Ruined Russian 'Spyville' returns to Polish hands

WARSAW – Soviet diplomats left the huge residential complex in Warsaw more than 30 years ago. But some Russians stayed put, sheltering ...


WARSAW – 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 target of the information.

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 a Foreign Domain.”

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

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, had 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. 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 deeply unwelcome little outpost of the “Russian world,” a territorial and ideological concept dear to President Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr Putin used the concept 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 office, Mr. Putin followed the example of his predecessor as President of Russia, Boris N. Yeltsin, and ceded foreign outposts that no longer had a specific purpose or were too expensive to maintain. These included a listening post in Cuba and a naval base in Vietnam.

Since then, however, Mr Putin has set 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 Cote d’Azur, a church in Jerusalem, and other sites he considers to belong to Russky mir, or 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, the Polish capital’s mayor, Mr Trzaskowski, entered the compound last month to the first time, helped by a locksmith armed with metal shears and an electric saw, as well as the Ukrainian ambassador and a bailiff.

“Spyville is now passing 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 this 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 that the lease had ended. If you rent a property and you don’t use it for almost 20 years, that of course means 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 these, apart from a vast colonnaded embassy building that resembles a palace, is “Spyville”, located just a mile from the embassy in the south of the city.

“For Russia, this is symbolic,” the mayor said. “They just push and shove questions of a symbolic nature, asserting their importance in Warsaw and Poland.” He added: “All this is a legacy from the Soviet era. The largest embassy properties in Warsaw are those of the Russian Federation and the Chinese, simply because in communist times they got the best plots of land.

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

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, no one cared much about “Spyville”, he said, “Everyone knew it was the Russkis 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 sparked complaints, according to Polish media, “noisy parties with more Kalashnikovs than guests” and frequent police raids.

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, To Kill a Dragon, the story of a village freed from tyranny but unwilling 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, the mayor, said he initially planned to turn the reclaimed property into a shelter for refugees from Ukraine, including Poland took in nearly three million. But he found ‘Spyville’ in such disrepair – all elevator cables had been cut and one block is structurally unstable – that engineers must now decide whether the buildings, the tallest of which is 11 stories, can be recovered 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, Poland’s city authorities and central government, which otherwise agree on little and argue frequently, “are on the same page”.

Anatol Magdziarz in Warsaw contributed reporting.

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