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Ryszard Kapuscinski: Most Celebrated Polish Journalist

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007) - most celebrated Polish journalist died on January 23, 2007 after unsuccessful heart surgery.

Kapuscinski was nominated for the Nobel Prize, but unfortunately he died too soon. He would fully deserve the Nobel since his journalistic work contributed greatly to our better understanding of less familiar parts of the world. Kapuscinski did not really care much for awards or recognition and treated his life as a mission. He was sent to countries scourged by conflicts and violence, where he tried to understand the lives of average people. He never simplified the reality of politics or marked the sides of conflict as black or white.

Ryszard KapuscinskiKapuscinski was always prepared for his trips. He read books about the history and problems of the region he was going to visit. It is said that in order to write one page of his book he had to read about a hundred pages written by others. He risked his health and life many times, trying to understand the mentality of the natives of the country he was in. When he was there, he lived the life of the peoples of country he visited, and tried to think the way they did.

He had a strong desire to understand and to explain the sources and nature of conflicts, wars, and dictators. His first worldwide known book, about infamous Ethiopian dictator, Haile Selassie, called The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat was first published in 1978. Then he wrote about Shah of Iran, Shah of Shahs (1982,) and finally after the collapse of the Soviet Union a book called Imperium.

Imperium starts with the chapter about his own childhood in Pinsk, the town invaded by Soviets in 1939. He remembers a terrible hunger there as well as massive and senseless deportations to Siberia. Kapuscinski's father was taken to Katyn, but he escaped from the transport. When they learned that his father is safe, Kapuscinski's mother sold everything in Pinsk, rented a horse cart and went towards Warsaw to look for her husband. They found him unexpectedly while passing through one of the villages.

Kapuscinski studied history at Warsaw University. After graduating in 1951 he went back to journalism. In 1955, he was sent to Nowa Huta - a big steelwork near Krakow. It was the end of the Stalin era he was allowed to describe the hard, primitive conditions of work there. His report was highly prized. Then Kapuscinski was sent abroad "so that he would stop being interested in uncomfortable subjects". He went first to India, Afghanistan and Pakistan, then to China and Japan. Kapuscinski later admitted that he was not prepared for these first trips; he barely knew English. He also sid that the old cultures of the East intimidated him.

In the 60s he was the only foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency responsible for about fifty countries. In that time he traveled through developing countries of Africa, Asia and the Americas. In 1969 he became a foreign correspondent in South America for the next 5 years. In that time he lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups.

Kapuscinski made his books freely and legally available on the Internet. This is how I was able to read his reports about Africa in the book entitled "Heban" (known also under English title: The Shadow of the Sun) and also fragments of his books about South and Central America, among them Why Karl Von Spreti Died (1970) - about Guatemala in 1960s and 1970s, The Soccer War (1970), and Christ With a Rifle on His Shoulder (1975) - about partisan movements in Africa, Latin America and Middle East. Kapuscinski did not hide his criticism of international corporations or the major world powers - like the US, Germany, Great Britain or Soviet Union. He explains how their actions meddle with the interest of regular people in small countries which are often run by corrupted governments supported by big international corporations. We need more people like him to understand and improve the world around us!

Recommended reading(s):

Several of Kapuscinski's books are available in English

Travels with HerodotusTravels with Herodotus

The Shadow of the Sun


The EmperorThe Emperor

Shah of Shahs

The Soccer War



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