Totalitarianism and its Fellow Travelers
Two remarkable books have appeared in the past few years that have shone a bright light on the US-Soviet relationship during Stalin’s genocidal reign. Stalin’s War by Sean McMeekin and The Forsaken, An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia by Timothy Tzouliadis, are based on recent research regarding the millions of deaths orchestrated by Stalin and his henchmen during his 25-year dictatorship. While the former focuses on the unprecedented level of military and agricultural aid provided to Stalin by the Roosevelt administration, the latter details the horrors experienced by American citizens who were abandoned to their fates by their own government.
As the Great Depression began, several thousand Americans decided to take up employment offers in the USSR and moved with their families to participate in Stalin’s industrialization drive. The bulk of these emigrés were either members of the American Communist Party or non-party supporters of the Soviet experiment. At first, the Americans were treated well and even started a baseball league in Moscow and other large cities, which sparked an interest in the sport on the part of the Russians. Many of the Americans were Jewish and generally felt welcomed by their new Soviet employers and fellow workers. More ideologically leftist American technicians and managers arrived after the U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union and the decision by large US companies, most notably Ford, to build factories to manufacture cars in Russia. By 1934, as the full rigor of Stalin’s police state took hold, many of the new arrivals began to disappear into the vast Soviet forced labor camp system overseen by Matvei Davidovich Berman known by the acronym “Gulag”. Entreaties on the part of relatives and friends of the disappeared fell on deaf ears at the US embassy, headed by the notorious grifter Joseph Davies. Davies, a friend of FDR’s, had managed to marry Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress. Trump eventually purchased Post’s Palm Beach estate, Mar a Lago. The Davies’ spent much of their time collecting Russian antiques and art seized from the aristocracy after the October Revolution, at bargain prices. They also hosted several extravagant parties attended by many in the Soviet elites, although the ambassador only secured one meeting with the elusive Stalin.
Many embassy staffers knew what was going on, but they realized it was best to keep quiet, especially as embassy staffers were occasionally detained by the NKVD for questioning.
In 1938, Yagoda was arrested and executed and was succeeded by the bloodthirsty dwarf Nikolai Yezhov, famous for being at Stalin’s side in the notorious photo that later was edited with his removal.
After 1938, the NKVD arrested millions of Soviet citizens and liquidated the majority of the Red Army command. During this paranoid period, hundreds of American expats disappeared into the Gulag, most notoriously Magadan, in the Soviet Far East.
After the Great Terror period of Yezhov, known as the Yezhovshina, Stalin calmed things down slightly and accused Yezhov of overzealous measures, leading to his arrest, torture and execution in the very same Lubyanka prison where so many thousands received a bullet in the occipital nerve under his orders. His successor, the Mingrelian Lavrenti Beria, would survive Stalin’s death in 1953, only to be executed by Marshal Zhukov on Khrushchev’s orders in December 1953.
While the disappearance of the American Communists and fellow-travelers was regrettable, in some respects they brought this on themselves as a result of their initial naive devotion to the Soviet ideology. What was truly tragic was what ensued during the war. Both McMeekin and Tzouliadis report that hapless US airmen who made emergency landings at Soviet bases after bombing missions over Japan were then arrested by their Soviet “ally” and sent to the Magadan mines as slave labor. This, while the US delivered billions of dollars of war materiel to the USSR, even to the point of forcing margarine on the American civilian population since Stalin demanded butter since, as he told Roosevelt, the Red Army would be repelled by margarine on their rye bread.
Not surprisingly, the Roosevelt administration was riddled with Communists and fellow travelers, including Harry Dexter White, Harry Hopkins and the repulsive State Department dupe, Sumner Welles. Welles visited the Magadan region during the war and reported on how well the “volunteers” were treated in the mining camps. It turns out that Welles was a closeted homosexual on whom the Soviets had kompromat.
The most appalling chapter occurred when the Red Army “liberated” German POW camps in the eastern part of Germany and seized American officers and sent them to the Gulag. The treachery of the US administration was stunning. The same treachery was later witnessed when Stalin demanded that US officers and pilots captured during the Korean War be sent to the USSR for slave labor. When Japanese and German POWs were repatriated in 1955, they reported that they encountered Yankees in the Gulag.
Before reading these two books, and before the invasion of Ukraine, I was mildly Russophilic, notwithstanding my long-term revulsion regarding the USSR. However, I, like many others, have come to believe that there’s some kind of inherent cruelty and attendant passivity when it comes to Russians. Even Khrushchev estimated that 18 million people died in the Soviet Union from the early 1920’s to the mid 1950’s, including 3-5 million Ukrainian kulaks and peasants in the early ‘30s during the Holodomor. Centuries of servitude to the Mongols, the Tatar Golden Horde, tsars and boyars, sociopathic Bolsheviks and the current oligarchy/kleptocracy of Putin have bred a singular sense of cruelty and attendant serf-like servility in the Russians. I’ll write about what the ultimate fate of this Eurasian megastate is likely to be in a future post.
Salazar: Portugal’s Paternalistic Helmsman
Before my four-week trip to Portugal in September/October of 2022, I hadn’t read much about Antonio Salazar, the autocrat who ruled Portugal for almost 40 years until poor health led to his retirement in 1968. Little has been written about this remarkable politician who arguably was the most important Portuguese leader since the Marquess de Pombal in the mid-18th century.
Tom Gallagher’s “Salazar, The Dictator Who Refused To Die”, is a dispassionate account of his tenure as Portugal’s “Chief Butler”. The author gained access to Salazar’s friends and associates as well as a trove of letters and memoranda that described a profoundly traditional, ascetic and intellectual man who guided his country through perilous times. Gallagher convincingly debunks the notion of Salazar as a “fascist” and positions him as an ultraconservative autocrat who restored the finances of Portugal and kept his impoverished country out of WW2.
For the century prior to the new military dictatorship’s appointment of Salazar as Finance Minister, Portugal had endured decades of overthrown kings and a liberal ascendancy steered by the elite of Lisbon and their overweening admiration of everything French, even though Napoleon had ravaged Portugal during the Peninsular War in the early 19th century. The liberal governments concentrated wealth in the hands of a connected few and spent little on education or social welfare, while the population’s literacy rate was barely 10 percent, prior to Salazar’s appointment as finance minister
Salazar was born into modest circumstances in a small village in northern Portugal, which even today is the most traditional part of the republic. His intellectual acumen was recognized early on and his parents were able to enroll him in a private school where his talents blossomed. He gained early admission to the ancient University of Coimbra, where he soon achieved status after graduation as head of its economics faculty. It was from this position that he was ultimately propelled to national leadership.
When he was named Finance Minister in 1926 by the new military junta, Salazar inherited a country in parlous condition. Paris and London were openly suggesting that Portugal’s African colonies might be seized given the country’s staggering foreign debt. Within a few years Salazar eliminated Portugal’s foreign debt and it was finally, after a century, in sound financial state, with an enviable gold reserve.
One thing that many Portuguese will say is that Salazar was, at least, not corrupt. He lived in a modest apartment during his long rule. When he died, his bank account would barely cover the purchase of an average Lisbon flat.
During his entire stewardship, Salazar never sought the title of Head of State, which was always the prerogative of the middling army or navy command. He preferred to rule as Prime Minister, a title he garnered as his indispensability to the regime expanded. As a sop to his right-wing supporters, he established the Novo Estado (New State) to offer a simulacrum of a fascist state. His agenda was unfailingly conservative, and the financial health of the state was his principal concern. He reasoned that a financially stable republic would ensure economic growth and stability. Curiously, the worldwide depression was not that serious in Portugal.
Perhaps his indispensable gift to Portugal was his deft success at keeping his country out of WW2, after a sobering experience allying with France during WW1.
Given Portugal’s long-standing alliance with Great Britain, it was under enormous pressure to enter the war on the Allied side. Salazar had provided aid to General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War, but never met him nor emulated his rigorous style of rule. He supported Franco since they shared a fear and loathing of Communism.
Both the Allied and Axis powers imported tungsten, a mineral essential in steel production, from Portugal’s northern mines. The Germans paid in gold, and there was a post-war pressure campaign by the Allies to force Portugal to turn over 44 tons of gold that were thought to have been seized by the Germans from occupied countries. The stubborn Salazar ended up ceding only 4 tons and the controversy disappeared.
Foreign governments found Salazar’s obstinacy frustrating. For example, Salazar allowed the US to establish a base in the Azores only after tough negotiations. He also resisted Churchill’s demands that he cease exporting goods to Germany. However, after the onset of the Cold War, Portugal was welcomed into NATO and the Azores became a major U.S. base.
By the 1960’s, the West began pressuring Salazar to let Angola and Mozambique go. He steadfastly refused to leave Africa, reasoning that since they were Portuguese citizens, there was no sense in “liberating” them.
After a stroke and a long recovery period, Salazar finally turned over the reins to his long-time protege, the humorless lawyer Marcelo Caetano, in September 1968. He hung on until early 1970, when he died. Caetano was eventually deposed in April 1974 by the Movement of the Armed Forces during the “Carnation Revolution”, so called because civilians in their joy placed red carnations in the barrels of the soldiers’ carbines.
In conversations with many, especially younger, Portuguese there is a broad feeling of disgust with the corrupt Socialist government. Some feel that a right-wing government could solve Portugal’s problems. Perhaps they unconsciously subscribe to Salazar’s notion that the Portuguese temperament is not suited to democracy.
Ukraine Redux: August 2019
As a preface, I’m writing this in January 2023 so I’ll update my 2019 notes accordingly.
I enjoyed my 2018 visit to Kyiv and L’viv so much that I booked a return visit for Independence Day 2019, arriving via LHR from SEA on 23 August. This time I decided to book an Airbnb right off Khreschatyk Street, a short distance from the famous Maidan Nezalezhnosti. I was right across from Kyiv’s version of Whole Foods, Le Silpo, in the Mandarin Palace Center. Like many European Airbnb apartments in Europe, the flat was inside an older building with a large staircase rather than an elevator.
It was fun being back in Kyiv for a longer stay. The city looked great, people seemed well and the streets were full of recent-model cars. Since I’d been there a year earlier, a new president, Volodymyr Zelenski, had been elected, defeating Petro Poroshenko in the latter’s reelection bid. The sumptuous military parade, a staple of previous Independence Day parades, had been scrapped in favor of a simpler ceremony at the Maidan. Since I was 10 hours behind, I ate some charcuterie from Le Silpo and retired early.
As noted, the 2019 Independence Day military celebration was a more modest affair. I walked down to the Maidan and grabbed a decent spot near the main post office. There were several renditions of the national anthem and a speech by the president.
After the ceremony I joined a free walking tour through the historic district with Kostya, a guide who would become an acquaintance. We walked through Podil, a hilly district with old churches and houses, including the residence of Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote the opaquely anti-Stalinist novel The Master and Margarita, during the Great Terror. The novel wasn’t published until after the fall of the USSR. It’s worth a read.
After the tour, Kostya and I walked back to the city center the long way and then I took him to lunch at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant. We discussed other interesting ideas and agreed to do a WW2 tour and also a drive out to a decommissioned Soviet ICBM site.
Later that day I visited the neoclassical National Museum of Ukrainian Art, near the Maidan. The collection of icons and portraits of historical Cossack hetmans was most interesting.
After visiting the museum I jumped on the metro to visit the Arsenal Station, at 105.5 meters the deepest in the world. The Kyiv metro was built in the Soviet era so it resembles the Moscow metro in its grandeur, far unlike anything in New York.
It’s wonderful to travel around a capital city on spotless trains that are punctual and utterly safe, not to mention cheap.
The following day I planned an architectural tour with Alex, who met me in the morning at my Airbnb. He had studied architecture and we spent about 3 hours touting the center. We viewed the Soviet era and 19th c. buildings in the central area before heading over to Podil, where he showed me an area of interest to the Slavic pagan revivalists with an image of Perun, their Odin. Recalling that Kyiv was founded by Vikings who established Kyivan Rus’ and ruled as descendants of Rurik, it’s not surprising that the local Slavs adopted some of their gods.
We then made our way to Khreshchatky Park, which sprawls over the wooded bluffs on the right bank of the Dnipro. Now that the war with Russia is about to mark its first year, one wonders what Kyivans think of the stainless steel arch and the “brotherhood” statue, both built during the Soviet era.
The government quarter was our next stop, with the neoclassical Verkhovna Rada, the unicameral parliament of Ukraine, as the centerpiece.
After visiting the government quarter we made our way to the broad Volodymrska, a major artery lined with stately neoclassical and Stalinist-era buildings and apartments. We came upon a display of Soviet era cars, which Alex was kind enough to photograph with me standing next to them.
Kyiv’s cathedrals and monasteries are superb. It’s a miracle that they weren’t destroyed by the Bolsheviks, as so many were in other parts of the USSR. St Volodymyr, a Rurik king, converted to Christianity in 989, establishing Kyiv as the center of the Eastern Church when Moscow was an unknown field under the Tatar yoke.
In particular, St Andrew’s Church stands out as an example of Russian imperial splendor. It was the private chapel of Peter the Great’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose a German minor princess to be her successor, Catherine the Great.
No tour of historic Kyiv would be complete without a visit to the bronze cat Patyusha statue near the Golden Gate.
I made Milk Bar, a little restaurant around the corner from my Airbnb, my breakfast spot. The staff wear pajamas and serve excellent food.
After breakfast I met Kostya and his friend, also Kostya, for the drive southwest to the former Soviet ICBM base in Pervomaysk. Kostya #2 drove a Jeep Cherokee with a propane engine. I found it odd that Ukrainians never seem to fill their tanks, evidence of their relative poverty. Finally, I paid to have it filled so we didn’t have to worry about running low.
In 1994, Ukraine agreed to disarm its nuclear forces, which at the time ranked third after Russia and the US, in return for a quadripartite guarantee that Russia would never violate its neighbor’s territorial integrity. Looking back, it’s certain that the Ukrainians bitterly regret this decision. The ICBM site at Pervomaysk was allowed to remain open as a tourist site after its disarmament. The ICBMs siloed there could’ve reached New York City in 25 minutes. The old site is now a graveyard of old Soviet missiles and tanks, but the elevator down to the launch center is the main attraction. It was eerie to sit at the console and push the launch button which during the Cold War would’ve resulted in the destruction of major US cities.
The tour was really well done. There was a hush as the visitors heard of the base’s tremendous nuclear power and Armageddon-like consequences of a launch. After the tour we battled epic Mad Max traffic back to the capital since everyone was returning from Black Sea holidays after the Independence Day holiday.
After we dropped Kostya off at his bus stop, Kostya #2 drove me back to my Airbnb. On the way he repeated a common Ukrainian narrative that the Russians weren’t Europeans like them, but a Tatar and Mongol hybrid population that represented an existential threat to Ukraine. Two and a half years later, that eastern horde invaded Ukraine. I wonder how many of the young soldiers I saw during the Independence Day ceremony are still alive after almost a year following the Russian invasion?
Kostya and I met at a pre-arranged spot the next day for our WW2 tour. I was again amazed by the stunning stations of the Kyiv metro.
Our first stop was Babyn Yar, which in September 1941 was a ravine in a rural suburb of Kyiv. The SS requested that Kyiv’s Jews assemble there over a period of a few days so that they could be transported to “safer” areas behind the front lines. The Jews were curiously compliant, since they too had suffered under Stalin’s capricious Great Terror owing to the large numbers of Jews who were Old Bolsheviks who were liquidated by the NKVD. Also, older Jews recalled the benign occupation of Kyiv by the Imperial German Army after Lenin ceded vast areas of Western Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. Since Stalin required that all Soviet citizens carry an internal passport with their nationalities clearly marked, the “evrai” (Jew) on the fifth line made the job of the SS even easier. It is estimated that 34,000 Jews were shot on 29-30 September of 1941 and their remains bulldozed over, similar to the NKVD practice after the mass murder of Polish officers at Katyń in April 1940.
The next stop was a visit to the impressive WW2 museum complex a short bus ride away. The 335’ Motherland Statue dominates the site high above the right bank of the Dnipro.
In the interim almost a thousand Grads and other Russian mobile rocket launchers have been destroyed by the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the ongoing Russian invasion.
Kostya and I have kept in contact on WhatsApp since my visit. He’s currently stationed near the Belarus border in the reserves and is still healthy and optimistic. I hope to see him again after the war’s end.
After breakfast at Milk Bar the next morning, I took a long walk around the center, including a visit to the updated GUM department store on Khreshchatyk. I revisited St Sophia cathedral and toured the Armed Forces Museum on what turned out to be National Memorial Day. As I made my way back to my Airbnb, I happened upon a somber remembrance ceremony for those who had died on the Eastern Front since the Russian occupation of parts of the Donbas is 2014. The Ukrainians referred to this as the Anti-Terrorist Operation. I can only imagine the breadth of the ceremony that will occur after the end of the war with Russia.
On my way back I thought to call my English friend Matt, who was last heard living with his Ukrainian girlfriend in L’viv. Shockingly, he was in Kyiv and we agreed to meet at the Maidan Monument on Independence Square. Although brief, it was great to see him again.
Afterwards, I checked out and grabbed a Bolt for the short ride to Zhuliany Airport, the former main airport, for my flight to Minsk.
Given the current Russian invasion of Ukraine and the remarkable resistance and ingenuity of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in forcing the Russians back, I’m so happy to have visited this remarkable country in 2018 and 2019. The people are fantastic and welcoming. It’s really one of my favorite European destinations.
Patagonia AZ in December
When my close friend CP suggested that I join him and his wife Marni on a gravel-biking expedition to SE Arizona, I eagerly agreed to join them. As an avid cyclist—road, gravel and mountain, I’m always looking for new venues and Patagonia was terra incognita for me and my friends.
We left Phoenix on a surprisingly chilly Monday and headed east on the 10 towards Tucson. We stopped at an REI in Chandler so that I could pick up a merino wool beanie and an under-helmet Smartwool cap for unexpectedly chilly weather.
After we passed Tucson, we exited the 10 at AZ 83 and started to climb into the Santa Rita Mountains. At Sonoita we stopped at Dos Cabezas Wine Works for a tasting and were pleasantly surprised by the high quality. The local vintners have successfully identified high desert-compatible varietals that produce lovely dry reds and whites and a dry sparkling rosé. Dos Cabezas is one of 22 wineries in the area. Most of the grapes are grown further east in Willcox, AZ. We particularly enjoyed the smoky 2017 El Norte and the 2018 Quintosol.
After the tasting we headed south on AZ 82 to the atmospheric town of Patagonia. Our Airbnb was spacious and generously appointed. Zander and Heidi Ault, the young owners of Patagonia Bikes and a few other businesses in town, are avid cooks and the cookware and gas range were great benefits. They own a lot with a main house and a casita, with ample outdoor entertaining space. Because of the heavy rain earlier and expected storms overnight, we had to put gravel biking on hold until Wednesday morning.
Once we checked in and unloaded our gear, including a huge cooler of food, we headed out for a soggy reconnaissance mission before charcuterie and a hearty beef stew, accompanied by the Dos Cabezas wines.
We devoured the charcuterie board and the beef stew and then enjoyed a pleasant post-prandial chat before retiring to our respective bedrooms. We left the gas stove on in the main room since it was expected to drop below 30 overnight. When I woke up around 3 am I snapped a picture of the snowy grounds before falling back to sleep. The snow was still there early the next morning.
The next morning, the Patagonia Bikes folks informed us that the rain had left the trails in a sorry state, so we opted for Plan B, a long hike on the Canelo Hills West Passage of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, from the Harshaw Road trailhead a few miles southeast of town. Marn had baked a fresh loaf of sourdough, so we added Boar’s Head pepper jack cheese and sliced peppered pepperoni and headed out after a generous caffeine program.
Although chilly, the sun was out and the trail wasn’t that soggy, except for a few low spots. Marn accompanied us for the first mile or so and then returned to start slow cooking a pork shoulder for carnitas. CP and I continued the ascent to the 5 mile point where we sat and enjoyed lunch before turning back. The views of the Santa Rita and Patagonia ranges were spectacular, with 9,456’ Mt Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mtns. to the north. The trail was superb and cut through several microclimates, including prairie grasslands.
We agreed that this trail ranked up in the highest tier. If so inclined, a hiker could traverse the entire 800+ mile trail from the Mexican border to Utah, which includes the rim-to-rim Grand Canyon section. We didn’t see a single soul on our ten-mile round trip.
Marn outdid herself with perfect broiler-charred carnitas with corn tortillas and a scratch pineapple salsa! We all retired before nine.
We got great news the next morning. Several of the trails had dried out sufficiently over the 36 hours, so after packing up we drove over to Patagonia Bikes to meet Zander and get measured for our gravel bikes. CP and Marn chose Pivot e-gravel bikes while I, the purist, chose a lighter weight bike from their “analog fleet”, as Zander memorably put it. Zander recommended the Temporal Viewpoint trail, which was easily accessible from town, and we set off.
It was chilly but brilliantly sunny with no wind. Really perfect biking weather. The first few miles out of town featured a steady ascent. I was wholly familiar with the Shimano DI-2 shifters, so I made good time on the climb. I enjoyed the bike so much that I decided to buy one in the spring. The downhills were still a bit slippery, but the tires found great purchase and only slight braking was required. When we got to the Temporal Gulch trailhead, Marn opted to enjoy the sunny weather while CP and I headed further up the trail. We crossed the swollen Sonoita Creek five times on our way up. I advised CP to peddle straight through by focusing on the other side rather than what lay below, which my mountain bike coach Simon Lawton had taught me a few years ago. It was great fun crossing the creek five more times on the return, this time with downhill speed. After rejoining Marn we had a major Class 4 ascent, which I loved. My e-bike companions passed me and waited at the crest. The long, curvy downhill was wonderful, followed by another climb and a three-mile descent back to town. We clocked 16 miles on Strava before returning the bikes and heading back to Scottsdale, with an anticipated stop at Rune Wines in Sonoita.
Rune Wines was another gustatory surprise, with their Syrah being the star. The hostess in the tasting room was engaging and told us that her son was a senior at Patagonia HS. She mentioned how fragile teenagers these days were, which was sobering to hear.
On the drive back we marveled at how magnificent Patagonia was and how undiscovered it still seemed. Before the trip, I’d never even heard of it. Selfishly, we’d like to keep it to ourselves. We decided to return for a longer stay in April for a few longer rides and hikes, perhaps including a hike to the summit of Mt Wrightson. Curated Carlos rating: a solid 10!
Gravel Biking on the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath (May 13-18, 2019)
I was researching off-road biking opportunities in Pennsylvania and decided to head north to Pittsburgh to ride the Great Allegheny Passage and the C&O Canal trail to Shepherdstown WV, a distance of 242 miles. I considered using a Pittsburgh-based bike tour operator to manage the trip, but realized I could save money and make the reservations myself. I bought an excellent Specialized bike bag to handle my clothing and toiletries and made reservations in towns along the way, figuring that I could easily handle 60-70 miles per day.
I arranged for my sister to fly to Pittsburgh so that she could take my car and meet me at the endpoint in Shepherdstown. She also was looking forward to spending some time with her best friend from Penn State, so the plan worked out for everyone.
The drive from Nashville wasn’t bad since I broke it up with a night in Covington, KY across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. I secured my S-Works Crux gravel bike to my sturdy Küat rack and never even detected a rattle.
Even thought I’d spent the first 22 years of my life in SE Pennsylvania, including 4 years at college in Lancaster, I’d never spent any time in Western PA, and was looking forward to seeing it by bike. Anyone arriving via the I-376 tunnel will agree that the downtown skyline girdled by three rivers is impressive. Pittsburgh is known for its overcast skies and this day was no exception. The area just beyond the downtown area looked a bit forlorn and I was disappointed that I didn’t get a chance to visit the Oakland and Shadyside neighborhoods near the University of Pittsburgh, although I grabbed a shot of the Cathedral of Learning from the freeway.
The drive to the airport was a breeze and after picking up my sister we headed to her friend Anita’s house in North Versailles. Anita recommended an Italian restaurant nearby which was good. I then headed to my hotel in Monroeville after dropping them off. The Monroeville Mall was the site of the classic horror movie Dawn of the Dead. The infrastructure in that area of the Pittsburgh metro area is pretty poor. As I made my way up and down over winding, hilly roads in the rain, it was hard to see the lanes since most of the reflective white and yellow lines had worn off.
The next morning was cold and overcast as I headed over to Anita’s to pick up my sister so that we could head over to the Boston GAP trailhead. The day started inauspiciously when Anita’s dog bit my right hand. Fortunately the dog had been recently vaccinated. Then I slipped on her wet front step with my cleats on. On our way to the trail access point on the Youghiogheny River we stopped at a CVS in McKeesport where the pharmacist graciously cleaned the surface wound and wrapped it. It really wasn’t that bad and I never gave it another thought. At the trail, I loaded up the bike and said goodbye and headed off.
For the first 20 miles I was totally alone. The trail was in superb condition as it made its way through the Laurel Highlands with the fast-moving Yough on my left. The only town I passed through was Connelsville, which has seen better days. I also saw several wild turkeys before arriving at my first overnight spot, Ohiopyle, a distance of 56.4 miles.
Ohiopyle is famous for its Class IV whitewater rafting. The rafting and the GAP riders sustain the small Appalachian village’s economy. I spoke with a few other riders at the one motel off the trail and ended up joining them for drinks and dinner next to one of the outfitters. It was pretty quiet since it wasn’t quite tourist season. After dinner, I had a conversation with the young receptionist who told me about the endemic drug and alcohol troubles in the area. She seemed very grateful for the riders and kayakers. I asked her about the nearby Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous residential project. One would’ve needed a car to get there, unfortunately.
The next morning was sunny and mild, finally! After a good breakfast I walked around Ohiopyle before checking out and heading out for Cumberland MD, the eastern end of the GAP. The ride was magnificent, with broad valleys and the mountains in the distance. Soon I was riding over a long bridge spanning a valley that must have been 50 meters high. Again, I encountered only a handful of riders. In the distance I could see Mount Davis, the highest point in the state at 3,200’ elevation. In Pennsylvania the Appalachians are pretty worn down as they cross the state from the southwest to the northeast.
After about 40 miles, I stopped in Meyersdale, PA for lunch. A few miles beyond Meyersdale I came to the Eastern Continental Divide, something I’d never heard of. To the west, all rivers empty into the Gulf of Mexico eventually; to the east, the Chesapeake Bay.
After passing through the divide the next landmark was the 3,291’ Big Savage tunnel, built in 1912 by the Western Maryland RR through Big Savage Mountain. A few miles later I arrived at the famous Mason-Dixon Line, named after the surveyors who established the colonial border between Pennsylvania and the colonies of Virginia and Maryland before the Revolution. It was later the demarcation line between the free and slave-owning states.
Now in Maryland, the next town was Frostburg, and then a wonderful 17 mile descent down the Alleghenies to Cumberland, MD, where I checked in at the wonderful Fairfield Inn right on the trail next to the Potomac River. They really cater to their cyclist guests and they had an outdoor space where I was able to hose down my bike before storing it. After a 73.8 mile day, I was ready for a shower and a nice dinner.
I ate at an outside table at The Manhattan Social, a nice local restaurant downtown. After dinner, I walked around the town, which was once a thriving railroad center and the embarkation point for settlers headed to Ohio and beyond. Sadly, the town once known as the Queen City has experienced a 50% population decline since 1940 and its per capita income is now ranked 305th out of 318 US metros. Despite its decline, the city has great bones and could enjoy a revival as those looking for a beautiful natural area discover a new place to settle.
Fortunately, May 16 was also sunny and mild, so after a leisurely breakfast I set off on my third day of riding, this time on the flat and occasionally muddy C&O canal trail, with the swollen Potomac on my right. The area had been hit with heavy rain earlier in the month so I knew that I’d be pretty muddy at the end of the day. The trail was bordered with purple and white phlox, among other flowers, and the well preserved locks were worth a brief stop. As in the past two days, I rarely saw any other riders, even though the weather was mild.
The highlight of the day was going through the famous Paw Paw Tunnel, one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century. The 3,118’ tunnel was completed in 1850 and saved the canal builders from the impossible task of following six miles of Potomac horseshoe bends. The canal runs through the tunnel and cyclists are forced to stay on the unlighted path that rises 3 meters above the water surface. I opted to walk my bike across with my bike light on. A woman traveling in the other direction didn’t have a bike light so I directed my beam towards her so she could safely proceed.
I stopped at the Devil’s Alley campsite a while later and had a conversation with a young couple from Ohio headed west. We agreed that the ride was magnificent despite the occasional mud.
As I neared my destination, Hancock MD, I was pleased to be able to jump off the towpath and ride the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail from Little Orleans directly to Hancock, which I reached in mid-afternoon. I’d booked a room at the 1820 Trail Inn, where I was the only guest. The octogenarian owner and his wife opened the house for me after I hosed down the bike and my legs in their parking area. The house was large and conveniently located uphill from the village center and the trail. Like Ohiopyle, the little town would be in trouble without the bikers and hikers on the C&O trail.
Given my taste for the macabre, I gently asked my hosts, who lived down the street, whether the house was haunted. They tactfully replied that some guests had shared their experiences. I was hoping to hear or see something that night. But first I walked down to the river for dinner since I’d only eaten a Clif Bar for lunch.
I ate at the Potomac River Grill and devoured an order of fresh Maryland crab cakes, hand cut fries and cole slaw. After settling my tab I explored the atmospheric town, which looked entrancing on the mild spring evening as the sun began to set. My first stop was St Thomas Episcopal Church, built in 1836, and its historic cemetery, where a Confederate Army physician was buried. A few hundred yards away was Saint Peter Catholic Church, built in 1834 to serve the needs of the Irish and German immigrants who built the C&O Canal. At the Catholic cemetery, I was joined by the parish Golden Retriever and a few minutes met its owner, the parish priest, who gave me a brief tour of the church.
Sadly, the night was peaceful with no ghostly manifestations. My hosts arrived around 8:00 to make me a big breakfast and then joined me at the dining room table. We had a delightful conversation about the town and their families before I headed out to the garage to retrieve my bike and head out for the final leg to Shepherdstown.
Before jumping on the trail, I stopped by a bike shop and had them check the sealant in my tires and was good to go. I followed the paved trail for a while before getting back on the towpath. At one point the trail was covered with a few inches of water, right next to a granite bluff. I navigated it successfully, but was glad when I was out of the Potomac’s flood stage. Since I wasn’t in a hurry, I stopped at a few locks on the way.
I found the Thomas Shepherd Inn easily and the owners graciously provided a hose to wash off my bike and shoes and let me store it overnight. My sister arrived a few minutes later from some meetings in Baltimore. We walked through the historic town and had dinner at a local farm-to-table restaurants and drinks at the now-closed Bistro 112.
The next morning I arose early and took a long walk around this beautifully preserved colonial town just across the Potomac from the Antietam National Battlefield, which I’d visited numerous times in the past.
I highly recommend a trip down the GAP and the C&O Canal, a ride that takes the rider through spectacularly wild and beautiful SW Pennsylvania and Western Maryland mountains and countryside and prominent historical sites often difficult to reach by car. I’d love to do it again with a small group, perhaps going all the way to Washington DC.
The Dog Ascendancy
My best friend predicts that after widespread disillusionment with living under a human gerontocracy, Americans will demand an entirely new leadership class, thus opening up a spot in the not too distant future for a canine president, perhaps to be named President Doggington Bark. The ideal candidate is likely to be either a Lab or a Golden Retriever.
Humans and dogs have been together for over 30,000 years, when humans began leaving scraps of foods for wolves and then began enlisting domesticated wolves as hunting companions.
Of course, the transition to anthropomorphic leadership is already underway, with the Chinese President’s ursine appearance.
Today, even senior US military officers and Department of Energy undersecretaries are embracing the ascendancy.
Last year, Americans spent almost $125 billion for pet food and care, most of that for dogs, an amount greater than the GDP of 135 countries. Even though I don’t own a dog, I am friends with at least ten.
Imagine President Bark at a G7 conference, or even addressing the UN General Assembly. Other than a few misanthropes, the new US President would be universally loved and admired. And the first canine President would be favorably contrasted with most of the human mediocrities currently occupying positions as heads of state or as parliamentary grifters.
So the next time you encounter an adorable puppy guided along by its iPhone-entranced human walker, understand that you could looking at your future President.
Bryn Athyn, PA and Urban Legends
Until I was 12, our family lived at the edge of Willow Grove, in Upper Moreland Township. We were a short walk from a forested area of the township along Edge Hill Road, abutting Huntington Valley and Lower Moreland Township. Not far from our house was a wooded area with a ravine that was known as Fox’s Den. We never saw any foxes there, but we had fun playing war there.
Even today, the area down around the intersection of Edge Hill and Huntington Roads is still fairly rural, especially south of the Abington Hospital’s June Fete fairgrounds. I have a vivid memory of driving down Huntington Rd. past several fieldstone houses with my father and grandfather. My father wanted to show us the 19th-century stone bridge that crossed the Pennypack Creek and then the now defunct Reading Railroad Fox Chase-Newtown line near the site of the deadliest train accident in the history of the Reading Railroad in 1921 that resulted in 26 deaths. I recall the three of us walking to the creek side and admiring the bridge, now sadly gone, and the deep woods beyond when a PA state trooper approached us and suggested that we might want to leave since there were some “bad people” in the area.
A few years later, my next-door neighbor Ricky McNamara and I were playing one evening when his older sister Linda’s boyfriend, Larry, suggested that we join them for a little ride. To my horror, Larry drove down to the same stone bridge and told us about the Hookman, an urban legend that is widely retold all around the country.
In Larry’s telling, the Hookman was the son of prominent Swedenborgians from Bryn Athyn, a somewhat insular community beyond the Pennypack Creek known for its stunning cathedral and the palatial residences of the Pitcairn family, the Swedenborgian Church’s benefactors. The Pitcairn fortune derived from their ownership of PPG Industries.
The son had been committed to the notorious Byberry State Mental Institution, a Dickensian complex that was the site of ghastly surgeries and misery. It was closed down in 1990 and razed later. During his stay there, he lost his right hand in an accident and was fitted with a stainless steel hook. According to Larry, he escaped and was living in the woods, perhaps receiving covert assistance from his family. While many readers are familiar with the legend, in this version high school students (I recall from Bishop McDevitt) used to drive over the stone bridge and the railroad tracks to a Lover’s Lane in the woods. The couple in the legend were making out in the car when the AM radio disc jockey interrupted the program to warn teenagers that an escaped Byberry patient had been spotted in the Pennypack Woods. The girl suggested that they leave the woods immediately, but her boyfriend protested that it was probably a hoax. A few minutes later they heard trampling noises near the car whereupon the teens finally pulled out of the woods and raced home. When the girl opened the door, she was horrified to find a hook caught in the door handle.
I’ve retained a morbid curiosity about this area, still secluded and rural despite its proximity to the Philadelphia city line. Now the area has been converted to a superb conservancy, with miles of trails and preserved farmland.
The village of Bryn Athyn is particularly intriguing. It is the Vatican of the Swedenborgians, followers of the Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg, whose gravesite I happened upon when visiting Stockholm’s Old Town in 2002. The denomination is officially the General Church of the New Jerusalem. As a child, I was fascinated to see the Gothic tower in the distance, looming above the woods.
The cathedral was built in the English Gothic style in the early 20th century, with Norman and Romanesque accents. Glencairn, the original Pitcairn mansion next door, is now the church’s Glencairn Museum. The village also is the site of a college and private day school associated with the church.
The Asplundhs are a well-known Swedenborgian family. They own a national landscaping and tree maintenance company. One of my high school classmates married into the family.
The exquisite residential neighborhoods of the village feature trophy assets. My sister stated that it’s difficult to buy a house in Bryn Athyn since many of the sales are private “pocket” listings.
During the same week in late 2018 I also did a 50-mile round trip on the Perkiomen Trail and connected to the northbound Schuylkill River Trail at Valley Forge. For years, I’ve enjoyed hiking along the trail to its starting point in Green Lane Park. Like the Pennypack Trail, it runs along a long-abandoned Reading Railroad line. At the halfway point, I saw a hulking abandoned factory looming above the trail on the Chester County side of the Schuylkill River, just above the old industrial town of Spring City. After researching the site, I discovered that it was the old power plant for the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, another notorious state institution originally called the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. As in the case with Byberry, media investigations of the horrors visited upon the largely teen and preteen inmates at Pennhurst led to its closing in 1987. Reportedly, some parents committed their unwanted children there. It’s said to be haunted and the abandoned institution has been used as a Halloween horror house in recent years. Seeing the abandoned power plant on an overcast November afternoon was spooky enough. The three images below are from photo archives.
When I was a kid, we used to visit my grandmother’s cottage in Deer Lake, PA. One day my cousins were visiting and one of them asked my father about the inscription on his lighter. He asked “what does zero defects mean”. My father replied that it referred to a high level of quality control in manufacturing. Years later I coined the phrase “zero defects program” to describe a rigorous physical fitness regime paired with clean food and no alcohol.
You will notice that we added the word “program” to the quality control description. My use of the word program has entertained and amused friends and acquaintances for years and their subsequent adoption of it has always pleased me. I must admit that the usage was borrowed from an executive of a wholesale distributor in Minneapolis with whom I worked in my mid-20’s. We were preparing for a company meeting and planned to address the lack of product knowledge among a group of newly-hired sales and customer service employees. The executive decided that we should focus on “program knowledge” to remedy that deficiency and to equip them with the knowledge they needed to drive revenues.
Since then, I’ve used the word program in a number of ways. For example, when considering refreshments we speak of a “Bordeaux program”, or an “Amaro program”. Adding program to a noun underscores its prominence and adds a humorous touch. There’s a high-end men’s store that we refer to as a “Haymakers program”. When exercising, we describe a “gravel biking program” or a “hiking program”. Why simply enjoy cheese and salami when you could be indulging in a “charcuterie program”? Program is truly a marvelous modifier and possessing “program knowledge” gives any enthusiast a certain edge.
An Easter Week 2019 Visit to Mexico City
One of my close friends suggested that I join him and his father on a visit to Mexico City to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. I found a large three-bedroom, three-bath Airbnb located in the desirable Art Deco Condesa neighborhood of CDMX (Ciudad de México). We planned to meet at the Mexico City airport since we were arriving from different cities.
I hadn’t considered a visit to CDMX before, but looked forward to visiting the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. As we descended into the megalopolis, I was stunned by the sheer size of this high-altitude city surrounded by smog-obscured volcanic peaks.
I arrived an hour before my friends, so I walked around the woefully undersized Benito Juárez International Airport a bit. The previous PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) government had started construction on a massive $13 billion airport only 3 miles from the existing one that would’ve accommodated 68 million passengers annually. However, the new populist government of Andrés Manuel Lopéz Labrador, known as AMLO, conducted a referendum that resulted in a majority vote against the new airport, even though construction had already begun. As of this writing, a second airport has opened at a former airbase, though it’s smaller than the existing one and serves cargo and low-cost carriers.
Once my friends arrived we walked outside to meet our Uber driver for the short and inexpensive ride to Condesa. My basic Spanish came in handy.
We checked into our Airbnb with its private elevator entrance. It appeared that all of the apartments were being rented by Americans.
My friend and I went to a grocery store to grab some supplies. We found that it was owned by Wal-Mart, which has a big presence in Mexico. While most of the groceries were mediocre, we were intrigued by the ingenious self-carbonating water bottles. There’s probably some EPA prohibition in the US on this excellent product. 90% of CDMX residents consume bottled water, the highest in the world, owing to widespread distrust of the municipal water supplies.
We made tequila cocktails in the apartment before walking over to El Tizoncito, a well-reviewed taco place nearby. On the way, we passed some exquisite Art Deco buildings constructed in the 1930’s and 1940’s when Condesa was an elegant inner suburb. Before that, it had been the Jewish quarter. Now the whole area is gentrified and upmarket.
The taco place was excellent. We sat at an outside bar watching the attendant expertly carve the pork and toss pineapple slices in the air that landed perfectly on the freshly made corn tortillas. I could’ve eaten ten. The beer was cold and refreshing. While seated, we struck up a conversation with a nice Mexican couple and their charming daughter. The parents were both petroleum engineers with Pemex, the state-owned oil company, and traveled often to the US with their daughter for dance competitions. They lived nearby in one of the upscale historic barrios.
I woke early the next morning, Easter Sunday, and brewed some coffee and stood on the balcony enjoying the morning quiet. At 7,349 feet above sea level, CDMX is higher than any mountain east of the Rockies. Because of this high altitude, CDMX has an unparalleled mild climate, with lows around 60F and highs in the low 80’s year round and negligible humidity. Aside from the smog, the climate is enviable.
After my friends awoke and had coffee, we headed out by Uber to visit the house where Lev Trotsky, Lenin’s right-hand man, lived in exile and where he was murdered by Ramón Mercator, an NKVD agent. My friend’s father is somewhat of an expert on Trotsky and gave us a primer on his life before we set out. Although he was widely thought to be Lenin’s successor, the wily Stalin outmaneuvered him and stripped him of his party membership and deported him soon after Lenin’s death.
The Trotsky house is perfectly preserved and still contains his library and household goods. He ended up in Mexico as a guest of the state, after living in Turkey and Norway. He was friends with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, two well-known Mexican artists, and received a steady flow of acolytes. When his savage criticism of Stalin became too much for the Soviet despot to ignore, Stalin’s secret police chief Beria began to plan his execution. Mercator insinuated himself into Trotsky’s inner circle and eventually had the opportunity to enter Trotsky’s study and murder him with an ice axe to the head. Trotsky died at 60 on August 21, 1940. His grave is located in the garden.
After visiting the Trotsky house, we walked around the neighborhood and were surprised by the relatively empty churches on Easter Sunday. It may surprise visitors who assume that Mexico is a pious Roman Catholic country to find that the 1917 constitution is profoundly anti-clerical. The Church was stripped of its properties, religious orders were banned, foreign-born priests were deported and priests and religious lost the right to vote, proselytize or wear clerical garb in public. Under President Calles, even more rigorous measures were employed, which resulted in the Cristero War between the state and devout Catholics, which finally ended in 1929 through the intermediation of the US. In 1991, most of the anti-clerical statutes were repealed, but the urban population is largely indifferent to the Church, as evidenced by the empty churches on Easter.
After returning to the Airbnb, my friend’s father decided to rest up while my friend and I embarked on a long walk through Chapultepec Park to the fancy Polanco district. We had to cross several immense boulevards, including El Paseo de la Reforma, to enter the massive urban park. On the way, we passed by a military base surrounded by concertina wire, although we felt perfectly safe. We had to watch out step, though, since the frequent seismic activity had lifted up sidewalks, which lay unrepaired.
The park itself was filled with multi-generational families enjoying the balmy afternoon. I was struck by how few smokers there were and the absence of either obese or exceptionally fit people. The population appears to be right in the middle of the fitness bell curve. I also noticed an appealing lack of litter. The citizens are proud of their well-used park and keep it clean.
As we left the park, we crossed into the Polanco district, which was full of high-rise condos and apartments and towering hotels and offices buildings. All the luxury brands were represented. We popped into a cafe that sold cold-pressed juices and enjoyed one. The fruits and vegetables in CDMX are superior. On the way back, we commented on the rigorous security measures in place.
The neighborhood was surprisingly quiet for Easter Sunday night, with numerous restaurant closures. We found an Argentinian steakhouse, La Vid Argentina. The owner, from Argentina, was our server and the meat and wine were very good.
After dinner, we walked my friend’s dad back to the Airbnb and then we took off to complete our planned 10-mile daily walk, with about a mile remaining. Several sights raised our awareness. The uneven sidewalks were, of course, a hazard; however, the silent police cars with flashing blue lights were a bit odd. We saw several very slowly moving around the neighborhood. As we walked down the broad Insurgentes around 10:00 pm we passed Tom’s Leather Bar and were amused by the furtively moving patrons as they headed to the main door. Apparently, it’s quite a tourist draw.
The next day we took an Uber downtown to El Centro Histórico to visit the Zócalo and the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts). Sadly, the museum was closed on Monday, but we were able to view the entrance hall. We then walked over to the Sanborns department store since my friend’s father wanted to buy a pair of walking shorts. The store was a bit antiquated and looked like it would’ve been at home in the Soviet Union.
From Sanborns we made our way through the throngs of people to the Zócolo, which is the massive governmental center of the country. We were eager to tour the immense Gothic Metropolitan Cathedral, which dates from 1573, when construction started. The solid gold throughout the many chapels adjoining the towering nave speaks to the immense wealth of Spanish Mexico and the Church. As the centerpiece of the Zócalo, it is complemented by the neo-Gothic and Art Deco government buildings across from and adjacent to it. The Mexican flag in the plaza is the largest I’ve ever seen. The annual Independence Day military parades are staged on the Zócalo.
For dinner that night we chose Ultramar, a 20-minute walk from our Airbnb. The food was superb and the wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in northern Baja were quite fine. We made early reservations since they were closing at 7:30 that night. We had the impression that early closures might be surprisingly common in CDMX, but a recent online search indicated that the restaurant is normally open until 1:30 am.
After dinner, we took a stroll through the Condesa neighborhood to enjoy the parks and architecture. On our walk, we dropped by a lovely bakery and bought some attractive pastries from the saleswoman, dressed in a crisp white smock-very traditional. When we got back, we were dismayed that the pastries were tasteless, with the consistency of sawdust. I refer to this as the Latin American “pastry deception” since I had an identical experience in Santiago de Chile many years earlier.
That evening we took our private elevator to the rooftop patio to watch a passing thunderstorm and enjoy the smog-free evening. We could see the towers of the Santa Fé financial district and the local neighborhood from our perch.
My friend’s father enjoyed CDMX so much that he decided to stay for a few days on his own, so his son made reservations nearby at another Airbnb. I flew back the next morning. I’m pleased that I joined this pleasant excursion to CDMX. It’s become such a popular destination for American expats that the local population is beginning to lightly resent them. Covid provided an opportunity for remote workers to decamp in a lower-cost city while still enjoying the amenities that such a megalopolis provides. This immense city is certainly worth a visit, especially since it’s a decidedly foreign capital within a few hours’ flight from most of the US.
My next set of posts will focus on my 2019 return trip to Ukraine, with the addition of Belarus and the Baltic states.
Warsaw: September 3-5
My Airbnb wasn’t quite ready, so I had coffee and a pastry at a little cafe around the corner. My flat was quite nice, within 5 minutes of the completely reconstructed Old Town, which was razed to the ground after the 1944 uprising by the Armia Krajowa AK, the Polish Home Army, which remained loyal to the London-based Polish government-in-exile and anti-communist. The AK was much larger and more effective than the French Resistance, but is not well known in the West. During the Warsaw Uprising beginning in August 1944, the AK recaptured much of Warsaw from the Wehrmacht in the hopes that the Soviet Army just across the Vistula would intervene to decisively defeat the Germans. Stalin cynically did nothing, and the Germans proceeded to crush the rebellion, reclaiming control in late September. Stalin sat by so that the Germans could defeat the AK, which Stalin saw as an armed impediment to his plan to install a post-war Soviet puppet state. The Germans eventually destroyed almost 85% of the city, including 100% of the historic center.
As in Gdánsk, the meticulous rebuilding of Warsaw was remarkable. Many of the pre-war buildings appeared as if they’d never been destroyed.
We viewed a number of the key sites on the Old Town walking tour, which began at the King Sigismund Column. There is little remaining of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was utterly destroyed by SS General Jürgen Stroop, who was executed by the Poles after the war. Only a few ruins of the wall remain. The nearby monumental memorial of The Warsaw Uprising commemorates the millions of Poles who perished between 1939 and 1945, estimated at six million, including three million Polish Jews. Several hundred thousand Poles were also deported by Stalin to Siberia and Kazakhstan during this period with few reported returnees. I recommend Bloodlands by Yale professor Timothy Snyder for a well-documented history of the millions who perished under both Hitler and Stalin.
After the tour, I had a nice lunch just outside the Old Town and made my way into central Warsaw. I wanted to see the British Prudential building that had been Warsaw’s tallest pre-war building.
Central Warsaw is filled with modern towers and government buildings, including some from the communist era. Like other Eastern European cities, the streets were litter-free and there were no signs of homeless people.
I took a long route back to Old Town where I had a light dinner before heading back to the apartment. I noticed that the weather is Warsaw was warmer than in Kraków or Gdánsk. It must be caused by its interior location.
The next morning I booked a private “Communism Tour” in a restored Soviet-made Lada. My guide not only showed me sites related to the communist era; he also showed me some areas that were untouched by the war. After we visited the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army, a military church with a wing dedicated to the Katyń Massacre, he told me the story of the murder of pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko. He was kidnapped in 1984 by a branch of the SB secret police known as the “Shadow People”. He was beaten to death and hurled into a reservoir. His murder galvanized the anti-communist opposition and played a role in the dictatorship’s ultimate collapse.
More on the Katyń Massacre mentioned above—on September 17, 1939 the Red Army invaded Poland as part of the deal with Hitler and took thousands of Polish Army soldiers as prisoners. Many of the enlisted men were eventually released, but the officers were taken to a prison camp outside of Smolensk, in the Katyń Forest. After six months, Stalin and his NKVD secret police commissar, Beria, ordered the 22,000 officers liquidated, fearing that they could form the nucleus of a bourgeois opposition after the war. They were executed in the NKVD manner, with a bullet in the occipital nerve and then dumped into massive trenches, where their remains were bulldozed over. In 1943, advancing German units overran Smolensk and discovered the mass graves. They invited Polish officials and the Red Cross to view the site, but the Soviets lied and claimed that the Polish officers had been murdered by the Germans. The Western Allies reluctantly accepted Stalin’s lies until the truth was admitted in 1991. The Poles always knew that the Russians were responsible and have never forgiven them. Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film Katyń is highly recommended viewing on regarding this atrocity.
One of the highlights of the tour was visiting the infamous 778’ tall Palace of Science and Culture, completed in 1955 in the Stalinist Social Realism style and proclaimed as a brotherly gift to their Polish comrades from the peace-loving peoples of the USSR! It was the backdrop for the stunning Polish Millennium military parade in 1966 that celebrated 1,000 years of Polish statehood and which was remarkably free of any communist regalia or symbolism. It’s worth a watch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c9IejeNxjU
The stately Lazienki Park features a number of neo-classical buildings, including an orangerie. The park was largely built during the reign of the last Polish king before the first partition of Poland in 1772, Stanisław August Poniatowski, who was also a lover of Catherine the Great of Russia. Lazienki Park was thankfully untouched by the war.
We ended the tour with a drive through the working-class Praga district on the right bank of the Vistula. Praga was the only section of Warsaw untouched by the war, besides Lazienki Park. Now it’s becoming a hipster area given its relatively low rents.
Since I had an early flight back to Seattle via Amsterdam the next morning, I stayed at the Marriott by the airport. I was happy to have an early dinner with an old friend from Orange County who, with his Polish wife and two daughters, had relocated to Warsaw. Even though he was born in Poland, he expressed frustration with the bureaucracy and suggested that they might return to the US.
And so ended my six-week journey through the Balkans, Ukraine and Poland, the longest foreign trip of my life. I’ll write up my 2019 trips to Mexico City and Eastern Europe next, with occasional forays into a series of essays which friends are urging me to post. I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog so far and I look forward to sharing more of my adventures and essays with you.