Writing as a correspondent for various Polish journals and press agencies over several decades, Ryszard Kapuscinski travelled extensively through Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, documenting brutal conflicts and ravaged countries. Ryszard has a poetic ability to delve underneath the surface of geopolitics and reveal stories at a human level.
In Imperium, Kapuscinski covers the human experience in the territories of the former Soviet Union, starting with his remembrances as a young boy in Poland in 1939, hungry and wondering in quiet fear as his friends got deported, presumably to Siberia. In the 50s and 60s, and then again after Perestroika, Ryszard travels to the far flung outposts of former Soviet territories, reflecting upon the after affects of Stalin and later the dramatic changes from the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
Wolfe: At the end of the Copernicus Lecture, you said that you wrote Imperium because it was important to bring a Polish way of seeing things to your topic. How did you come to a sense that there was a Polish way of seeing things? Did it emerge from your experiences in Africa, or in relationship to Russia?
Kapuscinski: It developed in relation to Russia in particular. Our history, the history of Polish-Russian relations, is very tragic, very harrowing. There has been a lot of suffering on our side, because Stalin killed all our intelligentsia. It wasn’t just that he killed 100,000 people, it was that he purposely killed the 100,000 who were our only intelligentsia. When I started writing Imperium, I had a problem with my conscience, because if I wrote strictly from the point of view of this Polish experience, the book would be completely unacceptable and incomprehensible to the Western reader. So I had to put aside our Polish experience, and to find an angle, an objective way of writing about Russia.
Kapuscinski’s writing is fabulous. There is nothing I can say that can do it justice. There isn’t a book by him that I’ve read that I haven’t recommended strongly to anyone who would listen.