Updated: Mar 17, 2022
In 1917 an entire world went mad; a madness that came to be called the Soviet Union. The persecutions and wars that began with the October Revolution and that lasted for decades were marked by an almost incomprehensible series of mass exterminations; between 1918 and 1953 an estimated 54-110 million citizens of the USSR perished of unnatural causes. The Soviets left behind an enduring legacy of poverty, demoralization and ecological catastrophe. Deftly weaving historical narrative, personal travel stories and the testimony of those he meets along the way, Polish journalist, poet and traveler Ryszard Kapuściński bears compassionate, clear-sighted witness to this world and its disintegration.
Ryszard Kapuściński was one of the great travel writers of the last century, a Polish Marco Polo who returned dispatches from obscure corners of the world. This book is an account of his journeys across space and time in the Soviet Union. It begins during his wartime childhood in Poland and ends in the early 1990s, when the regime finally collapsed on itself in exhaustion. Unlike most of Kapuściński’s writings this book is clearly very personal. The horror of life inside the empire is described not just with eloquence but real pain. Kapuściński is sparse with his writing. He never hammers the reader over the head with details of atrocity. A simple description of how Soviet industrial policy caused the death of a lake in Central Asia can be enough to make one deeply understand just what kind of nightmare descended over that part of the world.
Kapuściński was accused later in life of embellishing details in his books. In one sense, the accusation likely has some merit. His memoir of growing up in a small town in Poland as the Communists took over seem a little too action-packed. Some of the dialogues he has with interlocutors across Russia seem a little too perfect. I would argue that this does not detract from his work, however. Kapuściński was someone who, by his own description, was experimenting with genre. While traveling on a train through Siberia, he wrote about things like borders and the natural human desire to expand out of them. His travelogues are those of a storyteller and have a dreamlike quality to them. If his books were written as novels, they would be masterpieces and no less "true" than a piece of reporting. That so many of his hinted-at predictions came to pass should suggest how genuine they really were.
In one of the book's opening chapters, Kapuściński sets out from Peking on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1958 and reaches the border between China and the USSR: "Now it begins. The opening, the unfastening, the untying, the disemboweling. The rummaging, the plunging in, the pulling out, the shaking about. And what is this? And what is that for?...."
But the worst offenders are citizens of the Soviet Union who have brought in little sacs of kasha and it is the job of a customs inspector to sift through it all: "A careful, meticulous sifting through the fingers....The fingers, delicately and imperceptibly, but very carefully, very vigilantly, roll the grain about. They investigate. The experienced finger...ready to throttle the grain instantly, catch it in a trap, imprison it. But the little grain is simply what it is...."
And then comes one of those passages that set Ryszard Kapuściński apart - the flash of empathy, not for the more obvious victim of this nonsense, but for the inspector: "Why, these are fingers that should be sculpting gold, polishing diamonds! What microscopic movements, what responsive tremors, what sensitivity, what professional virtuosity!"
Imperium isn't merely a travel narrative; such would ignore its vitality as palimpsest. It traverses the same roads again and again over time, it returns to immense crime scenes and it ponders a policy of ecological suicide. The book was published in 1994 just before a number of the text's issues came to boil: the two Chechen Wars. There are whispers of the rise of the oligarchs and somewhere lurking in the frozen mist is Putin. Kapuściński has penned an amazing account of an empire. He often suffers the human failing of bullshit philosophy and guessing wrong about an inchoate state of affairs. Stalin's chessboard left nascent atrocities across Central Asia. The author notes that dissent could've been crushed with death camps and mobile killing units, but then there would be a culpable element. Famine and cold spread the blame around. There is a sting of commiseration at the book's conclusion. I felt the stab of such as well.
Kapuściński wanted the reader to understand in an intimate way the incredible sufferings that this regime had inflicted on its people. I would say without hesitation that he succeeded. This is one of those books that, upon finishing, you feel fresh gratitude for the warm water in your tap, the ability to talk freely about what is on one's mind and for the breathability of the air outside. It is one of the most visceral and accessible chronicles of the Soviet Empire that I’ve ever encountered. I have never read anything quite like this book. I finished it in just a couple of days and then immediately turned back to read it - study it - a second time. It's brilliant, beautiful, weird, astonishing, prescient, haunting and sometimes darkly comedic; filled with word-pictures that seemed rather like the glittering tesserae of a smashed mosaic. If you care about history, if you want to understand how and why the madness happened and why the world is still paying the price of this terrible time - read this book.
Art of Budget Travel Rating *****
Like this? Here are some other Kapuscinski books well worth checking out:
The Emperor - a portrait of Ethiopia's diminutive erstwhile leader, Haile Selassie.
Travels with Herodotus - a reimagining of one of the world's first travel writers, from antiquity.
The Shah of Shahs - a portrait of the reviled American-backed monarch who ruled Iran, pre-Islamic revolution.
Another Day of Life - a credible account of the tragic civil war in Angola written by a witness and participant.
Nobody Leaves - An account of his motherland Poland during Communist times, caught between ties to the past and dreams of escape, a country on the edge of modernity.