KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s Imperium

I have a “dis-in-waiting” for the next over-zealous Russophile I meet. It’s not a common practice for me—to store up bons/mauvais mots—but sometimes inspiration hits and you think maybe you’ve got a keeper. For example, just yesterday I found the perfect way to translate “shit-tastic” into French: merde-ific. Truly inspired.

I’ve reserved the Russophile dis for a hyperactive Russian/Slavic studies undergrad who’s just finished reading some Dostoyevsky and taking a few language courses. As soon as he (it will undoubtedly be a ‘he’) breaks into nonsense about the Russian soul or the greatness of Russia, I will counter with, “The only things Russians are truly good at are literature and subjugation.” After finishing Ryszard KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s Imperium, I feel the dis is all the more apt.

Really, it was the first one hundred pages (they were all I could manage) of The Gulag Archipelago that spawned the dis-in-waiting. Imperium just sealed the deal. KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski characterises his work as simply “a personal report based on journeys [he] took across the great expanses of [Russia]… trying to get whatever places time, strength, and opportunity permitted.” Despite the humble claim, Imperium evokes heart-wrenching disbelief over atrocities committed in the former USSR with the same power as Solzhenitsyn’s tome (or, at least the same power as the first 100 pages).

The focus of KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s work is mostly on the peripheries of the former Soviet Union— Siberia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the ‘Stans and Ukraine. Out of his visits, he creates snapshots of these former Soviet republics in the years immediately following the Union’s collapse. KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski weaves history, literature and interviews to capture time and place, or has he says, the “forest of things.” His stories are also punctuated with his penchant for the gonzo, from sneaking into a workers meeting in the Arctic mining town of Vorkuta, after getting lost and nearly freezing to death, to posing as a pilot and slipping past commandos into the capital of Armenia.

When it comes to dissing Russians, history shows that Poles, like many other nationalities, deserve to administer a few burns. Though literary vendetta is not part of KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s program, I did expect more of a Polish-centred examination of the USSR. Yet, KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski avoids writing from an overtly Polish viewpoint. In a later interview, he says he adopted a more objective angle so that his writing would be more comprehensible to the Western reader. Objectivity or subjectivity—there is still the problem of how to read KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski. One can’t help but see parallels between his chronicle of the Armenian experience at the hands of various imperial powers and the history of his nation. In one interview he says there is nothing allegorical about his writings. In another, he does.

Another curious point regarding KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski is his view of nationalism. After witnessing twenty-seven revolutions in Africa and charting the formation of modern Iran, KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski has rightly cultivated a mistrust of nationalism. As colonial powers fall, the nations kept under colonisation’s umbrella start wars of secession or independence. In Imperium, KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski lists nationalism as the first of three plagues that threaten the world. But what of Poland? After 123 years off the map, fierce nationalism made Poland’s return possible. Can one only be objective about another’s nationalistic passions? Furthermore, KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski is no fan of the forced “peace” brought about by colonial domination. If the violence of colonialism and nationalism are both abhorrent, what is left?

These questions may be a bit unjust. KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski is a journalist, not a political theorist. Still, his observations in Imperium resound in today’s political climate. A reader who picked up the book in 1994 wouldn’t be shocked by last year’s Orange Revolution. In light of this month’s events in London, KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski’s third plague of the modern world is prescient. The plague is religious fundamentalism.

As for my dis-in-waiting, I’m keeping it and not only because of Russia’s past behaviour. In an interview, KapuÅ›ciÅ„ski said the following:

Official Russian state doctrine and foreign policy doesn’t mention the Bolshevik policy of expansion. It doesn’t condemn it. If you ask liberal Russians—academics, politicians—if Russia is dangerous to us, to Europe, to the world, they say: “No, it’s not dangerous, we’re too weak, we have an economic crisis, difficulties with foreign trade, our army is in a state of anarchy…” That is the answer. They are not saying: “We will never, ever repeat our crimes of expansionism, of constant war.” No, they say: “We are not dangerous to you, because right now we are weak”… there is a lack of critical assessment of the past. But you have to understand that the current ruling elite is actually the old ruling elite. So they are incapable of a self-critical approach to the past.

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