Ryszard Kapuscinski (1993) Imperium.

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in 1932 and grew up in the Polesie region on Poland (today Belorussia). Pinsk was liberated by Soviet troops in 1939. From what wasn’t clear. He learned the Cyrillic Russian alphabet as school from a single copy of Stalin’s Studies in Leninism, watched arbitrary mass deportations to Siberia and starved with his family. He remained liberated for most of his adult life and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The unravelling of the Imperium: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1992.

The system that governs us is a combination of the old nomenclatura, the sharks of finance, false democrats, and the KGB. I cannot call this democracy—it is a repugnant historically unprecedented hybrid, and we do not know in which direction it will develop…[but] if the alliance will prevail they will be exploiting us not for seventy, but for one hundred and seventy years.   

We do know the direction Russia took under Vladimir Putin. Kapuscinski marks out the direction of travel. He speaks of the old native Russia. His reading and understand of Bierdayev’s book as a student at university who tried to outline what the Imperium was and the paradox of what does a Russian think when he is somewhere such as the shore of the Yenisry.

He can walk along for days and months and always Russia will surround him. The plains have no end, nor the forests, nor the rivers. To rule over such boundless expanses, says Bierdayev, one had to create a boundless state.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace showed the hubris of Napoleon and the triumph of Mother Russia. The Great Patriotic War as the Second World War was called was when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic defeated the Nazis (that had an alliance with until 1942). There were two superpowers in the world when the war ended and America was the enemy. They fought proxy-wars, Korea at the beginning of the 1950s. Communist China, a pauper state, under Chairman Mao provided unlimited manpower and around one million troops. Soviet MIG fighters protected ground troops. General McArthur, holed up as proxy-Emperor of Japan wanted to fight on, go all the way to China, all the way to Russia. War weary, General, later President Eisenhower, divided Korea. Both superpowers had nuclear weapons. China acquired them from Russia.

The Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy at the end of 1962 called the Russian’s bluff over Cuban missiles. I was too young to remember. Now we’re too old to care. Then Putin, 24th February 2022 threatens nuclear war for interference over his invasion plans of Ukraine.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia for eight years. It used to be the breadbasket of Russia and exported grain to Germany, now it exports its crops to China. Its soil was so fertile it was said that if you left a stick in the ground a tree would bloom. Yet, during Stalin’s purges millions starved. Putin’s military has annexed Crimea. The second day of their full-scale invasion and troops surround the capital Kyiv. But with amphibious landings on Mariupol and Donbas.   

Kapuscinski reminds us of falling into the abyss. The massacre of around 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey in 1915, the greatest mass genocide until Hitler. Regarded as traitors and infiltrators. In Putin’s terms neo-Nazis and drug addicts.    

‘Nationalism is the forbidden fruit.’

The Chechen Wars were good wars for Putin. The use of overwhelming military force, mass murder and torture quelled the North Caucasus. Puppet government.

‘A state that does not have a state seeks salvation in symbols. The protection of the symbol is important to it as protection of borders to other states. The cult of the symbol becomes a form of the cult of the country. Protection of the symbol becomes an act of patriotism.’

Look at the map, Kapuscinski says of Aremenia, but he could also be speaking of Ukraine.  The Russian bear wants to swallow it up. But he offers another lesson.

Look at the history books, ‘A magnificent ascent, and then, a dispiriting fall’.

The West (by which we mean President Joe Biden) offers overwhelming sanctions against Russia, but not if it pushes up the price of petrol for the average American. I wonder when the backbiting will start about the four million refugees not coming into Europe, because they’re already here. Are we sliding down the same road, taking sides, picking allies? Imperium is an insider account of a refugee that’s not a refugee in the old Soviet Socialist Republics Putin thinks still exist. Keeping your mouth shut doesn’t guarantee you’ll be OK. Not taking sides is taken sides. I’m not taking sides. I hope Ukraine wins, whatever that means. But I doubt its people will. Putin will win—for now.  I don’t know what that means either.   

Hector, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, writer and director Jake Gavin.


Peter Mullan always seems to snag the parts of the homeless alkie. Hector McAdam doesn’t even have to be an alkie, just grizzled looking as Peter Mullan in a beanie hat, and as if he’s just stepped out a cardboard box, washed up in a motorway café’s toilet and rustled up a quick snack. He’s left two pals and a dog still sleeping at the side of the building. He nips of the post office to pick up his pension and bought his pals cans of beer. They’re hitchhiking to London, but he’s got to go to hospital for tests, and it’s the one beside me, The Golden Jubilee. No fixed address, no place to call home. They tell him to come back in January. For the last 15 years he’s went to the same place in London that gives a bed and puts on a spread for the down and outs at Christmas.  

I’ve hitchhiked to London a few times (stick a thumb out outside Calder Park Zoo) and slept in a plastic bin bag beside other homeless people, with people from soup kitchens coming in the middle of the night offering throwaway cartons of minestrone soup to throwaway people. I was younger then and not running away from anything, but you learn little tricks like don’t put your bin bag down near doorways where large groups of people gather, because, inevitably, someone will have pished there. Safety in numbers. But always know your exits because to a bear in a wood a man in a sleeping bag is a ready-wrapped snack. For Hector this is second-nature. What brought him to this state is drip fed to the viewer.

First clue is he’s looking for his sister in Liverpool. He goes to a house where she once stayed, but she’d moved. Her husband works as a car dealer. Hector goes to his work. A grizzled Glaswegian among all those shiny new toys. He’s given a cup of tea and short shrift.

In London, the shelter he goes to every year is already full. No room at the inn. But he’s recognised by a saintly worker, Hazel (Natalie Gavin) and a camp bed set up in one of the dorms. Hector is among friends. Then his brother turns up. We learn more about his life. The cliff edge Hector fell off 15 years ago is revealed. A bit too melodramatic for my liking. A jigsaw with some bits missing is still a jigsaw. The question in the quest then becomes, will he live happily ever after, especially when his wee sister resurfaces and they have a family reunion. In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy claims all happy families are the same. You don’t need to fling yourself under a train to figure that they aren’t. Hector, and writer/director Jake Gavin, gets pass marks for trying to reveal something of humanity many of us already know. It’s complicated. Those that don’t know, won’t get it. Authenticity is hard won.

Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, translated by C.J. Hogarth.

After reading War and Peace I felt that someone should gallop up and hang a medal around my neck. I’m easily confused and Russian names are Russian to me. Childhood is a much easier beast. Short pen-portraits of, for example, ‘The Tutor, Karl Ivanitch,’ ‘Mama,’ ‘Papa,’ ‘Lessons,’ ‘The Idiot’.

His is a very structured life. Papa is a little god, all bow before him. He runs the estate with an iron grip. No rouble unaccounted for. Yet, he can lose a million roubles playing cards. Mama, is an angel, as all mama’s are.

‘Get up my darling, it’s time go by-by.’ No envious gaze sees her now. She is not afraid to shed upon me the whole of her tenderness and love. I do not wake up, yet I kiss her and kiss her…’

She does not remonstrated with Papa, for she is a simple woman with a belief in God’s goodness. All is as it should be. Papa may need to sell some of her estate, but what is hers is his. Echoes of this gambling loss appear in War and Peace.

When the children need to leave for Moscow to stay with Grandmamma for their proper education not on tutoring, but how to enter a room, for example, she knows it is for the best. Living in the countryside would hold them back. High society resides in Moscow and they must learn who is and who is not to be snubbed.

I cannot explain my cruelty on this occasion. Why did I not step forward to comfort and protect him (a boy, not quite of their aristocratic heritage)? Where was the pitifulness that made me burst into tears at the sight of a young bird fallen from its nest…

And his first love Sonatcheka (after a boyish crush on another boy).

The most prominent features of her face was a pair of unusually large half-veiled eyes, which formed a strange, but pleasing contrast to the small mouth. Her lips were closed, while her eyes looked so grave that the general expression of her face gave one the impression that a smile was never to be looked for from her: wherefore when a smile did come, it was still more pleasing.

Tolstoy’s heroines are here and undiluted by age, made stronger by yearning. The outward and inward. The use of ‘gave one’, rather than gave me, moves it from the first-person narrative to the universal. She’s still not smiling—yet when she does the world moves around her to accommodate her.   

I had strange ideas on manly beauty. I considered Karl Ivanitch one of the handsomest men in the world, and myself so ugly that I had no need to deceive myself on that point…

[Grandmamma] patted my cheek; “You know Nicolinka, nobody will ever love you for your face alone, so you must try and be a good and clever boy”.

Tolstoy’s insecurity as a boy also has a universal appeal. As does his grief at the death of his mother, and her beloved servant, and former serf, Natalia Savishina, in ‘Sad Recollections’. Natalia’s brother found it hard to believe that after sixty years’ dedicated serve Natalia had left only sixty roubles. Her love couldn’t be counted in roubles, but, hey, I’m with the revolutionaries here.  

Millions lost on the turn of a card, but around a rouble a year so the Tolstoy family can get three meals a day and their every aristocratic need catered for. Tolstoy is not writing history, but re-living it. His story is not my story. I’m the Idiot, the peasant ploughing his fields, serving his meals and looking after his horses. There way of life was not to my liking, then or now. The quality of the writing, well…that’s a different kind of lesson.