Jerzy Giedroyc, now 91 years old, has been the editor of the Paris-based Polish-language review Kultura for half a century. His two visitors were President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland and President Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania, who called on him at Maisons-Laffitte on their way to the Council of Europe at Strasbourg. In a brief ceremony, President Brazauskas conferred on Mr Giedroyc the honorary citizenship of Lithuania.
Cheerful as it was, the evening prickled with ironies. Mr Giedroyc comes from the eastern borderlands of Europe, where questions of ethnic identity are better answered by three-volume novels than by a passport. He was born in the old Russian Empire, at Minsk - now capital of Belarus. His family, a princely one, was Lithuanian in origin but Polish by culture. Most of his own life has been spent in exile, in the book-crammed little study which still produces one of the most intelligent journals in Europe.
The second irony is that both his guests on Thursday are post-Communists. Now, of course, they are ardent democrats, committed to plural free-market politics. But they were once members of ruling parties which confiscated smuggled copies of Kultura and terrorised its readers. Mr Giedroyc must have appreciated that twist. But, magnanimously, he told President Brazauskas that he regretted his decision to retire and make way for a head of state with a less ambiguous past.
From time to time, Jerzy Giedroyc was slandered as an imperialist stooge accepting wads of CIA dollars. This was a good joke. Giedroyc was anti- Communist, certainly. But he was also an agonising thorn in the side of the Americans, of Radio Free Europe (target of many wounding Kultura attacks), and of the Polish government-in-exile in London.
Years before American "revisionist" historians began to question the nature of the Cold War, Giedroyc made himself unpopular by suggesting that the whole confrontation was a sham. He denounced the "complicity" of the US and the Soviet Union in perpetuating the Cold War, which he saw as a mere smokescreen for protecting the division of the world they had engineered in 1945 at Yalta.
So much for the CIA. As for dollars, the "sovereign principality of Maisons- Laffitte" lived in monkish poverty. Giedroyc and his handful of collaborators paid themselves the French minimum wage and took turns - between putting Kultura together - to do the housework, the cooking and the washing-up, as well as wrapping and posting the journal to its subscribers.
But one Giedroyc achievement, beyond all others, brought the black presidential limousines out to Maisons-Laffitte. This was the Kultura line on the borderlands, the broad strip of territory between the Baltic and the Black Sea which has been the historic battleground between Poland and Russia.
Today, that strip forms the three independent states of Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus. Before the war, parts of all three were Polish territory. Then they were annexed into the Soviet Union. Stalin and his successors insisted that the annexation was final. Most of the Polish emigration in the West insisted that the lost territories should return to Poland - especially the great and largely Polish cities of Lwow (Lviv) and Wilno (Vilnius).
But Giedroyc and his friends had a different vision. Although most of them - like Giedroyc - had lived in those eastern territories, they accepted their loss. Instead, they looked forward to a day when Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus would be independent. For the Kultura writers, Soviet and Polish imperialism were equally wrong. The future peace of a free Europe, they prophesied, would depend on good relations between those three countries and their big neighbours Poland and Russia.
And their prophecy has come true. Their vision seemed crazy at the height of the Cold War. They were showered with abuse by the Communist regimes and by Polish ultra-nationalists. But they saw clearly. Today, free Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania are good neighbours, their frontier disputes settled. Belarus, in turmoil under the vicious autocrat Alexander Lukashenka, remains something of a problem. But, as Mr Giedroyc said on Thursday, the only real uncertainty is Russia - the uncertainty about what sort of neighbour Russia will decide to be.
Russia! This is where the Kultura lesson becomes even richer. Hatred and suspicion between Russians and Poles have devastated this region for more than 300 years. The suspicion, if not the hatred, survives. But even that can change - perhaps is changing already.
As a Kultura article declared, during the Cold War, "We must seek contacts and an understanding with those Russians who are prepared to recognise the full right to self-determination of the Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belorussians.... Both Poles and Russians must understand that only a non- imperialistic Russia and a non-imperialistic Poland would have a chance of straightening out relations between them." In other words, respecting the freedom of the countries between them is the only real way that Poland and Russia can build solid friendship at last.
This is a success story. The end of the Cold War did not only lead to ethnic bloodshed, as too many people like to believe, but also to the burial of ancient hatchets. Millions of Poles lost their homes and their lives, unjustly, when the frontiers changed; there is a big and rather sullen Polish minority still in Lithuania. And yet nobody has been allowed to exploit this old grief. After dinner at Maisons-Laffitte, the two Presidents flew happily off to Strasbourg together in the same plane.
And Jerzy Giedroyc went back to editing. He is frail now, and unlikely to use his new Lithuanian passport. He complains that he is "a prisoner" in Maisons-Laffitte, and " hasn't visited Paris for two years". After half a century's residence, he still speaks only halting French. But the journal carries on, and he is as merciless with his contributors as ever. To one who pleaded the other day that he was too old and sick to carry on, Giedroyc wrote crossly: "I am ill too, but I am still working, so pull yourself together and get on with it!"
He is one of those secretive editors who hate telling their staff what they are up to, until it is too late for them to interfere. He is also one of those editors who almost never write anything themselves, but have a genius for identifying and commanding talent in others. As well as politics, his journal published the very best of uncensored Polish literature and thought. The poet Czeslaw Milosz, the novelist and essayist Witold Gombrowicz, and the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski were among those who gave their best work to Kultura. Smuggled into Poland, copied and passed from hand to hand, this journal from Paris kept the confidence of Polish intellectuals alive through the worst periods of repression, isolation and official stupidity.
Typically, he wants Kultura to die when he dies. Perhaps it will. Or perhaps some of his colleagues have different plans which they do not dare to tell him about. But even if it does close, it can never quite go away. For Mr Giedroyc and his review are built into the new continent in which we live.