Ryszard Kapuściński’s is the most passionate, engaging and historically profound account of the collapse of the Soviet empire that I have read. Caustic and lyrical by turns, it is driven by that combustible mixture of love and loathing for their neighbour which Poles seem to have felt since the days of Mickiewicz. As in all of his previous work – The Soccer War, The Emperor, Shah of Shahs – Kapuściński (with the help here of Klara Glowczewska’s translation) has raised reportage to the status of literature.
Having spent his life covering the decolonisation of the Third World for the Polish state news agency, Kapuściński understood the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union as the decolonisation of the Second World. ‘By the end of the Eighties,’ he writes,
the country’s non-Russian inhabitants constituted nearly half of its population, whereas the governing élite was 95 per cent Russian or composed of the Russified representatives of the national minorities. It was only a matter of time before awareness of this fact would move these minorities towards acts of emancipation.
In Imperium the relationship between this drive towards self-determination at the margins and the crisis at the centre is anything but clear. Certainly, the élite – from Gorbachev down – failed to react in time to the accumulating force of nationalist claims within the empire. But it was only one among the many dangers bearing down on them: economic stagnation, doctrinal bankruptcy, the collapse of the Party’s legitimacy, corruption and patronage, failure to compete with the West. Imperium doesn’t provide the master narrative that tells us how these threats conspired: it is not an analysis, but a report from the front lines. Kapuściński’s argument, such as it is, is made by deliberate omission. He has little or nothing to say, for example, about Petersburg, Moscow, the urban élites, the dissidents, the Party, the crisis within ruling circles in the Eighties, perestroika. On all these subjects, David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb is the more acute and penetrating guide.
Kapuściński spends no time in dissidents’ apartments, or at the crowded press conferences in Moscow’s international press centre; high politics bores him. He has slipped away from the pack and gone off on his own, to the Caucasus, then to Central Asia, to Siberia and the death camps of Kolyma. It’s a solitary journey, a set of ‘wanderings’, as he calls them, bypassing ‘official institutions and routes’, in search of something fundamental yet impalpable: of how the tremors of a historical earthquake are felt thousands of miles from the epicentre.
By 1989, the changes introduced by Gorbachev had been so sweeping that most journalists had lost the capacity to be astonished. Kapuściński’s report has the virtue of holding onto astonishment, of conveying the sense of living through a moment of history when
the spirit of the times, dozing pitifully and apathetically like a huge wet bird on a branch, suddenly and without a clear reason (or at any rate without a reason allowing of an entirely rational explanation) unexpectedly takes off in bold and joyful flight. We all hear the shush of this flight. It stirs our imagination and gives us energy; we begin to act.
The central process was the break-up of the state – the gosudarstvo. At the time, the rapidity of the process seemed inexplicable: but in retrospect it seems obvious that a form of domination which bent all institutions to one purpose and killed off all intermediary social organisations, all independent actors, all civil society, was bound to collapse swiftly once the centre lost its nerve. Twice in the century, in 1917 and 1989, power in Russia simply vanished. Twice, power showed that its roots were too shallow to survive a storm. Into the cavernous hole it left after 1989, money and blood have both been poured. As a writer who has made a career from writing about the lethal enchantments of risk, Kapuściński was instinctively drawn to the blood, to the violence along the empire’s inflamed southern rim: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia and Abkhazia.
Even by war correspondents’ standards, some of Kapuściński’s adventures in this zone seem to have courted catastrophe. To get into Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, the Armenian enclave in the territory of Azerbaijan, which was encircled by divisions of the Red Army and the Azerbaijani militia, Kapuściński let the Armenian underground kit him out with a fake passport and an Aeroflot pilot’s uniform and fly him into the enclave, stowed away in the cockpit. When they landed, he had to appear at the cockpit-window, while the plane passed through the gunsights of the paratroopers massed on the perimeter. Once out of the plane he had to walk to a waiting car and let himself be driven through a Russian check-point, pretending to be in a drunken stupor.
One can imagine gambling like this at twenty, but not at sixty. It’s not that Kapuściński is oblivious to the risks: he seems alive to them, bathed in sweat, his heart pounding. As with Hemingway, his death-wish seems to well up, paradoxically, from a longing to feel alive, but unlike Hemingway, he avoids all forms of adolescent bravado. His laconic encounters with privation, risk and near-death give Imperium a depth and engagement missing from other tours through the ruins.
Kapuściński’s Polishness provides the book’s beginning: it starts in September 1939, in his home town of Pinsk, as the Red Army moves in, with the NKVD at its heels. He gets his first lesson in Russian from the only available textbook, Stalin’s Studies in Leninism. Soon he is wearing the white shirt and red scarf of the Pioneers. The deportations begin: Kapuściński’s father, an officer in the defeated Polish Army, takes to the woods, disguised as a peasant. His mother spends the nights standing at the window, waiting for the NKVD to come. Then the hunger starts. To quell the pangs, a Red Army soldier teaches him how to roll and smoke his first cigarette. Such experiences immunised him against the lie that the Soviet experiment was the hard road to a better future. For Kapuściński the child, the hard road had begun with hunger and terror, and this remained its only destination. As he argues, once Stalin was dead and the regime lost the nerve to continue killing, its eventual collapse was only a matter of time.
From such beginnings a young Pole could only associate the imperium with its barbed wire. The fences which defined its boundaries also defined its essence, as Kapuściński first realised in the course of a trip on the Trans-Siberian in 1958. In the customs shed at the Sino-Soviet border, the Soviet guards searched the sacks of buckwheat which Buryat passengers had brought across from the Chinese side. A Sahara of brown buckwheat was spread out across the zinc customs table, and Kapuściński watched the inspectors running their fingers through it ‘grain after grain, handful after handful, little sack after little sack; one small humiliation standing for the humiliation of a whole people.
In this cruelty there was something distinctively Russian. All the best Russian writers – Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy – felt despair at the cruelty of their country, which they saw in a famous image as a broken carthorse splayed on the sheet-ice. But they also saw her as the drunken coachman whipping the horse to its feet; and, perhaps worst of all, as the fatalistic passers-by crowding around the animal’s agony.
Kapuściński has a fine ear for the extraordinary range of aphorisms which convey this uniquely Russian fatalism:
Never mind! So what!! Everything’s possible! Well, all right! What will be will be! Vsievo mira nie piereyebiosh! (You cannot fuck the whole world!) You’ll live, you’ll see! Nachalstvo lutshe znayet! (The bosses know best!) Life! That’s how it is! There’s no need for better! A humble calf suckles two cows! You won’t catch a bird in flight! Etc, et cetera, et cetera, for it is an extremely rich language.
Such fatalism can be endearing when expressive of endurance, but not when it becomes totalitarianism’s accomplice:
A civilisation that does not ask questions, one that banishes from within its compass the entire world of anxiety, criticism and exploration – the world that expresses itself precisely through questions – is a civilisation standing in place, paralysed, immobile. And that is what the people in the Kremlin were after, because it is easiest to reign over a motionless and mute world.
As a Pole, Kapuściński has too many bitter memories to be tempted by the nefarious glamour of the Russia of which the poet Tiutchev wrote, ‘one cannot comprehend Russia with one’s reason ... one can only have faith in [her].’ Through Polish eyes, this is so much narcissism, so much wallowing in the moral superiority of backwardness.
Late in the book, Kapuściński ponders what it is to generalise about Russia:
The more abstract a meaning one gives to the appellation Russia, the easier it is to speak about it. ‘Russia seeks a path,’ ‘Russia says – no,’ ‘Russia goes to the right,’ and so on. At such a level of generality, many problems lose their significance, cease being relevant, vanish. The ideological and national macroscale marginalises and invalidates the difficult, vexing microscale of everyday life. Will Russia remain a superpower? When juxtaposed against such a monumental question, of what import is the one that so perturbs Anna Andreyevna from Novgorod – when will they let her live normally for a while?
Kapuściński wants to know why a system which never gave Anna Andreyevna a normal life secured her support for so long. Is it masochism which keeps Russia’s poor and excluded longing for the hand of Stalin? He observes how appealing it was, even for people like her, to believe that no matter how hard life was, Soviet power was feared and respected across the globe. The imperium was violent and cruel, but its destiny was grand and historical. The élite and the poor alike shared an ‘imperial scale of thinking ... the scale of large numbers, large spaces, of continents and oceans, of geographic meridians and parallels, of the atmosphere and the stratosphere, why, of the cosmos.’
This ruthless grandeur offered consolation even to those it tormented. It helps to explain why, for example, it is the poorest of old-age pensioners and war veterans who hold aloft the portraits of Stalin in demonstrations against the new capitalist order in Russia, or why old women, with string-bags and ragged coats, should be seen on television shaking their fists and chanting at the cameras: ‘We will not give back the Kuril Islands.’
But why be surprised? The Kuril Islands are a part of the imperium, and the imperium was built at the cost of the feeding and clothing of these women, at the cost of their leaking shoes and cold apartments, and what is most sad, at the cost of the blood and lives of their husbands and sons. And so they should give this back now? Never. Never ever.
As he delves into the masochistic legitimacy of empire, Kapuściński helps to distance us from its fall. We begin to see it as a violent but passing form of Oriental despotism, as relentless as Fascism, as single-minded in its appropriation of modernity’s tools to oppress and control, yet fatally compromised, both by its organised contempt for those in whose name it ruled, and by the central conceit that there could be a systematic, total alternative to capitalism. Here, Fascism was shrewder, because it vampirised the capitalist system; it did not wish to break it up, and so could deliver both the goods and the terror. It is because Fascism can live with capitalism that it will remain as a possible nightmare for us long after the last Communist is dead and buried. In the meantime, we conjure away such dangers by priding ourselves on our cosmopolitan detachment, and liberal immunity from the nationalist frenzies which convulse others.
Kapuściński has some shrewd things to say about the nationalist tide sweeping away the imperial order on the ex-Soviet periphery. In place of participation in the grand imperial destiny, there is now the available grandeur of resuming an interrupted national history. The problem is that resuming history is nothing more than taking up ancient quarrels; establishing a new post-Communist identity tends to mean seeking out the old enemy. The return to history is not a return to reason, but a return of the repressed. Of Armenian and Azerbaijani enmity, for example, Kapuściński writes:
In general, they are friendly, hospitable; after all, they have been living together, relatively peacefully, for years. And then suddenly, suddenly, something happens. What? They don’t even ask; they don’t even listen; they just grab daggers and swords (these days it’s machine-guns and bazookas) and in a trembling fury rush at the enemy and do not rest until they see blood. But each one of them on his own is pleasant, well-behaved, kind. The only explanation is that somewhere a devil must lurk, fomenting strife. And then, just as suddenly, everything calms down, the status quo ante returns, the everyday, the ordinary – simply provincial boredom.
What Kapuściński sees is that nationalist violence offers younger men an escape from the dreary mediocrity of backward societies. When they take up the Kalashnikov, they can enter the mythic realm: rejoining their ancestors, escaping the confines of ordinary life in an encounter with fate and destiny, even if destiny turns out to offer only death by sniper fire in some freezing mountain pass. And Kapuściński sees also the pathos of the choice confronting the new nations. They can return to their feuds, or they can return to the world; they cannot do both.
Imperium is a bleak book, yet not without hope. The hope Kapuściński respects is not of the grand political or programmatic kind, but something smaller and more personal. In Baku, he finds a metaphor for its fragility. He comes across a professor who ‘heals’ people in the street by offering them flowers, herbs and scents to smell. Given the violence and uncertainty of this post-imperial world, why not believe that sweet odours will help you to fight its loneliness and disorientation? Or there is hope of a less whimsical kind. In Novgorod, Kapuściński finds his way into a church crypt where a small team of restorers is re-assembling, piece by piece, some 14th-century frescos. The Soviets had used the church as a bunker and the tower as an artillery observation point: by the end of the war, it had been reduced to rubble. For twenty years, the restorers have been putting the frescos back together, without even knowing, since no photographs exist, what the whole is supposed to look like. That, for Kapuściński, is the same labour that will be required if Russia is to get up off its knees.
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