Empires Of Irrelevance – Discovering Stryi, Ukraine

This past December I took the train from Budapest to Lviv. Sitting in the compartment I had ample time to study the timetable and all the stops that would be made along the way. A few of these were at bigger localities, only one of which I lacked any knowledge of, which was the city of Stryi, Ukraine. The spelling of Stryi’s name is so close to that of the Austrian province of Styria that superficially at least, it lacks the exoticism and uniqueness that to me defines the eastern hinterlands of Europe. Since Stryi was also not very far from Lviv, my thoughts tended to jump ahead to my ultimate point of arrival. I overlooked Stryi because I was nearing that final destination. It was also pitch dark when the train stopped at Stryi, with little of interest to see from the compartment window, unless one counts an empty grocery store parking lot. It was only six months later that I finally decided to learn more about Stryi. Fair or not, in the age of internet research a place like Stryi is mostly defined by its Wikipedia entry.

Stryi Railway Station (Credit: Alexander Krivonosov)

Stryi Railway Station (Credit: Alexander Krivonosov)

A Wilderness For War
Being interested in Stryi’s more recent history I scrutinized the paragraphs covering its 20th century history. Stryi had the usual horrific events that decimated the Austrian administered province of Galicia, the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Second Polish Republic, German Occupied Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The fact that each of the aforementioned political entities all ceased to exist gives an idea of just how calamitous the past one hundred years was for Stryi. Two World Wars, multiple occupations, inter-ethnic strife and a Holocaust that destroyed almost its entire Jewish population is enough to make any reader shutter. Tragically, Stryi’s past is part of a common history throughout the region. Of course, the Wikipedia entry could not come close to communicating the magnitude of this nightmare of history in a mere eight sentences.

Officers saluting at a trench on Zwinin

Officers saluting at a trench on Zwinin

Nevertheless, one sentence stood out from all the rest for shock value. It did not have to do with Stryi specifically, but concerned an event that occurred nearby during World War I. The sentence said, “In 1915 a bloody battle took place in the Carpathian Mountains, around the peak of Zwinin (992 meters above sea level), a few kilometers south of Stryi in which some 33,000 Russian soldiers perished.The mention of Zwinin (Dzhvynuv in Ukrainian) piqued my interest, specifically because I had never heard of the battle. Of course the Carpathians were the scene of deadly fighting throughout the winter and spring of 1914-1915, but the unending fighting that occurred makes it hard to separate battles from campaigns. After locating Zwinin on a map I discovered that it was more than a few kilometers south of Stryi, it was actually around twenty kilometers as the crow flies from the city. It is just as remote today, as it was in 1915. Zwinin, due to its natural beauty and remote wilderness, is now part of Skole Beskids National Park. During World War I, that beauty was not on anyone’s mind, but a certain manufactured aspect of wilderness was. From February 5th through April 9th, 1915 Zwinin became a setting for the wilderness of war.

The Storming of Zwinin (Credit: M Frost)

The Storming of Zwinin (Credit: M Frost)

Battling Over The Inhospitable
Discovering what actually happened at Zwinin is difficult. The battle is shrouded in obscurity. On one side were Russian forces attempting to push through the Eastern Carpathians and break into the Great Hungarian Plain, where they would be able to ravage the breadbasket of Austria-Hungary and knock it out of the war. On the opposite side were forces from the Central Powers, faltering Austro-Hungarian troops now stiffened by soldiers and leadership from their German allies. Between these armies lay mountainous terrain like Zwinin. The topography of the Beskid Range in the Carpathians, created an even greater obstacle than any army.  Frigid temperatures and snowstorms added another layer of problems. Interestingly, searches on “Battle of Zwinin” or “World War One Zwinin” brought up more images than information. One photo showed a German officer being saluted as he walks through a snowy trench. The icy scene gives new meaning to the phrase, “No Man’s Land.” Another image was an artist’s rendition of the storming of the east end of Zwinin that occurred on the final day of battle. Russian soldiers surrender or are killed by German forces crossing a gnarled, snow covered no man’s land on their way up the mountain. A final photo shows a series of crosses on top of Zwinin, makeshift graves covering the inhospitable prominence.

Stryi after taking the Zwinin. The city is decorated with German and Austrian flags - Postcard from 1915

The city of Stryi after taking the Zwinin. The city is decorated with German and Austrian flags – Postcard from 1915

What does all this have to do with Stryi? It seems, on the face of it, not very much. Yet there was one other image on a postcard that I discovered which stands out. Roughly translated it says, “Stryi after taking the Zwinin. The city is decorated with German and Austrian flags.” In it a crowd of soldiers and colorfully dressed civilians smile pleasantly while standing in the city center of Stryi. The Russians had been vanquished from both the Beskids and Stryi, a victory had been won. What is not shown in the photo and what we can never know is how many soldiers would be in that photo if the battle had never occurred. The German and Austro-Hungarian forces had been victorious, but battles like Zwinin took thousands of lives. All this really did was reclaim for the Austrians a relatively, small insignificant city in Galicia. They once again held sway over the city of Stryi and the wilderness that lurked just beyond the edge of it. The victory was part of an effort to keep an empire (from the Austro-Hungarian perspective) and an ally (from the German perspective) from crumbling. Were these reasons enough to sustain such losses? Stryi had only a handful of ethnic Germans. It was a city that had been held for nearly a century and a half prior to the war by the Austrians with barely any bloodshed.  Zwinin and Stryi mattered, only if the illogical course of empire was followed.

Mass Graves after the Battle of Zwinin

Mass Graves from the Battle of Zwinin

A Calamity On The Edge Of The Carpathians
As for the Russians, they lost 33,000 men, what amounted to a few infinitesimal snowflakes amid an avalanche of violence that buried hundreds of thousands in a frozen mountain wilderness. As many or more Russian soldiers died from exposure to the elements, as would from enemy fire. This was just the start of a massive retreat back to western Russia, where the Russian army would be only six months later. The Russians would come back to Stryi, less than thirty years later, this time as Soviets. Millions upon millions of lives were lost along the way in a long, horrifying journey that took years. The rewards were places like Stryi, a nearly anonymous city that turned out to be irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. As it was then, as it is today, an afterthought on the way to more important places.


Tragic Enlightenment –Bereza Kartuska: A Polish Concentration Camp

Trying to read a comprehensive history of a nation can be a daunting task. The most well written ones contain an incredible amount of detail that can be both mind numbing and complex. The narratives are sometimes hard to follow. Almost all such histories are arranged in chronological order, but history is filled with lots of moving parts often headed in opposite directions. Events occur simultaneously and yet can be totally dissimilar.  Add to this hundreds of years of dates, peoples and trends. The effect upon the reader can be withering. The most common approach to digesting so much information is to look for common historical trends. There is another, perhaps more useful approach that can make for compelling discoveries. The casual reader might try selecting a historical era in a nation’s history that they find intriguing. Then when a detail piques their interest, they can research that detail in much greater depth. Such research can illuminate a nation’s history.

Building from Bereza Kartuska Concentration Camp

Bereza Kartuska Concentration Camp was operational from 1934 – 1939 in the Second Polish Republic (Credit: Czalex)

A Kinder, Gentler Extremism  – The Second Polish Republic & Ukrainians
This is what happened to me while reading parts of Orest Subtelny’s History of Ukraine over the past week. While the work is highly readable it is nonetheless the type of history book one is likely to find in an academic library. This is something of a shame since as national histories of Eastern European countries go, the book is very accessible. For reasons of time and interest I skipped ahead to the chapter entitled Western Ukraine Between the Wars. I wanted to learn more about the Second Polish Republic’s rule over Galicia and Volyn. Polish rule over ethnic Ukrainians is an overlooked area of study in Eastern European history by western scholars. It gets lost in the shadows of the Soviet Union and the turbulent rise of Nazi Germany. The Polish state’s relationship with its four million Ukrainian subjects between the World Wars pales in comparison.

Further exacerbating this oversight is the fact that Poland’s government from 1918 to 1939 is viewed historically as a rather benign force. Much of this has to do with what followed it. During World War II Poland became the scene of violence on an unimaginable scale as the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews and ethnic Poles, on occupied Polish territory. In comparison, the Second Polish Republic looks fairly moderate. It had the trappings of a democracy, but with censorship and heavy handed governance. It at least paid lip service to minority rights and was not engaged in violent destruction of the minority groups which made up one-third of its population. On the other hand, the second Polish Republic was hardly kind to the minorities that lived within its borders. Ukrainians, Belarussians and to a lesser extent ethnic Germans were discriminated against. They were subjected to Polonization, whereby through the suppression of their languages and cultures they were to eventually become Polish. This was met with great resistance by extremist Ukrainian nationalist organizations. This included notable acts of terror such as assassinations of Polish officials and of Ukrainian officials who were felt to be pro-Polish.

Bronislaw Pieracki

Bronislaw Pieracki Poland’s Minister of Interior – it was his assassination by a Ukrainian nationalist in 1934 which directly led to the creation of Bereza Kartuska

Discovering Details – A Pre-War Polish Concentration Camp
This brings me to a discovery of one detail in Subtelny’s work that illuminated a dark corridor of Polish and Ukrainian history. On page 445 of the History of Ukraine I came across the following sentences: “After the assassination of (Interior Minister Bronislaw) Pieracki Polish police launched a crackdown that netted the entire Krai (regional) leadership of OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) in Galicia…After a much publicized series of trials, the youthful leaders received lengthy sentences in the Bereza Kartuzka concentration camp. They were joined by hundreds of OUN rank-and-file members who were rounded up at this time.” I fixated on one piece of information in these sentences, Bereza Kartuska Concentration Camp. I had no idea that Poland had concentration camps before the Second World War. The words Poland and Concentration Camp had always been synonymous with the Holocaust, not inter-war Poland. This led me to dig deeper. What I found was both tragic and enlightening. Considering the time period I should not have been surprised.

In mid-June 1934 a Ukrainian Nationalist gunned down the Polish Interior Minister Bronislaw Pieracki in Warsaw. It was this act of terrorism (or act of heroism if you were Ukrainian) that directly led to the creation of Bereza Kartuska by the Polish government. The site selected for the prison had a prior history of incarceration. During Tsarist times the buildings on site had been used to imprison opponents of Russian autocracy. Fascinatingly, Bereza Kartuska was not only a punishment facility for opponents of the Polish regime, but also for the staff. The guards at the prison had been forced to work as punishment for being poor policemen. This lack of a professional prison guard force led to many abuses. Perhaps this was the intention of the powers that be.

Buildings that were part of Bereza Kartuska are still standing today in the town of Biaroz, Belarus

Buildings that were part of Bereza Kartuska are still standing today in the town of Biaroz, Belarus (Credit: Czalex)

A Short Infamous History – Concentrating Confinement & Violence
Most historians put the number of deaths at Bereza Kartuska somewhere between 13 and 17, (one Ukrainian historian puts the number between 176 and 324 depending on Polish or Ukrainian sources) this small number is deceiving. The conditions were such that many of those later released, were broken men. The average length of incarceration was only eight months. In this short period of time inmates performed hard labor, were regularly tortured and placed in solitary confinement for such offenses as speaking the Ukrainian language. Concrete cell floors were constantly hosed down so prisoners could not sit or lay on them. Each cell was packed up to four or five times its normal capacity.

When it first opened the majority of prisoners at Bereza Kartuska were either Ukrainian nationalists or from extremist Polish groups of the left or right. This mix of such divergent ideologies among the inmates must have made for a rather toxic social environment. Sentences were for “only” three months, but could be extended by officials without a prisoner’s having any right to appeal. The prison was controversial among Polish opposition parties who decried its violation of civil liberties. At the time, Bereza Kartuska was referred to as what it really was – a concentration camp. Just prior to, as well as following, the outbreak of World War II the number of inmates in the camp ballooned as ethnic Germans including women were imprisoned. In mid-September 1939, with the Soviet Union joining the Nazi invasion of Poland, the camp was evacuated. The short, infamous history of Bereza Kartuska had come to an end.

The Bereza Kartuska concentration camp - the building in the background was used by the camp police, in the foreground the post-World War II Soviet monument to victims of the camp

The Bereza Kartuska concentration camp – the building in the background was used by the camp police, in the foreground the post-World War II Soviet monument to victims of the camp (Credit: Christian Ganzer)

Guilty As Charged – An Era Without Innocence
Today, Bereza Kartuska is all but forgotten except by academic specialists who study that turbulent period of Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian history. Its tragic legacy endures most prominently in a physical sense. The main building for the prison still exists in relatively good condition in what is today the town of Biaroza, Belarus. The only commemoration at the site is a post-World War II Soviet memorial. This is no surprise. After all, modern Belarus is still under the thumb of what has been called Europe’s last dictatorship. It is doubtful that the Belarusian government wants to draw attention to violations of civil liberties. Such violations are not just of the past in Belarus, but also practiced in the present. Even through it was another nation’s tyranny that took place, the Belarussian people have more than enough of their own tragedies to remember from that era.

As for Ukrainians they have their own battles to fight over both the past and present with Russia. And Poland is now a successful member of the European Union. Dredging up less than desirable aspects of the past is not a compelling interest. So Bereza Kartuska historical fate is probably resigned to what it is today, tucked away on page 445 of a history book few will ever read. That being said, Bereza Katuska proved enlightening for me. If the relatively democratic Second Polish Republic was guilty of such excesses between the wars than what went on beyond its borders – in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – is almost unfathomable.  This was an era where every nation was guilty of ethnic discrimination. None of them were innocent and each one was guilty, the only difference was that some were guiltier than others.