Sunday 29 April 2012

Archive article - Review of Kapuscinski's 'Imperium'

Originally published by the now-defunct WiK English Edition – part of Poland’s reputed Wprost publishing house in March 2007 

Imperium – Ryszard Kapuscinski 

As Poland’s only foreign correspondent during much of the Communist period, the purpose of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s existence was to probe into the turbulence of distant lands, places most of his readers could never hope to see in their lifetimes. Africa, South America and Asia were his stomping grounds. His own backyard – Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe - where often the furthest things from his mind.

Yet in the late eighties and early nineties it was just this part of the world which became the focus of the entire planet’s attention, as the Communist regimes that had ruled over much of Europe and Asia after the Second World War collapsed one after another and with the purpose of discovering what was happening, Ryszard Kapuscinski came back home. 

Published in 1994, ‘Imperium’, the book that resulted from the great journalist’s travels around the Soviet Union, both before and just after it fell, is a hugely ambitious attempt to uncover the frequently impenetrable morass of ideological breakdown, ethnic conflicts and geographical flux that ensued when the world’s last remaining empire of the time caved in all at once. 

Though the title ‘Imperium’ suggests a monolith - and Kapuscinski himself is wont to entertain this idea sometimes – the Soviet Union emerges from these pages as a hugely diverse, chaotic terrain, where life and death are never far from one another, be it because of oppression, war or simply the terrible climate. 

Kapuscinski plunges into all of this with his trademark courage and faces down the possibility of death himself on more than one occasion. He flies toVorkuta, which lies beyond the Russian Artic Circle and is, suitably enough, a pitch-black mining town, where the sun never shines throughout the winter months. And not only that, the temperature is also –35 degrees. Kapuscinski’s habit was simply to arrive in a place and then get on the phone to people whose numbers he had been given in all manner of previous situations. Far from home, alone and arriving without advanced notice, it is hardly surprising that he got himself into the odd scrape. 

A trip to see a miner acquaintance in Vorkuta results in him being dropped off by the bus where he can see absolutely nothing but snow, with the apartment block that is his destination apparently a mere figment. He stumbles around, desperately trying to stave off the violent cold, whilst noting a snow-pile here and there as a landmark in his progress, until the fierce wind blows them away. Though he keeps going, he also knows that soon the weather will kill him.  

A neighbour passing by saves his skin in this incident but that did not prevent the intrepid Pole from taking further, insane risks.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the two former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia became embroiled in a savage conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh – an Armenian enclave within its hostile neighbour’s territory. With the Russians trying to act as peacemakers, the place became a completely militarised zone, to which no outsider was permitted to travel. But that did not stop Kapuscinski from posing as an airline pilot in 1990 – with no money or legitimate passport – to fly to the zone and interview the Armenians who were trapped there. And he got away with it. Whether in the freezing Artic Circle or sun-soaked Caucasus, the Pole put his head where the flak was flying. 

Other parts of the book, however, are more reflective and show Kapuscinski’s literary as well as active engagement with his subject matter, but it is here that lies it main problem. There are huge chunks from numerous writers quoted to support his often spurious claims about Russia and the Soviet Union, which were heavily influenced by the fact that the latter occupied his home city Pinsk at the time of the Second World War. ‘Imperium’ is in effect an awkward pot-pourri of reportage, travel writing, political commentary and history, which do not always sit that easily together. Kapuscinski himself admits that before writing the book he knew very little about his impending subject matter.  

“I had never taken a close interest in this country [the Soviet Union]; I was not a specialist; I was not a Russicist; a Sovietologist; Kreminologist, and so on. The Third World absorbed me, the colourful continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America – it was to these that I had almost exclusively devoted myself. My actual familiarity with the Imperium was therefore negligible, haphazard, superficial,” he writes at the beginning of the chapter entitled ‘The Third Rome’.  

But he went ahead and wrote the book nonetheless, not allowing his imperfect knowledge he owned up to get in the way of a good story. He conflates the ‘Bolsheviks’ with Stalin – whose first victims, during the purges, were many thousands of  those self-same ‘Bolsheviks’. He is also deeply suspicious of the Russians, who are nevertheless individuals he clearly respects and admires at the same time. Kapuscinski identifies himself as a man of the West, as well, contrary to what is happening around him, when this is quite blatantly false. Some parts of ‘Imperium’ were in need of a re-think. But, as is usually the case with Kapuscinski, you needn’t look much further for a passionate portrayal of revolution in the flesh, flaws and all.

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