At the beginning of September 1939, the Reichswehr invaded Poland from the West; two weeks later the Red Army invaded from the East. On September 28, Hitler and Stalin signed a partition agreement which gave each tyrant half of a sad country which had only twenty-one years of modern nation-state independence behind it. Ryszard Kapuściński, then seven years old, happened to be born and raised in Pinsk, close to the Soviet border, rather than in, say, Lódz, near the German. This is why his book opens with a wrenching chapter on the entry of Soviet troops and nkvd emissaries into his hometown, and the deportations and famine that quickly followed, as they were observed through childish eyes. It may also explain why the Reichswehr’s brutal conquest of Pinsk, two years later, like Nazism itself, goes unmentioned, and the story of the (Soviet) ‘Imperium’ is resumed only twenty years later, by a then cub-reporter for the communist-ruled republic of Poland. Around 1991, Kapuściński returns uneasily to Pinsk, and tells some people, as they leave the neighbourhood church, his name. Laconically, he reports that they turned out to be ‘my mother’s and father’s students, now older by fifty years’.footnote1

Michael Ignatieff’s great-grandfather was, in pre-Bolshevik days, a wealthy, aristocratic landowner near Kiev, about 250 miles south-east of Pinsk, but in the traditional Ukraine. The next generation fled the furies of the revolution, and ended up in Ottawa, where grandchild Michael received his first schooling, before going on to better things in Toronto, Cambridge (Mass.), Cambridge (uk), and the bbc. By the time he was seven years old, both Hitler and Stalin were with their unfathomable Maker, and he came to political consciousness in the age of the Beatles, television, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. This trajectory may explain why his book has a lot to say about Germany, Canada and the Ukraine, and very little about the Imperium.footnote2 Ignatieff too goes ‘home’ to his great-grandfather’s house, which has become a primary school, presents the bewildered tots with an album of his family’s photographs, has a genial vodka-and-cognac meal with the local priest and his wife, and is amused that the appearance of a non-Russian speaking stranger makes it hard to convince the peasantry that he really is ‘the Count’s grandson’. Only fifteen age-years and merely 250 crow-miles—what differences they can make!

But it is medium as much as space and time that sharply separates these books. Blood and Belonging is described as a ‘companion book’ to a six-part television series of the same name. Its style is now-you-see-it verismo, confirmed by map-graphics and photos of the author chatting up Orangemen, Kurdish guerrillas and sailors of the Black Sea Fleet, and by a disagreeable use of the tv ‘we’, intended to cover the cheerful emcee himself and his would-be viewers. Kapuściński, a man of the book, offers no visual aids, rarely refers to ‘we’, and writes in the chilly, hallucinatory vein pioneered, after World War II, by Curzio Malaparte in his extraordinary Kaputt and The Volga Rises in Europe.

The core of Imperium is two hundred pages of reportage on the frenetic forty-thousand mile travels carried out by the author in 1989–91 across the imploding Soviet Union, flanked by brief sketches of a trip on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1957 and through the ‘southern tier’ in 1967, as well as by an uncharacteristically banal crystal-ball wrap-up chapter which looks to be an imposition by the hierarchs of Knopf. In the course of these two hundred pages, Kapuściński describes his flying visits to Moscow, Vorkuta, Tbilisi, Baku, Yerevan, Magadan, Sukhumi, Yakuta, Ufa, Kiev, the Aral Sea, Lvov and many places in-between. (He is not, however, much interested in Leningrad, Sverdlovsk, Riga or Nizhni Novgorod.) Anyone expecting to get reliable facts, sober sociological and political analysis, or in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of the inhabitants of the late ussr, will be disappointed by Imperium. Kapuściński stays nowhere more than a day or two, and the fragmentary conversations he records tell one nothing independent of what he wishes to use for his restless, interminable ruminations. But these ruminations have a real interest of their own, for they show the historical enigma of the Soviet Union as surveyed from Pinsk.

In many ways, Kapuściński basically recuperates the tropes that powerfully influenced European imaginings of ‘eternal Russia’ from the start of the nineteenth century: ice, barbarism, autocracy, and a peculiar people who, he says, ‘for centuries were animated and unified by the imperial ambition’. (But he does so as a member of the Poles, a neighbouring peculiar people, who have had plenty of imperial ambitions of their own.) No figure in Soviet history better fitted these tropes than the man who sent the nkvd into Pinsk in 1939. Stalin completely dominates Imperium but he does so as the last and worst of czars.

The single most hallucinatory section of the book describes the author’s brief visit to Vorkuta, beyond the Arctic circle, and one of the grimmest sites in the whole of Stalin’s gulag. The trope of ice, however, requires that Kapuściński visit in midwinter—not midsummer—when the ‘temperature is minus thirty-five degrees Celsius’. The frozen landscape then becomes an easy metaphor for a ‘civilization that does not ask questions, a civilization standing in place, paralysed, immobile. And that is what the people in the Kremlin were after, because it is easiest to reign over a motionless and mute world.’ The writing is so urgent that one momentarily forgets Ilya Ehrenburg’s thaw, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and the inexplicable fact that Vorkuta has not held prisoners for many years; ‘motionless’ is also a queer way to depict the frantically industrializing Soviet Union of the 1930s, which, at incalculable cost, defeated Hitler in the 1940s.

Ice also works quite nicely as an unreliable metaphor for historic Russian imperial ambitions—one recalls all those texts describing Moscow’s eternal hunt for warm-water ports. A chilly North European himself, Kapuściński has always been drawn to the ‘Caribbean’ heat and colour—in every sense of these words—of the Third World. But in Imperium this everyday exoticism takes on a special political tinge. One is not surprised that the author visits the Caucasus when the sun is shining brightly, the wine flows freely, and the girls look wonderful; for this is what shows that Georgia and Armenia are the cousins of the Gold Coast and Cambodia. In the same way, the stopovers in Muslim Central Asia read in many ways like visits to Agra or Isfahan. One sees strange and beautiful things—but one isn’t a bit interested in Islam itself—which survived the empire. All of this simply evades the complex reality that the Soviet Union was not ‘just Czardom updated’, but, as such different scholars as Ronald Suny and Rogers Brubaker have been showing, an autocracy of a communist party-system which, as no traditional empire would have done, incorporated an astonishing welter of national and cultural elites into itself, and over time gave these elites control over ‘national territories and populations’.footnote3