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  • Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine
  • Mark Mazower
Timothy Snyder . Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist’s Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine. xxiii+347 pp., maps. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. ISBN 030010670X. $35.00.

Timothy Snyder is perhaps his generation's leading historian of the region that used to be known as Eastern Europe, and in particular the area that once constituted the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A monograph on the short life of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, the theorist of Polish socialism in the tsarist era, was followed by The Reconstruction of Nations, a prizewinning study of the collapse of the Commonwealth and the subsequent fate of its inhabitants over more than four centuries.1 Both books were characterized by their unusually elegant prose—terse, lucid, wry—as well as by their desire to broaden our understanding of East European nationalism, too often caricatured as bloodthirstily intolerant and repressive. Through his astute analyses of some alternative nationalist traditions, Snyder has helped us better understand the recent evolution of the otherwise puzzlingly smooth relations between postcommunist Poland and her eastern neighbors.

His latest work, Sketches from a Secret War, is, in my opinion, his most compelling book so far. It has an attractive hero, Henryk Józewski (1892–1981), whose busy life was rich equally in public adventure and inner creativity. Artist, administrator, spy—Józewski's devotion to Poland was never more evident than when he decided—having survived the Nazi occupation—to remain underground after the communist takeover rather than, as he might have done, go into exile. But this was near the end of his remarkable career. The young Józewski was a follower of Józef Piłsudski and an organizer of the anti-Bolshevik Promethean network. Critical of the rival National Democrats for their narrow and blinkered definition of the Polish national interest, Józewski helped direct Polish intelligence in the Soviet borderlands to secure the east and prepare the ground for [End Page 379] an eventual revanche against Moscow. His version of anticommunism implied a relatively sympathetic attitude toward the Ukrainian population of eastern Poland, in the conviction that a policy of acknowledging the legitimacy of Ukrainian national aspirations could only strengthen Poland. In World War I, after all, Józewski had been deeply involved in the Ukrainian struggle against the Russians and had even been a member of the Ukrainian People's Republic government during the Civil War of 1918–21. Appointed governor of Volhynia by Piłsudski, Józewski did his best to put these precepts into practice: his Volhynia Experiment reduced tensions with and between the national minorities and actively sought better relations with the Orthodox Church.

Yet Snyder also describes the reasons why this policy failed. Vaunted abroad by the Prometheans as an example of Poland's enlightened rule, the Experiment was not followed elsewhere in the eastern borderlands, where coercion rather than cooperation prevailed. Even in Volhynia itself, the army, and other key elements in the Polish state apparatus, were suspicious and kept their distance. Ukrainian terrorism also complicated Józewski's task. Moreover, the Prometheans were elitists. They did not require backing from Polish public opinion, but they did need Piłsudski's patronage. Once this was gone, they were marginalized, valued for their expertise but shifted out of positions of power as Polish nationalities policy moved sharply rightward in the late 1930s.

It is the interwar years in Volhynia—the peak of Józewski's career as a public servant—when the book's hero was closest to the center of events. Yet the story of his life becomes, if anything, even more extraordinary following the German occupation, as his world implodes and, like Poland itself, his room for maneuver narrows sharply. While Volhynia itself became the site of an almost inconceivably bloody complex ethnic civil war—the ultimate unraveling of the interwar Experiment—Józewski went underground, collected information about life under occupation, and laid the groundwork for his postwar political engagement, narrowly escaping assassination. These shots—fired by a Polish Communist in 1943—were the opening salvo in a battle of wits with...