Antoni Ferdynand Ossendowski (1876-1945) was a Polish writer, journalist, traveller, globetrotter, explorer and university professor. He is best known for his novels on Lenin and Russian Civil War, which he took part in.
Antoni Ferdynand Ossendowski was born May 27, 1876, in his family manor in Lucyna on Dvina near Vitebsk. He studied at the famous gymnasium in Kamieniec Podolski, but he moved with his father, a renown medician, to Saint Petersburg, where he graduated from a Russian-language school. Then he joined the mathematical-physical faculty of the local university, where he studied chemistry. As an assistant to professor Aleksander Zalewski, he travelled to many distant areas, including Siberia, Caucasus and Altay. During the summer he was frequently enrolled as a ship writer on the Odessa-Vladivostok line, a job that allowed him to visit most of Asia, including Japan, Sumatra, China, Malaya and Indonesia. For his description of his trip to Crimea and Constantinople he received the first royalty. His record of a trip to India (Chmura nad Gangesem - A Cloud Over Ganges) gained the prestigious Petersburg Society of Literature prize.
In 1899, after a students' riot in Saint Petersburg, Ossendowski was forced to leave Imperial Russia and move to Paris, where he continued his studies at the Sorbonne, his professors being Maria Curie-Skłodowska and Marcelin Berthelot. It is possible he had received a doctorate back in Russia, but no documents survived. In 1901 he was allowed to return to Russia, where professor Zalewski invited him to the newly-founded Institute of Technology of the University in Tomsk. There he gave lectures on chemistry and physics. At the same time he also gave lectures at the Agricultural Academy and published numerous scientifical works on hydrology, geology, physical chemistry, geography and physics.
After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) Ossendowski moved to Harbin in Manchuria, where founded a Central Technical Research Laboratory, a Russian-financed institution for development of ore deposits in the area. At the same time he headed the local branch of the Russian Geographic Society in Vladivostok. As such he made numerous trips to Korea, Sakhalin, Ussuri and the shores of the Bering Strait. In Manchuria he also became one of the leaders of the numerous Polish diaspora and published his first novel in Polish language - Noc (Night). He also got involved in the Main Revolutionary Committee, a leftist organisation that tried to take over the power in Manchuria during the Revolution of 1905. After the fall of the revolution, Ossendowski organised a strike against the brutal repressions in Russian-held Poland, for which he was arrested. A military tribunal sentenced him to death for conspiracy against the Tsar, but his sentence was later changed to several years of hard labour.
Petersburg to China
In 1907 he was released from prison with a so-called wolf ticket, which prevented him from finding a job or leaving Russia. At that time he devoted himself to writing. His novel V ludskoi pyli (In Human Dust), in which he described his several-years-long stay in Russian prisons, gained him much popularity in Russia and was even described by Lev Tolstoi as one of his favourites. The popularity allowed him to return to Petersburg in 1908. There he continued to write books and at the same time headed the Society of Gold and Platinium Industry and several newspapers and journals, both in Russian language and in Polish. After the outbreak of the Great War, Ossendowski published several books more, including a science fiction novel, a propaganda novel on German spies in Russia and a brochure describing German and Austro-Hungarian war crimes.
After the outbreak of the February Revolution of 1917, Ossendowski yet again moved to Siberia, this time to Omsk, where he started giving lectures at the local university. After the October Revolution and the outbreak of the Russian Civil War he also got involved in the counter-revolutionary Siberian government led by Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. He served at various posts, among others as an intelligence officer, an envoy to the Unitedstatesian intervention corps and an assistant to the Polish 5th Rifle Division of maj. Walerian Czuma. In 1918 he was responsible for transfer of many tsarist and white documents to the Entente, including many proofs of German support for Lenin and his bolsheviks (so-called Sisson Archive).
After Kolchak's defeat in 1920, Ossendowski joined a group of Poles and White Russians trying to escape from communist-controlled Siberia to Burma through Mongolia, China and Tibet. After several thousands of miles the group reached Chinese-controlled Mongolia, only to be stopped there by the take-over of the country led by mysterious baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg. A mystic who was fascinated by beliefs and religions of the Far East such as Buddhism and Lamaism, and who believed himself to be a reincarnation of Genghis Khan, Ungern-Sternberg's philosophy was an exceptionally muddled mixture of Russian nationalism with Chinese and Mongol beliefs. He also proved to be an exceptional military commander and his forces grew rapidly.
Ossendowski joined the baron's army as a commanding officer of one of the self-defence troops. He also briefly became Ungern von Sternberg's political advisor and chief of intelligence. Little is known of his service at the latter post, which adds to Ossendowski's legend as a mysterious person. In late 1920 he was sent with a diplomatic mission to Japan and then USA, never to return to Mongolia. Some writers believe that Ossendowski was one of the people to hide the semi-mythical treasures of the Bloody Baron.
After his arrival to New York, Ossendowski started to work for the Polish diplomatical service and possibly as a spy. At the same time, in late 1921 he published his first English language book: Beasts, Men and Gods. The novel, a description of his travels during the Russian Civil War and the wars led by the Bloody Baron, became a striking success and a best-seller. In 1923 it was translated to Polish and then several other languages.
Back to Poland
In 1922 Ferdynand Ossendowski returned to Polandand settled in Warsaw. Immediately upon his return he started giving lectures at the Wolna Wszechnica Polska, Higher War School and School of Political Sciences at the Warsaw University. At the same time he remained an advisor to the Polish government and an expert sovietologist. He continued to travel to different parts of the world and after each travel he published a book or two. In the interbellum he was considered the creator of a distinct genre called travelling novel. With over 70 books published in Poland and translated almost 150 times to 20 various languages, Ossendowski was also the second most popular Polish author abroad, after Henryk Sienkiewicz. He repeated the success of his Beasts, Men and Gods with a book on Lenin, in which he openly criticized the communist methods and policies of Russia, as well as the double face of the communist leaders. In Poland, three of his books were being filmed at the moment the World War II started.
World War II
After the Polish Defensive War of 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, Ferdynand Ossendowski remained in Warsaw, where he lived at 27 Grójecka street. In 1942 he converted to Catholicism (previously being a Lutheran) and the following year he joined the ranks of the underground Stronnictwo Narodowe party. He worked in the structures of the Polish Secret State and cooperated with the Government Delegate's Office in preparation of the underground education in Poland during World War II and post-war learning programmes.
After the Warsaw Uprising, Ossendowski - then seriously ill - moved to the village of Żółwin, near the Warsaw's suburb of Milanówek, where he died on January 3, 1945. He was buried the following day on the local cementery in Milanówek.
After his death
Two weeks after Ossendowski's death, on January 18, the area was seized by the Red Army. It turned out that Ossendowski was being sought by the NKVD, and was being considered an enemy of the people for his book on Lenin and the Soviet system, which was considered an act of anti-Soviet agitation. The Soviet agents dug out his body to confirm his identity and that he was really dead.
After the war, the new communist Soviet-led authorities of Poland issued a ban on all books by Ossendowski. His name was not mentioned in encyclopedias and all of his books were confiscated from the libraries and burnt. It was not until 1989 that his books were again published openly in Poland.
- Russian Civil War
- Roman von Ungern-Sternberg
- Vladimir Lenin
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