A journal of the Russian spirit moves

September 26, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Last year, I met a Polish woman who was spending a few months as a visiting journalist on an American newspaper. She found the difference in approaches to journalism unsettling. Why do reporters here always have to give sources? she asked. Why must she get the name of even an apparently inconsequential person quoted once in a story?

In her country, the journalist was given much more latitude. "I cannot imagine Kapuscinski having to operate that way," she concluded.

She was referring to Ryszard Kapuscinski, Poland's best-known journalist, who, in a long career as a foreign correspondent, has covered innumerable wars, revolutions, coups, famines and other human transgressions and suffering. Outside this country, Mr. Kapuscinski, now 62, is a near-legend; John le Carre and Salman Rushdie sing his praises. In the United States, though, he remains relatively unknown.

It's a pity, for, as "Imperium" -- his fourth book -- amply demonstrates, Mr. Kapuscinski is both a consummate reporter and an unusually evocative writer. But he is more than a brave reporter (he was almost executed by firing squad in Africa) and facile wordsmith. Mr. Kapuscinski wants to understand the people he is writing about.

"Imperium" is an old term for Russia, and this book contains his reporting on the country from 1989 to 1991. To report on the monumental breakup of the former Soviet Union, he traveled to far Siberia, to Moscow, to Georgia. Everywhere, he observed. Everywhere, he listened.

More than anything, he understands what makes a great reporter: extreme ego (I decide what should be included in a story) mixed with great humility (I must stay out of it as much as possible). Here is his observation on Siberia:

"In many states there exist icy territories, lands that for the greatest part of the year are frozen over, dead. Such, for instance, are vast stretches of Canada. Or take Danish Greenland, or American Alaska. And yet it doesn't occur to anyone to frighten children with: 'Wash your hands or they'll send you to Canada!' Or 'Play nicely with that little girl or they'll deport you to America!' In those countries, quite simply, there is no dictatorship, nobody patches him to work in hellish frost, to a certain death."

He concludes: "In those frozen lands, man has one antagonist -- the cold. Here, as many as three -- the cold, hunger, and armed force."

This fascination with Siberia is entirely in character, for Mr. Kapuscinski has always been attracted to hellish places -- places of extreme heat or cold, countries rife with violence, or disease. I suspect he knows that in places of the worst circumstances lie the best stories of endurance, triumph, despair and failure.

Certainly Russia qualifies. He quotes Mikhaylovsky's 1882 study Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevski, in which the former, after first discussing the writer, ruminated on the Russian character. Mikhaylovsky concluded: "The main characteristic of the Russian, encoded in the Russian nation -- is the incessant pursuit of suffering." This observation was made more than a century ago. Mr. Kapuscinski sees its truth everywhere he goes in Russia.

At the same time, he uses a telling illustration to explain a sense of hopelessness he finds in the Russian people. In the United States, he writes, global maps put America in the middle. Russian maps always put Russia in the prominent spot.

That means the 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 and 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 Vladivostok throw up their hands. It is too big a country for goods to be delivered everywhere! grumble saleswomen in empty shops."

Mr. Kapuscinski is able to give such insights because of his empathy for the people he writes about. He is never condescending; after nearly four decades as a journalist, he continually struggles to understand a situation and does not resort to the easy answer or casual dismissal. And he writes with a poetic dreaminess one seldom encounters in journalism.

"Imperium" is wonderful stuff, among the best writing he has done. A thought occurs: After writing about Africa ("The Emperor"), Iran "Shah of Shahs") and Central America ("The Soccer War"), perhaps Mr. Kapuscinski should turn to the United States. Then Americans could learn more about this writer -- and also themselves.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "Imperium"

Author: Ryszard Kapuscinski; translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 331 pages, $24

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