The Spy: Ryszard Kapuscinski

May 22, 2007 | 1 book mentioned 3 2 min read

News has emerged from Poland that renowned journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski may have at one time been a collaborator with the secret police there. Apparently he is the latest of several prominent figures in Poland whose past ties to the Communist regime have been revealed.

I’ve often wondered, when reading Kapuscinski’s books, how he was able to travel so far and wide and write with what seemed to be freedom. This collaboration would have likely made his journalistic wanderings more palatable to the government. As Reuters notes, between 1967 and 1972, when Kapuscinski apparently cooperated with the secret police, “it was almost impossible to leave the country without signing a document to co-operate with the regime.” Written after the fall of communism, Kapuscinski’s book Imperium would seem to betray his true feelings. The book is a poignant indictment of Communist atrocities that begins with a recollection of Soviet troops overrunning his town when he was seven, though it does not speak much of the Polish government during the Communist era.

It seems clear that this was likely an impossible choice for Kapuscinski, either cooperate and write or resist and remain silent (or worse). Reuters quotes a friend and fellow reporter who says, “But Kapuscinski had to… If he didn’t agree, he wouldn’t have written his books. There would be no Kapuscinski.” It seems, as well, that Kapuscinski wasn’t a significant collaborator. Newsweek in Poland, which broke the news, quotes Kapuscinski’s file as saying, “During his co-operation, he has demonstrated a lot of willingness but he has not supplied any significant documents.” The revelations, meanwhile, come amid a wave of similar “purges” by Poland’s current leaders, who some have suggested are pursuing the issue with excessive zeal as a political ploy.

Ultimately, the episode illuminates the terrible choices that many were forced to make behind the Iron Curtain, while also challenging our desire to identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys” under a regime where resistance of any kind was met with severe punishment. Given that Kapuscinski used his freedom, though it came at a price, to shed light on cruel governments in Iran and Ethiopia and on suffering and conflicts in many other parts of the world, it would seem that, based on what we know now, Kapuscinski achieved a karmic balance of sorts.

See also: The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski and The Fabulist: Ryszard Kapuscinski

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. It's worth taking into consideration here Lawrence Weschler's assertion that The Emperor (1978) made clear Kapuscinski's feelings about Polish Communism–even before the upheavals of the early 80s. According to Weschler, "everyone" in Poland read The Emperor as an allegory about the regime in Warsaw. He backs this up with some close reading (see "Allegories of Eastern Europe" in Weschler's Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences).

    Also, according to Weschler, Kapuscinski tended to file uncontroversial daily dispatches from his various foreign destinations. The "freer" long pieces he'll be remembered for were generally composed after he'd returned to Poland.

    I don't really know enough about all this to judge Kapuscinski (as Clive James might), but Weschler's book, and his earlier one about Poland, do a good job sketching the complicated situation behind the Iron Curtain in the late 70s and early 80s.

  2. Clearly, the life of a journalist (more so outside the United States or England) is a tough one. I appreciate when Kapuscinski must of endured to write.

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