Magical Journalism: Childhood and War
By Ryszard Kapuściński
The other night I thought of a name for the writer/artist workshop idea I’d mentioned in last week’s post: The School of Magical Journalism.
I had to google the phrase, magical journalism, to see if it’s been claimed by somebody else. The only references I saw were to the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński (1932—2007), whom I haven’t heard of before. I liked his Wikipedia entry and decided to buy his memoir about the Soviet Union, titled Imperium.
Reading it now, I feel like meeting an old friend.
I want to share a bit from the early part of the book, First Encounters (1939 — 1967).
At the time of the very first encounter — September 1939, the Red Army takes Polesie (now Belarus) — Kapuściński was 7 years old, and the USSR was only ten years older.
One day a car pulls into the schoolyard, and out step some gentlemen in sky-blue uniforms. Someone says that it’s the NKVD. What the NKVD is isn’t quite clear, but one thing is certain—when grown-ups utter this name, they lower their voice to a whisper. The NKVD must be terribly important, because its uniforms are elegant, new, spick-and-span. The army walks around in rags; instead of knapsacks they have small lined bags, most often empty, tied up with a piece of old string, and boots that look like they’ve never been polished, whereas if someone from the NKVD is coming, there is an azure glow for a kilometer around him.
The NKVD people brought us white shirts and red scarves. “On important holidays,” says our teacher in a frightened and sad voice, “every child will come to school in this shirt and scarf.” They also brought a box of stamps and distributed them to us. On each stamp was a portrait of a different gentleman. Some had mustaches, others not. One gentleman had a small beard, and two didn’t have any hair. Two or three wore glasses. One of the NKVD people went from bench to bench distributing the stamps. “Children,” said our teacher in a voice that resembled the sound of hollow wood, “these are your leaders.” There were nine of these leaders. They were called Andreyev, Voroshilov, Zhdanov, Kaganovich, Kalinin, Mikoyan, Molotov, Khrushchev. The ninth leader was Stalin. The stamp with his portrait was twice as large as the rest. But that was understandable. The gentleman who wrote a book as thick as Voprosy Leninizma (from which we were learning to read) should have a stamp larger than the others.
We wore the stamps attached with a safety pin on the left side, in the place where grown-ups wear medals. But soon a problem arose—there was a shortage of stamps. It was ideal, and perhaps even obligatory, to wear all of the leaders at once, with the large Stalin stamp opening, as it were, the collection. That’s what those from the NKVD also recommended: “You must wear them all!” But meantime, it turned out that somebody had Zhdanov but didn’t have Mikoyan, or somebody had two Kaganovichs but didn’t have Molotov. One day Janek brought in as many as four Khrushchevs, which he exchanged for one Stalin (somebody had earlier stolen his Stalin). The real Croesus among us was Petrus—he had three Stalins. He would take them out of his pocket, display them, boast about them.
One day a neighbor from a side bench, Chaim, took me aside. He wanted to exchange two Andreyevs for one Mikoyan, but I told him that Andreyev wasn’t worth much (which was true, because no one could find out who this Andreyev was), and I refused. The next day Chaim took me aside again. He pulled Voroshilov out of his pocket. I trembled. Voroshilov was my dream! He wore a uniform, therefore he smelled of war, and I already knew war, which is why I felt a sort of closeness to him. In exchange I gave him Zhdanov, Kaganovich, and threw in Mikoyan for good measure. In general, Voroshilov fared well. Similarly Molotov. Molotov could be traded for three others, because grown-ups said that Molotov was important. The price was also high for Kalinin, because he resembled a Polish grandfather. He had a pale beard and—unique among the leaders—something resembling a smile.