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The Polish Captivity

An Account of the Present Position of the Poles in the Kingdom of Poland, and in the Polish Provinces of Austria, Prussia, and Russia

Sutherland Edwards

Editor's Note: The title page of this book contains an 1848 quotation from the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria: “My grandmother and the King of Prussia, Frederick II, in partitioning Poland, committed a fault. . . . The ruling Powers will never be able to enjoy these strange acquisitions in peace. The existence of Poland is something natural and indispensable. It would be superfluous to discuss the means of re-establishing it, for when a thing is natural and indispensable it arrives of itself.”

This social history of Central Europe corrects many misjudgments and misinterpretations that became a standard part of nineteenth-century European history, not only concerning Poland but also Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Of particular interest here in Texas are Edwards’s comments on Lower Silesia shortly after the time when some Polish Silesians migrated to Texas and founded the town of Panna Maria: he confirms the misery and discrimination to which these Poles were subject in “progressive” Prussia in mid-nineteenth century (chapter 2). Nor is the book all praise: consider the scathing critique of the messiness of the bordertown inns as the author crossed from Prussian-occupied Poland to Russian-occupied Poland. Observant as he is, the author seems unaware that the proprietors of inns in Eastern Europe deliberately kept their establishments disorderly to avoid excessive taxes and envy of their Gentile neighbors. And it did not take much to evoke that envy: witness the descriptions of Polish peasants who, in Edwards’s words, seem to sink lower and lower as one proceeds eastward.

Portions of Edwards’s book, and of other rare books that deserve study-and reprinting-will appear in Sarmatian Review as space permits. The spelling of Polish words and punctuation throughout the text have not been updated: note the spelling of Miçkiewicz indicating the pronunciation of the Polish “c.”

The footnote is the author’s. Editorial additions are in square brackets. Before appearing in book form, portions of Sutherland Edwards’s text were published in The Times of London.


Chapter 1: Finis Poloniae

This book is not written in order to prove that what Joseph Lemaistre, probably the greatest Conservative and supporter of order, and, at the same time, one of the greatest admirers of Russia that ever existed, called “the execrable partitions of Poland” was indeed execrable; or, to come to what concerns England in a more direct manner, that Russia, Austria, and Prussia have all violated the treaties of 1815, first in the most perfidious, and latterly in the most open and cynical manner. Both these points must be touched upon, and especially the latter, even at the risk of telling the reader what he already knows. The author’s chief object, however, is to give a plain, matter-of-fact account, from his own personal observation, of Poland as it actually exists, and of the position of the Poles, considered both as subjects of the three partitioning Powers and as children of the country partitioned.

It is now ninety years since the first dismemberment of Poland [1772] was effected; and in spite of this and of half-a-dozen subsequent divisions and subdivisions of Polish territory among foreign invaders; in spite of massacres, confiscations, banishments, and tortures of all kinds inflicted on the Poles with the view of destroying their nationality, they are more united in feeling, and more thoroughly national at the present moment, than they were in 1772. Poland was believed to be dead, or, at least, reported dead, long since by its murderers, who even went so far as to put “Finis Poloniae” into the mouth of the wounded and fainting Kosciuszko. (1) But dead countries have no history; and we all know whether that of Poland finished with the third partition. It is not too much to say, that many persons who take the warmest interest in the fate of the Poles know them only by their history during the last three-quarters of a century; under Kosciuszko, fighting for their independence; under Kniazevicz, Dombrowski, and Poniatowski, fighting for Napoleon, with a view to their independence -in Italy, in St. Domingo, in Spain, in the Duchy of Warsaw, and throughout the campaign against Russia, the first at Borodino, the last at Leipzig; under the generals of 1830, fighting against the armies of Nicholas, the violator of their Constitution; then in Siberia, and scattered in exile all over Europe. For a time as if their country was in the grave, and themselves plunged, certainly, in mortal sadness; but with their national bards, Miçkiewicz, Bogdan Zaleski, and Krasinski, to give them such consolation as they could receive, and to encouragte them with such hopes as have, indeed, never entirely deserted them. Poland has had a literary, quite as much as a military history, since the dismemberments of the eighteenth century; and it could easily be shown that, counting from its supposed death, it has produced more great poets and warriors than Russia, Prussia, and Austria combined.

Is it not remarkable, too, how many of the modern Polish chiefs, worthy successors of Sobieski, have been men of cultivated intellect, and often of high literary talent-not Bluchers and Platows, but Caesars and Xenophons? Dombrowski (who owed his life at the battle of the Trebbia to a volume of Schiller’s History of the Thirty Years’ War which he carried in his breast) occupied himself in his retirement with writing the History of the Polish Legions. Morawski and Goreçki, the former a general the latter a colonel in the army of 1830-31, are reckoned among the best poets and fabulists of their time. What have Kosciuszko and Poniatowski, fighting apart, in common with the ordinary run of modern generals? In Poland, since the moral revival caused by the destruction of the country in a political sense, we find poets, historians, politicians, men of distinction of all kinds, serving in the army, not because they had been bred soldiers, but because they were born patriots.

In another sphere, modern Poland has produced a fair number of legists, economists, and other men of science and learning; indeed, an immense number, when we take into consideration the facts that the universities of Warsaw and Wilna were suppressed, and their libraries carried off to St. Petersburg, after the insurrection of 1830-31; that the university of Cracow, the most ancient in Poland, has long been converted into a German academy; and that no superior instruction of any kind, in the Polish language, has been open to the Poles of the present generation.

France owes her system of credit-institutions to a Pole, M. [L.F.M.R.] Wolowski, of the French Institute; and the best work on the resources of Russia is by a Pole, M. Tengoborski [author of Financial resources of Russia].For even when a Polish writer or professor is not driven into exile to avoid death, like [Joachim] Lelewel, the great Polish historian, he can find no use for his talent in his own country. There are no universities, and there is a most intolerant censorship. Indeed, in every part of Poland newspapers and reviews are sometimes either directly suppressed, or ruined and destroyed by repeated prosecutions, for no assignable reason than because they are published in the Polish language, and because they take notice, no matter in how guarded a manner, of Polish events.

It is sometimes said by thoughtless persons that the Polish leaders are fit only to head insurrections, and that they do not know how to act within the limits of legality. But look at the line of conduct pursued. And the real influence exercised by Dr. Smolka in Vienna, and by Messrs. Niegolewski and Bentkowski at Berlin, in the Austrian and Prussian assemblies. Think, above all, fo Count Zamoyski at Warsaw, and of what the short-lived Agricultural Society of the Kingdom of Poland was able, in the face of obstacles of all kinds, to effect-nothing less than the elaboration of a scheme for emancipating the peasant from task-labour which the Russian Government, now that it finds its own plan next to impracticable, would do well to adopt for the Empire generally.

No! there is life in Poland, and a life that grows fuller each day. Everything has been tried that could possibly extinguish it. Perhaps, at last, the most formidable of the partitioning Powers will admit its indestructibility, and find it good policy to reckon with it. At present, however, the Poles are persecuted and beaten down everywhere. Heaven knows whether they suffer most in Russian, Austrian, or Prussian Poland. I have seen them under torture in all three, and have heard their complaints. For the present, I will only say that in Warsaw the Russian tyranny passes for the worst, in Cracow and Leopol [Lwow/Lviv] the Austrian, and in Posen, the Prussian.

Author's Note

1.Several French newspapers have lately reproduced a letter addressed by Kosciuszko to the Count de Ségur (author of La Décade Historique, etc.) in which the following passages occur: “Ignorance, or bad faith, persists in putting into my mouth the words ‘Finis Poloniae,’ which I am said to have pronounced on that fatal day of Macieioviçe. In the first place, before the end of the battle, I was all but mortally wounded; and only recovered my senses two days afterwards, when I found myself in the hands of my enemies. Moreover, if such an expression would be foolish and criminal in the mouth of any Pole, it would be a great deal more so in mine. The Polish nation, in calling upon me to defend the country’s integrity, independence, dignity, glory, and liberty, knew very well that I was not the last Pole, and that with my death, on the field of battle or otherwise, Poland could not and would not end. All the Poles have done since then in the glorious Polish legions, and all they will yet do in the future, to recover their country, must be regarded as proofs that though we, the devoted soldiers of this country, are mortal, Poland is immortal; and no one has a right to say or repeat the outrageous expression, ‘Finis Poloniae.’ What would the French have said if, at the fatal battle of Rosbach in 1757, Marshal Charles de Rohan, Prince of Soubise, had cried out-‘Finis Galliae,’ or if such cruel words had been attributed to him by his biographers? I shall be obliged to you, then, not to speak of this ‘Finis Poloniae’ in the new edition of your work; and I hope that the authority of your name will silence all who in future may think of repeating that expression, and of attributing to me a piece of blasphemy, against which I protest with all my soul.”


Chapter 2: Toward Warsaw

The first signs I saw of Poland were at Breslau, the capital of Silesia, which, before being an Austrian, was a Polish province, and which, as every one knows, was taken from Austria by Frederick the Great. Breslau is now connected with Warsaw, by rail, and is the ordinary halting-place for Polish travellers to and from the [Congress] Kingdom. The whole province is completely Germanized, in so far that the immense majority of the population is German; but no receipt has yet been discovered for turning a Pole into an Austrian or a Prussian, and those who were Poles, and whose fathers and grandfathers were Poles, are Poles still. Wherever Germans and Poles are found together, it is undeniable that there are infinitely more Poles who learn German, than there are Germans who learn Polish; and thus, far beyond Breslau, and beyond the Russo-Polish frontier, and halfway to Warsaw, and in Warsaw itself, we find plenty of Poles speaking German fluently, whereas scarcely any of the Germans in Breslau speak Polish at all. Indeed, German being the invariable language of the Prussian administration-even in Posen, in spite of treaties which bind Prussia to govern her Polish subjects as Poles-it follows that a man meaning to live in any part of Prussia must understand German, or be prepared to submit to many inconveniences and disadvantages. On the other hand, there is no part of Poland in which it is not a positive recommendation, in the eyes of the governing Power, to be ignorant of Polish.

In Silesia there is no injustice, in the present day, in making German the official and educational language in all the towns. In many of the country districts, however, the case is very different. The German peasants are prosperous and contented enough. But the Polish peasants of Lower Silesia, who are still Poles and speak the Polish language, and that only, are in a miserable position. For them there are no schools. They have no intercourse with their superiors. They feel as much that they are subjected to a foreign Government as the Poles of Posen, and with this additional disadvantage-that they have to deal exclusively with German proprietors. They form a class apart, and they nominally not serfs, are treated like slaves. The home of their hearts is still Poland, and in the annual pilgrimages to the Polish religious places, such as Czenstochow and Calvarya, the peasants of Silesia may still be seen in company with those of Poland proper, Lithuania, and the Ukraine.

Breslau, however, is a town of many tongues. The shopkeepers proclaim their trades in German, Polish, Russian, Hebrew, French, and occasionally English; and the day I took my departure for Warsaw, a professor at the University was to maintain a thesis in the Latin language, and against all comers, de fistula. It is a town, too, of strange costumes and types; of pike-bearing watchmen, of droschky-drives in helmets, and of dandified sweeps, with black faces like other sweeps, but also with a romantic bearing, evident pretensions to elegance of attire, and waists like wasps or like Prussian officers. There, too, as in Poland, you may see the genuine Israelite dressed, not in cheap imitation of the Christian swell, but in his own Israelitish gaberdine-“His beard a foot before, his hair /A yard behind”-or, if not behind, in two long ringlets, one on each side.

Even in Breslau, there were reminders both of the brutal persecution of Poles by the Russians, and of the persecution of a more legal kind (at least as regards form) carried on against them by Prussia.

In the shop-windows were engravings of the bloody scenes that had just been enacted in Warsaw. At the table d’hôte of the Hotel of the “Golden Goose,” the Polish gentlemen wore their national costume, proscribed by the Russians, and the bright-eyed, soft-complexioned Polish ladies were dressed in the deepest mourning, and had little crosses of black jet hanging round their necks, and portraits of Kosciuszko in their brooches. Polish newspapers from Cracow, where everyone has a right to say as much as he pleases against the Russian Government, and indeed any Government except that of Austria, were handed about and eagerly caught up. Then a Pole came in, who had just arrived from Warsaw, and who brought with him the ghastly photographs of the first victims of the Russian soldiery in the late disturbances; the five men who were shot in the massacre of the 27th February, and who were half-stripped, and photographed with their wounds and their horribly distorted faces, soon after they fell. The day of the funeral, when all Warsaw was hung in black, and everyone in the city followed the procession, these terrible mementoes were distributed by thousands. For a long time afterwards-perhaps even now, though I have read that the photographer was afterwards imprisoned-they could be purchased almost publicly in Warsaw, and I found them in every house that I visited in Russian, Austrian, and Prussian Poland.

At the confectioners’ shops, the only newsrooms to be met with from Berlin to Moscow, I found the Poles complaining of the seizure of the last number of the Posen newspaper, the Djiennik Poznanski. Perfect liberty of the press exists everywhere in Prussia, and especially in the Grand Duchy of Posen. But there are certain administrative difficulties in the way of publishing a newspaper in the Polish language; and the one Polish newspaper which has contrived to force its way into existence at Posen is perpetually interfered with and checked by the police, on pretexts which are doubtless well-meant, but which somehow or other have invariably to be overruled when they come to be examined by the light of the law. Liberty of the press triumphs in the end, but in the meanwhile Polish editors get arrested rather often, and editions of their journals rather often get confiscated. This course of proceeding does not alter the fact that liberty of the press is recognized as a principle by the Prussian law; only it is hoped that the law can be so applied as to have the effect of silencing and destroying the Djiennik Poznanski.

From Breslau to Warsaw, by rail, is a good day’s journey. But what a journey, if you divide it and stop the night at Sosnovicz, the first station beyond the Prussian frontier! The Russians, for the sake of their Government, and the Poles for the credit of their country, ought to unite for once and subscribe a few copecks and groszy, so as to enable the inn-keeper of the place to offer a decent room to the traveler, condemned by an ill-regulated timetable to remain there from nine in the evening until half-past six the next morning. It would be absurd to ask for a well-furnished chamber, and unreasonable to expect such ordinary accommodation as may be met with in the cottage of many an English peasant; but there might be blinds to the windows, and there might be beds long enough for a man of moderate stature, and warranted not to break down if laid upon. On the beds there might be clean bed-clothes; and in case the astronomical arrangements of the night should not allow the traveller to go to bed by the light of the moon, some waxen or stearine substitutes might be provided for the feeble torches of ill-smelling tallow with which the savage host of Sosnovicz at present supplies his faint and weary guests.

It is ridiculous for travellers who get out of beaten tracks to complain of want of accommodation at hotels. But on the high road from Breslau to Warsaw, one cannot help fancying that the half-way house ought to be something better than a pig-stye, furnished in very bad imitation of a human dwelling-place. Never mind the food; there are plenty of fowls running about the Sosnovicz caravanserai, and you can get new-laid eggs. Besides, black bread alone, if it will not satisfy, will, at least, tire the appetite. And tyou can have a glass of very weak tea at Sosnovicz for sixpence; and after washing out the glass with the first tea, you can get another supply stronger, and proportionately nastier, but which seems, at first, to have a better effect on the nerves, for sixpence, and something extra. You cannot get milk at Sosnovicz, because there are no cows there, but they will give you some kind of rum to mix with your tea, which, if it does not greatly improve the taste, at least changes it. The great crime of the host of Sosnovicz consists in his giving, not too little, but too much. Why, for instance, put dirty bedclothes on a bedstead, when a bedstead alone would be so infinitely preferable? Is it to deter people from going to bed, so as to save trouble of the chambermaid? The notion is ingenious; but if “Freedom shrieked when Kosciuszko fell,” I wonder what Cleanliness does when a traveller in a Polish inn, after carefully covering the bed with railway wrappers and great coats, lies down in his clothes on the bedstead, dislocates it in every joint, and brings it down with him into the dirt, which covers the floor so thickly, that mustard and cress might grow in it?

“So this is Poland,” one reflects, after rising from the floor and taking a seat at the window, which commands a view of a magnificent wood. The bedless guest stares at the admirable moon-illuminated pine-trees, the shadows of which fall upon the outer walls of the caravanserai. The moon stares into the curtainless room, lights up the remains of the bedstead, and casts a melancholy gleam over a little heap of dirt (it might be larger were the housemaid more industrious) which has been swept into one of the corners, and left there, as much as to say, “There is an end at least of that job.” The traveller wonders whether there are any wolves in the forest, and says to himself that if they are half as ferocious as certain smaller animals which infest the room, it would not be desirable to encounter them.

No: this is only a part of Poland. Still it is part of it, as a dirty finger-nail is part of a man’s hand, a dirty hand part of a man’s body. If first impressions were everything, what an idea one would have of Poland from Sosnovicz! Unfortunately (as I afterwards found out) precisely the same idea that one would form of it from making its acquaintance at Granica, the frontier village between the Kingdom of Poland and the Polish dominions of Austria; or at Kovno, the frontier town between Prussia and Lithuan ia. Poland is certainly not careful about her extremities. England, France, and Germany, all keep their hands and feet in a much more becoming state. Nor in a journey along the borders of Hungary, nor even in Russia, did I ever see anything to equal in uncleanliness the uncleanliness of Kovno, nor, above all, of Sosnovicz.

The two Sosnovicz servants are worthy of the inn. The inn is “worthy of them both.” The chambermaid is without shoes or stockings. She does not, can not change the sheets, but she is ready to bring clean towels if ordered to do so in Little Russian [Belarusan] or Ruthenian, and it is quite gratifying to hear her abuse the proprietor in the language of the Ukraine for his various shortcomings and crimes of inhospitality.

The “boots” is bootless. He kisses the traveler’s hand at night, and in the morning proves his zeal by waking him from his chair, or from his tumble-down couch, at four o’clock, that he may catch the train at half-past six. He commences boot-cleaning in the bedroom, and, when ejected by force, commences the operation immediately outside the door. He uses no blacking, properly so called, but what he does apply, he carries in his salivary glands.

There is no trouble in getting the bill in the morning. It is not heavy, compared with the charges at the best hotels on the Continent. The use of the room with the broken bed is put down at a sum equivalent to one thaler. The youthful boots embraces the traveller’s knees by way of a hint that attendance is not included. The poor little chambermaid bows her head, seizes the traveller’s hand, and bears it affectionately to her lips. The feet of these domestics are muddy, and, as there are no carpets, or rugs, or mats, or even scrapers about the place (though scrapers would certainly not be nice things for persons without shoes or stockings to use), they bring a great deal of wet mould with them out of the courtyard into the rooms. But they are not without heart, and they respond to a small gratuity by reviling the proprietor in the most obliging manner. The proprietor appears in person, at the last moment, to receive the ironical thanks of the guest for the inattention that has been shown him. He is disposed of, however, by his own servants, who tell him he ought to be ashamed of himself, and so on, and who have so little fear of him, that it is evident he gives them no wages.

Can the general civilization of a country be judged of by its inns? I hope not, for the sake of Poland. But, in any case, it must be remembered that Polish civilization has been in some respects checked, in others greatly thrown back (especially among the poorer classes) by the Partitions and by the wars, confiscations, and educational and commercial restrictions which were their natural consequences. By the accounts of all travellers, the lower orders in Poland were in a miserable position at the period of the first dismemberment, but the Constitution of 1791 provided for the gradual emancipation of the peasantry, and, by conferring representative rights on citizens and traders, encouraged the formation of a respectable middle class. The Poland of 1791 was, in a political sense, at least half a century before either of the States which united to invade and destroy it; and since the ruin of their country the Poles have had to go back and wait for the very slow development of Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Even now, in Prussia and Austria, they can only profit by the advantages of constitutional government by forsaking their ancient national culture and becoming Germans.

Of the effect of political institutions, and especially of such an institution as serfdom, on the condition of a population, some notion may be formed by comparing the Polish peasants of Prussia and Austria, where serfdom no longer exists, with those of Russia, where, in the kingdom, the task-work system is only now being discontinued; and where, in the Polish provinces forming part of the Russian empire, the position of the peasant, until the recent edict of emancipation appeared, was almost that of a slave. The Polish peasant of Prussia is decidedly the highest, as the Polish peasant of Russia is decadently the lowest, in the scale of civilization.

The country between Sosnovicz and Warsaw is so dull as it is flat. It is less woody than the immense tract of wilderness between Moscow and St. Petersburg, along which it used to be said that a squirrel could leap from tree to tree without once touching the ground. But the forests one passes are far more interesting than the fields, cultivated by peasants so miserable that it is impossible to wonder at their laziness, and so lazy that they could not well be otherwise than wretched. I am not going to generalize on the subject of agriculture in Poland from what I saw of it during the day’s railway traveling through the country, but I affirm that from half-past six in the morning to five in the afternoon all the labourers I passed were ragged and dirty; that at least four-fifths of them were lying down on the ground; that not one in ten was doing any work; and that the few who seemed to be seriously occupied were employed on the railway. The contrast between the appearance of the Prussian and that of the Polish peasant is most striking. Gradually, as you proceed eastward, the laborer seems to sink lower and lower, and in Poland Proper he appears, indeed, in a most pitiable condition.

Afterwards, in the immediate neighborhood of Warsaw, I saw plenty of well-clad, prosperous-looking peasants, and I was assured that those whose appearance and attitude on the ground had struck me as expressing the last degree of wretchedness and laziness were abstaining from labor on high political grounds and by reason of the new law which changed their system of tenures and required them to substitute money payments for task-work. All the Polish proprietors had declared that it would be impossible to make them pay rent for their land in hard cash, and the Agricultural Society had recommended that their farms should be made over to them in freehold, the proprietors receiving an indemnification from the Government in bills bearing interest, for the payment of which it was proposed to levy a land tax. The Government, however, through a committee of bureaucrats, had prepared its own measure, which dissatisfied peasants and proprietors alike, and which will yet have to be modified.

Could the Government possibly have been jealous of the Agricultural Association, which, in preparing a simple and perfectly satisfactory solution of the peasant question, proved that it was fit for the exercise of legislative functions, and gave the lie to those who maintain that the Poles are a frivolous and thoughtless race, because they do not display the patience of the ass under gross ill-usage? It is probable enough that such was the case.

The ordinary Prussian is a reasonable being. He treats with a species of reverence every one who wears a Government uniform. He will allow himself to be run through the body by an officer whom he has or has not provoked, and other Prussians will look on with wonder at the Prussian who has presumed to place himself in such a position that it was necessary for an officer to take the trouble to run him through. If a bill is proposed in the Prussian chamber of Deputies for placing soldiers and civilians on an equality before the law, the bill is forthwith rejected. In a word, the Prussians are quiet and reasonable, and know the obedience they owe to the corporals and sergeants who govern them.

Look at the Russians again. In the early part of the last [eighteenth] century, a Russian nobleman would take a beating from his Emperor (the great Frederick William, too, occasionally caned his courtiers). Russian noblemen, even under the most liberal sovereign that Russia has evern known, have been arrested without accusation, and temporarily exiled [to Siberia] without trial, though it is fair to add that there have been but few such instances during the reign of Alexander II.

The Poles, however, have never shown that sort of reasonableness which consists in accepting any amount of tyranny and injustice, against which it may be inconvenient and dangerous to protest. Before condemning them for their folly in this respect, some allowances ought to be made for their position, their education, their traditions, and their descent. It is not given to every one to bear blows and insults meekly, and, to do so, one must have been brought up specially for it, as for other things. Now, the Prussians have been accustomed more or less to stick-law, even since the establishment of the Hohenzollerns in Brandenburgh. The Russians owe that powerful instrument of government, the knout, to the Tatars, and have brought up generation after generation under its kindly shadow. But the Poles have never yet for thirty years consecutively put up with the régime of the knout and the stick without protesting against it and sealing their protest with their blood. It is difficult to accustom them to it; for these Poles, of whom some hundred thousand have been sent to Siberia since the first partition of their native land, and of whom upwards of fifteen thousand-a tenth part of the entire population [of the city]-were imprisoned in Warsaw during the first six months of the present year (see the report of the municipal officers of Warsaw, published in the London newspapers early in August, 1862); these Poles are the sons of the men who voted for the Constitution of the 3rd of May, and who fought under Kosciuszko; they are the great-grandsons of the men who fought, not as conscripts, but as volunteers, under Sobieski, and saved Vienna and the west of Europe from a Turkish invasion.

If the Poles are not reasonable, it will at least appear to Englishmen that there is something natural in their conduct. Dr. Johnson told Boswell one day that he had just passed a fishmonger who was skinning eels, and who “cursed them because they would not lie still”; and he mentioned this as a “remarkable instance of heartless brutality.” If we cannot assist Poland in her distress, let us at least admit her right to complain and protest as best she can; and let us not sympathize for one moment with her tormentors, who curse her because she will not lie still.

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