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Magic Journalism

Imperium

by Ryszard Kapuscinski, translated by Klara Glowczewska
Knopf, 331 pp., $24.00

In his new book on the fall of the Soviet Union, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes a visit he took to Armenia in 1990 to report on the worst of the many conflicts that erupted as the empire crumbled. The USSR was still officially one country, but Armenia and Azerbaijan were unofficially at war over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited largely by Armenians. The Soviets were attempting unsuccessfully to suppress the bitter guerrilla fighting there. Among other things, they were trying to keep inquisitive foreign journalists like Kapuscinski out of the besieged territory, which lies entirely within Azerbaijan, and can be reached from Armenia only by air.

The Soviets are in control of the airports at both ends. How can Kapuscinski get there? Armenian friends come up with a solution: he will pretend to be an Aeroflot pilot. They dress him up in an Aeroflot uniform and with the collaboration of the plane’s real pilots (who are Armenians), they get him to Nagorno-Karabakh.

With his cool wit, Kapuscinski makes the most of this story. First, at the airport in Armenia, crowds of exasperated passengers who’ve been waiting there for days take him for a real pilot, and surround him. The crooked airport officials then muscle their way toward him, alarmed that this unfamiliar pilot is trying to cut himself in on their racket of extorting bribes from passengers. Kapuscinski silently follows the commands the Armenians whisper in his ear as they smuggle him into the cockpit, then past the tight security of the Nagorno-Karabakh airport, and through the many roadblocks manned by KGB troops: “Sit down at the controls, and put on the headphones.” “Get out and immediately walk straight ahead.” “Push your way through the crowd.” “Get into the back seat of that car.” “Lie down and pretend to be dead drunk.”

The disguise works. Kapuscinski gets to see Nagorno-Karabakh. But what his Armenian hosts never realize is that his role as a journalist is also a disguise—and one that also works. The Chicago Tribune calls Kapuscinski the “reporter’s reporter…the best in the business.” Corriere della Sera calls him “the greatest living war correspondent.” But if a reporter means someone who accurately presents facts normally thought important (“The President’s press secretary announced today that…”), Kapuscinski is anything but one. He takes few notes. His dispatches from odd corners of the world often ignore the main political events. If the work of contemporary Latin American novelists, sprinkled with trees that move and birds that talk, is magic realism, Kapuscinski, a Pole, has created a kind of magic journalism.

This was clear from The Emperor, his first book to be translated into English, about the fall of Haile Selassie.1 Soon after the Emperor was deposed, Kapuscinski went to Ethiopia and interviewed members of the former ruling circle. In the book they speak in long monologues, and are identified only by initials. Can it be that there really was a Minister of the Pen? A keeper of the third door? A purse-bearer to the Emperor’s treasurer? A functionary of the Department of Processions in the Ministry of Ceremonies? A servant who wiped the shoes of dignitaries on which the Emperor’s dog had urinated? And a royal pillow-bearer, whose job was to slip the right-sized pillow under Haile Selassie’s feet when he sat on thrones built for taller Emperors? And were all these people, speaking in uniformly elegant phrases, willing to tell their stories to a Polish reporter?

Entering this rich and strange world, you soon realize that it doesn’t matter if these people literally exist, or if Kapuscinski made them up, or if the answer is somewhere in between. Taken together their stories form one of the most haunting portraits we have of autocratic power and its delusions. At home, people got the message: with the emergence of Solidarity, the book was adapted for the stage and performed throughout Poland.

Imperium, too, has its share of magic. Kapuscinski tells us that the skins of seven hundred calves were needed to make the parchment for a certain medieval book. That Turkish soldiers were about to push the greatest of Armenian composers off a cliff when he was saved by his pupil, the Sultan of Istanbul’s daughter—and that, having seen the abyss, he was struck dumb forever. To make the best Georgian cognac, he writes, the wood for the barrel must come from an oak tree that stands not in a grove but by itself. The national epic of the Kirgiz people is forty volumes long. In Yakutsk the winter is so cold that the air freezes into mist, in which corridors are carved by the bodies of pedestrians. From the shape of the corridor, you can tell who has walked by. At Siberian funerals, both corpse and mourners are dressed in white.

Readers can search libraries in vain for confirmation of any of these details. I missed seeing the mist corridors when passing through Yakutsk recently. And in another Siberian town where I stayed longer, no mourners wore white at funerals. But Kapuscinski may have visited some more ghostly parts of Siberia than I did. And perhaps a certain amount of ghostliness is appropriate in describing an empire which is, after all, now dead.

Fables are often born when things cannot be said directly. For some twenty-five years (until he lost his job with the 1981 declaration of martial law), Kapuscinski traveled throughout the third world as a correspondent for the Polish government press agency. He wrote books as well, but these, too, had to get past the censor. He learned to write in allegory. Beside the book on Ethiopia, there were others on the final days of other dilapidated, collapsing empires: the Shah’s Iran,2 and Portuguese rule in Angola.3 Living under a dictatorial government in a restless satellite of a huge neighbor, Polish readers had no doubt which imperial system Kapuscinski was really thinking about.

But in learning to transcend Communist censorship, Kapuscinski transcended something else as well: the assumptions of conventional journalism. He saw that truth consists of much more than collections of facts, that it may be found in the stories people make up, and that the most interesting quote may be one that was never spoken. Indeed, perhaps the most distinctively Kapuscinskian device is his way of slipping from an outward description of a person into a monologue supposedly going on in that person’s head. The words he imagines are not those of people like Edward Kennedy or rivalrous White House staff members, and the truth he is seeking is not the kind that gets quoted or denied on the morning talk shows. In his book on Iran, for example, he listens in as the Shah thinks about his army: “The army must always have money. It must have everything. The army will make the nation modern, disciplined, obedient. Everyone: Attention!

There are fewer such passages when Kapuscinski travels through Russia in Imperium, perhaps because he speaks the language fluently and therefore real conversations displace the imaginary ones, except when someone refuses to talk to him. After encountering a steward on the Trans-Siberian Railroad who seems fearful of speaking to foreigners he becomes a voice in the steward’s ear:

…a foreigner is…an infiltrator and a spy! Why is he staring out the window, what is he looking for?….Did he take notes? He took notes. What did he take notes of? Everything? Where does he keep those notes? With him at all times? That’s not good! And what did he ask? He asked if it’s far to Sima. To Sima? But we’re not stopping in Sima. Precisely. But he asked. And what did you say? Me? I said nothing. What do you mean, nothing!…. You should have said that we already passed Sima, that would have confused him!

His best passages take off from some episode he observes, and are usually not more than three or four pages long.4 In the new book one finds a mini-essay on how the fatal penalties for asking questions changed the entire style of Soviet conversation; another describes a meeting of striking Arctic coal miners that soon gets taken over by the mine’s managers, because they’re the only people who know how to run meetings. A brief encounter with two gang members leads to several brilliant pages on the rise of organized criminals, whom Kapuscinski sees as the sons and grandsons of the bezprizorny—the millions of orphans produced by the Russian Civil War and the great famine of the early 1930s, children who wandered the country’s roads and lived by theft. Imagine the lives of such people, he says, in a state which did everything important in great secrecy, add an ancient Russian tendency to blame all problems on conspiracies of enemies, and you have the ingredients for a hundred mafias—and a public resigned to their existence.

Only when one of his meditations goes on for longer than a few pages is it likely to seem strained. This is true, for example, of a rambling epilogue about the current Soviet government that has the unmistakable look of something added at the publisher’s request to “bring the story up to date.” Speculation on the prospects for Yeltsin and the Russian economy feel as out of place here as would an afterword about prospects for the whaling industry at the end of Moby-Dick.

What is striking about Kapuscinski is his ability to capture the historically telling image we would not otherwise see. In the Ukraine he glimpses through a train window an abandoned part of the vast Soviet arsenal: a row of new artillery pieces sunk deep into the mud, only the gun barrels and shields protruding.

Kapuscinski is attracted to marginal characters, not the “newsmakers” most reporters seek out. In his book about the last days of Portuguese Angola, he notices a woman who still presides over a shop full of lace wedding dresses. She sits as mutely as her mannequins; there are no more customers and never will be. In Imperium, even when Kapuscinski meets a politician, what he takes away is seldom an official statement. In Baku, he talks to the leader of the Azerbaijani National Front. “I know what he will tell me about the situation in Baku, so I do not ask him about that.” The man turns out to be a writer of books in the Azerbaijani language. For political reasons, the Azerbaijanis want to abandon the Cyrillic writing imposed on them by the Soviets, but can’t decide whether to go back to Arabic script, or to start using Roman letters like their linguistic cousins, the Turks. What intrigues Kapuscinski is that this writer is now stranded without an alphabet.

Now that Kapuscinski no longer needs to write in allegory, his new book feels less phantasmagoric than several of his earlier ones. The Soviet Union is the biggest collapsing empire story of them all, and he is free to tell it directly. Although there are two long sections about earlier visits, most of Imperium is based on travels through the USSR during its final three years: from 1989 through 1991. But Kapuscinski’s Soviet Union is not the Soviet Union of historians like Richard Pipes or Roy Medvedev or the late Isaac Deutscher (although he is familiar with their work); he has little interest in questions that concern them, such as the nature of socialism and capitalism—words scarcely mentioned in his book. And it is certainly not the Soviet Union of the foreign correspondents and diplomats who want to know who’s in or out at the Kremlin. Kapuscinski’s angle of vision is completely different. It is, above all, that of a Pole.

After trying for centuries, Poland won independence from Russia only after World War I. During and after the Second World War, Poland’s borders were shifted from east to west by 150 to 200 miles. A big swath of Polish territory got absorbed into the Soviet Union, and within it lay Kapuscinski’s home town, Pinsk.

He gives us, as a prologue, a frightening first-hand picture of the Red Army’s arrival there after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. At night Soviet soldiers barged into the house looking for his father, a Polish officer. Drunk artillerymen fired their howitzer at the local church tower. One by one, neighbors, friends, classmates, his teacher, disappeared in the night, deported to Siberia. His mother made him and his sister sleep with their clothes on, in case it was their turn next. Winter came. From behind bushes, the fearful seven-year-old Kapuscinski watched NKVD troops check the boxcars full of deportees, pulling out the bodies of those frozen to death during the night. A lesser writer might have gone on longer, told what happened to his family and how he survived. Kapuscinski stops after an unforgettable fifteen pages.

In the rest of the book, Kapuscinski’s interest, above all, is in the other places like Pinsk, the Soviet territories outside European Russia that felt Russia’s weight. Although he seems to have spent weeks or months (he is always vague about time) in Kiev and to have visited St. Petersburg, and even to have lived in Moscow during the August 1991 coup attempt, he has little to say about the three historic capitals. Instead, most of his reporting is about the empire’s fringes: the Caucasus, the Don region, the Arctic, Siberia, the former gulag center of Magadan, the Central Asian republics. One chapter describes the death of the Aral Sea, where thanks to the diversion of river water to a huge irrigation project (another disaster in itself), lifeless fleets of fishing boats now lie in the middle of a desert. Nature, as well as people, is among the imperial victims.

From his years in Asia and Africa Kapuscinski has an acute sense of what the former Soviet bloc and the third world have in common. Tbilisi or Yerevan are for him like the third world capitals that have impoverished the countryside by draining population to the metropolis. When he sees the airport in Baku jammed with frightened Russians trying to get back to Moscow, he remembers airports in Algiers and Leopoldville, in Angola and Mozambique. When he sees how a giant, polluting chemical combine dominates Russia’s Bakshir republic, he compares it to the Belgian mining company Union Minière, which still dominates southern Zaire. A muddy, desolate slum in Yakutsk reminds him of the favelas of Rio. When he talks with ethnic Russians who claim as much right to be in Yakutsk as the local people, he thinks of the Afrikaners in South Africa. The xenophobic voice of Russian ethnic nationalism—chillingly audible in a strange pageant he comes across in Irkutsk—recalls the rise of the Shi’ite clergy in Iran, who, just like the old regime, suppressed the Kurds and other peoples of another multinational state.

The Soviet Central Asian and Caucasian republics, he notes, were always headed by a first secretary of the Communist Party from the local ethnic group: “a vizier…. in accordance with Eastern tradition, his rule was for life.” This is, Kapuscinski points out, an adaptation of the long-lasting British colonial system of “indirect rule” through local tribal chiefs, maharajas, and the like.

The analogy between the USSR and the Western colonial powers has been made before, but seldom, I suspect, by someone with Kapuscinski’s experience of both systems. I only wish he had explored it at more length and more systematically. Being a miniaturist serves him somewhat less well here. For example, an interesting difference between Europe’s colonial territories and Russia’s is that places like Tashkent and Yerevan exported manufactured goods to Russia, while Russia sent them raw materials, such as timber, oil, and gas. This is the exact opposite of what every British colonial secretary knew a proper home country’s relations with a colony should be. And it is one reason why Russia is likely to be far less successful than England, France, and Belgium were in maintaining economic dominance over most of their former African colonies.

As a result of the upside-down imperial economic relationship between Russia and its colonies, many of the outlying ones, such as the Baltic states and much of Eastern Europe, came to enjoy higher standards of living than Russia itself. In Russia this has caused a bitter envy that has helped stir the fires of Great Russian xenophobia.

But, as Kapuscinski suggests, the points of similarity between Soviet and Western colonialism are clear enough. One is that both systems operated under cover of a rhetoric that had little connection to reality. Soviet rule had no more to do with giving power to the proletariat than European rule had to do with the white man’s burden or la mission civilisatrice. As far as Africa was concerned, no one saw more clearly through the fine words to the underlying horror than an earlier Pole whose life had also been touched by both Russia and the colonized world, Joseph Conrad.

Anyone who grew up in Pinsk and saw what Kapuscinski saw might be expected to have a keen awareness of Russian imperial power. What gives Kapuscinski’s voice such integrity is that his early first-hand experience of autocracy and national conquest broadened rather than narrowed him. It gave him an unerring moral radar for detecting the abuses and delusions of every sort of autocracy and nationalism, large and small, whether in Moscow or Yerevan, Tehran or Johannesburg. The “imperium” of this book’s title is not just the former Soviet Union. It is, unfortunately, most of the earth.

In Kapuscinski’s anatomy of tyranny, a persisting pattern, as he observed in his book on Iran, is that

A nation trampled by despotism…seeks a shelter, seeks a place where it can dig itself in, wall itself off, be itself…. But a whole nation cannot emigrate, so it undertakes a migration in time rather than in space. In the face of the encircling afflictions and threats of reality, it goes back to a past that seems a lost paradise…. This is why a gradual rebirth of old customs, beliefs, and symbols occurs under the lid of every dictatorship….

He notes the same thing in his journey around the unraveling Soviet Union, seeing everywhere the recurring fantasy of what he succinctly calls the Great Yesterday. The Great Yesterday is emotionally vivid both for small peoples like the Bashkirs, and large ones like the Russians, where “poor old women in Moscow abandoned the breadlines they had been standing in, gave up buying bread, to march down the street shouting the slogan ‘We will not give back the Kuril Islands!”’

The other tendency that Kapuscinski observes is the compulsion to classify everyone, which he finds characteristic of multinational empires. He arrives in Baku with a high fever, but instead of asking him what caused this, an Azerbaijani woman first asks what ethnic group he belongs to. “Like peasants the world over who begin each conversation with reflections on the subject of crops…so in the Imperium the first step in establishing contact between people is a mutual determination of one’s nationality.” He later meets another Azerbaijani, who detests the late Andrei Sakharov. Not because of what Sakharov stood for, but because Sakharov’s wife was part Armenian.

After Kapuscinski arrives in Nagorno-Karabakh dressed in his Aeroflot pilot’s uniform, the story he brings back is not the war reporter’s usual one of heroic besieged defenders holding out against heavy odds. It is, instead, a meditation on the madness of nationalism, racism, and religious fundamentalism:

Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn’t want a conversation, but a declaration….

…one can envy both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. They are not beset by worries about the complexity of the world or about the fact that human destiny is uncertain and fragile. The anxiety that usually accompanies such questions as: What is truth? What is the good? What is justice? is alien to them. They do not know the burden that weighs on those who ask themselves, But am I right?…. Their world is simple—on one side we, the good people, on the other they, our enemies.

Although he would never say so, Kapuscinski is someone who asks such questions, in all his books. Beneath the seductive dazzle of his prose, the questioning moral imagination of this truly original writer makes his work a whole. The frightened seven-year-old boy in Pinsk, peering out through the bushes at the secret police troops, went on to spend his working life looking into their very souls.

  1. 1

    The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983).

  2. 2

    Shah of Shahs, translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985).

  3. 3

    Another Day of Life, translated by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987).

  4. 4

    Unfortunately the copy-editing of the English translation of Imperium is not on a par with Kapuscinski’s writing. One can forgive the occasional incorrect usage (“conveyances” where “convoys” is called for) but not the strange transliteration of Russian names long familiar to English-speaking readers in other spellings. We read, for example, about “Cvietayev” and “Char’kov” rather than Tsvetayeva and Kharkov. Worse is the mangling of the English-language titles of books Kapuscinski refers to. Roy Medvedev’s classic account of the Stalin years appeared in the US not as “Under the Judgement of History” but as Let History Judge. In passing from Russian to Polish to English, some things have gotten even more garbled. Kapuscinski several times quotes Eugenia Ginzburg’s great memoir of the gulag, which is entitled in Russian Krutoi Marshrut. Krutoi can mean either “steep” or “severe,” “drastic,” etc. Marshrut comes from the French marche and route. Hence a literal translation of the phrase might be something like “Arduous Road.” But the book’s name appears here, bizarrely, as “The Steep Wall,” matching neither the Russian meaning nor the title of the American edition, Journey into the Whirlwind (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967). A writer of Kapuscinski’s stature deserves more care from his publisher than this.

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