Sailendra Pattnayak

Ryszard Kapuscinski’s polemical narrative of his journeys through Russia titled ‘Imperium’ was published in English in 1994.

‘Imperium’, the story of an empire is about the en-massing of a great number of states under the single bureaucratic and military identity that was known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic – USSR.

“…the surface of the Imperium measures more than twenty-two million square kilometers and its continental boarders are longer than the equator and stretch for forty-two thousand kilometers.’’ And to travel through the entire length and breadth of the Imperium, “…I would simply not live long enough to do that’’ writes Kapuscinski in 1989.

“…I was last here more than twenty years ago, at the start of Brezhnev era – the era of Stalin, the era of Khrushchev, the era of Brezhnev, and before that the era of Peter I, Catherine II, Alexander III. In what other country does the persona of the ruler, his character traits, his manias, and phobias, leave such a profound stamp on the national history, its course, and its ascents and downfalls?”

Now, it should have been the Putin Era, and this wish since long has been brewing in the head of the new czar, was declared to the world on 24th February 2022 at the cost of life and hearth of millions of Ukrainians.

“Russian life so threshes the Russians that he cannot gather himself, it threshes him like a thousand-prod stick.” had said Anton Chekhov more than a hundred years ago.

Birth of a Writer :

Kapuscinski was of seven years old when his “…first encounter with imperium takes place near the bridge linking the small town of Pinsk, Poland, with the territories to the south. It is end of September 1939. War is everywhere. Villages are burning; people are taking shelter from air raids in ditches and in forests… Dead horses lie in the road…

“Crowds of refugees, fleeing in dust, dirt, panic… We were on holiday at our uncle’s near Rejowice when the war surprised us, and so now we have to go back home.

“After days of wondering (with mother and sister) we were near Pinsk, and in the distance we can already see the town’s houses, the trees of its beautiful parks…” suddenly they were surrounded by the soldiers of the Red Army. “they keep us at distance – “Don’t move!” they shout, and take aim with their rifles.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski

Kapuscinski grew to be a sensitive and vivid storyteller and an intrepid journalist traveling the far off places in Africa, South America sending dispatches to Polish newspapers and periodicals. Of him what Salman Rushdie wrote in 1987 was also a deep look into the human predicament today:

“What kinds of life should we call ‘ordinary’, here in the late twentieth century? What is ‘normal’ in these abnormal days? For many of us, any definition of the quotidian would still include notions of peace and stability. We would still, perhaps, wish to picture everyday life as rhythmic, based on settled and repeating social patterns. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s work seems to be based on his knowledge that such conventional descriptions of actuality are now so limited in application that they have become, in a way, fictions.”(Imaginary Homelands)

24th February 2022 :

As the Russian assault on Ukraine began on 24th February, there has been more than three million Ukrainians have left their country as refugees. This brings to mind a deeply disturbing question – does history repeat itself in spite of strides of progress made by human ingenuity? Or this is because of the keenness of human mind in adopting forgetfulness regarding its own past? With Ukraine it seems that history not only repeats itself but repeats in a conspiring mode.

The Temple and the Palace –‘Ten Million Ukrainians Must Starve to Death’ :

In Part-II of Kapuscinski’s Imperium under the title, ‘Bird’s Eye View’ we read in The Temple and The Palace chapter:

“And indeed. The Temple of the Christ the Savior is more than thirty stories tall. Its walls are 3.2 meters thick. They were built out of forty million bricks… On the summit stands a cross sculpted in bronze three stories high… entering one sees before him a gigantic and dazzling iconostasis, for which 422 kilograms of gold were used…”

It was constructed during the era of Czar Alexander III and completed in 1883. In 1931, at the height of Stalin era, Stalin ordered – “And now we shall raze the Temple of Christ the Savior!”

“The Death of the Temple of Christ the Savior takes place on December 5, 1931.”

And “…during this time Stalin had dozens of things on his mind. First and foremost, he was directing the campaign of killing ten million people in Ukraine by starvation. The killing of ten million people given the current state of technology was no easy matter. They did not know about gas chambers; they did not know about weapons of mass destruction. Facts bespeak that the course of campaign was of special interest to him. Stalin was a suspicious man, did not trust anyone, read the dispatches from the Ukraine himself…”

On June 4, 1933 Stalin signs the go-ahead of the design of the Palace of the Soviets, six times more massive than the Empire State Building, Washington D.C. and crowning it a statue of Lenin three times higher than the Statue of Liberty (the length of the index figure of Lenin – 6 meters). And it was to be erected precisely there where the Temple of Christ the Savior had stood.

“Let us remember the date, for it is relevant: June 1933.

“June 1933 was one those months when the fields and roads of the Ukraine were strewn with tens of thousands of corpses of people who had perished from hunger, and when there were incidents (today coming to lights) of women, crazed with hunger and no longer cognizant of their actions, eating their own children….

“Yes, all this was taking place simultaneously—the demolition of the temple, the millions people starving to death, the palace that was to eclipse America, and the cannibalism of those unfortunate mothers.”

Explosions wreak havoc on Ukraine’s main airport

Language, Literature, Poetry and Freedom :

It has been the age-old conspiracy of the colonizers. To destroy the sense of self-esteem and freedom of a people or race, first and foremost kill its language.

“The ban against printing books in Ukrainian was in force for decades. As early as 1876 Alexander II ordered that instruction in Ukrainian schools take place in Russian.” In the eastern Ukraine where more than thirteen million Russians lived, Russification has been more intense. “…in 1932 and 1933, Stalin had several million Ukrainian peasants starved to death and ordered tens of thousands of Ukrainian intellectuals shot. Only those who fled abroad were saved. Ukrainian culture was better preserved in Toronto and Vancouver than Donetsk or Kharkov.”

Kapuscinski visited Kiev (now Kyiv) in January 1990 to meet the poet Ivan Drach, also the leader of the Popular Movement for Reconstruction of the Ukraine (RUCH). “The organization came into being relatively late, in September 1989, and included various independent and opposition groups that for years had been prosecuted and suppressed…

“Drach is an excellent poet, with significant body of work, but now he has no time for writing. “One must put poetry aside,” he says, “and save the Ukraine, save its culture. Russification so advanced that in a few years’ time there will be no one left who can read Ukrainian literature.”

Poet Ivan Drach

“…The people I met were extremely moved by what they were talking about. And they were talking about one thing – on January 21, on the anniversary of the proclamation of the short-lived Ukrainian independence of 1918, hundreds of thousands had joined hands and formed a chain stretching more than five hundred kilometers between Kiev, Lvov and Ivano- Frankovsk…

“…the Supreme Council of the Ukraine convenes in Kiev and on August 24, 1991 proclaims the “creation of the independent Ukrainian state – the Ukraine… the territory of Ukraine indivisible and inviolable.”

But Russians grasped immediately that something unacceptable has happened; …they understand what Russia is without the Ukraine. “Without the Ukraine,” the Polish historian J. Waswcz wrote back in the thirties, “Moscow is relegated to a northern wilderness.”

Yesterday’s Kiev and today’s Kyiv :

In the beginning of January 1990 Kapuscinski traveled to Kiev. “At night from  Kishinev to Kiev. I am not sleeping, … It is three o’clock in the morning. …Some motionless human figures on the platform. It is drizzling; the drops trickle down the windowpanes. One can see nothing else. But it is all there, behind the station building… …In 1937 and 1938, the NKVD shot to death thousands and thousands of people here. Exactly how many no one knows. In 1943 they dug up the remains of 9,432 victims and then suspended further exhumation – to this day. Mostly Ukrainians and Poles lie in the graves. In one place, in the city itself, near a clump of chestnut trees, they dug up thirteen mass graves… …the victims all shot in the back of the head, had been buried, the  Park of Culture and Recreation was set up on top of the graves.  When the executions were finished, bandstands for dancing were erected over several of the graves, and, on one of them, a Ministry of Laughter.”

Kyiv City

Ukraine – Where History Conspires to Repeat Itself:

March 13, 2022, we read in the newspaper The Hindu, page-11: “Russian forces appeared to make progress from north-east Ukraine in their slow fight to reach capital, Kyiv, while tanks and artillery pounding places already under siege with shelling so heavy it prevented residents from burying the growing number of dead…”

March 16, The Hindu, page-11: “More than three million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded, nearly half of them minors, while a child becoming a refugee every second, the UN said. “On average, every day over the last twenty days, more than 70,000 children have become refugees.”

And the World goes on:

Three weeks ago it was a free, democratic, self-sufficient country, today there every second a child is becoming a refugee…

Thousands of kilometers away from it, an ordinary man in a different country is she\he any way connected to it; does she\he is to be held responsible!

Strangely the answer is – ‘YES’! Because, at the root of this genocide is fossil-fuel – crude oil and gas. Wherever we are, whatsoever we might be doing today the basis of our life is petrol, diesel, coal and gas.

And strangely, this human civilization based upon carbon economy; for sure in a reversal effect is spelling out its final curse of ruin upon itself. It has been and continues to be the experience of the regions, states and countries which were mineral and oil and gas rich; in the words of Amitav Ghosh explaining his book The Nutmeg’s Curse,”…the violence was completely aimed at a resource… …in order to gain control of it. That is the pattern we see more and more around the planet. It’s a crucial moment in a way, where this violence directed at a people, ultimately, also becomes violence directed at the environment… the planet earth….”

But, is it any more possible, equally for the ordinary man in the street or the powerful man at the helm of a powerful country, to stand up and tell the truth?

Indeed we are living in an era that is rightly called the ‘post-truth era’!

The last sentence in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s 331 pages long ‘Imperium’ is taken from Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace’:

“Heaven only knows where we are going, and heaven knows what is happening to us – “!

(The Author is a Poet, Spiritualist and Development Professional, Views are Personal)

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