By Ryszard Kapuscinski, Vintage International, August 8, 1995, 067974780X

I read this book about twenty years ago, and these notes are from then. I remember enjoying it.

Ryszard Kupscinski is a great, flowing writer. Covering Russia in a way from the inside (as a Pole), and from the outside (foreigner), mostly. The book is a series of real life stories about his life and travels in the Soviet Union. He talks about the Soviet satellites in the foreigner sense, e.g. Armenia (see excerpts below). He tries to find the best of the cultures. He talks of losing his family in the Soviet reply. What a horror!

[p11] ONE NEVER KNEW what night they would come, or for whom. The boys who knew a lot about the deportations attempted to discern some rules in this matter, some hierarchies, to discove the key. Alas, in vain. Because, for example, they would begin deporting from Bednarska Street, and then, suddenly, they would stop. They would go after the inhabitants of Kijowska Street, bu only on the even side. All of a sudden someone from Nadbrzezna would vanish, but that same night they would have taken people from the other side of town–from Browama. Since the time of our house search, Mother does not let us take our clothes off at night. We can take off our shoes, but we have to have them beside us all the time. The coats lie on chairs, so they can be put on in the wink of an eye. In principle we are not permitted to sleep. My sister and I lie side by side, and we poke each other, shake each other, or pull each other by the hair. “Hey, you, don’t sleep!” “You, too, don’t sleep!” But, of course, in the midst of this struggling and shoving we both fall asleep. But Mother really does not sleep. She sits at the table and listens the whole time.

[p24] Worst of all are the books. What a curse to be traveling with a book! You could be carrying a suitcase of cocaine and keep a book on top of it. The cocaine wouldn’t rouse the least bit of interest; all the customs inspectors would throw themselves upon the book. And what–God forbid!–if you’re carrying a book in English? Then the real running, checking, paging through, reading would begin.

[p35] And the worst of it is that anyone who has met with a foreigner and has exchanged a word with him is already suspect, already marked. One has to live in such a way, walk around town in such a way, along the streets, along the corridors of train cars, so as to prevent this from happening, so as not to bring misfortun down on one’s head.

[p50] So comes into being that phenomenon unique in world culture: the Armenian book. Having their alphabet, Armenians immediately go about writing books. Mashtots himself sets the example. He had barely produced the alphabet, and already we find him translating the Bible. He is assisted by another luminary of Armenian culture, Catholicos Saak Partef, and a whole pleiad of translators recruited throughout the dioceses. Mashtots initiates the great movement of the medieval copyists, which among the Armenians will develop to an extent unknown anyhere else.

Already by the sixth century, they had translated into Armeian all of Aristotle. By the tenth century, they had translated the ajority of the Greek and Roman philosophers, hundreds of titles of ancient literature. Armenians have an open, assimilative intelect. They translated everything that was within reach. They remind me in this of the Japanese, who translate wholesale whatever comes their way. Many works of ancient literature survived owing entirely to the fact that they were preserved in Armenian translations. The copyists threw themselves upon every novelry and immediately placed it on the writing table. When the Arabs conquered Armenia, the Armenians translated all the Arabs. When the Persians invaded Armenia, the Armenians translated the Persians! They were in conflict with Byzantium, but whatever appeared on the market there, they would take and translate that as well.

[p94] The rulers decided about the life or death of people, and yet these people were never able to see the rulers with their own eyes. And then, suddenly, here they are, the rulers, getting angry, their ties askew waving their arms around, Picking their ears. Second, as they follow the deliberations of their highest popular assembly, Russians for the first time have the sense of participating in something important.

And finally–perestroika coincided with the explosion of television in this country. Television gave to perestroika a dimension that no other event in the history of the lmperium had ever had.

[p105] Only he who maintains (and has somehow proven) that his authority has a human and divine nature can rule here, can lead the people and count on their obedience and devotion. Hence the preponderance in Russian history of pretender czars, false prophets, haunted and fanatical holy men-they claim the power to rule souls and tha they are touched by the hand of God. The hand of God is in thi case the sole legitimation of power.

The Bolsheviksa attempt to fit into this tradition, to draw from its proven life-givings prings. Bolshevismi s of course yet another pretender, but a pretender that goes a step further: it is not only the earthly reflection of God, it is God.

[p112] No sooner do the wheels of the plane touch the ground than the three hundred passengers aboard the large, heavy AN-86, as though they have been administered an electrical shock, bolt from their seats and amid bellows of joy, elbowing and pushing one another, rush to the exit! But we are only at the start of the runway; the airplane is still careering forward; the fuselage is swaying and rocking; the wheels are bouncing; the shock absorbrs are thudding; the stewardesses are shouting, pleading, and threatening; they are trying to push people back into their seats by force, but it’s useless; their efforts are in vain; no one can restrain this crowd any longer; an elemental force has stirred them and seized control of the situation.

[p123] I think that every Georgian, every inhabitant of the Caucasus, has such a map encoded in his memory. He has studied its particulars from childhood-in his home, in his village, on his street. It is a map-memento, a map of dangers. Only the map of the inhabitant of the Caucasus does not caution him about orange trees, a stream, or a herd of sheep, but about someone from another clan, from another tribe, of another nationality. “Be careful, this is the house in which a man from Ossetia lives …. “ “This is an Abkhaz village, try to avoid it …. “ “Don’t walk along this path, because you are not a Georgian. The Georgians will not forgive you …. “

When one talks with these people, one is struck by the fact that each one of them has an excellent, intricate knowledge of their region. Who lives where, from what tribe, how many of them there are, what the relations between them were once upon a time, yesterday, what they are today. This improbably detaile knowledge of others extends only to those in the most immediate neighborhood. What is beyond its borders (which, moreover, are extremely difficult to define), this nobody knows or-more important- cares to know.

[p196] Mikhaylovsky writes that Dostoyevsky discovered a horrifying attribute in man–unnecessary cruelty. A tendency in man to inflict suffering on others–without cause and without purpose. One man tortures another for no reason, except that torturing gives him a pleasure to which he will-~ever admit out loud. This trait (unnecessary cruelty), combined with power and pride, gave rise to the world’s most ruthless tyrannies. It was Dostoyevsky who made this discovery, Mikhaylovsky emphasizes; in the story “The Village of Stieanchykovo and Her Inhabitants” he describes a small, provincial creature named Foma Opiskin–tormentor, monster, tyrant.

[p201] For only one railroad line goes to Vladivostok, and only a few ships ply the waters from there to the port in Magadan. It is along this very route that for twenty-five years, nonstop, living human skeletons are transported from across the entire Imperium to Magadan.

Live ones, but also the already dead. Varlam Shalamov, who spent twenty years in the camps, tells about the ship Kim, which was carrying three thousand prisoners in its holds. When they mutinied, their escort flooded the hold with water. It was forty degrees below zero. They arrived in Magadan as frozen blocks.


The people who boarded the transports were already exhausted by months of imprisonment, interrogation, hunger, and beatings. Now they faced weeks of torment in crowded cattle cars, in filth, the delirium of thirst (for they weren’t given anything to drink). They did not know where they were going or what awaited them at the end of the journey. Those who survived this Gehenna were driven in Magadan to the enormous staging camp. Here a slave market operated. The commanders of the camps set up near the mines would come and select for themselves the most physically able prisoners.

[p236] Here is precisely the kind of situation in which many Westerners lose themselves, inclined as they are to treat all reality just as it usually presents itself to them: limpid, legible, and logical. With such a philosophy, the man of the West thrown into the Soviet world has the rug pulled out from beneath his feet at every moment, until someone explains to him that the reality that he knows is not the only one and–most certainly–not the most important one, and that a plurality of the most diverse realities exists here, interlaced into a monstrous knot that cannot be untied and whose essence is multilogicality: a bizarre confusion of the most contradictory logical systems, now and then erroneously called illogicality or alogicality by those who assume that there exists only one system of logic.)

[p249] On the other hand, there is something one can envy both the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. They are not beset by worries about the complexity of the world or about the fact that human destiny is uncertain and fragile. The anxiety that usually accompanies such questions as: What is truth? What is the good? What is justice? is alien to them. They do not know the burden that weighs on those who ask themselves, But am I right?

[p262] The Soviet authorities have long worried about how to reverse the disaster–the destruction of the Aral Sea, the ruination of half of Central Asia. It is after all well known that the unprecedented increase in cotton cultivation has led to a tragic shortage of water, a shortage that is destroying a large part of the world (a fact which to this day continues to be concealed). Water must therefore be found, thousands of cubic kilometers of water, for otherwise the Uzbeks will die of thirst, sand will bury the cotton fields, the textile basins of Russia will come to a standstill, and on and on.

[p263] In Tashkent I was received by Victor Duhovy, the general director of the Sanira conglomerate. Sanira is one of the numerous arms of the former USSR’s Ministry of Water Administration, which takes care of the Aral Sea as well as the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya. We can now see how it takes care of them. On has to understand what a ministry. means in the Imperium. The ministry in question employs two million people. Every morning, two million people get out of bed, walk to work, sit down at their desks, take out paper and pencils, and have to start doing something. The lucky ones are those who have fieldwork. They pull out all sorts of measuring instrumeuts, magnifying glasses and sextants, slide rules and scales, and precisely measure and count everything. But even if one accepts that there are that many things in the world to measure and count, it is still not easy to find work for these two million people. That is why masses of experts and officials work here on each and every idea–even utterly fantastic ones.