Tag Archives: Russia

The Most Wanted Painting in the World po

7457666532_5a99f53464_oIf our culture is the shared memory of all historical experiences or, as renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuścinski claims, “we are human because we recount stories and myths”, then the huge painting (twice the size of Rembrandt’s Night Watch) covering a whole wall of the National Museum in Warsaw provides a major opening into the history of Central Europe.

Created to provide inspiration and resistance during the period of Empires and partitions, Jan Matejko’s “The Battle of Grunwald” became the focus of search, torture, bribery  and a huge  “wanted” reward following the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

The painting, depicting the famous struggle in 1410, essentially highlights the death in battle of Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen against King Jagello’s Polish-Lithuanian forces and the charge by the hero Vytutas. This portrayal was seen by the Nazis as an unwelcome reminder of the greatest confrontation in medieval times and earmarked Matejko’s masterpiece for destruction.

The Teutonic Knights, a heavily armed German military order, were originally invited from Jerusalem by a Polish prince in 1230 to help spread Christianity. Instead, the Knights established an expanding monastic state along the Baltic coast based around their impregnable castle at Malbork/Marienburg. They extracted feudal levies, seized control of the lucrative amber trade and made themselves a naval power as well.
Over time their rule was transformed into, first the Duchy, and then later, the Kingdom of Prussia, but not before the Knights suffered a major defeat at Grunwald in 1410, thus halting major Germanic expansion.

It also obliged the Grand Masters/Dukes to pay homage to Polish kings (the subject of another major Matejko work). Although the Knights may have been defeated, their state eventually became the expanding Prussia of Prince Bismarck and his Germanization policies or “KulturKampf”, when all non-German schools and universities were closed down and printing in other languages forbidden.

The Nazis, in turn, saw themselves as a kind of continuation of the knights mission, on their way towards a world empire. When attacking Russia Hitler affirmed “We will give this country a past. We will take away its character of an Asian steppe. We will Europanize it”.

Hitler stated clearly that he wanted to erase the identity of neighbouring nations. Himmler, leader of the Gestapo security forces, had emphasized that “Polish lands are to be converted into an intellectual desert”, while Propaganda minister Joseph Goebels was anxious to establish German superiority by proving that all other cultures had German origins. With this in mind, a spectacular portrayal of past defeat could not be tolerated, so experts were specifically sent from the Reich to destroy all monuments  of national identity.

Among the first to be blown up was the granite and bronze “Grunwald” monument in Cracow, a pre-WWI symbol erected for the 500th anniversary of the battle, due to efforts by world famous musician Ignacy Paderewski. This was followed by destruction of the statues to poet Adam Mickiewicz, revolutionary independence hero Kościuszko and even the prominent monument to Frederyk Chopin in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park was cut up and sent for smelting. A new museum claiming Chopin’s (non existent) German roots was established by 1943. The search for these symbolic art works was relentless.

By 1942 Nazi administrators estimated that 90% of art in Poland was in their possession, including hidden masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s ermine“Lady with an Ermine”, which was betrayed to the Gestapo within days of the Occupation. Seized by governor Hans Frank, it was hung in his family living quarters and is still remembered as a picturesque backdrop by his son Niklas. Even the largest Gothic altarpiece by Veit Stoss was dismantled and transported to Bavaria on Frank’s orders. Looted and confiscated art was to form the core of the proposed Führermuseum in Linz or the Herman Göring collection. Today, it is estimated that at least 100,000 items have still not been returned to their rightful owners.

During this time, Himmler and his SS infiltrated the army and, similarly to the Knights, created a state within a state. He actively encouraged the SS to seek out the Church of the Teutonic Order in Vienna as a symbolic source for his military elite (the actual religious order had been abolished by 1938). The highest award of the Third Reich became a badge/insignia modeled on a crest of the historic Order and given first to SS General Reinhard Heydrich and then the top ten Nazis. They created a bureaucracy of terror at the centre of which was a network of concentration camps.

Somehow the huge Matejko canvas survived the first World War period. It had been taken to Czarist Russia and returned by the post-revolution Soviet State only in 1922. The theme of the struggle against the Teutonic invaders was also taken up by Nobel prize writer Henryk Sienkiewicz in the same spirit of “Romantic Nationalism” as Matejko’s. The conflict was portrayed in his 1910 novel “The Knights of the Cross”, later turned into a a 1960 film by director Aleksander Ford.nevsky-charge-lg In Soviet Russia, cinema great Sergei Eisenstein directed his 1938 classic “Alexander Nevsky” (complete with a music score by Prokofiev). It portrayed an attack over frozen Lake Peipus against the Russians, by the Livonian branch of the Knights. The film ending, with the heavily armoured Teutonic horsemen drowning as the ice collapsed under their weight, was presented as symbolic retribution for spreading Christianity by the sword.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, what made the survival of “Grunwald” more remarkable was the intensity of the search for the removed painting and the astronomical reward offered. Initially, on Goebels orders, the museum curator was to be bribed with two million Reichmarks (about $16M USD in today’s money)  to reveal where the picture was hidden. When this was refused a public broadcast increased the sum to ten million Reichmarks (approximately $80M USD in today’s money).
Captured underground resistance fighters were tortured to death by the Gestapo seeking its hiding place. All to no avail. In fact, the  canvas had been rolled, placed in a specially made wooden box and secretly buried in a protective stone sarcophagus close to a village near Lublin.

The search by the Nazis was only abandoned when, in a clever ruse, the Polish government-in-exile based in London, announced the arrival of the painting in Britain. It actually only emerged from hiding in Poland after the war to be exhibited by 1949.
After years of meticulous restoration, finally finished in 2012, “The Battle of Grunwald” has once more taken pride of place in Warsaw’s National Museum, where it provides a visual insight to the struggles in “God’s Playground” (Norman Davies), still studied by modern historians and visitors.

In the rebuilt Old Town of Warsaw, on the façade of the cathedral, restored after Nazi destruction, the importance of national memory is emphasized with a plaque quoting Cardinal Wyszyński :

“A nation without a record, without a past,
becomes a nation homeless, without a future”

Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald is a vital, imaginative link to that past.

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On the Golden Eagle Across Siberia (Part XI) – To Vladivostok, and so the end of the line…


With Ulaan Baataar and Mongolia a pleasant memory behind us, the Golden Eagle continued towards Khilok, Chita, Mogocha, out of the taiga and eventually overnight at Khabarovsk.This gives us time to reflect on all that we have seen, discuss the lectures by Dan Healey and comment on the news headlines before reaching the Amur/Ussuri river junction towards the end of the line at Vladivostok.

The subject of Siberian exile and the Gulag inevitably comes up, in lectures and in conversation. Both Joseph Stalin and Feliks Dzierzhinsky (founder of the secret police) escaped from Siberia twice. On that overnight at Khabarovsk, we hear that a large statue of Stalin is still standing there and that there is nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which had seemed to offer stability after the more recent economic chaos from a rushed privatisation. Engineering delays on the tracks allowed us to study the subject further, with an additional lecture by Prof.Dan on the Great Patriotic War (WWII) and national memory, the central event in Soviet history.

Fear of chaos in this huge land has always been central to Russia’s history.The rise of Vladimir Putin is attributed to his skill in balancing the various competing clans. Ultimately his concern has been more with internal matters than external economics. Much is made of his choosing Siberia to celebrate his 2014 (62nd) birthday, far from the Kremlin and its factions, though local observers are heard to remark ” Why does Putin need friends when 85% of Russians support him ?”. American strategist Robert Kaplan has pointed out that if Putin were toppled, it would be quite possible that a more brutal dictator would emerge to forestall any possible chaos. He sees the breakup of Russia more likely than any emergence of Western-style democracy. It is interesting to realise that, if that were to occur, Siberia would still be the largest country on earth.

Dissenting opinions on the past are still expressed. Recently, award-winning Russian film director Andrei Konchalkovsky, celebrated for his epic film “Siberiade” (and whose father wrote the words to the stirring 1943 national anthem), explains during an interview at the Venice Film Festival, that “Marxism is a wonderful thought if you are sitting with a pipe by the fire, but Marxist ideals in Cambodia give you ten million chopped heads”. Statistics from 2013 estimate that the median household wealth in Russia is US$ 871  while, surprisingly, it reaches US$ 1040 in India. Someone appropriately quotes 19th century historian Vasily Kluchevsky who said “The state grew fat while the people grew thin”.

We already are in Eastern Siberia8230218781_c1274db7af_b, land of the endangered Amur Tiger. There are less than 30 left in China and 400 in Siberia, some of which prey on bears. There is also an Amur leopard, though only about 45 adults remain in the wild. Earlier in 2014, Vladimir Putin released three tagged Amur tigers into the wild in this region. One, a male called Kuzya, made headlines by quickly choosing to cross the river into China, where local officials welcomed the event, promising that “if necessary, we can release cattle into the region to feed it” .Siberia remains in the news…

A final on-board Farewell Dinner, then it is time to prepare for the last stop on the world’s longest railway line, the once closed city of Vladivostok. The journey has been a tremendous survey of Siberia and Russia itself, an experience to savour for long, maybe even contemplate a return journey for a magical winter view. Certainly the words of poet John Keats ring true:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen…


In London for the January 2014 Stanford Travel Writers Festival, I spoke with writer and traveller Nick Hunt about Siberia. He had recently walked from London to Istanbul, describing the experience in his latest book Walking In The Woods. He told me about French author Sylvain Tesson who had gone to spend six months isolated in a log cabin at Lake Baikal, equipped mostly with vodka, pasta and books. He outlined his thoughts in a memoir, “Consolations of the Forest”. Ah! Thoreau and his famous retreat at Walden, but on Stolichnaya !! Unbeatable !!tumblr_lqu6l1R2a31qb96yeo1_1280

Tesson’s book is at the top of my reading list for 2015 !


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Towards 2015. In The Footsteps of Napoleon


My guest this month is an intrepid traveller, history buff and guide extraordinary, Alain Poirot

Alain is a long term resident of the Provence and passionate follower of Napoleonic campaign reenactments. Battlefield re-enactments add a different dimension to memorials. They bring out the full spectacle, the identifying colored uniforms,the regimental flags and the moving patterns of what was a chess game of life and death.

They are a glimpse into the past, an attempt to understand historical experience in a way that will frequently elude the armchair campaigner writing detailed footnotes. It is possible to claim that no landscape feels as haunted as the scene of a battle. Otto von Bismarck expressed that clearly, “The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood “.

Over many years, Alain has walked over battlefields, from Waterloo to Austerlitz and on to the grim field of Borodino on the road to Moscow.

Lev Tolstoy, writing in “War and Peace”, saw it all as being “…opposed to human reason” and thought that “in historical events, great men-so-called-are but labels serving to give a name to the event.” Napoleon himself claimed that “soldiers generally win battles; generals get the credit for them”, and yet, for more than a century, military theory and practice was constantly measured against the genius, and myth, of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew very well that, not being a genuine monarch, he could never afford defeat.

We asked Alain a number of leading questions  about his fascinating interest.

LGQ : How long have you been going to Re-enactments ? 

First time was in 2001……. I had read many books on the subject but had never been to any of the battlefields. We travelled by coach from Épinal in the Vosges all the way to Moscow and back, following in the footsteps of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Of course, going to Russia added to the spirit of adventure.


What made quite an impression on me, was visiting  the site of the Berezina  river crossing in what is today Belarus. Nothing has really changed there since 1812 ! The houses in Studzienka  (the village where the two bridges over the Berezina were built) most likely look much the same as they did in 1812 …(thanks to communism) still entirely built of wood. The fields and forests are still there…no industry,  no modern buildings. One can virtually believe that Napoleon and what was left of his army saw the same landscape.

The word “ Bérézina “ has in french become synonymous with disaster. The battle of the Berezina took place on  26-29 november 1812. In itself the battle was a victory for the  French as they managed to cross the river over the two bridges built on the orders of General Eblé and his 400 mostly Dutch bridge engineers. For the Russians it was a military defeat as about 50.000  French soldiers crossed safely to the right bank of the river. However…after the crossing of the Berezina one could say that the “ Grande Armée” did not exist anymore. In the next few days the temperature dropped to – 20/30 celsius.

The next tipping point for me was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz in 2005 , near the Czech city of Brno.There I realized the importance of the 100 and the 200-year commemorations. More participants, more money is made available to organize such an event . There is much more adrenaline ….it is like drinking champagne  instead of wine !

LGQ: What got you involved ?

Reading books on the subject

LGQ: What preparations do you have to make?

All the practical elements : hotel reservations / equipment /  visas for both Russia and Belarus have to be arranged / reading / maps

LGQ  : Which battles have you attended?

The first re-enactment I saw was  of Borodino in 2001 (in Russia about 100 km from Moscow). I was with a group of  French people, all passionate followers of Napoleonic history. That year I also visited the battlefields of Austerlitz and of course the Crossing of the Berezina.

DSC_0745The next re-enactment was in December 2005 . It was the bicentennial of the battle of Austerlitz,  still remembered today as Napoleon’s greatest victory. It was also the battle of which he was most proud ( he defeated the combined forces of the Russians/Austrians and the Prussians ). This is a battle which is still studied today in Military Academies all over the Globe.

I also went to the 2006 Austerlitz re-enactment and realized there the importance of the 200 year commemorations. They are special occasions…more excitement…more action… more spectacle .The battle which took place on December 2 , 1805 has given birth to a now very famous exclamation …”le beau soleil d’Austerlitz”

Napoleon had observed during the previous days of the battle that the morning mist regularly filled the lowland and was then slowly burnt off by the winter sun .He used that mist to disguise his troops and make a surprise attack on the Pratzen plateau. The Russians who held the Pratzen plateau were routed and it was a turning point in that day’s battle as Napoleon had split the enemy line.

On the 5th of December 2005…..the fields were covered with a thin layer of snow….it was freezing and the mist was there as well as the sun . It was perfect !

 LGQ : What do you feel you get out of it ?

Going back into the past. History.The closest I can come to how it really happened.

It is amazing what  fascination all those different nationalities have for the personage of Napoleon, whether they are French, Belgium, German, Polish, Russian, Czech, Italian, American, Canadian, etc

LGQ: Why do people participate in re-enactments ?

Going back into a time capsule…the attempt at capturing the real events… It is like living an adventure

In Borodino, participants in the re-enactment also recreated for themselves the  encampments near the battlefields with tents  identical to those used in 1812,  open wood fires for keeping warm and for preparing the food.

In December 2005 at Austerlitz,  people camped outside, near the battleground in freezing cold weather…..

In the real invasion of Russia there were 30.000 dead on Napoleon’s side and 60.000 on the Russian side at Borodino alone. About 650.000 men from various nations set out with the Grande Armée and took with them 28 million bottles of wine .

LGQ: Which future events are you preparing  for?

Waterloo  2015 and St Helena  2021

It is also amazing to see that the participants in those re-enactments come from various countries like Belgium/ France / Switzerland / Poland / Czech Rep / Italy / Russia / Belarus / Holland / USA / etc etc

These events have caught the imagination of literally thousands of men and women across the globe. At the last Borodino reenactment  there were over 100.000 spectators.

Napoleon is usually played by either Frank Samson of France or Mark Schneider of the United States of America.

The role of Napoleon at Waterloo 2015 has not been attributed yet  but will be given to either one of these two men….A fierce competition is going on between the two for this prestigious role.

DSC_0788At the major re-enactments of Austerlitz 2005 and Borodino 2012, Napoleon was played by Mark Schneider ,an actor from Virginia who looks a bit like Napoleon, he is an excellent horse rider who has earned the reputation of playing the role  vigorously.

Frank Samson is a lawyer  who has studied Napoleon’s native tongue. He, of course, is a bit dismissive of the American, a Napoleon played by an Anglo-Saxon , Quel horror ! ( please note that the role of Wellington is presently played by a New Zealander !?) The organizing  committee of Waterloo 2015 face a difficult task taking a decision. Albeit…in the late 1980’s, six Napoleons turned up at a reenactment event at Waterloo!

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A Home for the Wanderer


Among the artists associated with Saint Paul de Vence, Marc Chagall is the most fondly remembered. He lived in many places throughout his life after having been forced to leave his native Russia due to “differences” with the post-revolutionary soviet bureaucrats.

He made his home in Paris and later left for New York  during World War II. Once there, comfortable in his house in High Falls, he decided that “America is more dynamic, but also more primitive. France is a picture already painted”. At the same time, his cosmopolitan side made him exclaim “I’m a foreigner here, and at the same time, I’m at home because I’m a Jew”.

Returning to France, he decided to live in Vence itself before moving and settling permanently at his last home, “La Colline”, in St Paul de Vence. One of his neighbors in Vence, the existentialist writer Witold Gombrowicz, claimed that “any artist that respects himself, ought to be in every sense of the term an émigré”. Marc Chagall certainly fulfilled that description.

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