The Russian “Spyville” returns to the hands of the Poles

top and bottom right The abandoned former Soviet diplomatic housing complex in Warsaw. photos: MAIEK NABRDALIK/nyt

Soviet diplomats left the huge residential complex in Warsaw more than 30 years ago. But some Russians stayed put, sheltering until the early 2000s behind a fence topped with barbed wire from a city that, with the collapse of their empire, had suddenly become hostile territory and a major intelligence target. .

A moldy Russian pulp fiction paperback book left inside the now abandoned property, perhaps provides a clue to the concerns of Russians who lived in the compound which was notorious since its heyday in the 1980s as a nest of spies: Game on foreign land.

“It was always called Spyville and yes, a lot of these guys were spies,” Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski said.

“Spyville” was officially emptied of its diplomats and their families when the Soviet empire collapsed in the late 1980s, but some Russians continued to live there until the early 2000s. MAIEK NABRDALIK/nyt

Fed up with Russia’s refusal to hand over the property despite court rulings that it no longer had rights to the site, the mayor took it back last month, saying he wanted it for the Ukrainians instead.

The number of Russian diplomatic staff in Warsaw, he said, has been declining for decades, accelerated by the recent expulsion of 45 suspected spies.

“They didn’t need such a big infrastructure but they wanted to keep the premises,” he said. “That’s why we fought with them to get it back.”

Built in the late 1970s to house Soviet embassy staff when Poland was still a member of the Warsaw Pact and an apparently obedient communist satrap, “Spyville” was officially emptied of its diplomats and their families when the he Soviet empire collapsed in the late 1980s but remained in Russian hands.

Russian pulp novels left by former residents. MAIEK NABRDALIK/nyt

A sleazy nightclub – open only to Russians and their guests – operated there for a time, but the complex, a cluster of concrete blocks around a fetid pond, has mostly been associated with espionage.

Polish urban explorers who snuck into the property found Russian newspapers as early as 2005, long after the Russians supposedly left, bolstering the compound’s reputation as a haven for secret shenanigans.

A place of mystery and decadence, it was also a small, deeply unwelcome outpost of the “Russian world”, a territorial and ideological concept dear to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin used the concept to try to justify his invasion of Ukraine, claiming the country was an inalienable part of Russia. But the idea that Russia has an inviolable right – for linguistic, historical, legal or other reasons – to control pieces of foreign land, extends far beyond Ukraine to a myriad of places that the Kremlin considers it its own.

During his first years in power, Mr Putin followed the example of his predecessor as Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and handed over foreign outposts that no longer had a clear purpose or were too expensive to maintain. These included a listening post in Cuba and a naval base in Vietnam.

An old kindergarten class. MAIEK NABRDALIK/nyt

Since then, however, Mr Putin has charted a very different course, pushing for the return of lost property, including the Cuban spy post he abandoned in 2001, a cemetery containing Tsarist-era Russian graves. on the Côte d’Azur, a church in Jerusalem and other sites he considers to belong to Russky miror the Russian world.

At the same time, he resisted giving up everything Russia still controlled overseas, frustrating Japanese efforts to negotiate at least partial restitution of the islands seized by Moscow at the end of World War II and obstructing Polish demands, backed by court rulings, for the return of “Spyville”.

Frustrated by Moscow’s refusal to hand over the Warsaw property, which Russia leased under a Soviet-era deal, Mr Trzaskowski entered the compound for the first time last month, aided by a locksmith armed with metal shears and an electric saw, as well as an ambassador and a bailiff.

“Spyville now passes through our hands,” the mayor said.

The security guards hired by the Russian embassy and an embassy representative offered no resistance. Moscow’s ambassador to Warsaw, Sergei Andreev, later complained to Russian state media that the mayor had illegally “occupied” a diplomatic site.

The mayor had simply enforced court rulings in 2016 and again last month, all ignored by Moscow, that overturned Russia’s request. The Russians insist they honored the terms of the lease; the Poles say no.

“The courts issued a judgment that the property was leased by the Polish state and the lease ended. If you rent a property and you don’t use it for almost 20 years, that of course means that you don’t need it anymore,” the mayor said.

Russia, as a successor state to the Soviet Union, inherited more than 20 Warsaw properties that had been donated or leased to Moscow during the communist era. One of them, which Moscow also tried to cling to, now houses the Ukrainian embassy.

But the largest of them, apart from a vast columned embassy building that resembles a palace, is Spyville, located just 1.6 kilometers from the embassy to the south of the city.

“For Russia, this is symbolic,” the mayor said. “They push and jostle questions of a symbolic nature, asserting their importance in Warsaw and Poland.”

He added: “It’s all a legacy from Soviet times. The biggest embassy properties in Warsaw are those of the Russian Federation and the Chinese, just because in communist times they got the best plots. ground.”

A security guard at the abandoned compound. MAIEK NABRDALIK/nyt

Poland, he added, has no plans for buildings belonging to Russia, only properties that have been leased to Moscow “under very favorable conditions for obvious reasons” at a time when the Union Soviet had tens of thousands of soldiers stationed in the country to enforce its law. will be.

Krzysztof Varga, a Polish writer and journalist who grew up near the former Soviet residential complex, said the place has been known as Spyville for as long as he can remember.

“The whole neighborhood contained many buildings that belonged to the Russians,” he said, recalling that KGB agents working in a nearby office used to hang out at a restaurant in the neighborhood.

Because there were so many Russians in the area, nobody cared much about Spyville, he said. “Everyone knew it was the Russians and that was it.”

But what the Russians were doing there was never clear, especially after the departure of Soviet diplomats and the opening of a nightclub, Club 100, which led to complaints, according to Polish media, ” noisy parties with more Kalashnikovs than guests” and frequent police raids.

Another photo of the sprawling complex. MAIEK NABRDALIK

The mayor said he had no idea what was going on inside the compound. “Someone was using the building at the turn of the century for a few years but we couldn’t check because we couldn’t even enter without a court order,” he said.

The long-closed Club 100 stands across an untended garden from the main residential blocks, a row of modernist-style concrete buildings clad in marble at their base.

They combine late Soviet aspirations for luxurious living – spacious apartments with balconies, glass cabinets and 1970s orange sofas – with the feel of a prison thanks to stained walls, barbed wire coils and the stench of rot and ruin.

A pile of rubbish next to the entrance to Block C, sealed with a piece of chipboard, contains an old mechanical typewriter with a Cyrillic keyboard, broken furniture and rusting metal film cartridges from Mosfilm, the first film studio in the Soviet Union.

Across the pile are draped strands of film from a dark 1989 Russian fantasy thriller, kill a dragonthe story of a village freed from tyranny but which does not want to accept its newfound freedom.

The film was banned in the Soviet Union, convulsed at the time of the film’s release by an angry debate over the wisdom of the country’s withdrawal from communism, but was still shown and, it seems, appreciated by diplomats and Soviet spies living in Warsaw.

Mr Trzaskowski said he initially planned to turn the reclaimed property into a shelter for refugees from Ukraine, of whom Poland has taken in nearly 3 million.

Warsaw seized the complex and expelled its remaining Russians. MAIEK NABRDALIK/nyt

But he found Spyville in such disrepair – all elevator cables had been cut and one block is structurally flawed – that engineers must now decide whether the buildings, the tallest of which is 11 stories high, can be salvaged or need to be demolished.

Whatever the decision, Mr. Trzaskowski added, “it will certainly serve the Ukrainian community” in one way or another. On this, he said, the municipal authorities and the central Polish government, which otherwise disagree and frequently argue, “are on the same page”.

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