He didn’t win any wars, and his role in the downfall of communism was peripheral at the very best, yet when it comes to making lists of the greatest Poles of the 20th century, few come out ahead of Ryszard Kapuściński. Known primarily as a journalist, a foreign correspondent in those pre-internet days when news stories had to be researched and pursued first hand, in his own idiom he was in fact less a journalist and more a 'literary reporter,' who made Third World reportage his own. Nobody documented the end of empire in South America, the Middle East and especially Africa with more matter-of-fact objectivity - incredible given that Kapuściński was present in these places as the correspondent of the Polish News Agency; and Poland at that time was a staunch ally of the Soviet Union.
Indeed, this apparent freedom with which Kapuściński wrote inevitably led to accusations of collaboration with Poland's secret service. Yet neither these accusations (as yet unfounded) nor the publication of a highly unflattering biography in 2010 have failed to damage Kapuściński's reputation as the finest journalist of the century. His legacy today endures in his reportage and his travel writing (and the two need to be split, for Kapuściński carried two notebooks - one for news dispatches to Poland, the other for his books), both of which are timeless and unsurpassed masterpieces.
Kapuściński was born in the city of Pinsk, on March 4, 1932. Then, in those heady days of the Second Polish Republic, the city was in Poland; today it lies in Belarus. He describes his childhood - especially when the world as he knows it comes to an end in 1939 with the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland and the outbreak of World War II - in the one book that perhaps comes closest to a formal autobiography, Imperium. Born to little more than poverty, the changes in his everyday life (teachers suddenly disappear, portraits of Stalin taking pride of place in the classroom) are described with his characteristic matter-of-factness that would set his journalism apart. For while Kapuściński could never be accused of cheapening the value of human life, his experience of growing up in a war zone clearly brought home its transitory nature.
More than his abilities as a gifted pupil, it was the immaculate working class credentials of his family which meant that Kapuściński had no trouble bagging a place at Warsaw University in 1950, at the very height of the Stalinist period. After cutting his teeth in domestic journalism (and becoming a member of Poland’s Communist Party in 1954) Kapuściński was appointed in 1956 (shortly after Władysław Gomułka had become Polish leader, and had begun to pursue a policy of relative de-Stalinization) as the Polish News Agency’s first - and only - foreign correspondent. As Kapuściński himself liked to joke, ‘my beat was the whole world. I was responsible for 50 countries.’ His first trip in his new role was to newly-independent India (described in detail in Travels With Herodotus), and would set the tone for the next 40 years: Kapuściński became obsessed with the pursuit of self-determination in the Third World, and the subject of oppressed masses fighting off imperial domination was one which found approval with his bosses at home in Poland. Kapuściński also reminds us of the nasty Empire closer to home as he describes his return (via Moscow) from India:
“When the plane from Moscow started to descend over Warsaw, my neighbour trembled, squeezed the arms of his chair with both hands, and closed his eyes. He had a gray, ravaged face, covered in wrinkles. A musty, cheap suit hung loosely on his thin bony frame. I looked at him furtively, out of the corner of my eye. Tears were flowing down his cheeks. And a moment later I heard a suppressed but nevertheless distinct sob. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said to me. ‘I’m sorry, but I never thought that I would return.’ It was December 1956. People were still coming out of the gulags.”