Saturday, August 06, 2011

Imperium - Ryszard Kapuściński

"They made me a Stalinist, but they never made me a communist....if they would only let me live normally for a while now".

The difference between Western European Colonialism which collapsed in the first half of 20th Century and the Eastern European Colonialism ( which collapsed in the last decade of the 20th century) is interesting in comparison. Early colonialism was for territorial control and for the resources, the later was more ideological in nature. After the world war, the decolonization of the Western powers were rapid, and they were all over the world. In the disintegration of the Communist countries were sudden and the repercussion were very different from the earlier one. The once mighty USSR, disintegrated into 15 independent states ( CIS) did trigger birth of whole many new nations in the adjoining territory with the 7 way split of Yugoslavia and the division of Czech and Slovakia. The turmoil is not ceases yet, though it is less to be in the news and discussion.

Ryszard Kapuściński, one of the prominent traveller and journalist from Poland, writes about this country during the period of 1898- 1991. To be precisely, after the fall of German wall and through the separation of Soviet Union into 15 states. Typical to his style, the book reads like a fiction in style and narration, but carry his keep observation and insight to the subject he is set to write.

The book is set into 3 parts. The initial 75 odd pages brings us to the reality of Communism and Soviet Union during its all enduring days. His own personal experience as a 7 year old boy in the remote Polish town, witnessing disappearance of his classmates and neighbors. Recounting those nights spent in terror expecting to be deported, he had the first encounter with the Imperium. the early part also has his travel through the erstwhile Central Asian Republics of Soviet union in the late 50s, through the tribal and political conflicts of the society. This set the book up for further reading where he takes his next expedition in 1990, witnessing the readying of the republics to be independent states and thriving to re-build their own identity which was under cover for over 70 years. His travel through the frozen Siberia, looking for those dreaded places where masses of dissidents and suspected civilians under the regime were deported and was living under sub human conditions under threat, torture, labour and hunger.

He quote Yurii Boriev in the book, who compared the history of 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 move 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. (Yurri Boriev, Staliniad, 1990)

Kapuściński adds to that " And thus we come to the Epoch of the three funerals ( Brezhnev's, Andropov's and Chernenko's), during which the passengers of the train do not even have the illusion that they are going anywhere. But then, in April 1985, the train starts to move again. This is the last journey,however. it will last six and half years. This time Gorbachev is the engineer...."

It is his encounter with those otherwise insignificant individuals, you complete the picture of the life, history ( of those years) and culture of the territory.  He writes,

Nearing Krupska Street, we encounter an old woman outside a little house who is trying with the energetic strokes of a broom to halt the muddy deluge crawling onto the porch.

"Hard work," I say, to start a conversation.

"Ah," she replies, shrugging her shoulders, "spring is always terrible. Everything flows."

Silence falls.

"How's life?" I ask the most banal and idiotic question, just to keep the conversation going somehow.

The granny straightens up, leans her hands on the broom handle, looks at me, smiles even. "Kak zyviom?" she repeats thoughtfully, and then in a voice full of pride and determination and suffering and joy she offers in reply what is the crux of the Russian philosophy of life—"Dyshym!" (We breathe!)
It is not easy for the new states. Most of these republics were annexed to the Imperium, over a period of a century. Few by the Czars and many others by Stalin. While they inflicted the agenda and invaded culturally through Russian, at heart they remain those independent tribes. The often heard conflicts of geographical control ( Chechnya , Nagorno - Karabakh and other interstate issues) continue to be a nuisance. There is also expectations and the resulting disappointments of the people. The Problems related to the sudden found freedom and the resulting law and order situation continue to be an issue in most of the republics.

The book is not political, though Political issues do come in the purview, but mostly it is about people, the society under the regime through the people and his own experience. There are no biases nor it is judgmental but clear in thoughts and communication. This could be read as a journalistic reportage or as a travelogue. It is also a historical text for those who would like to see it so. Kapuściński is a marvellous writer. He is always in the thick of things. Be it inside the freezing, dark and gloomy coal mines of Siberia, or the troublesome Nagorno - Karabakh during the conflict or at the demonstration and siege at Kiev.

Even after twenty years, his observation and anxiety about the newly formed republic is interestingly accurate. Reading after twenty years of the events that unfolded, the book continue to remain relevant and accurate. His insights are result of these close observations and numerous conversations that are first person and not hearsay. That makes his books a different reading experience.

"One often regards it as a state like any other; this is not at all the case. Russia is a whole separate world"
Imperium ( 1993 )

Ryszard Kapuściński ( translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska 1994)

Granta Books

337 Pages

Rs 399
Other Reads : Independent

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