What about Anna Andreyevna?

Michael Ignatieff

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.

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