[My apologies for earlier garbled email about this.]
"Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russia" by Aleksander Topolski (1923- ) has just been translated and published by REBIS Publishing House (Dom Wydawniczy REBIS) in Poznan, Poland. It is a hardcover edition with the title Biez Wodki: Moje wojenne prze¿ycia w Rosji. The title is the transcription into the Roman alphabet of the first words of the Russian saying: Without Vodka you'll never understand it.
This is an autobiographical account of the three years Topolski spent in the USSR, mostly in Soviet prisons and Gulag. In December 1939, at age 16, he was arrested while trying to cross the border from Soviet-occupied Poland into Romania. He planned to join the free Polish Army in France to fight the German invaders of his homeland. Although he suffered through dire times in Soviet prisons and northern Gulag camps, he never lost hope. After the amnesty and a roundabout Odyssey, he finally found a recruiting place for Anders Army in Uzbekistan. Readers of the English versions have described the book as a good read in an upbeat style despite vivid details about the tough everyday life under Stalin's regime.
Here is a review of the book from the website that labels itself as the "pierszy polski portal historyczny."
The review, written by Michal Przeperski, begins–
Czy o okrucieñstwach ³agrów da siê opowiedzieæ z humorem i lekkoœci¹, a unikaj¹c trywializowania i bagatelizowania? Da siê. Najlepszym dowodem "Biez
wodki" Aleksandra Topolskiego.
Here is a Google translation of the Przeperski review as edited by JET:
Can the atrocities of the camps be told with humor and lightness without trivializing and belittling? They can. The best proof? "Biez Wodki" by Aleksander Topolski.
These are memories about the outbreak of war when the author was a sixteen-year-old with two more years to go before completing high school. At school he took basic military training, And so, in 1939, he was drafted into the army, becoming a spotter for air-defense. After the Polish defeat, he decided to flee to the west via Romania, and from there to France where he planned to join the new Polish army being formed. He writes that it was a decision by a young man thirsting for experience and adventure. As it turned out these were indeed e
experienced by him, but not in the way Topolski had imagined.Arrested while trying to cross the border, he was taken to prison in Czortków. This was the beginning of his exile. Topolski was taken on a tortuous route by the Soviets, from prison to prison and to staging points, until he came to Camp S³obodskoj beside the Vyatka River, north of Kirov. There, he managed to survive.
For thousands of Poles like him their salvation was the Sikorski-Maisky treaty. Under it, Polish prisoners in the USSR regained their freedom and so a chance to be part of the rebuilding of Polish forces and to escape to the Middle East. Topolski’s release started yet s22 another eventful journey-- this time not as a prisoner, but as a future soldier.
"Without Vodka you don’t understand."
Biez Wodki (Without Vodka) is an extremely good record of what happened to a young man who fell into the crushing gears of the Soviet machine. Topolski, like other authors, writes in the foreword that he was encouraged to transfer these experiences to paper. Unlike other writers, however, he shows that the memories of exile for him are very much alive -- he really wants to share them with the reader. With this desire, an author who, after all, is not a trained writer, was able to portray the changes that took place in him from the time of his arrest as a student until he marched off the deck in Pahlavi wearing the uniform of a Polish soldier.
Topolski pens his story in short, complete sentences, each of which carries distinct information. But his language is so colorful and alive, that this does not cause any problems in reading. Because of this style, his prose flows rapidly-- the reader absorbs each page. In the light of the often quoted Russian maxim, he manages to describe his own very interesting life there and the world around him.
Topolski describes his memories in the same way as the proverbial diary of a schoolgirl. Because of this, his writing gains in values such as honesty and openness. Whether a scene is about catching fleas, the struggle for food, torture during interrogation of prisoners,
or banter, the telling of his experience is always honest. He writes openly about how unbearable it was for him to be beaten with a pencil across his fingers during interrogations and how stupid he felt about this weakness under duress. Topolski does not hide his own insensitivity or that of his companions. Once, after their release, none of them gave even a small piece of bread despite pleas to help hungry Polish children at a nearby train station. He describes the tufta (fraud) that he and his companions in misery committed in order to meet the astronomical demands of Soviet administrators. His openness even goes as far as obscenity, e.g. in describing a kind of "orgy at a distance." It took place between juvenile male prisoners staring out from one train at the young females in a prison train stopped on the other side of the station platform. Description can dazzle, but it was part of his life.
Although at times almost hard to believe, his book raises the awareness of readers to things they could not even imagine on their own. Without such openness in his writing, it would have been impossible for Topolski to describe the everyday challenges he faced: hunger, fatigue, the cruelty of juvenile criminals and of the NKVD routines; and, on the other hand, the noble impulses that allowed political prisoners to preserve humanity, ingenuity and humor, despite the wickedness and folly around them. How else could he have described the absurd, the heavy-handed tyranny, and the ever-present stench found in the terrible machine of the NKVD and the Gulag.
Few books make us feel so vividly the cruelty of the Soviet apparatus of oppression which was simply grotesque. As another Russian saying puts it: "And the terrible and smieszno". To show the absurdity and the suffering of people who tried to survive it makes the image clearer and shows the reader totally new aspects, sometimes completely unknown, and sometimes expected.
Reading "Biez Wodki" I tried to compare its contents with those of authors read years ago.
"Innym swiatem" [Another World], the memoirs of Herling-Grudzinski, left me with a feeling of a certain grandeur, greatness, and nobility, which was formed by the character of the author and his struggle with the Soviet system of oppression. An impression like that is not something that you will get from Topolski. His memories are normal, mundane and, as someone once said, "the gray dirt of everyday life and the colorful hues of life." They are simply written without fanfare and thus how unusual.
It is worth noting that Topolski’s accounts do not break off upon leaving the Gulag camp. Seeking where to sign up again with the army at a Polish recruiting camp turned into a long Odyssey. He describes his travels in detail in the same way and as openly as the rest of the epic.
We must remember that this is not a book written for the Poles. Topolski currently lives in Canada and wrote his memoirs while bearing in mind that foreigners may not know certain things. Still, the Polish reader should not be especially bothered by such unnecessary explanations as who Pilsudski was, or what the Border Protection Corps did. These superfluous facts do not spoil the overall reading.
I'll be honest: reading it engulfed me. I read the book in one breath and I am glad that the author mentions at the end about his plans to write the next part of his adventures. Interesting events, interesting characters, interesting language -- what more could you want? "Biez Wodki" has all the features that a good adventure story should have. It is also an interesting historical source, though you must remember the fifty-year interval between events and the time they were written. It could undermine the credibility of certain details. Certainly, for anyone interested in captives or prisoners, this shows the reactions of the human psyche in extreme situations. The book can be recommended both to those who have already studied the topic, and to those who are only beginning to be interested.
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