We are living through a Czapski Moment. Over the past five years, the New York Review of Books has almost singlehandedly introduced Jozef Czapski to English-speaking audiences. Through a biography written by the painter Eric Karpeles and a series of translations of some of his most notable Polish works, the sweep of Czapski’s nearly century-long life is coming into clearer focus. Memories of Starobielsk, a collection of essays, letters and interviews skillfully translated and edited by Alissa Valles and published by the NYRB in March 2022, heralds another step in the gradual unfurling of Czapski’s oeuvre. The work is largely autobiographical, a collage of Czapski ephemera straddling the themes of painting, war, childhood, friendship, and the legacy of Russian culture in a world of Soviet totalitarianism. It is the fifth English book in as many years to be published on or by Czapski, and it is the most timely.
Czapski’s legacy remains contested in Poland. As a founding contributor to the Kultura Paryska magazine based in Paris, Czapski is considered one of Poland’s great twentieth-century émigré writers and among its leading representatives to the Francophone world. But he occupies a peculiar place in Poland’s cultural pantheon: a figure of national pride for his revelations of Soviet war crimes during World War II, but also an outsider born in Prague to a German-speaking mother, who spent much of his life in Paris. Earlier this year, at an exhibition of Czapski's work in Warsaw, Poland’s Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński, a member of the eurosceptic nationalist Law and Justice Party, praised Czapski as « an icon and an authority… a man of writing and an institution ».
But an icon and authority of what, precisely? After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Gliński argued that « Russian culture must disappear from the public space. » It’s a position which would have likely made Czapski wince. Memories of Starobielsk is a link in a long chain — from Adam Mickiewicz to Joseph Conrad, to Gliński himself — of Polish figures grappling with the relationship between Russia and Europe. But unlike many of his compatriots, Czapski refused to see Russia as a foreign entity. As he explained in « Nationality or Exceptionality » (1958), a searing essay in the collection, Russia was neither « a school of debasement », nor a universal shorthand for all that was backward and fanatical. Rather, it was a place of contradiction to be contended with rather than rejected outright — « a world of struggle and love of man » — which both repelled and enthralled him.
Ukraine has long played an important role in Polish imperial nationalism, in which the Kresy lands of modern Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus were considered not the natural inheritance of Russia, but Poland.
Cavanagh, Clare. Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, pg. 116.