Truly truly amazing book by a great journalist who went forth fearlessly where others would not dare. It starts in Pinsk, Poland in an area now called Belarus which was occupied by the USSR during Ryziards childhood and he describes the cruel deportation of 200 000 people to Siberia and how his family miraculously avoided it. He moves around to different parts of the USSR and there is always a great tale to tell about places most of us havent heard of from the oil fields of Azerbejan to the desert of Turkmenestan. Snippets of information, stories, anecdotes, for example how Stalin in his madness demolished the beautiful cathedral next to the Kremlin with a plan to build a skyscraper 5 times the size of the empire state building with a statue of Lenin atop. The incredible cruelty of Stalin's illiterate henchment is laid bare here with true stories from places that would be hell on earth in any circumstances. So bizarre, so interesting. Do read this if you are atall interested in the USSR it is great.
This is not a systematic study, based on secondary sources, but an account of the author's own experience, largely in travels round the outlying parts of the USSR (Siberia and the now independent states to the south) between 1967 and 1993. The writing is vivid, and a number of important aspects of the Stalinist past and modern conditions are treated with insight and feeling, though it remains a travel-book whose sequence is determined not by the unfolding of an argument, but by the chronology of the writer's movements. The book ends with prognostications of the future - written in 1993. How well do they stand up twenty years later? Kapuscinski's direct experience of the periphery of the country made him sceptical about any rapid improvements in a country so vast and with such poor infrastructure. As for politics, he writes: `The democratic camp, so active during the struggle against communism, has been pushed to the margins of the political stage and finds itself either in disarray or simply forgotten... Forces calling for the consolidation of power (especially of central power) and a strong, might nation are gaining the upper hand. It is a climate that encourages authoritarian methods of government, favorable to various forms of dictatorship.' - This was pretty clear by the late 1990s, even before Putin came to power, but to realize this as early as 1993 was surely exceptional.
The translation reads well, though there is some carelessness over the correct English transliteration of Russian names and terms. For example, `nomenclature' is not the right translation of `nomenklatura'.
After reading the first few pages I knew I would be forever a fan of Ryszard Kapuscinksi. Writing in a captivating and extremely enjoyable prose, Ryszard attempts to convey the recent history of the Soviet Union and more so its ressiliant and inhabitants. Travelling across the USSR as it begins to crumble, Ryszard describes the strength and endurance of those who survived the cold oppression of the soviet regime. After finishing this book I had the burning urge to read more of this brilliant journalist and can't wait to sample some of his other books.
There are many factors that have mythologised and romanticised Russia in the minds of many: of course, the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the place since before, during and after the establishment of the U.S.S.R. has given it a mystique that cannot fail to arouse one's curiosity; its sheer size and location just beyond the comprehension of European consciousness give it a presence that cannot be ignored; and its cultural influence - in terms of its thinkers, its writers and its politics - serves to support and emphasise that presence. It has been, and will continue to be for a long while yet, the exotic-other on our door-step.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, with his typically naturally-flowing, significant-but-not-pretentious style, entertains and educates in equal measure, and shines a light on many of the places that have remained in the shade for far too long and far too easily, simply due to the fact that our eyes have been diverted or that the little is so easily consumed in the large that is Russia and was the U.S.S.R.
When I say 'places', it would be more accurate to say 'people' as this is where Kapuscinski's light really shines, and it is people and the human spirit that populate this book. Even in critical accounts of the machinations of whatever state or system, the impact upon the person-in-the-street, like you or me, often gets lost; the critique simply replicates the dehumanising effect the state or system is said to have: people remain statistics and, although to an argument rather than to a system, slaves. As always with Kapuscinski, it is the people first and the system second, yet this approach says so much more about the larger world we inhabit than any cool, detached analysis can ever hope to achieve.
I think it also reminds you that all of our thoughts and actions have an equal importance and the potential to have an equal impact: although we may feel powerless in an ever-more globalised world, much as we are affected as individuals, we can also influence as individuals and groups if we choose to do so. We may now feel we serve the systems that were created to serve us, but we did create them and, therefore, have the power to bring them down or change their course.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough: it educates, it enlightens and it entertains - what more could you want?
A masterful collection of reportage from three different periods of the Imperium's existence, from domination to dynamic tension to dissolution. Kapuscinski's writing creates a study as well as a story, and rivals Gellhorn or Geertz for the quality of its 'thick description'. His ability to decant the monster that was the USSR into personal stories is distinguished by the complete lack of senitmentality in telling us the tale. Even the most harrowing episodes are given in precise and measured tones, short Hemingwayesque sentences and without embellishment. The only weakness, if it can be described as such, is the political analysis of the old Soviet Union, especially in the last chapter. Kapuscinski's powers of analysis are less credible and detached than his powers of description, and this is exposed here. It is the only time when his prose becomes a rant against authority rather than the means of communicating the Soviet experience. A remarkable book for all those interested in the old USSR and how ordinary people survived (or didn't survive) the experience.
As stated in most of the reviews of this book, Kapuscinski is a great writer. If you have not read him already, read this book and understand why. If you allready have read him, you are going to read this book based on what you allready have learned to know.
Having given Kapuscinski the credit he obviously deserves for his writing, I believe there is some points that should be done.
-First Kapuscinski stands on the shoulders of giants. His writing is to a great extent the result of the local people that he meets on his journeys and agrees to open their region and their lifes to him.
-Kapuscinski is a very gifted writer indeed, that have read a lot about the places and peoples that he visits. On one hand this is what always makes his writing so alive, something to go back to and read again, so informative. On the other hand great literature sometimes can serve as a way of getting away with having little or nothing to really report from the battleground when his plan fails or when he does not get what he intended out of a trip. Striking examples of this is his journey at the Trans-Siberian railway where he only observes the Soviet Union through the train window or to Nagarno Karabakh where he is stuck inside an airport, a car and a flat. That his stories is as intriguing, even when he hardly experience "what the war looks like on the ground" is a clear sign that his capabilities as dramaturg and writer can make up for a rather thin story. Even when he gets the chance to write the story he intended from a place he visits, the timeframe and the difficulties he worked under limits his insights compared to the writers that have covered the area afer him.
-Some paragraphs in the book makes me a bit uncertain about how good the translation is (my review is based upon the Norwegian translation). In the first chapter - Pinsk '39 the comment of a NKVD officer visiting their house "Muzh kuda?" is traslated "where is your husband" instead of the correct "Where have your husband gone", meaning that the NKVD officer allready knows that he has recently been in the house, meaning someone has infomed the NKVD that Kapuscinski's father (a hunted partisan) has recently been in the house. Things like this is not a big deal, but it makes you start thinking about the quality of the translation in general and if it can be the case that the author underplays the role of ordinary people as informers in the terror.
-In his story about the war in Pinsk 1939, his memory of the events as a child probably is an important expalianation behind the qualities of the stories. In the memory of a child events that would probably be described as horrorful and sad by a grown up, in the eyes of a smal shild gets exciting, intriguing, colorful and down to earth.
All in all, Kapuscinski is good reading and Imperium is a great intruduciton to the former Soviet Republics. To get true insight in the contemporary former Soviet Republics, you will need further reading though.
This is the very best book to encourage any interest in the former USSR it is a truly truly amazing book. It starts in Pinsk, Poland in an area now called Belarus which was occupied by the Soviets during Ryziard's childhood and he describes the cruel deportation of 200 000 people to Siberia and how his family managed to avoid it, with his mother staying awake all night long to alert the children if necessary to go into hiding, moving and poignant. I nearly cried when he told of the time when his teacher said the sweet shop was closing and they were giving away free sweets. All the children queued all night in the wind and snow to wait for the shop to open only to be given the empty sweet jars - just one each.
In his position as the only foreign correspondent in Poland he moves around to different parts of the USSR and there is always a great tale to tell about places most of us haven't heard of from the oil fields of Azerbejan to the desert of Turkmenestan. Snippets of information, stories, anecdotes, for example how Stalin in his madness, demolished the beautiful cathedral next to the Kremlin that had taken over 40 years to build, with a plan to build a skyscraper 5 times the size of the empire state building with a statue of Lenin atop. So bizarre, so interesting. Funny, sad, gripping and so true to life in descriptions of human nature. Do read this if you are even vaguely interested in the USSR, it is great. Permalink | Why no voting buttons?
The Soviet Union was a closed and intriguing society. From that era there have come many great travel books, many thought-evoking political polemics and many excellent historical accounts. Few however have been excellent and few however have covered all three of the above.
Kapuscinski was born in Pinsk; Poland at the time of his birth and presently part of the Republic of Belarus. He would go on to live an intriguing life as a correspondent for the Polish press, producing some staggering works of non-fiction from around the third world and operating as a spy for the communist government. As unbelievable as it may seem for somebody so closely linked to the communist regime, this is the most objective book about the USSR that I have come across.
Imperium is the account of Kapuscinski's various travel through the USSR from the 1958 to 1993 and uncovers the rawness of life in the region from the cold Krushchev Era right upto Perestroikia and the collapse of the Union. Beginning with the Red Army's Occupation of his birth town in 1937, Kapuscinski exercises a lifelong interest in the Russians and offers his unique view on this inexplicable land.
Kapuscinski's prose is intricate and creative, perfectly capturing a frustratingly bleak landscape of despair. Through his experiences he depicts a wonderfully human and contradictory nation about whom he is honest and descriptive, to the point of being perverse. Whilst principally a travel book, his interest in human nature and politics cues him to unravel as best he can the complexities of a social experiment gone horribly wrong. The intrigue of Soviet life is endless and anybody who feels sheltered in their comfortable life can only be humbled and awed by the struggles of the people represented in this book.
The crowning glory of this book however comes in Kapuscinski's personal experiences and the situations that he has to fight his way out of. Most notably the author's illegal journey to the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, undertaken at the height of the Soviet exodus of Azerbaijan at a time where journalists were banned from visiting. His subtle yet nail-biting account of the official corruption that allowed his travel, the sheer desperation and poverty depicted at Yerevan Airport and the apathy of the people that held the key to his escape could be a metaphor for life in the Soviet Union as a whole.
If you think you know anything about the USSR then think again. This book spans the gap in all knowledge, being neither written by an outsider from the west nor an unreliable source from within. Kapuscinski's objective description of life, weaved together by a series of incredible personal experiences make for an enlightening read which trumps any other book covering this incredibly opaque period of world history.
Ryszard Kapuscinski was an award winning international reporter who grew up in Poland and spent 40 years in Africa where he experienced 27 revolutions! Imperium is his account of life in the 'colonies' of the USSR before its break up. RK is a truly phenomenal writer who believes that you cannot write about something unless you have been there and experienced something 'with your own skin'. He is incapable of writing a dull word. The book consists of his travels to eg Ukraine, his experiences, observations and comments. What he sees and does is absolutely fascinating. He has the ability to capture the essence of a place through pen pictures so the reader really feels informed but his writing is utterly varied, lucid and descriptive. If you have an enquiring mind you will love this book. RK should have got the Nobel Prize for literature!
The first book i read by Ryszard Kapuscinski "THE SHADOW OF THE SUN" was without doubt the closest description of life in Africa written by a white man that i have read having spent ten years working there myself. He has taken his very astute sense of insight and observation to the old Soviet Union in "IMPERIUM", This is one part of the world i have never travelled in but when reading it , which i am still in the process of ,he manages to portray the vast scale and complexity of this old empire and the people who inhabit the various parts of it, Definitly worth five stars.