Essel on Imperium

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński

A book review by Dave Essel

imperiumI find Western Europe’s foreign and domestic political outlook more and more weak-kneed, morally relativistic, and appeasement oriented. In a word – deplorable. But them I’m a Brit and therefore an involuntary member of the European Union. Clear-sightedness is to be sought elsewhere, in certain quarters across the Atlantic but also, and importantly for the Russian theatre, in Eastern Europe, where the stance is clear and the knowledge direct. Nowhere more so, it seems to me, than in Poland, whose citizens have had centuries of experience in dealing with the Bear.

I was therefore delighted to come across this by no means new book – Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński – the other day. Herewith a couple of excerpts which I think demonstrate the peculiar genius of the Polish way of thinking (and of the author, of course).

About Siberia:

“I heard this name for the first time when I was seven years old. Stern mothers from our street cautioned: “Children, behave yourselves, or they’ll deport you to Sybir!” (They said it in Russian – Sybir – for this sounded more menacing, apocalyptic.)


Siberia, in its sinister, cruel form, is a freezing, icy space… plus dictatorship.

In many states there exist icy territories, lands that for the greater part of the year are frozen over, dead. Such, for instance, are vast stretches of Canada. Or take Danish Greenland, or American Alaska. And yet it doesn’t occur to anyone to frighten children with: “Wash your hands or they’ll send you to Canada!” Or “Play nicely with that little girl or they’ll deport you to America!” In those countries, quite simply, there is no dictatorship, nobody puts anyone in chains, nobody imprisons anyone in camps, dispatches him to work in hellish frost, to a certain death. In those frozen lands, man has one antagonist – the cold. Here, as many as three – the cold, hunger, and armed force.”

About questioning things. I am sure that we all at LR (except for the odd Russophile troll and Kremlin emissary who come in here when they feel they need an intellectual whipping) are frequently bemused at the preference of Russians for ignorance. Here Kapuściński pinpoints, via the story of a forced airport stopover, something vitally important about the Russian difference:

[…] It is Syktyvkar.

I did not know where this Syktyvkar was, and I had forgotten to take a map along. We waded through snow to the airport building. Inside it was hot, stuffy, and crowded. Finding an unoccupied piece of bench was impossible. All the benches were full of people sleeping, sleeping so profoundly and peacefully that it was as if they had long ago relinquished all hope of someday flying out of there.

I decided to stick with the passengers on my airplane, afraid that otherwise I’d miss the reboarding announcement and be left behind. We stood in the center of the large hall, for even the places against the walls were taken.

We stood and that’s that.

We stood and we are standing.

I had on a sheepskin coat (I was after flying to beyond the Arctic Circle), and in the press and shelter of the heated but unventilated hall, I started to drip with sweat. Take off the sheepskin? But what would I do with it? In my hands I had bags, and there were no hangers. We had been standing for more than an hour already, and it was becoming harder and harder to bear.

And yet the stuffiness and sweat were not the worst of it. The worst was that I did not know what to do next. How long am I supposed to stand like this in Syktyvkar? Another hour? Twenty-four hours? The rest of my life? And really – what am I doing here? Why didn’t we fly to Vorkuta? Will we fly at some point? When? Is there a chance of taking off the sheepskin, sitting down, and drinking some tea? Will this be possible?

I looked around at my neighbours.

They stood staring fixedly straight ahead. Just like that: staring fixedly straight ahead. One could see no impatience in their expressions. No anxiety, agitation, anger. Most important, they asked about nothing; they asked no one about anything. But perhaps they weren’t asking because they already knew?

I asked one of them if he knew when we would be taking off. If you suddenly ask someone a question here, you must wait patiently. For you can see in the face of the one queried that it is only under the influence of this stimulus (the question) that he seems to awaken, comes to life, and starts the laborious journey from some other planet to earth. And this requires time. Than an expression of slight and even amused surprise crosses his face – what’s the moron asking for?

The person to whom the question is addressed is absolutely right to consider his interrogator a moron. For his entire experience teaches him that no advantage accrues from asking questions, that no matter what, a man will learn – questions or not – only as much as they will tell him (or rather, won’t tell him), and that, on the contrary, the asking of questions is very dangerous and can cause a man to bring a great misfortune down upon his head.

It is true that a bit of time has elapsed since the epoch of Stalinism, but its memory is alive, and the lessons, traditions, and habits of the period remain, are fixed in consciousness, and will long influence people’s behaviour. How many of them (or their families, acquaintances, and so on) went to the camps because during a meeting, or even in a private conversation, they asked about this or that? How many in so doing ruined their careers? How many lost their jobs? How many lost their lives?


A wise sentence from Ecclesiastes: “Who gathers knowledge, gathers pain.”

About aggressivity. Kapuściński again perfectly illustrates the Russian difference, with a short account of breakfast in a Russian hotel:

In the morning, hotel guests can buy breakfast in the buffet. At that time of day, they are most often dressed in sweat suits. They stand in line. There is absolute silence. If someone wants to address his neighbour, he speaks in a whisper. This silence can at times be deceptive, treacherous. For suddenly, without reason, cries break out, yelling, a brawl! Two things characterise such situations, First, the cause is usually completely irrational. What was the reason? What happened? Why? It is impossible to ascertain; no one knows; everyone shrugs his shoulders. The atmosphere is charged with conflict, like a cloud packed with thunderbolts, and the slightest trifle can unleash the destructive energies. Second, the explosion occurs instantaneously; there are no intermediate degrees, no jeers, pouts, sulks, grimaces, only a straight shot from silence into screams – like a leap over a precipice! It is as if this war could take place on only one frequency, not one hertz lower or higher. This terrible, enraged, senseless shrieking and swearing lasts a short while and just s suddenly as it started – it dies out. Again silence descends. Again, if someone want sot address his neighbour, he speaks in a whisper.

Note this well, politicians and defence planners!

Anyway, I liked the book very much and highly recommend it. Though it was written at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it remains highly relevant today – because, of course, Russia seems never to change or want to try.

6 responses to “Essel on Imperium

  1. As a native of the UK of Polish extraction it is pleasing to read someone write this Mr Essel

    ‘….Nowhere more so, it seems to me, than in Poland, whose citizens have had centuries of experience in dealing with the Bear…….Herewith a couple of excerpts which I think demonstrate the peculiar genius of the Polish way of thinking …..’

    The irony is that the late Ryszard Kapuściński joined the Communist Polish Press Agency, became it’s only foreign correspondent, which gave him the opportunity to travel ouside the largest open prison in history. A very insightful journalist and writer.

    A further irony was that he was up for the Nobel prize for literature, widely expected to win it, which however was given to a British writer whose name escapes me who had terminal cancer. Unknown to anyone at the time is that Kapuściński was alsoseriously ill ,and sadly he died within the year.

    Another book that also demonstrates this Polish way of thinking you refer to is ‘The Captive Mind’ by the late Polish Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz that I would strongly recommend to those that have not read it.

    It is a lesson in how totalitarian (particularily Soviet totalitarianism) ‘thinking’ functions and is exercised.

    In the opening chapter Milosz refers to another well known pre WW2 Polish author (well known in Poland at least) Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz and his work ‘Insatiability.’

    A precient work that foretold what was to come at the hands of Soviet Russia. Give it a read and find out what the pills of Murti Bing were.

    Russians have been swallowing these for years and still do to this day.

  2. Dave, thanks for the book recommendation. Imperium is available at Amazon. The reader reviews are just as glowing.

  3. Dziękuję bardzo for the kind words, Veritas. When I lived in the UK, it was, as it happens, in Ealing. You will understand that I therefore had a better opportunity than most to enjoy and appreciate the value of having compatriots of Polish extraction and to learn what the WWII immigration from Poland did for our country – viz the Free Polish Air Force fighting out of RAF Northolt. It was only somewhat later that I discovered that had it not been for Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rozycki and Henryk Zygalski, the Polish mathematicians without whom Germany’s Enigma cypher machine would not have been broken, Britain and the world today might have been a rather different place.

    Thank you for your book recommendations: I have today mail-ordered “The Captive Mind” and look forward to an educational read soon. (I had to forego the other book you mention: it seems to be something of a special rarity, available at a rather too rich for me $99 or £72 from the respective Amazons!).

  4. Hello everybody, I’m Polish and it’s really pleasant to read this thread…

    As for “peculiar genius of the Polish way of thinking (and of the author, of course).”, Thank You, Dave :)

    Generally, the Polish outlook on Russia and Russians is from one side very useful, most likely because it’s based on practical experience, but from the other side it’s often so frustrating when you deal with people from the West who do not understand Russia at all, but they THINK they understand it.

    Basically, the huge source of problems in regard to Russias is the racism of the Westerners. Yes, racism, you heard it right… but usually when we hear about racism, it’s about attributing negative things to somebody because of his race.

    Here it’s the opposite – because Russians are genetically white, Westerners seem to assume that they more or less like European or American people…while actually the cultural diffference is as big as between a US or UK black person and a African tribesman – the genetics might be the same, culture is not.

    As for the Kapuscinki’s book, I’ve read it long ago, I think it might be a good introduction into the absurds of Russian mentality… the weirdest thing is, the weirdness described in “Imperum” is actually real.

  5. Michael_Poland, you’ve hit on something, that because we non-Russian westerners assume that Russians think like us because they look like us we always get it wrong. More ironic, Russians having now acquired our stuff think they are modern and western, never mind the dysfunction that is as ridiculous as any African hellhole, they think they are a modern state that should be considered as an equal with the west.

    The era of Putin with how seamlessly he has reversed freedom there, with high approval no less, certainly puts to rest the myth that Russians are a democracy loving people just like us if only you scratch the surface. Putin’s high approval ratings reflect the scratched surface.

    Russia is a basketcase that is very unlikely to ever change.

  6. David

    Thank you for your response and kind comments.

    Don’t worry about Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz ‘s ‘Instability.’ I wasn’t suggesting you buy it or read it. In the introduction to ‘The Captive Mind’ Milosz refers to it in some detail with a full explanation of what the pills of Murti Bing are. I think you will appreciate the analogy when you read it.

    I also hope our American friends will have the opportunity to see a BBC documentary sereis that is airing here in the UK at the moment – ‘WWII Behind Closed Doors – Stalin the Nazis and the West’ Made by Lawrence Rees who also made an excellent BBC sereis on Auschwitz.

    This sereis reveals what Poles knew and what was deliberately suppressed for the sake of the alliance with Russia in defeating Nazi Germany ie Soviet Russia’s pact (ie an alliance in all but name that the Sovets took great pains to conceal) with Nazi Germany 1939-41 and what they did.

    Anyone wishing to view it on the other side of the Atlantic can do so via the BBC website/i-Player.

    Michael is right,so are Penny’s observations.

    With Russia it has always been the surface trappings of the West/Central-East Europe eg Peter the Great’s St Petersburg, but non of our values ie democracy, non-vertical political structure etc etc It’s always a ‘Potemkin village’ ie a facade/charade.

    Western diplomats and politicians have often been naiive or foolish in thinking that Russia/Russians ‘play by our rules’ and can be reasoned with on their terms. It is pereceived/received as a weakness to be exploited and is not respected.

    Power and strength are/were their key desire and their only measure of self worth. Hence the bellicose posturing of their foreign policy in the last 8 years born out of a misplaced sense of invulenaribility due to the receipts gained from energy exports (the value of which was solely driven by the success and demand of external economies.)

    As for Poland. It is and never will be in Russia’s/Putin’s arrogant self styled ‘sphere of influence.’

    I hope that it’s current allies will remember how it was sold out and shamefully sacrificed to the Soviets in 1945 and we will never see a repeat of that episode again.

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