Peter Weir’s film, “The Way Back,” inspired by Slawomir Rawicz’s book The Long Walk, tells the story of a group of prisoners’ 1941 escape from a Russian gulag camp in Siberia and their subsequent trek across the Asian continent to freedom in India. A careful study by people involved in the film project provides evidence that Rawicz could not have participated in all of the stages of the flight described in his book. At the time when Rawicz claimed to have been wandering across Asia’s wilderness, he was actually stationed with the Polish Army in the Middle East. He left Russia the same way as thousands of other Poles following an August 12, 1941 Soviet declared amnesty. Since these facts emerged several years after his death, Rawicz had no opportunity to respond to the allegations. Archival studies have produced surprising results indicating that Rawicz actually incorporated stories of other escapees who found themselves in similar circumstances but in places other than those described by the author. During the film production, another Siberian exile living in the UK, Witold Glinski, presented his theory that it was actually he who had participated in the march and that Rawicz somehow had got hold of his story that had been filed with the Polish government during the war. Establishing the truth seventy years after the alleged events is a difficult process and leaves many questions unanswered.
The Long Walk According To Rawicz
If Rawicz didn’t walk across Asia, he still could have blended his own personal experiences in the first few chapters. The descriptions of life in the gulag and of brutal interrogation in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison were his own. Inaccuracies appear later on in the book, such as in the descriptions of landscapes, climate, and the customs of the inhabitants of Mongolia and Tibet.
After being sentenced for espionage, Rawicz was transported to Siberia. Along with dozens of other inmates, he was forced to walk 800 kilometers through the snow east from Irkutsk in weather of -65 degrees Celsius. The reality of life in the camp made him aware that his sentence of 25 years of compulsory labor would mean certain death. The thought of escape was born on the first day.
After the 1941 amnesty, his return route to freedom took him across the same area, which he earlier had passed as a prisoner. Besides the walk to the rail station 800 kilometers away, he had to travel another 2,000 kilometers from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk and additional 1,500 kilometers to the gathering point for all released Poles. His own journey, though significant, was still 2,000 kilometers less than what was depicted in The Long Walk.
After the war, Rawicz settled in the UK, in close proximity to Nottingham, and married a librarian, Marjorie Gregory. Learning English wasn’t the easiest task. He spoke with a heavy accent and had a limited vocabulary.
The meeting between Rawicz and a journalist, Ronald Charles Downing, who later wrote down the story, occurred in 1954. Downing worked for The Daily Mail, a newspaper looking for sensational stories. After the conquest of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary in 1953, the popular press was preoccupied with pursuing the trail of the yeti allegedly photographed in the Himalayas two years earlier. The newspaper sponsored an expedition to search for more evidence. Journalists searched for witnesses in the UK who might have some knowledge of yetis. In January, 1954 the Daily Mail published an article describing his encounter with this strange Himalayan creature. After this publication, Downing decided to take his exploration farther. The presence of a Pole in the Himalayas was surely an intriguing subject. In the early stages of writing, Downing had difficulties recreating Rawicz’s past. A psychologist treating Rawicz for post-war trauma advised him to view their conversations as a form of therapy to reconcile with the past. Downing commuted from London and showed up once a month, on Sundays. Contrary to their earlier commitments, the hosts did not always welcome him at their home. Sometimes the journalist found the door closed tight, which he attributed to Rawicz’s depression. Once they did meet, the conversation went on for hours until the last evening train to London. Marjorie frequently took matters in her own hands injecting her own opinion when her husband ran out of words. Downing presented his edited notes from the previous meeting, sometimes used his own imagination without consulting the couple. For example, when The Long Walk’s statement about survival on the Gobi desert without water for two weeks met with suspicion, Rawicz blamed the journalist for inventing it. Nevertheless, he never demanded amendments to any inaccuracies in later editions of the book. Downing died at the young age of 50. No notes associated with his articles or conversations with Rawicz were left behind.
In the early years of WWII, the Polish Consulate in Bombay processed numerous Poles with astounding stories. Three men in their twenties, fugitives from German POW camps (sic!) showed up at the door in July 1940. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London asked how many like them were registered, and where they had come from. Consul Banasinski addressed a request for additional subsidies for soldiers and officers escaping from the Soviet camps who came in 1941 “ragged, poor, without any means of support.” To relieve the consulate’s financial burden from supporting them, the Consul created a local Draft Board to send the youths to the Polish military units in the Middle East as soon as possible (Hoover Institution Archives. Poland. Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych). In one of these groups was Bronislaw Boguszewicz.
Bronislaw Boguszewicz had been arrested by the NKVD in Vilnius in 1940. Sent to the Kozielsk camp, he escaped with a colleague, a Polish Jew named Jozef Bakermann, after being informed about the mass executions of Polish officers. (HIA. Poland. MSZ) They chose to head south east and reached the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. From there they went to Baku and crossed the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. They were captured at the border with Iran where they met in prison two other Poles Stolyhwo and Backer who travelled with a “beautiful Russian girl” Tatyana Tschynnova who was their liaison with the Russian population. Before releasing them and supplying with maps Iranians added another prisoner of Ukrainian-Polish origin Ivan Basylevski. All five, without the girl who was suspected of espionage, walked for thousand kilometers towards Khyber Pass and eventually reached Bombay (British Library Archives). The estimated distance of their escape was between 3.5 to 4 thousand kilometers. After recuperation in the hospital Boguszewicz was moved between a refugee and an internment camp in a proximity to the Himalayan Mountains. He met in India a fellow by the name of Zdenek Szaro. Boguszewicz’s wife, Regina, heard the name from her husband in the 1940’s, long before the publication of The Long Walk. According to what she remembered, Szaro had escaped from the camp across the Himalayas to India in the first months of 1942 along with a group of Poles. His name with a similar spelling – Zaro appears in The Long Walk. As mentioned in a personal conversation, Boguszewicz’s son Henry discovered Rawicz’s book in 1980, showed it to his father, who confirmed that he had met the same Siberian refugees in India. Since Boguszewicz senior spoke many languages,  British intelligence officers asked him to translate during meetings with the escapees.
Regina added one more fact from her husband’s biography. Before 1939, he had served as an officer in the motorized units of the Polish army and was an experienced radio operator. He had an education in engineering and probably worked in a telecommunication factory in Vilnius. His skills were used in the camp in Siberia where he repaired radio equipment. The camp commander’s wife identified him as a distant relative, and warned him of impending executions of Polish officers and helped him to escape. Both Rawicz and Glinski indicated in their stories that they received some assistance from a woman with a similar background. After the war Boguszewicz’s family travelled for months from India to England meeting along the way thousands of Polish refugees. Eventually they resettled to New Zealand where Regina died in January 2013.
The consulate in Bombay received another group consisting of four men in March, 1942 (HIA. Poland… Op.cit. ) One of them was Zdzislaw Piwowarski, who had been captured by the NKVD in 1939 while trying to cross the Polish border into Romania. From a camp in the Ural Mountains, he was sent to another in Kazakhstan where he worked in the construction of canals on Lake Aral. With a few colleagues, he escaped from there through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. After crossing the border with Afghanistan, a country particularly sensitive about Soviet espionage, they were imprisoned for four months. The Bombay Consulate reports indicate that once they were transferred to India, the escapees’ health required weeks of hospitalization. They had walked for 2.5-3 thousand kilometers through the desert and mountains. At the time Piwowarski was 21 years old. Via the Middle East, he was sent to England, where he served in the Polish Air Force and earned many awards. After the war he settled in Nottingham, and lived not far from Rawicz.
Piwowarski’s grandson Ron mentioned in our personal correspondence, that Zdzislaw tried to get his story published but was told it was too factual and needed more emotion. It was typed in many copies by his wife and most likely seen and talked about by many in the Polish community in the North of England. Ron found many parallels to grandfather’s story in The Long Walk. As he wrote: “After all, at least 3 to 4 people (ZS: with similar experience) made it to the UK. It would have been fairly easy for someone to gather the stories together, add in some extra adventures and then publish them.” In his typescript Piwowarski talks a lot about his time in Lwow’s military academy. His fitness gave him an edge, he was a keen sportsman, and a great fencer and skier. He details every location throughout the whole journey and describes his exhaustion by the time when he got to India.
Memoirs published over the last twenty years provide us with additional information about other escapees who reached the Indian Peninsula. One of them is Michal Krupa, a former Jesuit seminarian and cavalry regiment soldier was captured by the Soviets in late 1939. From that point on his story sounds like many others. Accused of spying and interrogated in the Lubyanka, he was deported to Pechora 400 kilometers from Vorkuta, a region known for its harsh weather conditions. After months of preparation, he managed to escape. From the Arctic ice region, he walked south 6,000 kilometers until he reached Afghanistan. The endless and merciless wilderness of nature was only part of the difficulty. Siberia, without counting gulag victims, had some of the worst statistics of murders in the world. Published for the first time in 1995 under the title Shallow Graves in Siberia, Krupa’s memoirs are a horrifying testimony of Stalinist era crimes. Author died in West Yorkshire in 2013.
Nineteenth century escapes
It may take another decade or two before we gain access to the records of the organizations responsible for running the Soviet camps and before we are able learn more about the real fate of some prisoners. The history of earlier Siberian exiles has been fully explored by historians studying the nineteenth century Tsarist secret police archives. They are a prelude to the real tragedy of victims who experienced communism.
Some stronger men in their twenties and thirties managed to get away and were able to cross long distances, survive cold, lack of food, shelter, and the hostile environment. It is difficult to determine what percentage of Tsarist era prisoners reached a safe destination and how many perished. In the western part of Russia, prisoners mixed with the crowds on country roads, and stayed close to villages where they could obtain food. In the eastern parts, China was the most obvious destination, though some headed towards Afghanistan and India, countries which offered contacts with European diplomatic services. Englishman Thomas Atkinson described in his book Oriental and Western Siberia, published in 1858, the case of three Polish officers, participants of the November, 1830 Uprising, who escaped from Nerchinsk, and then journeyed a few thousand kilometers across Siberia. When they reached the Okhotsk Sea they boarded a ship to America.
Escape from a country without a developed road network and without a telegraph network was much easier. Luck of roads, signage, maps led to many tragedies with prisoners who after sentencing convoyed by the guards got lost in the woods. No one knew how to deliver them to the place they got sentenced to. Walking routes from Warsaw to a particular destination in Siberia sometimes took from 1 to 1.5 years. Many died on the road.
One 1830 uprising insurgent, Rufin Piotrowski, was deported thousands of miles to Omsk, but escaped by pretending to be a bearded Russian peasant wearing a wig made out of goat hair. He left in February, 1846 when the temperature dropped to minus 50 degrees Celsius and headed north toward Arkhangelsk as “a pilgrim” visiting local churches. In the winter, he slept in snow dugouts; in the summer in the open fields. In his memoirs My Escape from Siberia published in 1863, he complained about banditry and murders committed on rural roads by homeless vagabonds. When he finally found freedom in the west, 6,000 kilometers from his starting point, many doubted his story. After collecting testimonies from witnesses, he wrote a book, which when translated to many languages received attention comparable to The Long Walk.
Among his travel companions, Rawicz mentions an American by the name of “Mr. Smith” who after the group’s arrival in Calcutta was supposed to look for help from his countrymen. In the book, he is described as mysterious man of few words, with some military experience, and speaking excellent Russian.
If he really existed, what was doing in the USSR, and why did he end up in the camp?
Author Linda Willis devoted 10 years of research to identify Smith, which she published in Looking for Mr. Smith. A Quest for the Truth Behind The Long Walk the Greatest Survival Story Ever Told. She claims to have found records confirming his existence even though he hid under many false identities.
According to Willis, Smith traveled to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression when Moscow recruited international specialists to assist in the implementation of industrial plans. In the 1930’s, thousands of mostly young communists and trade unionists showed up seeking employment. Many who decided to accept Soviet citizenship had their U.S. documents taken away. After disillusionment when the Soviet reality set in, they turned back to the American Embassy for help. The U.S. diplomatic service was glad to get rid of the communists and showed no interest in their fate. A lack of passports was an additional excuse. Hundreds if not thousands of were sentenced to the gulag.
On Willis’ account, Smith had good reason to speak the Russian language like a native. He was born in 1890 in the vicinity of Saratov on the Volga River. His real name was Abdul Chumjlakef which he changed later to Shumgalakov/Szumgalakoff. He departed Russia unexpectedly in 1913, perhaps as a deserter from the army or following some violent incident. He received U.S. citizenship in 1926 and changed his name to the easier to pronounce “Smith” and returned to Saratov working as a supplier of tools to Moscow factories. In 1938, after the NKVD suspended the activities of most American business organizations, Smith approached the U.S. Embassy for a new passport but never appeared to pick it up. Most likely he had been accused of spying, and vanished into the prison system. Documents describing his physical appearance mention a scar on his face and neck. Linda Willis who made this discovery asked Rawicz whether he had noticed anything special about Smith’s appearance. He pointed out the scar. Since none of this was mentioned in The Long Walk it was clear that he had met Smith in person. Keith Clarke who wrote the script of “The Way Back” asked Rawicz, two years before his death, about Smith’s age at the time of escape and received response: “Fifty one.” Linda Willis’ research reveals that this was Smith’s correct age at that time. (Looking for Mr. Smith, p. 258)
As an officer serving in British Intelligence in Calcutta during the Second World War, Ruppert Mayne left a testimony about a meeting with three men who claimed to have escaped from Siberia and who had reached India in 1942 by crossing the Himalayas. Mayne’s son provided details in conversation with BBC reporter Hugh Levinson about that. Responsible for security in a region full of axis agents, Mayne identified himself in the last chapter of The Long Walk as being the British interrogator. They were in a pitiable state, utterly exhausted, and close to death. He didn’t remember their names since they sounded very foreign.
How does one explain sudden appearance of Glinski claiming that Rawicz stole his story? In what circumstances could this have happened? Before his death in April 2013 he was willing to provide amplification on every missing detail and answer every question.
Friends of Rawicz who were close to him during the war were surprised when the book was published in 1956. None of them knew about his journey to India. Glinski also remained silent. Until recently, no family member was aware of his past. Glinski and Rawicz never met or never heard of each other but they both claimed to know the same people. Could that be the key to the mystery?
Years after the book’s publication, the Rawicz couple stated in a rather enigmatic way that they were unable to fully convey the whole truth about the escape. Rawicz claimed that he brought it to light out of a moral commitment, not material gain. Was he trying to say that he did it on behalf of others still hiding their identities?
Long Road to Freedom
In August 1941,under foreign pressure, Stalin agreed to declare amnesty for the Polish prisoners in the gulag. Hundreds of thousands of people began to move southward in the fall and winter of 1941-1942, many from very remote areas like Magadan located 6,000 kilometers from Moscow. They traveled on foot, rafts, boats, ships, and freight or passenger trains. They crossed mountain ranges, rivers, and forests in severe winter climate. It took between weeks to months to travel in the transportation chaos caused by the war. Women, men and children roamed about the country, homeless, exhausted, completely destitute, and starved. Mortality was very high. Their journey was the period of the greatest torment. To add to the hardship, one must include the worries about the fate of their families.
Some had left without authorization, by escaping and boarding trains as stowaways, avoiding military police, and doing anything in order to get food and survive. Those who left were only a fraction of the total number of survivors who were liberated after the amnesty.
Poles were the first ones ever to bring eye-witness reports about the Siberian concentration camps to the world. An analysis of their testimonies filed with a special Document Unit of the General Anders’ Polish Corps in the Middle East has allowed a clear picture about the scale of atrocities to emerge (HIA, Anders Collection). They were asked to write down their experiences and fill out questionnaires, and reports on conditions of their confinement. Facts collected by Poles at that time (1942-1945) were very inconvenient to the British and American governments who were eager to suppress evidence to justify their alliance with Stalin. Disclosing them even ten years after the war was too embarrassing. It didn’t fit the war time propaganda scheme.
My own extensive research at the Hoover Institution Archives into these records supports the conclusion that the reality of the gulag was much worse than has often been depicted in other historical sources and literature. The environment created by the soviet oppressors imposed the most terrible and arbitrary rules upon the prisoners in the gulag system.
According to psychologists who dealt with World War Two veterans, as many as one third of them had amnesia of the war events, a condition which is often overlooked in civilian life. Half of them tried to suppress traumatic memories or had large gaps in their memories of the past. Many avoided thoughts associated with their exposure to torture, assault and atrocities. Intense fear, helplessness, and horror compounded by life under the regular threat of death left them as damaged humans. Ronald C. Downing who wrote down Rawicz’s story couldn’t have comprehended that reality.
There are lost episodes in our collective memory caused by the fear of reprisals. “The Long Walk” was written at the peak of the cold war. Former prisoners left families behind the Iron Curtain to fates unknown and speaking in public surely would have put relatives in the East in jeopardy. A concern for their safety prevented those who had escaped to the West from sharing the complete picture. Frequently their experiences in the gulag were deliberately disguised. Many changed their own identities or the identities of people they talked about. That is another truth which has complicated the research over the years.
Rawicz’s road to freedom was long and impeded by many obstacles. He must have met thousands after his release, during the evacuation, in the Middle East, and in the resettlement centers in England. Faces, names, places merged into one shared story. He didn’t have to invent much, for his experiences were similar to that of many others. He spoke on behalf of a group, including those who perished. Many like him immigrated and lived in a tightly closed community in England. He undoubtedly had firsthand knowledge of the accounts of their life experiences and incorporated many of these different strands into his book.
The suffering inflicted on those who fell victim to the Stalinist ordeal was something that continues to elude the comprehension of both the contemporaries of that era and later generations. Our current level of understanding has been shaped by the secrecy of the Soviet state and the unavailability of archival materials deposited by the Soviet state security organizations, and which are still closed to general studies. Many questions will remain open until scholars get access to them.
The Long Walk is mostly the truth, but the truth of many people and different roads they have taken.
Peter Weir was aware of the difficulties in determining the true story and sequence of events. In preparation for the film, he studied dozens of books, and became familiar with hundreds of documents, which composed a picture of the Siberian gulag. He took upon himself the responsibility to tell a story about something much bigger than the fate of a group of escapees capable of deeds that contradicted logic. This film talks about the will to preserve the dignity of man and the desire to live in freedom. The director did not doubt that these are the most important human qualities.
Michal Krupa’s poem:
Freedom, wonderful freedom,
How precious you are,
Only those will know who have lost you,
Millions are dying for you all over the world,
Only the lucky ones have you and hold you,
Life without you is empty as a shell,
and is no better than enduring in hell.
Zbigniew Stanczyk is a researcher (20 years at the Stanford University´s Hoover Institute); public relations specialist; content developer and promoter; event organizer; journalist with the ability to synthesize information with world perspectives, cultural flexibility and language capabilities across geographic boundaries. And a contributing expert on diverse projects from contemporary politics, social issues, economics, and history to exhibits, film and radio.
*A second article with documents backing up Zbigniew Stanczyk´s article will be published on Thursday 6th of February 2014.