Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska

The following is an excerpt from Ryszard Kapuściński’s Imperium a classic of reportage and a literary masterwork by one of the great writers and witnesses of the twentieth century. It is the story of an empire: the constellation of states that was submerged under a single identity for most of the century – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Imperium is available now from Granta Books.


The place of my second encounter with the lmperium: far away, in the steppes and snows of Asia, in a land difficult of access, whose entire geography consists of unfamiliar and extraordinary names – rivers called Argun, Unda, Chaychar; mountains, Chingan, Ilchuri, Dzagdy; and cities, Kilkok, Tungir, and Bukachacha. From these names alone one could compose sonorous, exotic poems.

The train of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which set out the previous day from Peking and is making the nine-day trip to Moscow, after Harbin, China, pulls into Zabaykal’sk, the border station of the USSR. At the approach to every border, tension rises within us; emotions heighten. People are not made to live in borderline situations; they avoid them or try to flee from them as quickly as possible. And yet man encounters them everywhere, sees and feels them everywhere. Let us take the atlas of the world: it is all borders. Borders of oceans and continents. Deserts and forests. Precipitations, monsoons, typhoons, cultivated land and fallow land, permafrost and bog, rocky soil and clay. Let us add the borders of the Quaternary deposits and volcanic flows, of basalt, chalk and trachyte. We can also see the borders of the Patagonian plate and the Canadian plate, the zones of tropical climates and of Arctic ones, the borders of the erosion zones of the Adycha watershed and of Lake Chad. The borders demarcating the habitats of certain mammals. Certain insects. Certain reptiles and amphibians, including the extremely dangerous black cobra, as well as the frightening – although, fortunately, lazy – anaconda.

And the borders of monarchies and republics? Kingdoms remote in time and lost civilizations? Pacts, treaties and alliances? Black tribes and red? Human migrations? The borders to which the Mongols reached. The Khazars. The Huns.

How many victims, how much blood and suffering, are connected with this business of borders! There is no end to the cemeteries of those who have been killed the world over in the defense of borders. Equally boundless are the cemeteries of the audacious who attempted to expand their borders. It is safe to assume that half of those who have ever walked upon our planet and lost their lives in the field of glory gave up the ghost in battles begun over a question of borders.

This sensitivity to the border issue, this untiring enthusiasm for constantly marking them out, widening them, or defending them, are characteristic not only of man, but all animate nature,  of everything that moves on land, in water and air. Various mammals, in defense of the borders of their grazing lands, will let themselves be torn to pieces. Various beasts of prey, so as to secure new hunting grounds, will bite their adversaries to death. And even our quiet and meek kitten, how he labors, how he compresses and torments himself, to squeeze out a few drops with which to mark, here and there, the borders of his territory.

And our brains? Encoded in them, after all, is an infinite diversity of borders. Between the left and the right hemispheres, between the frontal and the temporal lobes, between the corpus callosum and the cerebellum. And the borders between ventricles, meninx, and convolutions? Between the lumbar region and the spinal cord? Notice the way in which we think. For instance, we think: That’s the limit; beyond that – no. Or we say: Be careful that you don’t go too far, for you will overstep the mark! Moreover, all these boundaries of thought and feeling, injunctions and interdictions, are constantly shifting, crossing and permeating one another, piling up. In our brains there is ceaseless border movement – across borders, near borders, over borders. Hence our headaches and migraines, hence the tumult in our heads; but pearls can also be produced: visions, dazzlements, flashes of inspiration, and – unfortunately more rarely – genius.

The border is stress – fear, even (significantly more rarely: liberation). The concept of the border can include a kind of finality; the doors can slam shut behind us forever: such is the border between life and death. The gods know about such anxieties, and that is why they try to win adherents by promising people that as a reward that they will enter the divine kingdom – which will have no borders. The paradise of the Christian God, the paradise of Yahweh and Allah, all have no borders. Buddhists know that the state of nirvana is the state of blissful happiness without limits. In short, that which is most desired, awaited, and longed for by everyone is precisely this unconditional, total, absolute – boundlessness.

When We Returned to Pakistan
Diana Athill