Captive Minds

Nicolas Tikhomiroff/Magnum Photos
Paris stock exchange, 1959

Some years ago I visited Krasnogruda, the restored manor house of Czesław Miłosz, close by the Polish–Lithuanian frontier. I was the guest of Krzysztof Czyzewski, director of the Borderland Foundation, dedicated to acknowledging the conflicted memory of this region and reconciling the local populations. It was deep midwinter and there were snow-covered fields as far as the eye could see, with just the occasional clump of ice-bound trees and posts marking the national frontiers.

My host waxed lyrical over the cultural exchanges planned for Miłosz’s ancestral home. I was absorbed in my own thoughts: some seventy miles north, in Pilviškiai (Lithuania), the Avigail side of my father’s family had lived and died (some at the hands of the Nazis). Our cousin Meyer London had emigrated in 1891 to New York from a nearby village; there he was elected in 1914 as the second Socialist congressman before being ousted by an ignominious alliance of wealthy New York Jews disturbed by his socialism and American Zionists aghast at his well-publicized suspicion of their project.

For Miłosz, Krasnogruda—“red soil”—was his “native realm” (Rodzinna Europa in the original Polish, better translated as European Fatherland or European Family).1 But for me, staring over this stark white landscape, it stood for Jedwabne, Katyn, and Babi Yar—all within easy reach—not to mention dark memories closer to home. My host certainly knew all this: indeed, he was personally responsible for the controversial Polish publication of Jan Gross’s account of the massacre at Jedwabne.2 But the presence of Poland’s greatest twentieth-century poet transcended the tragedy that stalks the region.

Miłosz was born in 1911 in what was then Russian Lithuania. Indeed, like many great Polish literary figures, he was not strictly “Polish” by geographical measure. Adam Zagajewski, one of the country’s most important living poets, was born in Ukraine; Jerzy Giedroyc—a major figure in the twentieth-century literary exile—was born in Belarus, like Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth-century icon of the Polish literary revival. Lithuanian Vilna in particular was a cosmopolitan blend of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Russians, and Jews, among others (Isaiah Berlin, like the Harvard political philosopher Judith Shklar, was born in nearby Riga).

Raised in the interwar Polish republic, Miłosz survived the occupation and was already a poet of some standing when he was sent to Paris as the cultural attaché of the new People’s Republic. But in 1951 he defected to the West and two years later he published his most influential work, The Captive Mind.3 Never out of print, it is by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.

Miłosz studies four of his contemporaries and the self-delusions to which they fell prey on their journey from autonomy to obedience, emphasizing what he calls the intellectuals’…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.