Russia & Poland

I returned from a four week ‘vacation’ in Russia and Poland some five weeks ago.

I use the word ‘vacation’ advisedly – it was pretty hectic in places and I suffered from jet-lag, loss of the adrenaline I generated to keep going, and then had to acclimatise to the freezing weather here in Brissie.

So why did I choose these destinations?

Mostly, my urge to travel to specific places comes from my childhood: books and incidents. Russia was my intended destination and Poland was chosen simply because the beginning of the tour began just after I finished Russia. It’s a long way to go for a few weeks! I wanted to see more of the Baltic States – but nothing fitted in. Another time, perhaps.

I learnt a lot – and that is always a ‘Good Thing’ for me… I couldn’t abide sitting on a beach, soaking up the sun, drinking and doing nothing else. Not that I want to freeze (and I didn’t!) nor am I averse to trying out the local beverages … I couldn’t drink the coffee in either country – but there were, needless to say, other options!

So my main impressions?

Russia

I spent 3 days in the middle of Moscow – London could learn a lesson or two – it was so clean (I didn’t see one dog-end or other rubbish) and the pavements were wide enough for me (and many others) to walk comfortably! In many places cars had to make do with rather narrow roads. Our Moscow guide told us that pedestrians were prioritised at the expense of vehicles – sounded like a great idea to me.

Everyone should see the Moscow Metro: one gets on a pretty normal escalator and lands in a marble hall… every station is magnificently different. Stained glass images and mosaics. One ‘Revolution’ display had a plaque in the floor saying: ‘Best Place for Photos’ Clearly designed for for those who wanted to take selfies!
After Moscow I sailed up the Volga, and through lakes and other rivers to St Petersburg. What a contrast to sailing from Budapest to Amsterdam last year. Mile upon mile upon mile of forest bereft of any signs of human habitation. It certainly emphasised just how vast and empty so much of that land is.
We stopped at various settlements along the way. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere there. Best comment by a resident of one of the islands? ‘It’s better in winter when the river freezes, we can drive over the ice to get where we want to go’.

Then, four days in the middle of St Petersburg – not quite so clean or pedestrian friendly. No doubt there are areas not so pristine – but the centre was amazingly clean.

What I especially appreciated were the ‘lectures’ on the boat by a Russian professor, who talked about the bad, along with the good, things about the vast changes that have occurred in her country. She doesn’t vote for Putin.

It certainly brought me, and a lot of other people, up short when she said that we had to remember that, despite a thousand years of history, modern Russia is only 29 years old. It emerged from the Middle Ages in about 1917 and returned to autocratic rule almost immediately.
The ‘generation gap’ between the old, who were born and lived in the Soviet era, and the young (under 29) was greater than we could ever imagine.

I talked to people who were delighted with the new Russia – and others who were not. No one minded me asking – and for those of you who think that Russians do not smile – they most certainly do! And (unlike Japan) many speak English. One guy said “Why should we expect you to learn Russian – it isn’t a really important language’.

Mind you, I would suggest that anyone going there should learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

I was amazed by the opulence of the palaces – especially when we were told that many had been restored in the Soviet era. I don’t very often disagree with my Grandmother’s opinions – she was a very wise woman. But she was quite wrong when she condemned the 1917 Revolution… I walked around Palaces that stunned with their grandeur and remembered they were built on serfdom… and I was even more appalled (I think that’s the right word) to learn that they were restored to their former glory after WW2 in the Communist era when so many people were struggling to buy the basics of life.

Nonetheless, I would very much like to visit other places – and am looking at a trip on the trans Siberian railway…

Poland

This trip was far more frenetic – along the lines on it’s Gdansk so it must be Wednesday! I really should have done this the other way around… Poland first – followed by Russia.

Nonetheless, as a truly ‘intrepid traveller’ I managed the 6.00 am ‘bags ready for collection’ followed by brekkie, a quick phone call to Bearsy, and off to the next city! Miles and miles of corn fields.

So what did I learn in Poland? First and foremost – just how strong the Polish sense of identity is – and, I think, why they are happy with the EU.

I had no idea just how many times Poland had been ‘carved up’ and even wiped off the map. Being part of the EU will ensure their borders and their identity – no longer facing the prospect of being Germanised or Russianised.

I went from Krakow to Warsaw and a lot of places in between. Many, most especially Warsaw, had been totally demolished in WW2 and had rebuilt their cities to look exactly the same as they had been before being destroyed. Nonetheless, I got the impression that they hated Russia more than Germany.

Of all the places, I liked Krakow best – but that is probably because I had a few days on my own and wandered where I wanted rather than being rushed through. I won’t go on such an ‘organised’ trip again.

Needless to say, the visit to Auschwitz was the least enjoyable.

Notes

I have a mass of photos and videos, all super-high quality – I make videos of all my trips and throw out at least 2/3rds of them. I wouldn’t dare put them here in their present format – Bearsy would definitely complain! But if anyone is interested I’ll reformat some and post them.

Now it’s time to get ready for my next trip – India here I come!!!

9 thoughts on “Russia & Poland”

  1. Interesting to hear about your travels as ever Boa.
    I was lucky enough to visit to Moscow, Yalta and Leningrad in 1984 when it was still very much behind the Iron Curtain. (Benefits(!) of a very left wing step father!) My memories of the metro, the friendly people who wanted to practice English and the opulent palaces are very similar to your account. Even then the guides were happy to discuss politics, which the West’s propaganda would have you believe is not the case. The food left a little to desired, but I was only 12!
    Mrs C and I with two of our chums are off to Krakow and Auschwitz in January, so we will perhaps be able to compare notes then also.
    All photos will be lapped up, no matter the format!

  2. The Soviets were revolutionary, but especially after Lenin died, they were not nihilistic. The point was not to erase history, but to move forward as quickly as possible. There’s a cult surrounding the last Czar, one that is based on a romantic, pseudo-history. Russia was rapidly changing and transforming. In fits and starts, it was industrialising at a respectable pace. Russia needed to modernise politically and socially, but Nikolai II did everything he could to stop reality.

    Poland is an interesting case. It’s also the EU’s greatest paradox. On one hand, it is solidly in favour of EU membership. On the other hand, it’s a deeply conservative, nationalistic country that will not be pushed over by the likes of Little Mannie Macaroon or Angular Merkel. They’re fighting for a different vision of a future for themselves and for Europe than the declining loonies such as Juncker or Von Der Leyen.

  3. Aye right, Christopher.

    Soviets not nihilistic? What about the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour? Built in the 19th Century to celebrate Napoleon’s ignominious retreat; dynamited by Stalin to make space for the Palace of the Soviets, incorporating a giant statue of your boy Lenin. It was going to be so big that they could hold a meeting of the Supreme Soviet in the chamber they planned to put in his head.

    Nihilism on speed, post Lenin popping his clogs, in my opinion.

    Once those grandiose plans collapsed into the usual dust of over-ambitious state planning, Nikita (for whom I admit a soft spot) turned the site into the largest open air swimming pool in the world.

    As you will know, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour stands proudly again on the bank of the Moskva, having been rebuilt by public subscription in the five years from 1995 to 2000. I am not myself religious but you’ve got to respect that sort of faith.

    Which, I was assured during my time in Moscow, was not uncommon. Guides pointed out many churches which had been razed by the Soviets but which were now fully reconstructed. The fascinating thing for me was that they kept referring to the years from 1917-1991 as the era of ‘Soviet occupation’ as if some other country had been responsible.

    Boadicea, Good evening and thanks for the post. We went to Moscow three years ago and I still retain many fond memories.

    But, see those wide pavements? Didn’t exist then. Most roads had, for years, been over wide to allow official Soviet limousines to sweep down their reserved lanes. During our visit, they were in the throes of preparing Moscow for the 2018 World Cup and were narrowing all the roads and widening all the pavements to create a cafe culture. I’m glad you saw the end result but the birth pangs were pretty horrendous with most of the central area being totally gridlocked.

  4. JM: The role of the Russian Orthodox church in Tsarist Russia can be akin to the love child of the Church of England and the mediaeval papacy. It was an arm of the Tsarist regime, it was a part of the Tsarist state apparatus. It was also one of the forces most hostile to Russia modernising and joining the 20th century. The Soviets were not interested in a Maoist cultural revolution, especially after Lenin’s death. In a typically Russian way, the old regime collapsed, the rubble was swept aside and a new regime took its place imposing its own prejudices and cultural norms which, of course, were just as beyond reproach until it, too, imploded and another regime took its place. When the Yelstin era drew to a close, it, too, was swept aside. In 2024, a new process will begin once again. The logic behind the USSR’s policies was remorseless. The churches represented memories of a hated regime that brought Russia to its knees in its incompetence, in its arbitrariness. Russia was humiliated first by the Japanese and then by the Germans. Millions of Russians died for nothing, the country lost a generation for nothing. All the Orthodox Church did was praise the God-given right of the Tsar to do as he pleased, how he pleased whilst all this was playing out. As such, in an era when buildings were still routinely razed to make way for new construction — the British have little room to criticise anyone in this respect, considering how many grand buildings of great historical and artistic merit were torn down to make way for post-war progress, the Russian Orthodox church was given no special exemptions.

  5. Cuprum:
    My mother visited Russia around the same time as you. I’m not sure that she tried the food, since her time there was very short. She wasn’t the greatest lover of air-travel and her flight on Aeroflot, which included lots of mist in the cabin, would have left her more than a little discombobulated. Her biggest problem was that she, as a foreigner, could purchase (at a suitably elevated price) so much more than the Russian people. She was, unlike your step-father, no left-winger, but she certainly felt that the Russian people were getting a pretty raw deal.

    I loved everything I was given to eat. I would never have thought that I would like borscht. But, next time I visit a bookshop I will buy my daughter a Russian Recipe book. She’s the cook in the family, and I hope the next time we visit for dinner I might get a Russian style dinner!

    If you are going to Krakow, take a trip to the Wieliczka salt mine. It’s amazing.

    I’d like to return to Krakow: there was so much I missed – but take care crossing the roads. It is quite safe once one realises that the cars do actually stop at pedestrian crossings!

    Christopher:
    I don’t very often disagree with you – but I’m on John Mackie’s side here as regards the Communist’s attitude towards religion. Both Russian and Chinese Communism determined that religion had to be exterminated. In both countries religious centres were destroyed. And in both countries, once those restrictions were removed, religion re-emerged.

    I found it interesting that so many people in Russia were delighted that their churches were being restored. We were told that last year Putin returned all church property to the Orthodox Church, and was providing money to restore dilapidated churches to their former glory.

    Like John, I’m not particularly religious, and, like you, I think that the Orthodox Church did bolster the notion that the Tsars had a God-given right to be absolute monarchs… but I don’t think that the resurgence of religion in Russia, any more than in China, is anything more than a feeling of tapping into their past culture. And what is wrong with that?

    I also agree that the sanctification of Nicholas II and Alexandra is based on ‘romantic pseudo-history’. But is that any worse than the English ‘sanctification’ of Richard I, who was, in reality, a bastard of the first order? Or many other ‘heroes’ who had, not only feet of clay, but were thoroughly obnoxious characters?

    Yes, I agree that Russia needed to modernise politically and socially in 1917. But, I’m also convinced that the price the Russian people paid for the Communist’s plans for those changes was far too high – especially since those plans did not work anyway.

    And I cannot agree with your comment that the Germans humiliated Russia.

    I’d also be very interested to know what ‘grand buildings of great historical and artistic merit were torn down’ in Britain ‘to make way for post-war progress’.

    Your comment re Poland was interesting… I wish them every success!

    John Mackie:
    Many thanks for your comment. I only heard the comment ‘during the Soviet era’.

    I’m sure the gridlock due to widening the pavements in Moscow was pretty grim… but I remember visiting Edinburgh when the tram-lines were going in. Have never managed to get back to that fair city since – but I’m sure (well hope) that the pain was worth the gain!

  6. Hi Boadicea. I have never been to Russia or Poland, I envy you your experience and I hope you will post some photos.

    On to history. I recall from one of your earliest MyT posts that you said that to tell the story properly, you had to go back to the original source. I think in your area of expertise that must have been very difficult given the materials available and the language/dialect of the time. Be that as it may, your comment has led me to being far more sceptical about accepting as fact that which I read, listen to or watch that purports to be history. I only have to consider what is written about this country, about a time of which I have first hand knowledge, in order for me to appreciate the truth in what you say.

    I raise this because I have just finished the second book by Douglas Reed, Disgrace Abounding, the fist being Insanity Fair. As I mentioned in a comment to Cog on his Gun Control post, Douglas Reed was a foreign correspondent for the Times, based in Germany and then Vienna, Budapest and Prague during the late nineteen twenties and until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. The books were published in 1938 and 1939 respectively and provide an extraordinary account of what was happening, what the countries were like at the time and what he believed was going to happen. He predicted the economic resurgence of Germany, its rearmament and its expansion into neighbouring states though his warnings were ignored, leading him to resign from the Times. He went on to write the first book which, due to its extraordinary prescience, (by the time it was published much of what he had predicted had already come true) was an international ‘best seller’. This led to numerous offers of contracts from American and other publishers to write a second. For reasons I wont go into, the second was not published in the US or anywhere else apart from the UK. (Although I see that the website on which they appear indicate that they are from the Public Library of India.)

    Reed clearly had a huge affection for those European/Balkan countries in which he worked and for their people and their cultures. And while he was massively critical of and disgusted by Hitler and Nazism he hugely admired the achievements, nature and egalitarianism of Germany in the years before things began to get really nasty. Elsewhere he discusses the beauty and charm of Vienna, Budapest and Prague; ‘Danubia’. He describes what is happening when he accompanied Anthony Eden to Moscow, his own meetings with Austrian, Czech, and other leaders prior to their subjugation and what it was like to be in Vienna when the Nazis arrived, on his 42nd birthday. What the views were in the various countries in Europe, following Chamberlain’s trip to Munich and how they contrasted with the wildly misguided “Peace with honour” sentiment that pervaded in England. There was no peace and even less honour.

    He was in Prague too when the Germans invaded. He describes his admiration for the Czechs for what they had achieved during their short-lived independence and their bravery, in the face of massive odds, at their willingness to take on the might of Germany if given the go-ahead by Britain and France, only to have those two countries sell them down the river.

    At the end of that book, he draws a neat comparison to the conquest of Bohemia in 1620 by Emperor Ferdinand. Czech King Frederick was the son in law of James I who had promised to support him against the German Emperor, as had France. While James’s ambassadors were trying to persuade Frederick to seek a peaceful resolution, Ferdinand invaded and the Battle of the White Mountain ensued, and Bohemia, ‘ the Czech Republic’ lost its independence for the next 300 years until 1918. They lost it again only 20 years later as a result of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

    As you know, I have my prejudices, but these books have made me dramatically rethink my view of the class of people, British people, from which I am descended. (I hope that does not sound pompous, but you know a little of my background.) Reed pulls no punches when he describes the utter uselessness of the British ruling establishment, their aristocratic links, the ‘old school tie’, their colleges etc. and compares them with European leaders who are professionals, aristocrats aside, and who ensure that citizens in those countries are employed, have proper housing with enough room, warmth, water, recreational space and access to sunlight and fresh air, unlike the slums of Shoreditch, Jarrow and other hell holes. He feels humiliated by the images in European newspapers, of unemployed, homeless Britons being dragged away by the police. This is Britain which, through its empire, the wealthiest country in the world. He says this as Londoner and a Tory, or at least, he states, Toryism is the direction in which he would naturally lean were it not for the people who run the party.

    I had always sympathised to a large extent with Chamberlain’s stance at Munich. He had known the horrors of the Great War. But having read Reed’s books, which were written at the time of happening rather than years after the events had unfolded, and with his intimate knowledge of what was happening, given his role as a correspondent for a major English newspaper, I now have nothing but contempt for the man, Chamberlain that is. His arrogance, cowardice, ignorance and pigheadedness led to a war that caused untold suffering to millions of people and I am not even talking about the holocaust. Interestingly, Reed uses that same term to describe what was happening in China at the time at the hands of the Japanese.

    To be fair to Chamberlain, he was not alone. Ramsay MacDonald, (who I learned last night was the illegitimate son of John MacDonald, a farm labourer, and Anne Ramsay, a housemaid) and Stanley Baldwin both failed to see, or rather pointedly ignored the threat of a reinvigorated Germany that was rapidly rearming and whose people were desperate to recover from the humiliation of defeat in the first war and were desperate to resume their position as a world power with an empire to boot. Hitler may have been the star of the show, but he had a large supporting cast.

    Interestingly, in 1938, Reed suggested Churchill as possible Prime Minister to replace Chamberlain, but not as leader of a Tory government, rather one of national unity that involved members from all parts of the political spectrum.

    All this is by way of saying, I have a healthy mistrust of any history that has been written about Tsarist Russia and the revolution whether romanticised or not. It has probably been written by those who intend, like Churchill, to come out looking well, or who have some other axe to grind or prejudice to support. I say this in reference to a Netflix documentary about the Last Tsar or was it Last Czar? I stopped watching when I saw certain agendas being pushed.

    After India, maybe you should go and visit the Balkans.

    But read the books. I think you will find them fascinating. They can be downloaded for free from http://www.archive.org Search for “Douglas Reed”, “Insanity Fair” and “Disgrace Abounding”.

    You too Christopher. I would love to hear your feedback.

  7. Boadicea: Had Pavel I not been such an utter, insecure little prat and implemented salic law, Maria Feodorovna would probably have become tsarina after Alexander III’s death. She was exceptionally intelligent, capable and perceptive. Yes, she was a Dane — but Russians did not care that much about such details. Catherine the Great was German, after all. What she was was a much loved wife of a much loved tsar. Even one of her other children would have been better than Nikolai II. He could be forgiven for being backwards, reactionary, even. He cannot, however, be forgiven for being reactionary, weak and utterly unwilling to learn from his mistakes.

    I actually agree that Russia lost a lot because of the USSR. The Soviets quickly modernised the country. Between 1917 and 1957, Russia was a country utterly transformed — but at a tremendous price. Much like China, it would have been better if Russia could have reformed and modernised using the framework of a constitutional monarchy with a relatively liberal constitution. Better a Prussia or Austria than a Maoist China or Stalinist Russia. The problem with the USSR was as much cultural as it was economic. It could quickly develop, but only to a certain point and then it would stagnate. The old tsarist regime might have been autocratic and sclerotic, but it was venerable and the culture of that era had great depth. Many of the best Russian writers of the Soviet era were either those who had been raised in the ancien regime or who had emigrated. The Soviet system could not easily tolerate true dissent or overtly contrary cultural currents. In a way, it could be compared to the relative depth of 17th century Spain with the glittering superficiality of Louis XIV’s Versailles.

    I do not entirely agree with the Soviets — my point wasn’t to excuse what they did, much less state agreement with them. I was trying to explain their mindset and their justifications for their policies. Russia is finding itself again, it’s becoming itself again. Much that was lost during the Soviet era is gradually coming back in a fashion. I certainly hope it continues. I’ve been reading recent Russian writing, watching some Russian films, even listening to “some” — but not certainly all — Russian music. There’s surprising depth and wit.

    The Treaty of Brest-Livtosk was a squalid, humiliating end to a horrible conflict for Russia and one that would shape later Soviet foreign policy, especially after the Second World War. The Germans were malicious and sought to make an example out of Russia. Their actions did little to endear them to the other allies.

  8. Sipu:
    I cannot remember my throw away remark on MyT. But I’m pleased that you remembered it and that it changed your acceptance of the written word thereafter. History is, as is well known, written by the victors.

    I, too, have read books written by those who were present at events which were later ‘interpreted’ by later ‘historians’. I will download the books you suggest – even tho’ they are way out of my normal area of interest!

    No you didn’t sound pompous. Personally, I think that the UK ruling class of which you speak were pretty astute and conceded reforms that were sufficient to appease the ‘agitators’ without losing too much authority and managed to convince many that they ‘were on their side’. By doing so they allowed changes to be made without huge upheavals that many other countries had to endure to find some sort of universal democracy.

    Your comment re Reed’s humiliation at the images of the poor in England reminds me of my Grandmother’s comment when I (with all the wisdom of a 16 year old) commented on the iniquities of colonisation. She said: ‘Never forget that we didn’t benefit, we walked around with holes in our shoes, walked for miles to get a job, and struggled to feed our families’. Yet, she voted Liberal, and then Tory all her life – and thought the Russian Revolution was dreadful because the revolutionaries stole the possessions of those who owned it. I really wish that she had accompanied me on my trip to Russia, and had the benefit of my knowledge of just how those ‘possessions’ had been attained! She, too, was a ‘Londoner and a Tory’, as was my mother – who caused Ken Livingstone to levitate and demand that ‘that women’ be removed immediately. My mother and Harriett Harman had many an argument, with Harriett dubbing my mother as a ‘traitor to her class’.

    Yes, Chamberlain, et al, were a bunch of frightened, delusional and trusting rabbits; fearing a repetition of WW1, not believing what was right under their noses, and trusting a most untrustworthy Hitler and the abandonment of Czechoslovakia was unforgivable.

    Your comment: ‘Hitler may have been the star of the show, but he had a large supporting cast’ is so true. Read ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ by Paul Goldhagen some time.

    I will write a new blog with photos in the near future.

    Christopher:

    Yes! Pavel I was indeed an utter, insecure little pipsqueak… with, perhaps, some justification!

    I know nothing about Maria Feodorovna, but as I understand it Alexander III reversed many of his father’s reforms which might have led to a more modern and democratic Russia.

    Your criticisms of Nicholas II are an extremely good evaluation of what is wrong with an autocratic monarchy. It works if the king (Tsar) is intelligent and capable – but falls apart if the monarch is weak. it was unfortunate that Nicholas was not up to the job, and had a son who, in all reality, could never succeed him.

    But, in effect the Soviet era simply continued along the lines of an autocratic monarchy: it, too, brooked no opposition to its authority, discouraged dissident opinions and thus stifled creativity.

    Being an eternal optimist, I hope that the youngsters I saw in Moscow – who looked and behaved just like youngsters all around the world will realise they can change their future.

  9. Alexander III was a great tsar. There were liberals in Russia, Alexander II was one of the greats. I once heard a great anecdote about Russian history. If you want to summarise Russia’s history in a single event, it would be the assassination of Alexander II. In order to instil fear in the hearts of Russia’s notoriously conservative elite, nihilists assassinated the most liberal and tolerant tsar the country ever had, only to see the brisk pace of reforms reversed by one of the most conservative. When they finally managed to get rid of the tsars, they replaced the authoritarianism of the tsars with the totalitarianism of Leninism-Stalinism. There was a real and not entirely justified fear that being too liberal would lead to the collapse of the Russian Empire. So long as the strict, paternalistic and conservative tsar was a great man — as Alexander III was — it could hold together without too much difficulty. If it was a weak, stupid man like Nikolai II, it couldn’t. Alexander Kerensky was too weak. He lacked the cachet that the Romanov family had built up over the centuries and he also lacked the bloody-mindedness of the Bolsheviks. Two weak leaders, two failed states within a year. Gorbachev was another example of that. He was far more liberal and open to reform than previous Soviet leaders had been, but he was too weak and he could not control the contradictory forces in the USSR. Likewise, Yelstin’s attempt at liberalism was an unmitigated disaster. One reason why so many middle aged and older Russians are sympathetic to Putin is because he’s been the only leader since the mid-’80s to be able to hold the country together.

    Russia can, in many ways, be compared to China and even the United States. It is so vast, so disparate and so contradictory that order can sometimes only be maintained by a fine balance of federalism and brute force. Closer to Australia, Indonesia is a good example. No matter how well-intended or liberal minded someone like Jokowi might be, there is always a hint of force should things get out of hand.

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