Review: Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński

“I thought about the terrible uselessness of suffering. Love leaves behind its creation-the next generation coming into the world; the continuation of humanity. But suffering? Such a great part of human experience, the most difficult and painful, passes leaving no trace. If one were to collect the energy of suffering emitted by the millions of people here [Magadan, Russia] and transform it into the power of creation, one could turn our planet into a flowering garden. But what would remain?”
~Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

Plot summary

“Now, in Imperium, Kapuściński gives us a work of equal emotional force and evocative power: a personal, brilliantly detailed exploration of the almost unfathomably complex Soviet empire in our time.

Soviet Union - Spartakiad 1959. Commemorative envelope for the 2nd Russian Spartakiad of 1959. Postmarked Odessa 09/10/59. Photo: footysphere (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Soviet Union – Spartakiad 1959. Commemorative envelope for the 2nd Russian Spartakiad of 1959. Postmarked Odessa 09/10/59. Photo: footysphere (CC BY-SA 2.0)

He begins with his own childhood memories of the postwar Soviet occupation of Pinsk, in what was then Poland’s eastern frontier (“something dreadful and incomprehensible…in this world that I enter at seven years of age”), and takes us up to 1967, when, as a journalist just starting out, he traveled across a snow-covered and desolate Siberia, and through the Soviet Union’s seven southern and Central Asian republics, territories whose individual histories, cultures, and religions he found thriving even within the “stiff, rigorous corset of Soviet power.”

Between 1989 and 1991, Kapuściński made a series of extended journeys through the disintegrating Soviet empire, and his account of these forms the heart of the book. Bypassing official institutions and itineraries, he traversed the Soviet territory alone, from the border of Poland to the site of the most infamous gulags in far-eastern Siberia (where “nature pals it up with the executioner”), from above the Arctic Circle to the edge of Afghanistan, visiting dozens of cities and towns and outposts, traveling more than 40,000 miles, venturing into the individual lives of men, women, and children in order to Understand the collapsing but still various larger life of the empire.

Bringing the book to a close is a collection of notes which, Kapuściński writes, “arose in the margins of my journeys” — reflections on the state of the ex-USSR and on his experience of having watched its fate unfold “on the screen of a television set…as well as on the screen of the country’s ordinary, daily reality, which surrounded me during my travels.” It is this “schizophrenic perception in two different dimensions” that enabled Kapuściński to discover and illuminate the most telling features of a society in dire turmoil.

Soviet Union in 1980. Photo: Ceri C (CC BY 2.0)
Soviet Union in 1980. Photo: Ceri C (CC BY 2.0)

Imperium is a remarkable work from one of the most original and sharply perceptive interpreters of our world — galvanizing narrative deeply informed by Kapuściński’s limitless curiosity and his passion for truth, and suffused with his vivid sense of the overwhelming importance of history as it is lived, and of our constantly shifting places within it.” More on Goodreads

On Ryszard Kapuściński

“Ryszard Kapuściński debuted as a poet in Dziś i jutro at the age of 17 and has been a journalist, writer, and publicist. In 1964 he was appointed to the Polish Press Agency and began traveling around the developing world and reporting on wars, coups and revolutions in Asia, the Americas, and Europe; he lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, was jailed forty times, and survived four death sentences. During some of this time he also worked for the Polish Secret Service, although little is known of his role.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Cold War realm
  • Travel literature at its best
  • Passion for observation
Review

For many years the pre-eminent foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency, Mr. Kapuscinski writes contemplative travelogues of wars, coups and societies in various states of upheaval. He is a kind of mosaicist, piecing together vignettes and encounters and trip notes and snippets of history until they add up to something rich.” (Keller 1994)

Writing travel literature – the ultimate goal in life. Reading travel reports and stories is fascinating, it’s like hopping on a bus or a train and actually being there as well. And most importantly, one can escape the everyday, leave those things one doesn’t feel like doing behind and move on. A very cheap way to go on a journey. I’ve been enjoying Christopher Isherwood‘s travel novels from a time when travelling was not yet so common when compared to Kapuściński and Bill Bryson, both perhaps characters easier to identify with compared to Isherwood. In Isherwood‘s case, travelling was a way of life and not an actual way to make some earnings.

And I don’t mind whether non-fiction gets mixed up with fiction once in a while. Actual reportage is a different matter, so the boundaries for travel literature are not so set in stone, so there is room for imagination and flexibility. Kapuściński’s The Emperor, a stranger-than-fiction analysis of the decline and fall of Haile Selassie‘s regime in Ethiopia, is a horror story of medieval proportions set in a 20th-century reality.

When I was stationed in Eastern Africa, I had the pleasure to read Kapuściński‘s The Shadow of the Sun, which was a perfect portrayal of the concept of time in Africa. The charm of Kapuściński is really his talent to step out of the role of the outsider and see within the place he is. Imperium is a chilling tale of what went on inside the Soviet Union. The tale begins in late 30’s, extends to describe Kapuściński’s post-war experiences in the Union, including travels to then Soviet republics, such as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The latter part of the book describes the Soviet Union during its collapse, and travels to the European parts of the USSR (Brest, Moscow, Donetsk, Magadan, Vorkuta, Tbilisi and Yerevan).

So, in a sense, the journey takes place in a mental setting no longer existing, just like the Berlin Isherwood and others described in the 1920’s and 1930’s no longer exists either.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup in 2013, 55 % of Russians regard the dissolution of the Soviet Union as harmful compared to 19 % regarding the breakup as good (Esipova & Ray 2013). “Only Azerbaijanis, Kazakhstanis, and Turkmens are more likely to see benefit than harm from the breakup. Georgians are divided.” (see ibid.)

All dictators, irrespective of epoch or country, have one common trait: they know everything, are experts on everything. The thoughts of Qadaffi and Ceauşescu, Idi Amin and Alfredo Stroessner—there is no end to the profundities and wisdom. Stalin was expert on history, economics, poetry, and linguistics. As it turned out, he was also expert on architecture.” ~Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

On a different note, have you heard about Ostalgie? It is a German concept referring to nostalgia for aspects of life in East Germany. As I was googling Ostalgie, I also came across Yugo-nostalgia, a similar term referring to the culture and life in the former Yugoslav republics. As time goes on, the past becomes a blurred image where the negative aspects of the state and about life in a dictatorship have been replaced by emotional identification to the everyday life and hazy visions of what it was really like. Something where the hindsight sighs and looks elsewhere. According to the Gallup poll cited above, there seems to be nostalgia for the Soviet Union as well.

Did a real life exist in the midst of a sham? Downplaying the dictatorship is seen as the price people pay to preserve their self-respect. ‘People are defending their own lives,’ writes political scientist Schroeder, describing the tragedy of a divided country.” (Bonstein 2009)

The Cold War was a strange time, with proxy wars, nuclear deterrence theory, rearmament, espionage and closed borders with iron curtains. I guess some people think about the past decades longingly and with a certain nostalgia because according to them the Cold War offered a rather simple system with two poles and neutral areas here and there. Those very same people might regard the contemporary times as confusing with so many different systems etc.

After seventy-three years of bolshevism, people do not know what freedom of thought is, and so in its place they practice freedom of action. And here freedom of action means freedom to kill. And there’s perestroika for you, the new thinking.” ~Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

More information
– Ian Birrell: Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life by Artur Domoslawski – review, published in the Guardian on 19 August 2012, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Julia Bonstein: Homesick for a Dictatorship – Majority of Eastern Germans Feel Life Better under Communism, published in SPIEGEL Online on 3 July 2009, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Jason Burke: A civilised approach to the question of humanity, published in the Guardian on 16 November 2008, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Neli Esipova & Julie Ray: Former Soviet Countries See More Harm From Breakup, published on Gallup on 19 December 2013, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Luke Harding: Poland’s ace reporter Ryszard Kapuściński accused of fiction-writing, published in the Guardian on 2 March 2010, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Michael Ignatieff: What about Anna Andreyevna?, published in the London Review of Books, Vol. 16 No. 19 on 6 October 1994, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Michael T. Kaufman: Ryszard Kapuscinski, Polish Writer of Shimmering Allegories and News, Dies at 74, published in The New York Times on 24 January 2007, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Bill Keller: The Decline and Fall of the Russian Empire, published in The New York Times on 25 September 1994, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Susan Richards: BOOK REVIEW / Biblical thunder and steamy cries: ‘Imperium’ – Ryszard Kapuscinski tr. Klara Glowczewska: Granta, 14.99, published in the Independent on 8 October 1994, link retrieved on 15 January 2017

Other novels, reports and stories by Kapuściński
  • The Soccer War (1969)
  • Another Day of Life (1976)
  • The Emperor (1978)
  • Shah of Shahs (1982)
  • The Shadow of the Sun (1998)
  • Travels with Herodotus (2004)
  • The Other (2006)

“Rusty carcasses of ships, rotting watchtowers, deep holes which some kind of ore was once extracted. A dismal, lifeless emptiness. Not a soul anywhere, for the exhausted columns have already passed and vanished in the cold eternal fog.”
~Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

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Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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