But things turned out otherwise
October 22, 2008 2 Comments
In Imperium, Ryszard Kapuściński presents sketches of the Soviet Union as it breaks apart. To find and understand the “Soviet man”, Kapuściński travels across the empire. He sneaks illegally into Nagorno-Karabakh, nearly freezes to death in Siberia, visits the remains of a labor camp, tests the patience of Kremlin guards, and speaks to a survivor of the Ukrainian genocide. His emphasis is on the everyday. A recurrent theme is the sight of confused, tired, hungry people who spend weeks in airports, waiting for a plane. Where are they going? Where did they come from? Nobody knows, nobody cares, an already broken system has come to a halt. Kapuściński’s sketches span both the everyday and the historic scale. Describing a Gulag town, he reminds the reader of the many thousand human bodies buried beneath its streets. Asking himself if the old men he sees there were victims or perpetrators of the Gulag, he realizes that the question is meaningless. They were of course both. The story he tells of the Palace of the Soviets is strangely infuriating despite the lack of human suffering: Stalin blew up Moscow’s greatest church to build an insane monument to Communism. Running out of funds, Khrushchev turned the building site into a giant pool. (The church has later been rebuilt.) Despite the Imperium’s diversity and geographic span, Kapuściński does find a “Soviet man” of sorts, in the ability to resign yourself to irrational horrors. As one woman tells him, “We breathe!” Rarely has optimism sounded so depressing.