Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is an excellent and unique book offering an unparalleled insight into life in the former Soviet empire, and life in the current Russia and former Soviet-bloc states. Growing up as a Pole from where is currently Byelorussia, Ryszard is ideally positioned to commentate and annotate life under the former Soviet regime. He is an exceptional, if not the most exceptional, proponent of “travel reportage” in any case, and here he works on reportage from an area he clearly has massive emotional attachment to.
In Travels With Herodotus, Ryszard explains to some degree the role he sees himself playing in the world, a role similar he feels to that played by the legendary Greek historian and scholar Herodotus. It is essential for him to live among the “real” people of the land, and experience life exactly as they do. No living in fancy hotels for him – indeed, usually no living in hotels! The result of this technique or approach is that you get an authentic non-judgmental vision of what life is like in the places of his visits. Non-judgmental, yet wholly sympathetic.
In this particular case, the place of visit is the lands encompassed by the former Soviet empire, or Imperium as he calls it – wide, vast and usually cold lands. There is such an incredible variety of life and culture in the former Soviet states and Russia, and Ryszard ably brings them to life for us. As you might expect, a constant feeling of sadness or past hurt pervades most of these places, as is usually due to the terrible deeds of the past of the Imperium. He visits Kolyma for example, the infamous Siberian polar death-camp, and lays commemorative flowers on a stretch of road-side where tens of thousands were buried – dumped might be a more apt description. There is almost nothing in Western culture or history dealing with Stalin’s death-camps where he butchered millions, compared to Hitler’s death-camps. I naively could never understand why Stalin was not as infamous and reviled as Hitler, until of course I was old enough to realize that the Soviets “won” WWII, appeased by the allies in their crimes (such as Polish annexation and deportations, the actual abandonment of Poland to Stalin despite the fact the invasion of Poland was the reason the Allies went to war in the first place), and therefore they got to write their own version of history, or rather, write out of history what was unpalatable to the victors.
Often stark, bleak and tough images of the Imperium lands emerge from the pages. Nonetheless, focused as Ryszard is on the people, it is heart-warming to see the good-naturedness of people emerge as they interact with him, even in terrible or bleak situations. Overall, you can’t help but get a sense of the epic failure that the Soviet system was, in terms of negative (not to mention lethal) impact it had on the lives of so many people.
Parts of his travels documented in this book read like a Boy’s Own adventure: flying into an isolated Armenian mountain-top city, or getting lost in ferocious snow storms in Siberia. In fact one quality that shines through is his utter fearlessness and bravery, something that if you have read any of Ryszard’s other works, you could undoubtedly attest to.
As I mentioned earlier, this is something of a personal voyage for Ryszard, being a Pole as he was, and experiencing first-hand the invasion, deprivations and deportations suffered on the Polish people by the Soviet state. In fact, the opening chapter of this book offers a truly unique glimpse into the Russian invasion of Poland, of which there is little known even in the West nowadays about this. You get an eerie and uncanny sense of what an invasion feels like – it seems like an utterly alien feeling, and I can just imagine how people would even have a hard time believing such events are actually happening to them. The disappearances of school mates and teachers, neighbours, family and friends at the hands of the Russians is truly staggering to read about – shocking stuff, but making this book all the more valuable through its documenting of it.
In summary, this truly is a rare beast of a book, offering as it does hard-won and incredible insights into life in and post the Soviet Empire, and told through the late Ryszard’s inimitable brilliant style. A true classic of modern literature.