Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński
A book review by Dave Essel
I 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).
“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.