Ryszard Kapuściński was a Polish reporter who was sometimes accused of a certain, well, embellishment. It’s true that this astonishing book about the end of the Soviet empire has its moments of what might be described as magical journalism: a little girl in a Siberian city who tells him that when she steps out of her door on a winter morning she can tell which of her classmates have already gone to school by observing the shapes of the tunnels their bodies have carved as they passed in the icy mist which forms in extremely cold air, for example; while some of his accounts of the Caucasus in the late 1960s seem almost to bear the imaginative imprint of Italo Calvino’s gorgeously Invisible Cities.

This is fine writing on its own terms; but it scarcely seems to matter whether all the details are correct when the book’s greatest strength is its alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) grimly appalling and hilariously sardonic in-depth exploration of every wrinkle of the Soviet psyche, from the gruesome impulses that led Stalin to order the demolition of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to Kapuściński’s unpacking of the thought process behind the reluctance to ask questions manifested by those living under Soviet rule.

The tour de force is a truly astounding tale of how in 1990 he got into the war zone of Nagorno-Karabakh disguised as an Aeroflot pilot, in spite of being entirely unable to fly a plane. This is a grippingly suspenseful yarn which could easily have raced onward to its denouement at a ripping pace, yet at every turn he takes the reader by the elbow, slows him down, and invites him to consider the peculiarities of the situation in detail from all its angles. That story alone is worth the price of admission, but there are plenty more of almost equally thought-provoking quality. Top-notch writing; straight into the top ten, this one.

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