ARTUR'S ATTITUDES

Artur has opinions - be it on ongoing real estate evolution or why history and its lesson are important. He speaks up on local real estate market (San Francisco Peninsula) as well as on social and political events and processes impacting us all.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I Met Stalin

I MET STALIN

Yes, he was the real one. He was dead, had a large mustache and was smiling with his benevolent, innocent smile. I noticed that he was short as his counterpart in the Red Square mausoleum, Lenin. That’s all I could really see. How little I could see and how little I knew at the time!

But let me start from the beginning. A few weeks ago, San Francisco Chronicle published an article “Pickled dictator tour’s first stop: Tiananmen Square” that caught my attention. It is about the hot tourist spot “Memorial Hall” where the preserved body of Mao Zedong is displayed. The article included a list of 10 embalmed leaders of communist states. Today you cans see only 5 of them. Other 5 bodies were removed and, either buried, or cremated. While I have seen only 4 of them, I realized that I am probably one of the few in the Western Hemisphere today who has seen the embalmed body of Stalin. It was a beautiful sunny day in 1959 and after many hours meandering with the crowd through the Red Square, I entered the mausoleum and seen, Stalin and Lenin. I was 7 years old at the time and remember it vividly. I was with my Dad (he was the student at the Leningrad’s Naval Academy at the time), my Mom (more about her later) and my older sister. We were part of the tour to Moscow with a group of my Dad’s colleagues from the Academy. What struck me was the size of Lenin’s and Stalin’s bodies. They definitely looked small. In 1961 as a result of continued post-Stalin political thaw started by Khrushchev, the body of Stalin was secretly removed and buried outside Kremlin wall.

Here, I was to start my story of 10 “pickled men”, and possibly comment on the birth and growth of the Communist system that was embraced by the half of the world’s population in 100 years after Marks and Engels devised the system concept. In 60-ties and 70-ties it was the system to fear! Not a surprise they we tried to find the way to stop it and became embraced in the second Indochina war. But I will comment on it another time.

All of this changed last night when I met the monster again. I was just about to start working on this post, but I decided to watch a DVD of a Polish movie “Katyn”, I had just received. The movie was shown last week as a part of the Polish movie festival in the Marin County, CA. I couldn’t make it so I ordered the DVD instead. The movie is about 22,000 of Polish officers killed on Stalin’s order in the spring of 1940. In one of the movie scenes there is a huge Stalin’s picture filling up the office of the NKVD officer.

This face with a large mustache and a benevolent smile. The monster who was responsible for killing millions of people of different nationalities, but who also created a powerful fatherly image by mastering a personality cult and taking all credit for saving Soviet Union from the Hitler’s army invasion. His image as Russia’s savior was so powerful that even people whose parents he killed admitted to crying and grieving after his death! He was even considering killing his top military man General Zhukov as he thought he was getting too much credit! Seeing the Stalin picture again evoked memories, suddenly the story of 10 leaders became very personal and centered on Stalin.

But back to my viewing of Stalin’s body. It was 1959, I was 7 years old and it was my third trip to Russia. I remember all of them vividly, but especially the first one in 1957. It is amazing how little I knew and understood then. I hope my age was the excuse. A train trip to the Russian border, walking back and forth on a crowded station at 4 AM, the wall clock in the little train station of Terespol and waiting for the train. This wall clock engraved in my mind for ever; I could not believe how slow the clock’s handles were moving forward. Russia’s ( Soviet Union then) train tracks have a different width than most of other countries in the world, so crossing the border required disembarking. But at the same time –train schedules were not existent. Can you imagine that the trip from the Soviet border to Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) took us 3 days and nights? We were in a lonely carriage attached to different trains pulling it forward and then leaving it on “bocznica” for hours. I didn’t realize how brave my Mom was to make this trip. Luckily two smiling faces of my sister and I elicited the help of Russians. I still remember how charming and helpful they were. Dragging me and my sister to Soviet Union in 1957... It took me years to realize it how epic this event was. The war with Germany ended in 1945. Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, 1939 two weeks after Germans did and moved the Polish border West to where it is today (it one point Poland occupied a vast territory from Baltic to Black Sea and even Moscow for a very short period in 1620, even Moscow was part of Poland). At the end of 1945 Stalin closed the border stranding hundred of thousands of Poles in the Soviet Union unable to reconnect with their families and return to the shrunken homeland. The border didn’t open again until 1956. Those who could were moving west going back to their homeland, looking for their lost families. I have two aunts who were stranded in Russia, one from 1948 in the infamous Magadan gulag when NKVD could not find her husband, the Home Army officer so they just took her instead! My aunt Zosia’s life story was a story of amazing courage and strength), My other aunt, Aunt Anna was testifying in a trial in Lvov in the case of murdered Armenian bishops when the border closed. She spent 10 years waiting to get back to Poland to her husband. She did come back bringing a great historical treasure with her, a carpet collection of her husband and husband’s father including pieces taken from the conquered Kara Mustafa’s Army during the 1683 Battle of Vienna, that she managed to secure through the war – but that is another great story I would like to share with you one day.

And here was my Mom, taking me and my sister in the opposite direction. But what was my Mom thinking about? She had a luggage of very recent history with her. Wasn’t she afraid? It was only a few years prior that she saved her father, a Home Army hero, from the hands of NKVD. He was sentenced to death (for being part of the pro-London Home Army, instead pro-Soviet People Army). Then suddenly his sentence was commuted to hard labor and after spending two years in copper mines of Legnica he was released. Many years later my grandpa and my grandma both received Virtuti Militari orders for their Home Army underground fight against Germans. The only thing my Mom told my sister and I about the miraculous release of our grandpa was that the NKVD officer that arrested him had a crush on her, but she never got into details (she took her secret with her now; she passed away of leukemia - some say a result of the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl that passed over my parents city on its way to Sweden where it was detected).

A few years after saving her father my Mom married a young (and handsome) Navy officer who was making a quick career in newly communist Poland. He was only 26 when he became the commander of Communist Poland Navy ship visiting London in 1955, for the first time since the end of the Second World War. He even met Queen Elizabeth and his young face showed on the cover pages of magazines in Poland. He was a Communist role model! In 1956 he was sent for three years to study in the Naval Academy in Leningrad. Three years away from his family (you have prison furloughs now, but there were no furloughs for the Naval Academy students then!). My father was gone for three years and for my Mom and us, the only way to see him was to travel to Soviet Union in 1957 and years after that, against the stream of people leaving Soviet Union as fast as they could once Khrushchev open the border.

Not only was my father a good Communist, he also was a good father and husband. Once my grandpa left prison he stayed in the little flat of my father. My father was the only person who could and would help someone who was on the wrong side of the political spectrum! My Mom was caught between two worlds of prewar prosperity and post war new power. So she was departing the old world of her parents and crossing the border of the enemy to reconnect her family at least for a few weeks per year!

But back to Stalin. He affected the lives of millions for many years and that includes many in my family. This is my story of Stalin and how his image evolved in my mind from seeing his body as a child to viewing the Katyn last night. Did you know that Russian denied this crime until 1990? I was growing up not knowing the truth. Finally, Gorbachev and then Yeltsin admitted the crime in 1990 and respectively 1992 50 years after it happened. Putin however reversed back to the old Soviet line that there is no proof that it happened! As recently as in June 2008 a court in Moscow rejected a request to hear a case on two issues: the declassification of documents about Katyn and the judicial rehabilitation of the victims! To read more on the Polish Russian relations regarding Katyn – a very sore point of their bilateral relations, click here. Stalin’s legacy is still alive! And while Stalin caries responsibility for killing approximately 25 million people, he is only the #2 killer in the 20th century - behind his “student”, Mao-Zedong, blamed for death of 35 million people.

Note about my father. He is 80 years old. We were on different sides of the political spectrum in Poland for years. During the bloody workers uprising in Gdansk shipyard in December 1970 (9 years before The Solidarity Union was born in the Gdansk Shipyard, I was 18 at that time), we bitterly disagreed. Beaten and scared I owe him getting me out of the hands of police. But in 1979 when I decided to leave Poland, just 9 later, he told me “this is the best thing you can do”. By then he was totally disillusioned with the system and people who demonstrated that without any “checks and balances”, communism is just yet another totalitarian system. Communism in Poland in 1979, the year I left the country, while not as bloody as it was 25 years earlier, was still a system that didn’t tolerate different views or dissent. When I left, my father was expelled from the Communist party and forced to retire from the Navy. His guilt? He allowed his adult son to escape from the country! But history took yet a new turn. In 1989 Berlin Wall collapsed and the democracy returned to Poland first time since 1939. My father was welcomed back to the Naval Academy in Gdynia where he still teaches part time and continues publishing in the scientific magazines (click here to see his most recent publication). He is a respected role model for Navy officers again! And who were the people who welcomed him back? The same people, mostly his former students, who brought him down in the 80-ties got him back on the pedestal in the 90-ties. Just a paradox of countries going through political upheavals.

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