Reportage / 29 March 2022

A Postcard from Przemyśl

Focus: Ukraine

Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski


At the train station

I am writing these words from Przemyśl, an old Austro-Hungarian town, an important railway hub near the Ukrainian border (it is situated just 12 kilometres away), mere 80 kilometres from Lviv. I have been here since last Saturday, and during these days I took the train to Kraków and back to Przemyśl many times. On my way I was passing old edifices and train stations that were built in the times of Austria-Hungary, before World War I (yes, in complete accordance with Hrabal, Middle Europe certainly exists here), thinking about the fact that the nearer you are to Przemyśl, the more you truly sense the war. The atmosphere is gradually condensing, there is more and more talk of war in the air, increasing numbers of passengers are heading west, toward Kraków, and fewer in the opposite direction – to the East. In many passengers’ eyes I can easily observe confusion and fear.

The Przemyśl train station. Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski

In Przemyśl, at the main train station, this atmosphere reaches its apex. Inside the old station building, which, no doubt, hosted Emperor Franz Joseph in September 1880, during his journey through Galicia. At that time, the The Galician Railway of Archduke Charles Louis had been finished; at the occasion a new station head house was inaugurated – bearing a surprising resemblance to the similar building in Trieste, more than 1100 kilometres away. I remember seeing an old postcard from Przemyśl in a forum; it said:

»Grüße aus Przemyśl. Neuer Bahnhof. Pozdrowienia z Przemyśla. Nowy dworzec kolejowy. Вітання з Перемишля. Новий залiзничний двiрець.«

Today, multitudes of people are walking the station. Some have just arrived from the nearby Ukrainian border, some want to travel further, some are waiting for an opportunity to return to Ukraine (mainly men, though women also), some are, however, just sitting in apathy and awaiting whatever is to happen. The latter group consists mostly of African and Middle Eastern students from Ukraine, though there are increasing murmurs that they are actually »former« refugees, whom the authoritarian Bererusian president Lukashenka had transported en masse to Belarus last summer and autumn, for them to attempt crossing the Lithuanian and Polish borders from there. Evidently, they are now seizing the opportunity that has been presented to them by the war. Evidently they are doing so because nobody can verify their identity.

The War

The war that broke out on 24th February in the neighbouring country. This is the key word. Almost everybody in Przemyśl is talking about the war – not only the volunteers at the train station, trying to help as much as they can and put some order back into the chaos – the chaos which you are starting to understand after the third day of your stay, you are starting to accept it and to tame it; within it, different laws apply. The railwaymen on the trains and platforms, the cashiers at the station, where extra staff has been reassigned, with mobile terminals, in order to be able to control the crowd with efficiency and issue all Ukrainian citizens free tickets to all Polish towns. Taxi drivers, almost unanimously cursing Putin using the strongest language. Shop assistants at the Žabka retail chain, displaying notices announcing, in Ukrainian, free bread rolls, yoghurt and soup for Ukrainians. Gosia, an employee at a cellular telephone store near the train station, her face showing signs of fatigue, is also telling war stories. In the last few days, many hundreds of people visited their store, looking for the free SIM-cards available to all Ukrainians. In one of the cafés of the Old town, Mrs Agnieszka makes it clear right away that they are currently offering no food for the regular guests, because the kitchen is working exclusively for the refugees. »We are sending it all at the border,« she explains briefly. The inhabitants of diverse Polish cities, coming here from the remotest corners of Poland, such as Szczecin and Zielona Góra, from Kraków, less than three hours drive away, from the far-off Gdańsk on the shores of the Baltic Sea, from Silesia and Pomerania, are also talking about it. They all came to offer the Ukrainians their help, to greet people at the border, to feed them, to offer them accommodation for the night, to help them and protect them. Last but not least, President Zelenskyy is also talking about the war in his video-recorded speech, which you can listen to by simply taking a walk through Przemyśl – for example from the Franciszkanska Street towards the train station – listening to the cellular phones of the passers-by that you meet. 

The interior of the Przemyśl train station. Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski

Listening to all these stories, I cannot evade thinking about the other war, which unfolded itself in this area more than 100 years ago, when an Austro-Hungarian garrison was quartered in Przemyśl and the Russian army attacked one of the greatest European fortresses – which Przemyśl was at that time. I am referring to the siege of the Przemyśl fortress, which lasted for 153 days and was the longest in WWI in Europe. I am wondering whether the people who fled the war then, in 1915, walked through the same station hall. More than a century later, in the 21st century, the war returned to Galicia. In East Galicia, in Lviv or Ivano-Frankivsk (formerly Stanislaviv), people visit bomb shelters daily. They have to listen to air raid sirens; they need to learn urban warfare tactics and first aid. In West Galicia, not only the Przemyśl train station, but also those in Kraków are bursting with people, mostly women and children, driven away from their homes by the war. These peoples’ stories are similar yet also different. Each of them is a family tragedy, but also a tragedy for Ukraine, the nation whose anthem proudly contains the sentence: »Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her will.« Consider the example of a woman and her daughter who I met on a crowded train from Przemyśl to Kraków. »We have been travelling for almost three days from our town of Smila in the Cherkasy Region to Lviv,« said a middle-aged woman travelling  towards Łódź with her eight year old daughter. Their train was shot upon multiple times, they stood still on an empty field for a long time and waited. If we were to say that they made the whole journey while standing, it wouldn’t be enough to describe their experience. She added that the next part of the journey – from Lviv to Przemyśl – took nearly 16 hours (80 kilometres), mostly due to the time spent waiting on the border and at the checkpoints, which was very time-consuming.

The mother and daughter are only carrying scarce hand luggage, the girl is hugging a stuffed toy and holding her favourite Harry Potter book in her hands.

A border crossing between Poland and Ukraine. Photograph: Katerina Likhohliad

Betrayal of the motherland at the theatre

The little human tragedy of the family from Smila is also a tragedy of Europe – not only our »small« Europe – Middle or East Europe, but of the whole of Europe, even though the »better« part of Europe still prefer to think of this as an »Eastern« problem. The East, that means us, the countries in the perpetual shadow of Russia, characterised by a morbid (according to the »West«) relationship with history and a lacklustre (as has been revealed in the preceding years) democracy. What can be offered, from this standpoint, by Poland and Lithuania, which is also overly sensitive regarding its history? Certainly not as much as by Russia, as many in the West think. Russia is, after all a »great culture« – literature, ballet, the Bolshoi Theatre, humanism etc. When we think about the theatre, the first thing that comes to our mind is »culture«.

When I think about the theatre, I am reading the recent news about the fact that on 25th February the directors of all Russian theatres received an official e-mail from the Ministry of Culture, prohibiting all directors and actors from discussing the circumstances in Ukraine. Should the prohibition be violated, it will be treated as a »treason against the motherland«. This is the great Russian culture in practice. When I think about humanism, I remember the 27th February, when children, among them a six year old boy and a seven year old girl died in a Kyiv hospital barraged by russian rockets. I think about what happened in a township at the edge of Kyiv, where Russian Special Forces are lurking – whwre Polina, a 14-year old girl, a fourth grade student from one of Kyiv’s elementary schools, which are now used as bomb shelters, was murdered.

Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski

I think about the lie upon which Putin's Russian regime is based. The lie that has nothing in common with humanism, with culture or anything that is real. It is a special example of the course of affairs when a fantasy based upon a lie becomes the truth –  considering the acts of the people who have believed their own lies. The lie, according to which no Ukraine »exists«, as well as no Ukrainian culture or language. After all, according to this regime of lies, all of that was »invented by Viennese conspirators« more than 100 years ago, »in order to harm the eternal interest of Russia«. Because Russians stay true to their lies, they do not even ask themselves whether they are now – according to this contorted »logic« – fighting (non-existent) Ukrainians, or themselves – after all, according to Putin’s words, they are all »the same people«. What is, then, happening in Ukraine? A Russian civil war? Or a »Special military operation in aid of the Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk«? Does this sound like schizophrenia? Not at all. Welcome to the world of phantasies, illusions and lies, created by the contemporary country of lies – Russia, which has, de facto, become a lie-country, a fake country itself. In that world, according to Putin’s words, Ukraine has been created by Lenin after World War I (that is, after the Austrians had already created it, do not wonder). And Putin has created two mendacious, »fake« Republics of the Donbass, populated by »non-existent« nations, whose rights should be »defended«, because they are threatened with a »genocide«, perpetrated upon these non-existent »nations« living in made-up »Republics« by the »Nazi regime« of Ukraine (which, according to aforementioned Putin’s logic does not exist).

The lie is the truth and the truth is the lie. And, in order to prove it to himself and to the Russian nation (the nation which is supposed to be a »identical and same« nation together with the Ukrainians, meaning that it doesn’t exist –  have you lost track yet?), that Putin orders his troops to shell apartment blocks in Kyiv and Zhytomyr, to attack Kharkiv (where the majority of people speak Russian, i.e., they are Russian according to another Putin’s doctrine) day and night, to relentlessly try to capture Mariupol at the Azov sea, to endanger with rocket fire the cities throughout the country, from the Dnepr to the Carpathian Mountains, to take the trains that are evacuating people from the war zones to the relatively »safe« west of Ukraine – to Galicia, Volhynia, the Transcarpathia, Bukovina – under artillery fire. To kill children and the elderly. To spread the enormous human misery, which engenders no other response but anger, hatred and resolution against the aggressor, which are growing with each passing day. All that in the name of a fantasy. To prove to himself and to the whole world that the fantasy is not, in truth, a fantasy.

Loaves of bread and Molotov cocktails

The Finnish city of Tampere. Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski

When the war began, I was in Tampere in Finland. During the night, the temperature fell to minus twenty degrees; in the sulphurous frost of the dim northern dawn, white Finnish flags with the blue nordic cross were fluttering across the street from my hotel. It was snowing and snowdrifts were covering the peaceful streets of the city, which was slowly awakening from its sleep. That is when they have bombed Kyiv.

When the Soviets bombed Helsinki in the winter 1939-1940, the USSR presented the world with a strange cocktail of lies, audaciousness, show of force and war. All that was done in order to show to the whole world that the fantasy in which name a war is started and a country attacks an independent neighbouring country, is not a fantasy.

Do you know the origin of the word »Molotov cocktail«? It is a Finnish invention from the Winter War (»talvisota« in Finnish); it got its name »in honour of« the Soviet People’s Commissary for External Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov (the then equivalent of  Sergei Lavrov).

The 30th November 1939. The Soviet Union had attacked Finland and set territorial demands to the neighbouring country – according to the Soviets, the nation’s border had been set »too close to Leningrad«, thus »endangering« the national security of the Soviet Union; the Finns had to acquiesce to move the border somewhat to the west, relinquish the Karelian isthmus to the Soviets in accordance to an agreement and allow the establishment of Soviet bases on the islands of Finland Bay (a well.known scenario, is it not?).

Because the Finnish people did not acquiesce, the Soviets, not wasting any time, accused their »bourgeois regime« of aggression against the Soviet Union and established a »precedent« – they opened fire on their own border post and accused the »aggressive« Finns for it. After that, they immediately carried out a land invasion and bombarded Helsinki from the air. Due to these actions, the League of Nations (the forebearer of the UN) excluded the Soviet Union from the aforementioned organization and established a trade embargo. In a speech at the seat of the League of Nations in Geneva, Molotov dismissed all accusations of Soviet aggression and, answering the question about the soviet bombardment of Helsinki, stated that the Soviet airmen not only have not shelled the Finnish capital, but that they have, in fact, »conveyed brotherly aid« by simply »dropping loaves of bread to the hungry Finnish proletarians oppressed by the bourgeois Finnish regime«.

The Finns, having rapidly organised a territorial defence in the east and lacking means of military defence during the early stages of the conflict, have started producing homemade military devices – a combustible liquid in glass vessels – and using them, among other things, against the Soviet tanks instead of hand grenades, saying that this was but a way of saying thank you to the Molotov’s »loaves of bread« and that the Finns wanted to serve the Russians a »cocktail«. This is the origin of the phrase »Molotov cocktail«.

The Winter War ended on 13th March 1940. Finland had defended itself, but has lost a part of its territory, including East Karelia and its fourth largest city, Viipuri (Vyborg), which are still occupied by Russia. More than 400 thousand inhabitants of East Karelia were forced to flee or evacuate. In the war, more than 25 thousand Finnish servicemen lost their lives, while the losses on the Soviet side were between 120 and 170 thousand – the exact number is altogether unknown. Most of them simply froze to death, because the Soviet leadership didn’t provide them with adequate winter clothing, gear, transport and otherwise adequate fighting conditions, even though the war was taking place in the middle of the Finnish winter, with temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees centigrade. The fantasy attacked the reality, which was, in this case, characterised by severe winter and negligence in the supply of human resources and provisions.

When I was travelling, in a hurry,  between Tampere and Przemyśl – by plane to Riga and then to Vilnius, by bus to Warsaw, by train to Kraków, and finally to Przemyśl – I kept meeting Ukrainians, male, returning home. To fight. Not for a fantasy. Only for the reality, which is created by freedom, not by lie. 

The road From Przemyśl to Lviv ...

Now, I have been in Przemyśl for some days. This is the town about which I have been, up to this point, thinking (and writing) mainly in a historical context, but today, sadly, it is again experiencing historical moments.

The war has been going on for almost a week. I arrive at the main train station, I visit the many border crossings, I conduct dozens of interviews, I introduce people who I barely know to the people I haven’t known before at all. I help as much as I can. À la guerre comme à la guerre. Everybody must be at their station and do what they consider right and what they can do best, hoping it might bring some benefit.

Each day, I think about the nearby border which is now separating the world of war, unfolding itself above an illusion, from the world where immense human hardships are taking place. I am thinking about Lviv, 80 kilometres away, about the fighting in Kyiv and about all Ukrainian towns that have been defended by ordinary lads like Vasyl, who has travelled with me from Vilnius to Warsaw, left everything behind, including his job in Norway, travelled home by train, plane ain autobus, every now and then calling his friends, who were to pick him up at the Polish border near Lublin.

The timetable. Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski

At the train station, I observe the multitude of people waiting for the Lviv train, which is to arrive (or not) at an unknown time. Yuliya, a thin blonde woman in her thirties, is returning from Spain and has been on the road for three days. Why is she coming back? When she hears this question, her eyes widen. There is my family, my country, there is where I need to be. If it has to be so, I will apply at the Territorial defence or at the Medical aid. Her words, as the words of so many others, confirm the proposition that in a conflict between the reality and the ideas, the reality must ineluctably win.

From the train station I take a walk along the Franciszkańska street towards the Old Town Square, at the corner of which a statue of the Good Soldier Švejk stands, who, on the pages of the novel by Hašek, appeared in this town and even spent his time in the K.u.K. military prison. I cross the bridge over the river San and head towards the quarter on the other bank, known as Zasanie. 

In my head, the words of a Rusyn song, once mentioned to me by Nikola Šanta, a Rusyn author from Vojvodina, are sounding:  »Dze že tota prosta draška, z Peremišlja ta do Lvova ...«

Where is that straight road from Przemyśl to Lviv ... One of the longest streets in the town, leading towards the Medyka border crossing, bears the name »Lwowska« – which means »of Lviv«.   

Water and food for the refugees. Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski

At the river San

From the opposite side of the river San, which flows through the centre of the town, I observe the panorama of the Old Town – the castle hill, the spires of the Roman Catholic and the Greek Catholic cathedrals, the church of St. Mary Magdalene, the façades of old Austrian buildings next to the river. I think about the difficult history of the Polish-Ukrainian relations in this town, in the past as well as in the present. I remember that Przemyśl was, in the autumn of 1939, when the USSR invaded Poland two weeks after the German invasion, the only town divided by the border between (at that time still friendly and allied) nations. Nazi Germany, with the aid and cooperation of the USSR, launched a world war in the name of a great idea, which was, as all great ideas, soon revealed as an ilusion. In the name of that illusion, millions of people died.

The town Przemyśl on the San river. Photograph: Nikodem Szczygłowski

The border between the Soviet and German part of the town thus partitioned ran along the river San. From the direction of Zasania, the bank that once belonged to the Reich, I look at the secessionist buildings on the »Soviet« side, in the town centre. I am thinking about how illusory and short-lived this border, which has come into being as a consequence of the »eternal« friendshi between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, based on the famous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, proved to be. Yes, this is the same comrade who is already known to the attentive reader from the story about the »loaves of bread« and the »cocktails«, which, on this very day, the inhabitants of the Ukrainian cities are learning to mix, just as the Finns did in the winter of the year 1940.

Because every fantasy war, being founded on lies, ends, when confronted by reality, in the same way. Sooner rather than later.

Przemyśl, 2nd March 2022


Nikodem Szczygłowski

Nikodem Szczygłowski (1978) is a graduate of Mediterranean Archeology at the University of Łód and an MBA from the Central European Institute of Management (CEMI) in Prague. He is a traveler, publicist, journalist, writer, essayist and translator. He writes and publishes in Polish and Lithuanian, and also translates from Slovene and Ukrainian. The main point of reference of his essays is the Central European cultural space between the Baltic Sea, the Carpathians and the Adriatic Sea. He collaborates with editorial boards in Poland and Lithuania. He has translated works by some Slovenian authors. He is the winner of the award for journalistic achievements of the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania (2020). He currently lives in Vilnius.