Interview with Jacek Hugo-Bader, author of Pushkin Prize 2015 shortlisted book 'Kolyma Diaries'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack) translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jone

What is your connection with Russia?

My connection with Russia is not just work-related, but also emotional. After twenty-five years of regular journeys there for professional purposes, Russia has become almost as important to me as my own country. It infuriates, upsets, horrifies, amazes and moves me out of all proportion, and about a week after arriving I start to think in Russian.

When I was growing up, my parents used to talk about the war over Sunday dinner –without blowing a fuse, without any patriotic outbursts. They just told plain, human stories about Grandpa Kazimierz (my dad’s father), who served in the Russian army during the First World War, and Grandpa Jan (my mum’s father), who served in the German army, so first they fought on opposite sides, then they fought together against the Bolsheviks. In the Second World War they both fought first against the Germans, then against the Russians; one was killed by the Germans and the other by the Russians. My father used to talk about the Vlasov army, thuggish units made up of Russian collaborators serving in the Nazi army, who were stationed in their house in 1944, and my mother talked about the invading Red Army soldiers, from whom all the girls had to hide because they raped, and stole watches and bicycles. Luckily they didn’t rape any of my numerous aunts, or even steal their watches, just their bikes, but nowadays I know it was part of the sinister mythology that preceded the Russian troops, and I know why they took bicycles – because they had to walk the whole way from Moscow to Berlin on foot!

Is it actually possible to get your head round all of this? Somehow I managed it, so did my entire generation. We were forced to learn Russian at school, and we grew up in the knowledge that the Russians had occupied our country, but twenty-five years ago we were very quick to drop all the prejudices, though in the past few years they’ve been making a comeback. I don’t share that way of thinking, but I do understand it.

Why did you decide to write a book about the far north in particular?

I went to Kolyma because of two young lassies who came to tell me that their company was willing to pay for me to go on a long and distant journey abroad. I immediately agreed, because in hard times for the newspapers, when someone gives, you have to take, and only then ask questions. So I asked “Where to?”, and they said “Wherever you like”. So I said I’d go to Kolyma, and they said all right, though they had no idea where it was, I just had to take their company’s mobile phone with me. What difference did it make? I always have two phones with me on my travels anyway. After I’d spent a whole year making preparations for the trip, they called the whole thing off. But by then I couldn’t not go. I was so determined to make the journey that I found myself another sponsor. My publishers gave me the money because by then they were eager to have the book.

But why Kolyma? Because I’d read that it was known as “the cruellest extremity on earth”, and I always felt a shiver down my spine when I heard that word, like on hearing the word Auschwitz. So I wanted to know if it’s really possible to live there, and how people live there now. It’s a fabulous assignment for a reporter.

Would it have been easier to travel by more conventional means?

It’s impossible to travel there in a conventional way. There are no ordinary means of transport. And needless to say, if you travel conventionally, you’ll only gather conventional material. Ordinary, predictable, mediocre stuff, just like everyone else’s – and that doesn’t interest me. Sometimes my colleagues say, “But Jacek, that’s impossible!” But I’m not going to the other end of the world just to have “possible” experiences. Possible stories happen in front of a computer screen, so I devise my journeys in a way that will give my reporter’s luck a chance, to allow the impossible to come about.

Do you think your Polish background, tolerance for extreme weather (and alcohol) helps give you a unique perspective?

The fact that I am a Pole definitely helps – we and the Russians have a slightly similar cultural code, and it’s definitely easier for us to understand each other. Take the phenomenon of Russki vodka drinking. Of course the reporter is condemned to join in, like it or not – that’s the price you have to pay. It’s easier for me as a Pole, it isn’t quite so painful. It’s the same sort of price to pay as food poisoning, or occasionally catching lice in bed, or athlete’s foot, or the chance that you might spend a cold night in a roadside ditch, you might be robbed, you might end up hungry and dirty, or you might spend all day tramping with a backpack. These are the normal costs for a reporter on the road, so you have to be ready for it, mentally and physically, you have to look after yourself, your health, and your body, which is just as much of a tool for me in my work as my keyboard, my dictaphone and my camera.

This is the only way of travelling that allows you to get close enough to the people you’re writing about to become part of their life. You spend your time with them, you sleep at their places, you eat with them, you drink with them, and you spend all night talking to them – that’s the best viewpoint for a reporter. I describe myself as a reporter who snuggles up to his characters.

What was the reaction of the local people you met on your travels?

Russians are extremely hospitable and friendly. They like Poles, but they have no comprehension of the things I mentioned in my answer to your first question. They can’t understand that background, my foreign, Polish perspective. In Kolyma Diaries you’ll find a portrait of the local gold oligarch, who doesn’t give a damn about the foreign perspective, he even despises it with imperial superiority, because for that sort of person size matters. Smaller simply doesn’t count. They hate the Americans, the US is their main enemy, but they respect it, because it’s vast, powerful, and dangerous – it can smash them in the gob. They have a fairly similar attitude to the Germans, the British and the French. Why should a triangle of Russia, Germany and France determine peace in Ukraine? Is it because size matters? God forbid some tiddler of a country should dare to speak up, some Poland, Georgia or Latvia. When the Estonians shifted a monument to the Soviet soldier to another site in their capital, the result was a Russian cyber-invasion of their country, and the threat of a military invasion too.

So-called ordinary Russians can’t understand this at all. They complain to me that after 1989 we betrayed them, we turned our backs on them, we broke our fraternal, Slavonic ties, but that’s no obstacle to us sitting down together, eating, drinking and talking about it in a calm and friendly way. Russians are willing to hear what foreigners have to say and to try to understand them, they do have room in their hearts for us. And I love them. It’s thanks to their care and assistance that I can live, and work, and write my books. I have very rarely got into any trouble there. I’ve only been robbed once, in altogether more than four years there – it has happened to me more often at home in Poland.

 What was the greatest surprise for you during your research?

The fact that it’s possible to live a quite ordinary life in Kolyma without thinking about what happened there. I met a woman who spent ten appalling years in a Stalinist labour camp in Kolyma, and then never left the place – rather than get as far away as possible, she lives in a small town next to the site of her camp and talks about “my beloved Kolyma”. I shall never cease to be amazed by the Russian capacity to forget. And also to forgive.

 What is the strongest theme or message that emerges from your book?

The fact that man can adapt to life in any circumstances. And the Russian will do anything to be happy. He’ll work, make love, bear children, study, laugh, dream, bake bread, write poetry, and drink vodka, just as if he lived in Cornwall, Tuscany, Bavaria or Sardinia.

Your work is often compared with Kapuściński. How do you react?

With detachment. In the introduction to the Polish edition of my previous book, White Fever, which is also an account of Russia, my fellow reporter Mariusz Szczygieł wrote that “Ryszard Kapuściński described the empire from a bird’s eye view; he caught the Russian way of thinking, behaving and acting. Hugo-Bader describes the empire from the viewpoint of a stray dog; he catches the Russian way of thinking, behaving and acting, and a rat by the tail as well.”

Any thoughts based on your reporting on the reasons and consequences of the growing current tensions between Russia and the west?

I’ve already said something about the Russians’ dangerous, imperial way of thinking. I know that the dangerous statement, or deep conviction, that without Ukraine Russia will never be an empire has embedded itself in the Russian brain like a tumour. It will never return to its former power and splendour, to its old significance, without that piece of the former Soviet jigsaw. What’s most terrifying is that in Russia they think about Ukraine as if it were totally unpopulated, like the Gobi Desert. They utterly fail to consider what the Ukrainians think about it, so they’re more willing to talk to the Germans or the French about the future of Ukraine than to the people who live there, and they disdainfully call it “Little Russia”. It’s like calling Ireland “Little England”. That sounds monstrous, doesn’t it?

What reactions have you had to your book from Russians?

My books about Russia have been translated into ten languages and published in all the biggest European countries except for Russia, although some major Russian publishers have wanted to publish them before they were finished, but later backed out, saying they weren’t interested. After some extracts were translated and pirated on Russian websites, I got an awful pasting from people commenting on line, telling me to stick to my own affairs, my own failure of a country, Poland’s misfortunes, woes and ills, Polish tramps, car thieves and alcoholics. That relates to what I’ve said above in answer to your fifth question – they gave me a hard time because I’m a Pole. I’m not allowed to write about Russia like that – only about my own country’s ills.

What plans do you have for your next book?

And that’s exactly what my next book’s going to be about. It’s now twenty-five years since we regained our freedom, so I’m writing about what life in Poland is like for the people who fought and won the battle for that freedom. I was one of those people, I was active in a large underground organisation, which made a major contribution to overthrowing communism. I’m writing purely about my own colleagues from that time, men and women whom I knew personally. I’ve been tracking them down to ask them if this is what they imagined freedom would be like, if the country was meant to be like this, how they’ve been getting on in it, how their lives are going and whether they are successful. What have they been doing for the past twenty-five years? Are they happy?

The book will be finished in the autumn, and I already know it’s going to be very bitter, because most of us are people who were well cut out for the fight, but not for life, not for building our own personal happiness, our future – including those of us who are now government ministers as well as those who are vagrants.

And only now do we have a good opportunity to answer the question of why the situation in Ukraine is so bad. How has such a large country managed to squander the past twenty-four years since the collapse of the USSR? How could they be so shockingly wasteful, how could they let so much time be lost? Why have they screwed it all up so hopelessly, failed to make any progress with development or take a single step towards reform? Why has it ended in such awful chaos and in war? Because they didn’t have anyone like the people I’m now writing about. They didn’t have a strong opposition that could take on power after the communists, as Solidarity did in Poland. People who were clever, honest, and dedicated, who love their country and were ready to take responsibility for it. It was the same in Russia and the entire Soviet Union, where the opposition was nothing but solitary individuals like Sakharov.