The lustration of Ryszard Kapuscinski
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 May 2007)

There are Poles who say Ryszard Kapuscinski was lucky to die last January, before his fellow citizens learned that he served as a secret informant for the old communist government. There are others who believe that any damn fool should have guessed decades ago that Kapuscinski had a private deal with the state.

Reporting for a government news agency, Kapuscinski visited dozens of countries. The material he gathered formed the core of his internationally celebrated books, including The Emperor and Shah of Shahs. Without exit visas, he could never have become the journalist who (as Geoff Dyer wrote in the Guardian) "has given the truest, least partial, most comprehensive and vivid account of what life is like on our planet," particularly in the Third World. But those visas came with a price: co-operation.

Kapuscinski's childhood was bitterly hard, beginning with his Second World War boyhood in Pinsk (then in Poland, now in Belarus). His family survived for years on nothing but a pastry made of flour and water. He went to school without books or pencils or even shoes, his feet wrapped in bark. (Decades later, he remarked that footwear still obsessed him.)

Deprivation may have created his empathy for the wretched of the earth, whose chronicler he became. He approached a failed, anarchic society with richly subtle understanding as well as compassion.

At 16, he joined the communists ("We all thought we were doing the right thing. We were full of hope") but by his early 20s, during the last years of Stalin, he realized that communism was dedicated, among other things, to keeping the public ignorant of the world. He began thinking of escape, and finally managed it in the only way that presented itself. The record indicates that he told the authorities little of value, and did no one harm. Still, "police spy" will be a permanent item in his dossier.

His secret was revealed this week through the process that Poland calls "lustration," an uncommon word meaning purification. In ancient Rome, lustration involved sacrificing animals. Today, Poland sacrifices reputations.

It seems a shame that Kapuscinski didn't pre-empt the government by telling the story himself, a year or two after communism died. He could have written a delightful piece about it, maybe even a small book. Spy services following preposterous rituals in search of trivial information are inherently funny. It was perfect material for Kapuscinski. But he remained silent. He also refused to make himself a hypocrite by supporting lustration.

In the old days, curiously, he developed a reputation for covertly satirizing rather than helping the communists. As the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted on Thursday, many Poles considered him communism's sharp critic. A former Warsaw correspondent of the Washington Post claims that readers believed Kapuscinski's reporting was often coded criticism of the Warsaw government. So did many outsiders. Discussing The Emperor, a New York Times reviewer remarked that "one is never quite sure whether one is in the world of Ethiopian fact or Polish political fable."

Kapuscinski insisted that this wasn't his intention. He quoted a palace worker describing Haile Selassie's Ethiopia: "I must explain to you, my friend, that in those days thinking was a painful inconvenience and a troubling deformity." Was that not also Kapuscinski describing Stalinism? Not at all, he said. Bill Buford, of Granta magazine, told him in an interview that it's easy to see parallels between the politics in his books and the Polish situation. Kapuscinski replied that he wasn't looking for parallels. Buford tried again, pointing out that many Polish readers considered Kapuscinski's books allegories. Kapuscinski: "No, they are not allegories."

In Imperium (1994), his account of the former Soviet Union's disintegration, Kapuscinski wrote of the old Soviet spy system: "The NKVD held the nation in bestial fear." Possessing endless amounts of information, it could deploy endless terror. East Germany copied the Soviet system and went one better; it appears to have had proportionately more spies than any other state in history. Other communist governments, such as Poland's, were less intrusive; but even the least vicious considered it the absolute right of the state to pry into every corner of society.

Those who have never lived under such a situation, depending on government favour for even the most routine documents, will hesitate before condemning Kapuscinski. Communist policy was grounded in an all-encompassing infringement on private life. It recognized no limits, which is what totalitarianism means. At certain times, any means of eluding its infinite power must have seemed justifiable.

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