Kapuściński and the Autocrats

The late Polish journalist, like no other writer, understood societies in crisis

Everyone’s busy checking Orwell out of the library and pretending to read 1984 right now, because apparently we live in an “Orwellian” reality. But if you really want to understand, or at least try to understand, what’s going on in America, I recommend reading Ryszard Kapuściński instead. Kapuściński was a Polish journalist who had more courage on an average Tuesday than you or I have had in our entire lives. He spent decades reporting from the most dangerous war zones on Earth. He would find what’s going on in the States tragic and comic in equal measure. Kapuściński saw what really happens when societies descend into revolt.

As soon as it became apparent that we were living amidst a banana republic-style coup, or something close to it, I turned to Kapuściński. That sounds pretentious, but I like to read in times of crisis. It was better than turning to Twitter. Kapuściński had many specialities as a writer, but his best literary trick was explaining autocrats, how they work, and how societies function under them. In particular, his masterpieces, Shah of Shahs, about the end of the Iranian monarchy and the rise of the caliphate, and The Emperor, about the terrifying reign of Ethopia’s monarch Halie Selassie, can help shed some understanding on what’s going on today.

Shah of Shahs

Iran is the more pertinent example to our current situation, if only because it’s the country closer to the forefront of the American mind. After all, it was a core member of the Bush Administration’s “Axis Of Evil.” Only the bungling of post-invasion Iraq kept us from seeing the spectacle of American troops rampaging into Tehran. Then the Obama Administration tried to placate the Iranians through the nuclear deal, and then Trump scotched that deal and spent four years making threats to the mullahs.

But it all started with the overthrow of the Shah. Or, more accurately, it all started with the installation of the Shah through a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1953. But Kapuściński takes the story even further back. I’d always been under the assumption that the Shah of Iran was the inheritor of some sort of great dynasty, a descendant of Cyrus the Great or some other historically important Persian king. But, as it turns out Reza Pahlavi’s grandfather was a penniless soldier who received the assignment of frog-marching a previous Shah to the Tehran for execution. His son, Reza’s father, became Shah, and was a brutal tyrant. Reza was a party boy who liked taking ski vacations in Switzerland, and he ruled with a slightly softer cudgel.

Shah Reza Pahlavi, in Kapuściński’s telling, undertook a great effort to “modernize” Iran, flooding the country with new technology and factories, but not bothering to train the population. “Somehow the ships are gradually unloaded,” he writes, “but then it turns out there are no warehouses…The remaining cargo now has to be transported into the depths of the country, and at this moment it turns out there is no transport.” So he imports 2,000 trucks and trailers, but has no drivers for them. Then he imports truckers from South Korea, but it turns out there aren’t any roads. And so on.

Meanwhile, the great impoverished masses of Iran saw no benefit from this modernization program, and they gradually began to rebel, which led to larger and larger massacres, and then the Ayatollah Khomeini appeared, and, well, we all more or less know the rest of that story. But it all arose from the installation of an incompetent, corrupt autocrat who ruled without the consent of the governed. Ryszard Kapuściński explained, and understood, the process better than any writer who covered the regime.

The Emperor

Ethiopia doesn’t exist in the American consciousness at all, except for guilt-making commercial pleas for aid during period famines, and as the source of culinary delicacies like injera bread and zilzil tibs for urban sophisticates. In the middle of the 20th century, though, it was a larger player on the world stage, first because Mussolini’s Italy invaded it, in a precursor to World War II. Then Ethiopia’s “Emperor”, Halie Selassie, became a favored pet among the Western elite, receiving Time’s “Man of the Year” award for resisting Mussolini even though he was hiding in the English town of Bath at the time.


In reality, as Kapuściński writes in his brilliant book The Emperor, Selassie was merely a savvy bureaucrat who wheedled his way to the throne, whispering society to bend to his whims and stealing countless billions to deposit into Swiss bank accounts. Whereas Shah of Shahs is a more on-the-ground “you are there” style of book, The Emperor comes in after Selassie death in 1975, when it’s relatively safe to talk about him and his misdeeds. Kapuściński, who covered Ethiopia during Selassie’s reign as well, seeks out the surviving members of Selassie’s court, as well as some of his former servants, to provide an account of life in the insanely privileged court of a country suffering from inconceivable poverty and starvation.

The pattern is somewhat similar to Iran’s: an elaborate system of favors and rewards, hoodwinking naive Westerners into donating capital and cash, and absolute incompetence at every level of society. Monstrous violence follows. Eventually, and pathetically, Selassie falls in a military coup. The palace empties. The Emperor has no clothes.


Kapuściński is equally harsh on these societies after the autocrats fall. What replaces the strongman is often just as murderous as before, if not more so. The mullah-ruled Iran is a mess of repression, spying, superstition, renunciations, and meaningless, bloody street demonstrations. In post-Selassie Ethiopia, he writes of the bizarre phenomenon of “fetasha“, which authorizes every citizen to search every other citizen at all times, without explanation:

“To get things under control, to disarm the opposition, the authorities order a complete fetasha [Amharic for search], covering everyone. We are searched incessantly. On the street, in the car, in front of the house, in the house, in the street, in front of the post office, in front of an office building, going into the editor’s office, the movie theatre, the church, in front of the bank, in front of the restaurant, in the market place, in the park. Anyone can search us because we don’t know who has the right and who hasn’t, and asking only makes thing worse. It’s better to give in. Somebody’s always searching us. Guys in rags with sticks, who don’t say anything, but only stop us and hold out their arms, which is the signal for us to do the same: get ready to be searched. They take everything out of our briefcases and pockets, look at it, act surprised, screw up their faces, nod their heads, whisper advice to each other. They frisk us: back, stomach, legs, shoes. And then what? Nothing, we can go on, until the next spreading of arms, until the next fetasha. The next one might be only a few steps on, and the whole thing starts all over again. The searchers never give you an acquittal, a general clearance, absolution. Every few minutes, every few steps, we have to clear ourselves again.”

Well, that sounds terrible!

Now America is departing its own experiment with autocracy, where a narcissist spent four years enriching himself and his family, promising modernity, delivering nothing. He debased whatever slim legacy he might have left by attempting to overturn a legitimate election, leading his nuttiest followers to storm the Capitol in a pathetic and violent attempt to overthrow the government. This didn’t happen in a Kapuściński book, or in distant history. It happened two weeks ago.

Fortunately for us, succeeding our autocrat won’t be a corrupt theocracy, like in Iran, or a Trotskyist pseudo-dictator, like the current leader of Ethiopia. We get Joe Biden. Whatever criticisms you might have of Joe Biden, he’s not a theocrat or a Trotskyist, unless I’m missing some huge context clues. But I would have liked to have seen Kapuściński’s take on the Trump Years, and on the absurd aftermath to come. From The Emperor to “The Donald,” every society gets the autocrat it deserves.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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