Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński

I think I have read most of Ryszard Kapuściński’s books. He is Polish and, as far as I know, all of his work in English has been translated from his original tongue. Some styles of writing get lost in the translation process but his is quite memorable and consistently so across his works. It is vivid, personal and practical. He does not go in for florid metaphors. He doesn’t need to, as his subject matter is so compelling.

This work is one of his best. It contains accounts of his travels in the the USSR between 1989 and 1991, as the empire (‘Imperium") that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started to collapse and fragment. This process continues today and he rightly predicted that the post-Soviet transition would take many years. It is that fact, perhaps above all others, that makes this book fresh and still relevant, as we watch today’s Russia continuing to struggle with the legacies of the Soviet era.

For Kapuściński, these terrible legacies are fourfold: the remnants of the old regime, like the nomenklatura, the police and the army; the persistence of fear, since between 1918 and 1953, between 50 and 100 million Soviet citizens were murdered; poverty; and ecological horrors like the Aral Sea. It is worth mentioning that his report of what has happened to the Aral Sea is spare and unbelievably depressing.

He has fascinating and wise things to say about historical change, that apply almost everywhere in today’s world. He notes that the former USSR went very rapidly from a position where information was rare and unreliable and fundamentally subversive to a totalitarian system, to a position, like many other countries, where it is so varied and abundant to bring whole new social problems. He also notes, more insightfully perhaps, that the pace of political change now outstrips the pace of change in ordinary life. Governments and institutions come and go in the space of years or months; meanwhile, people live pretty much as before, with the same dripping tap or long bus ride to work.

And he sees 3 black clouds over the 21st century: nationalism, racism and religious fundamentalism. These threats, all dependent for their existence on some ill feeling against some other, loom not only over the former USSR, of course. 

Some of what he writes about makes you catch your breath. The Great Famine in the Ukraine, when Stalin deliberately starved millions of people to death, is one of those things we sort of think we know about but which bears repeated consideration and scrutiny. The sheer awfulness of daily life the USSR is quite horrifying in its banality and ubiquity. As he points out, even the material privilege available to those who for hierarchical or other reasons could obtain it under the system was piffling to western eyes. Outrage because an official has a few extra supplies found in his car. Hardly grand corruption and personal kleptocracy, on the scale we see today in Russia.

And his visit to Siberia, where so many death camps were run by successive Soviet regimes, is unforgettable.

This is an excellent book, enhanced by a short but limpidly written afterword by Margaret Atwood. 


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