(This post along with three others here, here, and here constitute my review).
Global maps in the Imperium and in the U.S. are an expression of national psychology. Ryszard Kapuscinski's wide traveling, observant eye and wry tongue make the tone of his analysis unique:
One type is disseminated by the National Geographic Society in America, and on it, in the middle, in the central spot, lies the American continent, surrounded by two oceans - the Atlantic and the Pacific. The former Soviet Union is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends of the map so that it won't frighten American children with its immense bulk. The Institute of Geography in Moscow prints an entirely different map. On it, in the middle, in the central port, lies the former Soviet Union, which is so big that it overwhelms us with its expanse; America, on the other hand, is cut in half and placed discreetly at both ends so that the Russian child will not think: My God! How large this America is!
These two maps have been shaping two different visions of the world for generations.
In the course of my wanderings over the territories of the Imperium my attention was caught by, among other things, the fact that even in forsaken and tumbledown little towns, even in practically empty bookshops, there was for sale, as a rule, a large map of this country on which the rest of the world appeared to be almost in the background, in the margins, in shadow.
This map is for Russians a kind of visual recompense, a peculiar emotional sublimation, and also an object of unconcealed pride.
It also serves to explain and justify all shortages, mistakes, poverty, and marasmus. It is too big a country to be reformed! explain the opponents of reforms. It is too big a country to be cleaned up! janitors from Brest to Vladivostock throw up their hands. It is too big a country for goods to be delivered everywhere, grumble saleswomen in empty shops.
A great size, which explain and absolves everything. Sure, if we were a small country like Switzerland, everything here would run like clockwork, too!
Kapuscinski's bleak chapter on Kolyma - one of Russia's arctic death camps - sees the camps as a metaphor for the entire country:
The half-naked deportees stood motionless in a blizzard, lashed by the gales. Finally, the escorts delivered their routine admotion: A step to the left or a step to the right is considered an escape attempt - we shoot without warning! This identical formula was uniformly applied throughout the entire territory of the USSR. The whole nation, two hundred million strong, had to march in tight formation in a dictated direction. Any deviation to the left of to the right meant death.
Quite a different story from the romantic one of a utopia whose only price is allegiance to the state above the individual so that no one will live in want.
One of my favorite sections of the book is the one on the Kremlin. Kapuscinski sneaks his way into the Kremlin, normally closed to visitors, under false pretenses. His only motive is the search for a story, to see something few others have seen. For this he might be shot or imprisoned if he is caught. But that is what Kapuscinski seems to live for. His story of being smuggled into Armenia in 1990 reads like a spy novel - he takes terrifying risks.
To walk into the Kremlin just like that, simply to walk in, without a reason or a goal, is impossible. One can gain access for only three reasons: a) to visit the museum as part of a group excursion from one's place of work (it is a form of distinction and reward), b) to attend one of a variety of important congresses that from time to time take place here (delegates and accredited journalists can enter then), c) at the summons of one of the dignitaries who officiate here. In each of these cases, one is required, after having passed the gate, to move by the shortest route possible to the preordained destination - there and back.
Kapuscinski offers as series of other writers' views of the Kremlin - H. G. Wells from 1920, Roy Mevedev's memoir of Stalin's reign, with stories of the build up of of security in the Kremlin as Stalin's paranoia grows, and the horrifying story of Stalin's wife's suicide, Kilovan Kjilas' book Conversations with Stalin, and Nikita Krushchev's Memoirs are also quoted.
The story of his trip to Nagorno-Karabakh in 1990 had me on pins and needles. I'm not going to ruin the suspense of his journey there, it is worth reading of-a-piece. In fact, this whole book views the world from a vantage point which, even with awareness of Russian history, is difficult to imagine in this kind of experiential detail if you have grown up with the western abundance we have grown so used to. That fresh viewpoint, delivered as experience not merely as explanation, is the value of reading Imperium. In fact, to my mind, a new experience of worlds we think we know is one of my chief reasons for reading at all.
This is my last entry on the splendid, wild ride - a mixture of history, psychology, world politics, geography - that was Imperium. It has convinced me, as Sheila said it would, to want to read other works by Kapuscinski. I'll leave with two more of his wonderful this-is-the-way-the- world-works observations from his 1990 trip.
For Armenians, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is a problem. The rest are enemies.
For Azerbaijanis, an ally is one who believes that Nagorno-Karabakh is not a problem. The rest are enemies.
The extremism and finality of these positions is remarkable. It isn't merely that among Armenians one cannot say, "I believe that the Azerbaijanis are right," or the among Azerbaijanis one cannot maintain, "I believe that the Armenians are right." No such stance even enters the realm of possibility - either group would instantly hate you then kill you!
Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.
The first is the plague of nationalism.
The second is the plague of racism.
The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.
All three share one train, a common denominator - an agressive, all powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only it sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn't want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist...a mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only - its enemy.
That's why politics and religion must remain separate. I am horrified whenever religious belief enters the political fray. It is no less heinous when it happens in my country than it is in the middle east. 'A government of laws and not of men' is supposed to sidestep some of the influences of irrationality in the application of the law. Not to say that people do not have the right to the comfort of their beliefs - of course they do- but for personal beliefs, whether shared by many others or few, to be legislated for everyone, for 'god' to enter every political address is a crass commercialization of something meant to be sacred. I can't understand why it doesn't revolt the devout. I'd love to hear Kapuscinski on this - too bad we won't get that chance.