Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński

Kapuściński was a Polish journalist that made it a habit in his life to visit places in the midst of revolutions, unrest, or political upheaval. In this book he journeys throughout Russia. Russia is a massive country that has often been misunderstood in the West. To call this a travelogue would do it a disservice; Ryzgard had a gift for talking to people and really seeing a place. He could boil down thoughts, attitudes of people, and his experiences into beautiful stories. He interprets a place where others will just describe what is on the surface.

This book isn’t a history book either, although he does go into history of the places he visits. It is a book about the moods, the attitudes, and the experience of Russians and Soviet citizens. It’s about the culture of a place. He uses people he met along the way to illustrate different points and to give context to the historical facts.

I started off by saying this book is about Russia, but let me specify that it is actually also about the areas, and new nations that have sprung up on the periphery of a crumbling empire. He visited Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by plane and train. He visited the gulags up in Siberia and other parts of Russia, too.

This book is split up into 3 parts: his experience as a youth growing up in Soviet Poland, his journeys in the 60s, and his journeys in 1990-91.

I learned a lot about Russian history reading this book. I learned a lot about Soviet people and their way of life, too. Though this book is now over 25 years old, it is still a great historical time capsule giving a glimpse of what life was like in the Soviet Union, and what it was like living during its breakup in 1991.

This book reminded me a lot of the book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich. She has a similar style, not of a historian, but rather capturing the ‘oral history’ of a time and place. Secondhand Time is described as “oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.” If you’re interested in reading Imperium, you would probably be interested in reading Secondhand Time as well.

Here is just one example of the way Kapuscinski writes…

There are two kinds of global maps in the world. One type is disseminated by the National Geographic Society in America, and on it, in the middle, in the central sport, lies the American continent, surrounded by two oceans - the Atlantic and the Pacific. The former Soviet Union is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends of the map so that it wont frighten American children with its immense bulk. The Institute of Geography in Moscow prints and entirely different map. On it, in the middle, in the central spot, lies the former Soviet Union, which is so big that it overwhelms us with its expanse; America, on the other hand, is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends so that the Russian child will not think: My God! How large this America is!.

These two maps have been shaping two different visions of the world for generations."

He makes great quotes from Eastern European literature that is often inaccesible for English speakers…

The Russian writer Yurii Boriev compared the history of the USSR to a train in motion: The train is speeding into a luminous future. Lenin is at the controls. Suddenly – stop, the tracks come to an end. Lenin calls on the people for additional, Saturday work, tracks are laid down, and the train moves on. Now Stalin is driving it. Again the tracks end. Stalin orders half the conductors and passengers shot, and the rest he forces to lay down new tracks. The train starts again. Khrushchev replaces Stalin, and when the tracks come to an end, he orders that the ones over which the train has already passed be dismantled and laid down before the locomotive. Brezhnev takes Khrushchev’s place. When the tracks end again, Brezhnev decides to pull down the window blinds and rock the cars in such a way that the passengers will think the train is still moving forward. (Yurii Boriev, Staliniad, 1990)

Writing about a gulag in Siberia…

I thought about the terrible uselessness of suffering. Love leaves behind its creation – the next generation coming into the world, the continuation of humanity. But suffering? Such a great part of human experience, the most difficult and painful, passes leaving no trace. If one were to collect the energy of suffering emitted by the millions of people here and transform it into the power of creation, one could turn our planet into a flowering garden.

Rating: ★★★★★

Book #13 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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