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KRAKÓW: It's 16 days since this European war began, and ten days since I arrived in this city of ghosts and icons and refugees. Yet is that any way to begin in one of Europe's most beautiful cities?
Kraków is a beguiling place, more beautiful in some ways than Prague can be now. It holds one of the Europe's greatest paintings - I think more beautiful that the Mona Lisa when I saw her yesterday, hanging amongst icons and medieval arms in Kraków's Czartoryski Museum - Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine.
Here, tourists move in thin trails rather than in the massed mechanical ranks of my home-base-town, Prague, where tourism has become an unceasing invasion, where crowds move with the unwavering steadiness of a mud flow.
But Kraków, a gilded gem on the shimmering Vistula river a couple of weeks ago, is now on the frontline of Europe's latest theatre of war.
A Nato jet over Kraków yesterday
Like the early Spring fluctuations each day, flitting between snow flurries and sunny sparkle, the city has switched to a city of people wheeling travel bags across cobble stones, so that the sound of tiny thunder is everywhere, trailed in frigid hands, plastic boxes – pink, green, grey, or black – of clothes plodding steadily onwards like the horse-drawn carriages of the city's tourist trail.
Some are tourists of course, but most not.
Instead of cameras and necks craned to Kraków's belfries and watchtowers, they look wearily downward as they trail children wearing cheap Chinese-made coats and shoes, sit in clusters on park benches, and fill the seating pods inside the luxurious Galeria shopping mall that sits just beyond the city's ancient walls. Max Mara and stunned misery juxtaposed in a jumble of displacement.
The US has moved two Patriot anti-missile systems from Germany into "undisclosed locations" in Poland, and groups of US service men and women dawdle through the streets, showing "force presence" – or perhaps just curiosity.
U.S. service personnel in Kraków yesterday
A few days ago, I was in the town of Rzeszów, around an hour's drive from the main border crossing for Ukrainians fleeing into Poland. It's the centre of a part of the UN's humanitarian operation, but the town has also become the centre for European and U.S. shipments of Stinger and Javelin missiles, which are wreaking such havoc on Russian armoured and air movements, even as Russia's cumbersome columns slowly encircle Ukrainian cities like a boa constrictor.
It's also mercenary Central Casting. Groups of men in cars and jeeps, a foreign legion, a rag-tag regiment, cowboys, the angry and idealistic, and those spoiling for a good fight. I think I read that while 2 million Ukrainians have fled, another 200,000 or so people have moved back in to Ukraine, many to rescue relatives, but many - tens of thousands I'd guess – to fight, defend, and die in Europe's latest war.
Ah Polina! Tears fall for you: Polina Zapadynskaya, 10 years old, the first Ukrainian child to die in this war,
and the first of many. Her parents were killed at the same time, her 5 year-old brother
died days later, and her 13 year-old sister Sofia is still alive, although critically injured, as I write.
Those words, "European War," hold a particular bitterness. The sight of buildings being axed apart by missiles, no heed given to the surviving glories of antiquity (will they really level that exceptionally precious cultural gem, Lviv?); the thousands of refugees I walked past at the border a few days ago, women and children and the elderly mostly, since men between 18-60 are held back to fight – with barely time to speak to speak with them to acknowledge their humanity. Order upended.
Lady with an Ermine, yesterday in Kraków. A portrait, perhaps, of Cecilia Galliani,
the pregnant 16 year-old mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludvico Sforza. Painted by Leonardo da Vinci, maybe in 1489-91.
Not far from here, just an hour's drive away in fact, is Auschwitz. My father always said that 58 of our relatives were murdered there, so it's a sobering thought for me that Poland is a burial ground for people of my blood (to use that strange and provocative term).
These people, children he played with, aunts and uncles, his father – were rounded up from their homes, put onto trains, imprisoned, and murdered, only for the strange and distorted ideas of one man, albeit that those ideas were embedded in the mystical and fantastical religious propaganda of pre-Enlightenment Europeans.
So how is this so very different from the ideological underpinnings, or ideology as a primary driver, of Putin's war? Putin has written it down, in an essay in July 2021, and in his speeches, such as the address to the Munich Security conference of 2007 in which he quite rationally explained Russia's threat perceptions. He has not hidden a thing and, instead, it has been in plain sight, with no pretence at hiding.
A pillar poster in Kraków today
As a perfectly well-argued polemic, his July 2021 essay is not to be scorned . Like any polemic, it is a grab-bag of amplified or diminished interpretations of a thousand years of Russian/Ukrainian/Polish/Lithuanian history, linguistics, documentation, and literature – the Russkiy Mir, or Russian world. It is a perfectly respectable assessment – albeit ethno-nationally driven – of the morphology and mutation of a shared identity.
It is not an argument for war, although it clearly lays down a cause for war. And contrary to some things I've seen written, he does not bemoan the collapse of the U.S.S.R.: he bemoans what he sees as the loss of lands in which 25 million Russians resided, followed by the duplicity or carelessness of Nato's eastward expansion (a grievance the famous American IR scholar John Mearsheimer supports in this essay).
All over Kraków...
His deployment of the word "Nazi" to describe elements of extreme Ukrainian nationalism going back to the vicious internal war and grotesque pogroms in the Ukrainian lands that followed WWI are not without foundation.
Perhaps most compelling given the current invasion is his menacing statement that, "in the anti-Russia project, there is no place either for a sovereign Ukraine or for the political forces that are trying to defend its real independence," and that while "we respect the Ukrainian language and traditions [and] we respect Ukrainians' desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous, I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia."
Barbarians at the gate: Jan Sobieski, the Polish King who broke the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683
Kraków's calm seems separated from real events 250km to the East (although today Russian forces blasted with missiles a training base on the main supply route from Krakow to Lviv, a clear warning to the US and EU that armament supply routes are being tracked and targeted).
In Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter that sits just south of the ancient citadel of the city, and where I am staying, the bars are full, the sex shops open, the restaurants packed at night, and the cafes filled with conviviality by day. There is a relaxed air of gaiety, the same insouciant miasma of pleasure and calm before the pistol crack that ended Europe's long peace before World War One. The sound drowns out what is being whispered into their ears: Europe IS at war!
This is the hard human psychological border between our daily lives, in which our minds will not allow us to believe how radically things can change, and the first strike of a missile in a cobbled street, when women snatch their babies from their cots, and hit the first road out of town (exactly what happened in Ukraine). Europe's wars, demonstrably, are not contained wars, and I do not think that Poland is exempt. That jet vapour trail in the sky is a portent, the smoke signal of something much larger that we must contend with before peace settles again.
A protest in Kraków several days bag - "Free Ukraine! Free Ukraine!"
My view? Putin lost the war the moment the first Russian turned and ran at the outskirts of Kharkiv on the first day of the invasion. Everything about the Russian war 'strategy' now smacks of the flailing desperation of a drowning man, except that it is the poor Russian foot soldiers doing the drowning - the flaccid air assaults, the blunderbuss use of long-range missiles, the shocking encounters of Russian armour with thawing Spring roads, Javelin missiles, and the first hints of urban warfare. Russian soldiers are now – reportedly, as we like to say, but Catch-22-sanely, if true – simply spiking, their armoured vehicles, and walking into the forests.
But more that any failing is the chaos of a battle plan driven by Putin's incantation of a mystical ideology reinforced by the Devil's pact between the Russian political state and the Orthodox Church (and if you haven't seen Andrey Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan, it is not to be missed). Russian over-confidence in ten years of rearmament, has become Russian over-stretch.
I fear that this veneration of raw power, metaphysical authority, and parable, has scuppered rational strategic restraint, as Putin and his inner circle project the expression of Mother Russia, and the "soul of the Russian people" through their war.
Russians will either conform to his war aims (and, at 70%, most do according to the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center VCIOM), and spill blood to fertilise the soil, or they will be made to suffer by the state in different ways. Of those who dissent says Putin (and notice his 'conviction' as justification):
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths. I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society [my italics] will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges.”
So, I don't think they'll take Kharkiv, and they certainly won't take Kiev. These two cities will be Stalingrads for the cabal of generals and ideologues – the siloviki – who tightly encircle Putin. He will pummel these cities into dust, just as the Germans pummelled Russian and Polish and Ukrainian cities, and will destroy the irretrievable cultural treasures that he argues are the shared patrimony of Ukrainians and Russians.
The 19th century Hevre synagogue, now a bar in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. The walls
are covered with scenes from Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
A third of Krakow's people were once Jewish, but almost all were killed in the Holocaust.
One thing about Russian geo-strategic paranoia which is always difficult to fully grasp as an outsider: The Russians lost perhaps 25 million people in the Second World War, which is a living, palpable memory for her people, unequalled by any other nation (and it was, incidentally, my former wife's explanation for the Russian tolerance of male domestic abuse, that men were so few that Russian women venerated their men).
The startling 1942 photograph by Dmitrii Baltermants of Soviet women
(Jewish), mourning a slaughter at the hands of Nazi forces.
The great northern plain - a pathway to the East that is flat, rich, filled with the black earth that make Russia and Ukraine such abundant food baskets, and uninterrupted by natural obstacles – begins in Poland (which is why Napoleon began his march on Moscow from here, and why Hitler's ambition to conquer Russia kicked off in Belorus), and sweeps through Ukraine and Russia until it reaches the Ural Mountains.
Out of time perhaps though we might like to imagine geopolitics in the age of the smart phone, you might hate your enemy, but you must understand him above all.
Why should Ukrainians feel grateful for the help of the West? They're fighting Nato's war, the one they summoned when Europe's security pact and economic union failed so badly to incorporate Russia into Europe's economic and security architecture three decades ago; the one they conjured when, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, they humiliated Russia with crowing dogmatic neoliberal triumphalism (the 'end of history' and all that).
At the Ukraine/Poland border. I just saw it laying at my feet.
However justified Russians might be in feeling the loss of empire, the ebbing away of former glory, the crass triumphalism of the neolibs and Nato's careless bleed to the East, nothing can justify the return to war that he has forced upon us all - a part of the shared 'project' of Putin and Xi Jinping to remake the post-World War Two order.
I think he'll put Syrian mercenaries on the ground, and they will die in droves like the first waves of poor-bastard Russian conscripts he sent into Ukraine against a highly motivated enemy which is defending their farmlands, families, and churches, synagogues, and mosques (so much for Ukrainian nationalist 'purity') and soon, their city streets and cellars.
Refugees I filmed disembarking at the Ukrainian/Polish border some days ago...
The Polish people have responded to Ukraine's agony with exceptional solidarity. More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine, the swiftest outpouring of refugees since World War Two. Two million have come to Poland, a country which understands the suffering of war like few other nations. Poles have flung open their doors, cupboards, bank accounts, sports stadiums, and hearts, but they are struggling to keep up.
The city of Krakow, a city of 750,000, has added more than 150,000 people in a few weeks (hundreds of thousands more moved through the city on to locations all over Europe). Think if New York City added more than 1.5 million people in such a short time, how Central Park, the Rockefeller Centre, Yankee Stadium, the subways, and thousands of New York apartments and brownstones would be turned over to the the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of that teeming Ukrainian shore.
A young woman is with her son in a coffee shop. They are speaking with her husband back in Ukraine, where men between 18-60 have been held back, in preparation for fighting. I pay for her drinks and the boy's cake, and when I walk out of the door, I say to the boy, in my most Slavic and Gregorian voice, "Slava Ukraini" [Free Ukraine!]"
He gives me a broad smile - maybe my bad Ukrainian??.
And the same is happening all over Poland. The Polish people need help to rapidly expand education, health, social security, employment, housing, elderly and disability capacity in their formerly orderly and beauteous world, now thrown into chaos and uncertainty.
So, when there is madness all around, madness that feels so close to where I sit right now, I can only seek my own peace in things that I value - the notion of my own philosophical cosmopolitanism which I have lived all my life and which repudiates the idea that you can force an identity on anybody, or strip them of it; the love for my daughters, my family, my friends; and for the human capacity for the kind of art I found in the darkened chamber of the Czartoryski Museum one frozen morning in Kraków.
For those inclined to donate (and many of us feel the urge to do something), I always say that you should try to find something at ground level with immediate impact. There are scores of spontaneous and official organisations springing up throughout this city, and I see them all the time. Many of them do not have a great system in place for receiving donations, but the ones I have below I have seen with my own eyes
I spotted the poster below last night, and sent it to friends who successfully donated through this portal. I'll try to keep this blog post updated with other points of contribution I stumble across.
The organisation you see below is a 50 year-old disabilities organisation in Krakow, run by student volunteers. They are doing a mix of hands-on activities as requests come in to them. When I dropped by this afternoon they were packing clothes and other care items for 50 orphaned children still inside Ukraine. They will also be reaching out to people with disabilities inside Ukraine to try to help them.
Organisation name: Klika Kraków
Bank account: 86124046501111001039715330 (you should include a note that this is a Ukraine donation)
SWIFT ACCOUNT: PKOPPLPWXXX