Ryszard Kapuscinski: ‘Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.’


I read an interesting book over the holidays, Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), a controversial Polish writer who chronicled big political events around the world for decades. He was a journalist, a poet, a philosopher and a keen observer of the uses and abuses of power.

Imperium, probably his most famous book, is a chronicle of the abuses of power of the Russian communist hegemony, mostly the Stalin period, and the effects on the lives of Russians and the millions of unfortunates of all the satellite states under Russia’s control since the communist revolution of 1919.

The systemic and prolonged abuse of people, the destruction of human lives, the terror and the folly of Russian communism . . . the Imperium boggles the mind. Kapuscinski documents the calculated deaths by starvation of millions in Ukraine, the forced imprisonment of intellectuals, dissidents and random citizens in the gulags and work camps of Siberia — men, women and children of all ages who simply disappeared into that vast wasteland never to return — and the draining of the Aral sea, one of the world’s four largest inland lakes, to provide water for Russian central-planned cotton growing. These are but three examples of the havoc wreaked on the people under its power.

I was particularly captivated by this passage:

Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.

The first is the plague of nationalism

The second is the plague of racism

The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.

All three share one trait, a common denominator — an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only his sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn’t want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit he is right, join the cause. Otherwise, you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist, for you count only if you are a tool, an instrument, a weapon. There are no people there is only the cause. 

A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only — its enemy. Thinking about our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist. That is why the enemy is always present, is always with us.

Kapuscinski’s description of the zealot and his single minded obsession informs us all; it is a window into the soul of closed minds. Moreover, it provides a clear understanding of one simple axiom: You can’t negotiate with a terrorist. Or a close-minded racist. Or a fervent nationalist, Or a religious extremist.

His assertion needs little validation — we need only look back to the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, interminable wars between states, the American civil war, 9/11 and the recent outbreaks of violence in the Middle East. These are proof enough that plagues of nationalism, racism and religious fundamentalism, however we define them, account for most of the world’s long history of human suffering.

What can modern governance do about it? I wish I knew.

I watch the news with increased discomfort. Is Syria intractable, forever condemned to generations of internecine war? Is Russia slipping back into dictatorship, with Putin becoming the new Stalin? Do the radical elements of the various religions of the world, the Taliban and other Muslim extremists, the Christian fundamentalists, the ultraorthodox Jews tarnish our wish to have faith in a higher power? Does the race-based slaughter in the Balkans in the ’90s mean we will forever face genocide on a mass scale?

I recently visited Ukraine as an international election observer for the latest round of parliamentary elections. The country seems to be sliding down the slope to dictatorship with abuses of power, rampant corruption, captive courts, a dysfunctional civil service and intolerable distribution of income and wealth.

As if the long-suffering Ukrainian populace needs another lesson in the uses and abuses of despotic power. The bright spot is that Ukrainians, understanding the pathology of zealots and despots and seeing what others throughout history have shown, know there are ways to contain the malevolence of dictators. Ukrainians are resisting dictatorship. I hope and expect they will succeed.

We may scoff at the United Nations, and wring our hands at the slow reaction of the western world at unseating despots, but the world has become a safer place in many ways. Myanmar has seemingly turned a corner as the military rulers are voluntarily shift power back to the citizens. The seemingly intractable and insoluble problems of sectarian violence that have defined northern Ireland seem to have given way to more palatable methods of dealing with differences, even with recent flareups. The sweeping changes across the Middle East hold out hope for a future in which power may be distributed more equitably. Africa still has its challenges but these challenges seem to be more manageable, more capable of modest progress toward social harmony.

While the world in which we live may face perpetual plagues of irrational zealotry, whether motivated by racism, by religious extremism or by irrational nationalism, we at least see more clearly the pathology of zealots, we have more tools with which to contain them and slow their progress and we have a more enlightened citizenry more likely to resist such zealots and their excesses. We also have developed methods to punish zealots for their excesses; no more can a despot expect to retire to a villa on the Mediterranean when his run of power is over.

Kapuscinski’s quote captured my attention eloquently. It’s a reminder for us all to be forever vigilant and practical in dealing with zealotry in all its ugly forms.