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June 3, 1998
Radek Sikorski was beaming. The meticulously dressed Pole had just given me a tour of Chobielin, his three-hundred-year-old manor house, located twenty miles from the city of Bydgoszcz, in the west of Poland. For the past eight years the thirty-five-year-old Sikorski -- one of Lech Walesa's former translators, an award-winning photojournalist, a one-time deputy defense minister, and the author of Full Circle: A Homecoming to Free Poland (1997) -- had been working on the restoration of his elegant residence; it no longer languished in squalor as it had for more than four decades during Communist rule.
Sikorski led me onto a barely worn path that wound through a grove of sickly poplars. We walked in silence through the trees and emerged to find a dozen dilapidated houses made of concrete, wood, and corrugated metal. Those that were inhabited emitted faint trickles of smoke from their chimneys; their interiors were dimly illuminated by candlelight. Antiquated ploughs sat rusted and up-ended in the dirt and weeds. In front of one crumbling structure sat two men in ragged clothes, encircled by a ring of empty vodka bottles. A mangy dog dozed at their feet. One of the men puffed futilely at a burnt-out cigarette; the other caressed his abdomen and whimpered. From a cracked window above them an elderly woman stared at us suspiciously. We exchanged no greetings.
The peasants who used to maintain Chobielin had once lived in this area, Sikorski explained -- quite happily, he was quick to note. But the owners of Chobielin fled at the outset of the First World War, and the workers scattered soon after, leaving their quarters to lie dormant for more than thirty years. When the Communists took over after the Second World War they demolished the vacated peasant homes and slapped up the cheap buildings now spread out before us. Chobielin rapidly fell into disrepair -- and the Communists couldn't have been happier.
Sikorski finished his monologue and looked over the ugly hodgepodge of buildings with disgust. "Whenever I go to Moscow I usually go out drinking with a few Russian acquaintances. When the subject of Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe comes up, they just shrug it off and say, 'Oh Radek, forget about it. It's history now.' That's the problem: that sense of greater Russian nationalism has caused untold suffering to millions of people, and the Russians pass it off as if it were nothing." He went on. "The Russians have always despised us. Near the end of the War, when the Nazis in Warsaw were preparing to crush the last of the Polish Resistance, the Red Army was camped just across the Vistula river. Do you know what they did? Those motherfuckers sat there and watched as the Germans destroyed the Resistance and burned Warsaw to the ground. After the Nazis departed the Red Army crossed the river and 'liberated' the city."
We headed over to an anomalous low-slung brick structure at the far end of the ramshackle settlement. A row of curved doorways graced its facade. It had been a stable, Sikorski said, one in which some of Poland's finest thoroughbred horses had once been kept. Now the doors had been ripped away and used for firewood, the metal hinges pried off and sold for scrap. Its interior was completely barren. "Anything of value was taken long ago," Sikorski remarked bitterly. He leaned with his left hand against a doorway, his elegant watch glinting in the sun.
As I stood behind him, gazing out from the musty stable toward the pathetic dwellings outside, I couldn't help but think: for every ambitious, capitalist-inspired new Pole striving to restore a piece of Poland's storied past, there were countless others simply trying to survive.
Ryan Nally is a new-media editor at The Atlantic Monthly. His last Atlantic Abroad dispatch, also from Poland, was "Waste Not, Want Not."
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Photograph by Ryan Nally.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.