Czeslaw Milosz, in his 1953 groundbreaking book The Captive Mind, spelled out the many subtle and insidious mind-control methods he said Soviet communists used to attempt to dominate countries handed over to Josef Stalin after World War II.
In so doing, he helped ensure the ultimate liberation of his native Lithuania and his second home country, Poland. In Poland, his books provided almost a laundry list of pitfalls to avoid for Poles who had survived five years of Nazi terror only to be held captive i n a different but alien way by the “liberators” from Josef Stalin.
Milosz died Saturday at his home in Krakow at the age of 93. Since 1960, he had taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He retired in 1978 at the age of 67 but continued to teach. When he received the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, he cut short celebrations to teach his undergraduate course on Dostoevsky.
In some Eastern European countries controlled by the Soviets, the totalitarian techniques of control described by Milosz took root. That was not the case in Poland. Nikita Khrushchev despaired of making Poland an obedient communist province, saying it was as unlikely as saddling a cow.
Milosz came of age in a sophisticated, multi-cultural Vilnius, Lithuania, whi ch when he was born was part of Tsarist Russia along with Poland, Latvia and Estonia. By World War One, Lithuania was partly absorbed into a newly reconstituted free Poland. He studied law, continued his studies in Paris and before the Nazis invaded Polan d in 1939 he had published two volumes of avant-garde verse and translated French poetry into Polish. He wrote for the Polish underground publications for the five years the Nazis occupied Poland.
Afterward, he stayed put rather than emigrating and had a n inside look at state socialism. He gave it a try himself, as a self-described leftist with no strong political affinities but a dislike of “the right-wing groups whose platform consisted chiefly of anti-Semitism.” He said later that he had felt that “only men true to a socialist program would be capable of abolishing the injustices of the past and rebuilding the economy of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.”
From 1945 until 1951, he was a freelance writer in Poland, a cultural attaché at the Polish embassy first in Washington and later in Paris. And then he bolted, admitting defeat in his attempts to maintain some semblance of freedom of thought within state socialism. It was, he recalled in a 1981 post-Nobel Prize updated version of Captive Mind, “a revolt of the stomach.”
He set to work on exposes of Stalin’s totalitarianism. In the 1981 update of Captive Mind, after winning the Nobel Prize, Milosz reflected on how his concerns got short shrift from French intellectuals who “resented thei r country’s dependence upon American help and placed their hopes in a new world in the East, ruled by a leader of incomparable wisdom and virtue—Stalin.” He said he and Albert Camus, another critic of Stalin, were vilified and ostracized and his book when published “displeased practically everybody.”
Captive Mind and a thinly disguised novel about the co-option of intellectuals by the Soviet Communists, The Seizure of Power, became underground best sellers behind the Iron Curtain, however. They provided case studies of what was happening and gave sustenance to dissidents.
The Nobel judges honored Milosz as Polish dissidents were making a key move. In 1980, Gdansk shipyard electrician Lech Walesa was leading a Solidarity workers’ strike against the Comm unist rulers of Poland. After Walesa won concessions from the central government to establish a free union movement at the shipyard, half of the adult population rushed to join hastily organized Solidarity chapters at workforces across the country, including in universities and hospitals and government offices.
With Soviet troops gathering on the border, the Polish Communist prime minister declared martial law and outlawed Solidarity. By 1989, however, with the country in economic collapse, talks began between the Polish communists and Walesa, leading to the first partly free elections in mid-1989 which were overwhelmingly won by Solidarity and led to a peaceful turnover of power to the Solidarity activists. Walesa later won his own Nobel Prize and serv ed a controversial five-year stint as president.
A Gdansk monument to Solidarity today heralds three key figures in Poland’s revolution: Milosz, Walesa and Pope John Paul II. Milosz was a towering presence in Poland in its first decade of freedom. He nev er took any formal political role but while commuting there from Berkeley he regularly made time for formal and informal meetings with students and professors both in Krakow and in Warsaw.
He did write bluntly about Poland’s chaotic politics, however, i ncluding articles in U.S. political - literary outlets warning against too much religion in politics at the time when the religious right wing of the Catholic Church pushed for a dominant role in ruling Poland. He also remained outspoken about anti-Semiti sm, including in poetry readings and speeches at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
And he kept on writing poetry. His latest poems would be published in the national Catholic newspaper based in Krakow, Tygodnik Powszechny. For 20 years, until a ye ar ago, he and UC Berkeley professor Robert Hass would meet every Monday morning to translate the poems into English.
“He was one of the towering poets of the 20th century,” Hass said.
Peggy Simpson spent 10 years as a freelance reporter based in Polan d, covering democracy and economic transition.