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Agent Poeta on Ethiopia: The Case of Communist Secret Police Agent Ryszard Kapuscinski

HIH Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-SelassieOn November 2, HIH Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie, Chairman of the Crown Council of Ethiopia, gave a lecture on “Agent Poeta on Ethiopia: The Case of Communist Secret Police Agent Ryszard Kapuscinski” at IWP’s Sixth Annual Kosciuszko Chair Lecture.  His remarks appear below.

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests and friends, good afternoon.

In 2010, a young Polish journalist Artur Domosławski, published A Life, a biography of Ryszard (Richard) Kapuściński in which he stunningly revealed that the widely acclaimed Polish journalist and author (Ryszard) Kapuściński was a willing and active communist spy, and that much in his books was sheer fantasy and artfully disguised propaganda. Domoslawski’s book and its revelations created a furor in Poland, and elsewhere among his literary acolytes. Domosławski was a young journalist who, like most of his colleagues, had for years idolized Kapuściński as a great writer and reporter. Indeed, he became something of a favorite disciple, constantly visiting the maestro at home or interviewing him for different media. Domoslawski’s book reopened dilemmas of integrity and conscience that are still painful for any journalist who tried to report the world in the late 20th century.

In 1954, at the peak of the thoroughly Stalinized party’s total domination of Poland, 22 year-old Richard (Ryszard) Kapuściński, a dedicated communist and seasoned political operative, entered Polish public life. As a teenager growing up in a country unwillingly beaten into the shape of a Soviet satellite, Kapuściński first became a fanatical boy Stalinist, a leader in the ZMP youth movement. Bullying everyone to vote in dummy elections, he was one of the young Red activists collaborators loathed by most Poles under the nickname of  ‘the pimply ones’ (pryszczaty). In later years, Kapuściński would blank out that period, pretending that he only became political in 1956, the year Poland broke with Stalinism. But how much had he really known about the terror and repression in the early 1950s? After all, the fathers of several of his classmates had been imprisoned, and a girl he knew well was jailed for telling a joke. How did this ardent young worshipper of the Soviet Union contrive to overlook the realities of the Gulag and the purges, given that virtually every Pole knew someone who had been deported for slave labour after the Soviet invasion in 1939, or shot in the mass murder of Poland’s elite at Katyń?

Under such pressures and the desire to know that he would always be granted a passport to return abroad, Kapuściński kept on good terms with powerful friends in Poland’s Party apparatus. An advantage of being overseas was that he missed many internal crises in Poland and didn’t have to risk taking a political stand. When pressure built up against the magazine Polityka, he quietly stopped writing for it – although its editors had published and encouraged him for years. When his main Party protector, the notorious Ryszard Frelek, pressed for the purging of ‘Judeo-Stalinists’ from the universities, Kapuściński said nothing.

However, by the time of the Solidarity revolution in 1980, and in a moment of uncharacteristic recklessness, he handed back his Party card. In fairness, his political zigzags were not unusual. In the 1960s and 1970s, much of the opposition to post-Stalinist regimes in Poland and Czechoslovakia was led by men and women who had been rabid activists for Stalinism in their youth but came to feel that their Marxist ideals had been betrayed. Kapuściński was different only in his reluctance to risk a breach with Party patronage (no more passports for Africa or Latin America), and in the way he tried to conceal his early past. Domosławski points out that in the last decades of his life he was clearly terrified that the file on his collaboration with Polish intelligence would come to light, which may help to explain one of his most blatant swindles with history. When his Shah of Shahs came to be translated into English in 1985, 15 pages of the original text–pages describing the infamous CIA plot to depose the democratically elected Muhammad Mossadegh–were missing. Although Kapuściński later hinted that the American publishers had demanded the cut, they firmly denied making any such suggestion, and after a long inquiry, Domosławski came to believe the Americans. Domosławski concludes that Kapuściński had lapsed into paranoid, ‘East European’ logic. That is, suspecting that the CIA already knew about his covert role with Polish intelligence, Kapuściński feared that were he to expose their dirty work in Iran back in 1953, the agency would retaliate in turn by exposing him as a ‘Communist spy’, and that his huge new success in the West with The Emperor would turn to dust.

Domosławski listed Kapuściński’s many veracity problems noting that, “It’s in his long feature articles, and in the anecdotes he tells in his books, that he habitually exaggerated, often changing details for effect. It seems to be untrue, for instance, that he was awaiting execution by Belgian mercenaries at the Usumbura airfield.” Other journalists tracked down by Domosławski confirm that nothing of the sort happened. When Kapuściński told him he was in Mexico City for the massacre in 1968 or in Santiago for the Pinochet coup in 1973, the truth was he was in Mexico ‘a month later’ and in Chile a couple of years earlier. In Bolivia, he wrote a scandalously colorful but quite untrue story about a rebel editor; he could easily have checked it with the man himself but–he isn’t the only journalist to do this–didn’t want facts to get in the way of a great story. When a friend pointed out that a Tanzanian riot he described had happened in a different place in a different way, Kapuściński shouted at her: ‘You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up: the point is the essence of the matter!’

Neal Ascherson in his review of Domoslawski’s book for the London Review of books, and who knew Kapuściński personally and professionally, puts it this way:  “After reading Domosławski’s compelling, exhaustive and often upsetting book, their (my Western colleagues’) easy tolerance–like mine–begins to look different … he (Kapuściński) was a willing collaborator. His (Polish) intelligence file, opened after his death in 2007, showed that … in Latin America, for example, he provided several profiles and details of figures thought to be working for the CIA.

“Domosławski is right to feel that Kapuściński was violating the moral and professional border of journalism. It’s precisely because journalism and espionage have a superficial resemblance that they don’t mix. Telling an ambassador what you have seen or heard can be harmless: writing target profiles for an intelligence service is another thing altogether, and it poisons a journalist’s soul,” continues Ascherson.

There are two fundamental problems with Kapuściński.

  • The first is about his writing. Did he make things up? Did he manufacture quotes, say he had been to places when he hadn’t, and describe scenes that never happened? If so, did he tell lies in his routine reporting, as an agency man for the Polish Press Agency and Polish newspapers? Or did he reserve for his famous books a style of ‘literary reportage’ in which embroidery and even manipulation of the facts were used to create a reality ‘truer than the truth’?
  • The second issue is his politics: what he did and said when he was young, and how he covered it up later. But here it’s important to note a difference in the emphasis given to those two question marks. For foreigners, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, the real Kapuściński problem is veracity. How should we read books like The Emperor (based, according to him, on interviews with Haile Selassie’s courtiers after his empire had been overthrown) now that it seems unlikely that those interviews took place as he described them?

The ‘English-language’ tradition holds that selling readers fiction dressed up as fact is always wrong. But Kapuściński once wrote, “I do not believe in impartial journalism. I do not believe in formal objectivity. A journalist cannot be an indifferent witness, he should have the capacity for empathy. So-called objective journalism is impossible in conflict situations. Attempts at objectivity in such situations lead to disinformation.”

Ethical frontiers in journalism are ill-lit and murky, but there’s no doubt that Kapuściński–writing for publications and readers who had no way to check what he told them–overstepped them in the sense of selling ‘fiction’ as fact. And he could also color and suppress for the covert political purposes of his masters. For instance, in 1975, he seems to have discovered before anyone else that the Cubans were starting to put troops into Angola during the civil war–a huge story. But it would have harmed ‘the cause’ to break the news, so he sat on it until it became ‘official’.

John Ryle, a noted British anthropologist and highly regarded writer-expert on eastern Africa, has been brutal about him: “Despite Kapuściński’s vigorously anti-colonialist stance, his writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo Orientalism … Here facts are no longer sacred; we are at play in the bush of ghosts, free to opine and to generalise about ‘Africa’ and ‘the African.'” Domosławski supports Ryle’s verdict with some absurd pronouncements from Kapuściński’s The Shadow of the Sun: “the kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective can never arise here, because the African past has no documents or records … history … achieves here its purest, crystalline form–that of myth.”

It is now widely believed that when Kapuściński set out to write his trilogy on tyrants–The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and Amin (which he never finished)–he was actually evading his Polish censors to produce satirical allegories about the regime of Edward Gierek, who had taken over the leadership of Poland in December 1970. The broad theme was the futility of all attempts at economic ‘development’ without political reform. But Domosławski’s book shows that the allusions were often much more precise. The Emperor began as a serial in the journal Kultura, and soon every smart Pole was reading the installments to gloat over the jeers at Gierek dressed up as mockery of Haile Selassie’s ambitions: ‘His Majesty never made appointments on the basis of a person’s talent, but always and exclusively on the basis of loyalty.’ Writing that young Ethiopians go abroad and return ‘full of devious ideas, disloyal views,’ so that they look around, clutch their heads and say ‘Good God, how can anything like this exist?’ Kapuściński charmed his readers. Sometimes he simply invented: when Gierek proposed a monstrous barrage for the river Vistula, it turned out that Haile Selassie had announced dams on the Nile: ‘How can we erect dams, the confused advisers grumble, when the provinces are starving, the nation is restless?’

Questions concerning the reliability of Kapuściński’s reportage begin with The Emperor.  Kapuściński’s informants here are allegedly mostly former Ethiopian court servants labouring under anonymising initials. Only one of those who assisted him is given a full name (that, we are told, is because he is dead), yet the power of the book derives to a large extent from the fact that the story is told almost entirely through the transcribed speech of these unnamed witnesses.  Their antiquated cadences have a hypnotic quality.  With courtly unctuousness they speak of “His Venerable Majesty,” “His Most Virtuous Highness,” “His Benevolent Majesty,” “His Sublime Majesty,” “His Charitable Majesty,” “His Exalted Majesty,” “His Indefatigable Majesty,” “His Masterful Highness,” “Our Omnipotent Ruler.” These expressions of fealty acquire an air of increasing satire as the excesses of the imperial court are borne in on the reader; it is a subtle albeit deadly piece of reportorial rhetoric

Yet native speakers of Amharic will tell you that these honorifics correspond to no known expressions in our languageLikewise they could not occur in the formal registers of speech that were employed at the court, where there were only one or two acceptable forms of address for the EmperorSo they cannot have been spoken as transcribed.  Some of the ceremonial titles that Kapuściński gives his sources are invented too.  In the absence of proper names this may be held to cast further doubt on the existence of these informants. What Kapuściński and his unnamed translators created in The Emperor was a brilliant device, Chinese whispers rather than transcription, an imaginary archaic language, with touches of comic opera, that implies homage while conveying subversion. It falls short, though, of both scholarly and journalistic standards of verifiability, and even of likelihood. 

There are more implausibilities in The Emperor.  We are told that Haile Selassie did not read books:  “His Venerable Majesty was no reader.  For him, neither the written nor the printed word existed; everything had to be relayed by word of mouth.”  But Haile Selassie was undoubtedly well-read, both in Amharic and in French.  He possessed a large library where he spent long periods of time, and provided numerous written comments on manuscripts submitted to him.  It is beyond belief that his palace servants could have been unaware of this. Further, Haile Selassie’s reading habits are documented in The Mission, a memoir by Hans Lockot, the head of research at the National Library of Ethiopia during the Emperor’s reign.  Kapuściński even describes one of his informants bringing him the first volume of Haile Selassie’s autobiography, the English translation by the Ethiopianist scholar Edward Ullendorff.  But the event is taking place in 1974, and Ullendorff’s translation did not appear until two years later, in 1976.  So not even this could have happened in the way described.

Kapuściński’s apologists for such criticisms have argued that The Emperor is not meant to be about Ethiopia at all, that it is an allegory of Communist power in Poland, or of autocratic regimes in general.  Certainly, the book is informed and deepened by such parallels, and its reception among intellectuals in the West was conditioned by an awareness of its particularly exotic origin–a book about a far-off country by an author who was himself a master of the new journalism sprung miraculously from within the Soviet bloc. 

Some apologists for The Emperor have located it, specifically, in a Polish literary genre where dissent masquerades as descriptive prose, and Kapuściński has subsequently, on occasion, endorsed this interpretationYet there is no indication in the book that it is meant to be read as an allegory–or as a traveler’s tale or parable (in the same genre, say, as the mediaeval European stories of Prester John, the legendary Abyssinian king).  Like Kapuściński’s other books, The Emperor is presented unambiguously as factual reportage–and it asserts its claim on the reader’s attention as such.  The dearth of other sources on the subject–no member of the Imperial court of Ethiopia survived to write a memoir of Haile Selassie–means that the book would have considerable documentary importance if the information in it could only be trusted. 

At the time of publication, there was, of course, a rationale for Kapuściński to maintain the confidentiality of any living sources he might have.  Many regimes later, though, there seems no reason for their anonymity to have been preserved, particularly since a number of court servants (none of whose names correspond to the initials of the sources in The Emperor) have given legal testimony in Addis Ababa as witnesses in the trial of the Derg, the regime, headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, that deposed and killed the Emperor in 1975. 

John Ryle in his critique Tales of Mythical Africa, 27 July 2001, comments: “Kapuścińksi’s return to Ethiopia in the 1990s to visit imprisoned members of the Derg occupies one of the later chapters of his new book. One might have hoped that this would be the occasion for him to consider the issues raised by his earlier work, but The Shadow of the Sun makes no mention of The Emperor at all, nor yet of the court proceedings where the death of Haile Selassie is currently under investigation.  And Kapuścińksi’s account in his new book of his visit to the Central Prison in Addis Ababa raises further doubts about his factual accuracy.”

“After Mengistu’s escape,” he writes, “his army dispersed and only the academics were left.  They were seized without great difficulty and imprisoned in this crowded courtyard.'” Indeed, these murderous villains are today free on the streets of Addis Ababa–and elsewhere–having served 20 year sentences for their heinous crimes. Yet, their victims, their families, and their nation remain traumatized by this, the darkest chapter in the millennias long continuous history of our venerable nation.

This characterization of the inmates of the Central Prison is misleading (it contradicts, in fact, an earlier reference by Kapuściński to the ‘generals of the army and police’ among those captured followers of Mengistu).  I visited the prison myself around this time.  A few of the prisoners were indeed former professors, but the officials of the former regime who were held there included many prominent military figures, as they still do: Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, an air force captain who was Mengistu’s Prime Minister; Teka Tulu, an army colonel who was his chief of Internal Security (since deceased); Sergeant Legesse Asfaw, known as the Butcher of Tigray; and the equally notorious Melaku Tefera, Butcher of Gondar. None of these people were, by any stretch of the imagination, academics.  Nor had they been that easy to capture: Melaku Tefera, in particular, was the subject of hot pursuit across the desert to Djibouti, where he was nabbed by an Ethiopian army hit squad.

“Kapuściński’s chapter on Ethiopia in The Shadow of the Sun has other odd bits of misinformation. He describes visiting the bookstore in the University of Addis Ababa.  It is, he says, the country’s only bookstore–and completely devoid of books.  Really?  There are at least a half-a-dozen bookshops in Addis Ababa, all with books for sale, and have been since the Derg era. (The books do not include The Emperor, however. Kapuściński’s book has been published in more than a dozen languages, but not in Amharic.)  Not content with this already quite erroneous assertion, Kapuściński continues ‘It is this way in most African countries.  Once, I remember, there was a good bookshop in Kampala… Now–everywhere, nothing.’  Here hyperbole becomes distinctly misleading.  There may not be a branch of Borders or Barnes and Noble in Kampala, but there are numerous bookshops there, and in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Johannesburg, Cape Town and dozens of other African cities, small and large.”

Ryles asks, “How much does all this matter? And to whom? I would have thought it should be a matter of concern if the lives and beliefs of Nilotic societies millions strong are casually misrepresented. And it is clearly important for the descendants of Haile Selassie and the members of his court, and for those trying to write the recent history of Ethiopia, to know whether or not the unique testimonies that Kapuściński appears to have obtained with such resourcefulness are genuine. When The Emperor was made into a stage play in London in the 1980s, adapted by Jonathan Miller, the Royal Court Theatre was picketed by protesting Ethiopian exiles, some of them former members of Haile Selassie’s court. It cut no ice with them to be told that the play was intended as an allegory, that it was not really about their country at all.

“And why should it? There is a double standard at work in such excuses, a clear Eurocentric bias. Consider the hypothetical case of an author publishing a book of scandalous revelations about the last years of the Gierek regime in communist Poland, using dubious information obtained in obscure circumstances from anonymous and untraceable members of the Polish Internal Security Police. It would not be considered a reasonable defence of such a book to say that it did not matter whether it was true or not because it was really intended, not as a book about Poland, but as an allegorical account of events in imperial Ethiopia.”

I too personally picketed the Royal Court Theatre production in London and witnessed first-hand the truth of Ryles criticism. The superficiality and cheerleading for this theatrical fairy-tale by virtually the entire British media continues to be a disappointment to me as is the realization that sophisticated audiences can become victim of artfully contrived propaganda.

In closing, Kapuscinski’s gross and, to me, crypto-racist Orientalist fabrications served many dark purposes, including most glaringly the promotion of those infamous agendas of his Marxist Warsaw-Pact masters and of the far more brutally cynical and destructive Marxist Derg that they supported, having helped to rationalize and justify its terrible cultural genocide in the eyes of innocent western readers eager for a sensational tale. Regrettably, outsiders’ views of Africa and Africans are almost wholly shaped by other outsiders, but Kapuściński went beyond the usual distortions. If–with the advantage of informed hindsight and criticism–people still prefer and are encouraged to believe that The Emperor is somehow a credible portrayal of Ethiopia and its history and that it somehow conveys some kind of insight into our country and its history, then they are willing accomplices in a lie, and the Ethiopians’ own, venerable and painful history has truly been hijacked to comfort Westerners’ romantic notions of them. The indulgence with which many critics, academics and others continue to treat Kapuscinski’s quirks is, in my view, unforgivable. The Emperor is a calculated hoax, a work of ‘faction’ and as such deserves to be consigned to the same dustbin as, say, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Thank you for your kind attention and interest.

This lecture also appears on the website of the Kosciuszko Chair of Polish Studies.