a dark, old Polish wagon lit, with tiny two-person compartments, no restaurant car and no other service, a little downtrodden. At least they’ve had time since the 90’s to put in proper toilets that don’t flush onto the tracks. Each compartment had a pair of plastic wrapped towels and soap, and two Kriss croissants for breakfast.

We brought a sack of beers from the station and enjoyed watching the fading light, then slept, on the theory that darkness is the best time to roll through towns inflicted by the Soviet love of cement.

•••••

Pawel and Marcin are IT specialists in their twenties from Wroclaw. Pawel has a baby on the way and Marcin’s wife calls him constantly. Both are, if not sanguine, at least relatively calm about Ukraine. Neither believes Poland would ever come to blows with Russia. Pawel in particular acknowledges the Russian population in Krim (Crimea).

Kasia, 34, is a geneticist in Posnan. She professes disinterest in Ukrainian affairs but believes it’s not the first time and won’t be the last that Russia acts revanchist. She cites Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. 

Russell, 56, an American entrepreneur and founder of a company that stains masonry and concrete, is skeptical that the information we get in the west is any less propaganda than the Russian side of the story.

General opinion on the Russian aggression ranges from studied indifference through resigned acceptance to denial. The prevailing idea in both Prague and Warsaw might  be, “Krim has a lot of Russians and Russia is big and powerful and if they take Krim, what are you gonna do?” Which makes my fulmination about the end of the Post Cold War era positively hyperbolic. Here we Americans go again, trying to run the world. 

•••••

In July 1944 the Red Army marched up to the river that runs through Warsaw, the Vistula. They stopped on the east bank and exhorted the Poles to rise up and essentially do the fighting against the Nazis for them. 

People of the capital! To arms! Strike at the Germans! May your million strong population become a million soldiers, who will drive out the German invaders and win freedom,” broadcast Soviet radio.

Knowing that from books is rather different than visualizing it, standing 36 floors above town and looking out beyond the Old Town and across the river. Let alone living it.

•••••

It was our second trip to Poland in nine months (Gdansk last summer) but my first stay in Warsaw since my friend Steve and I travelled from Moscow to Berlin by train in the immediate post-Soviet days. In that interregnum most of the everyday commerce was done from kiosks on the sidewalk, because it took some time to sort out ownership of the big Soviet era stores in the buildings. 

Today is rather different, with a smattering of high-rise buildings, fleets of red and yellow trams and matching flexible buses everywhere. They’ve cleaned up the grubby old train station. Stalin’s “gift from the Soviet people,” the Palace of Culture, is still here, as fearsome as ever.

SovietWarsaw1

SovietWarsaw2

Still with Communist bits, though.

•••••

All the important words: “Uwaga” means “Attention” in Polish and sounds African tribal, or maybe Japanese. And “hiccups” is “czkawka.” Sort of pronounced “chi-kup-kuh.” One more – a fine Polish dark beer called Ksiazece. Which is pronounced vaguely like “shown-zhan-tsa.” 

Somehow.