Ask No

The author, a journalist, reports on experiences within the Soviet imperium in 1939-1967, then during the period of ferment (1989-1991), and finally during 1992-93. In the section below, from 1989, the author's regular flight in Siberia is interrupted by an unscheduled landing and a layover in a hot, incredibly overcrowded airport in Syktykvar. The author is waiting for some, any information about his flight.

We had been standing for more than an hour already, and it was becoming harder and harder to bear. And yet the stuffiness and sweat were not the worst of it. The worst was that I did not know what next. How long am I supposed to stand like this in Syktykvar? Another hour? Twenty four hours? The rest of my life? And really --- what am I doing here? Why didn't we fly to Vorkuta? Will we fly there at some point? When?

I looked around at my neighbors.

They stood staring fixedly straight ahead. One could see no impatience in their expressions. No anxiety, agitation, anger. Most important, they asked about nothing; they asked no one about anything. But perhaps they weren't asking because they already knew?

I asked one of them if he knew when we would be taking off. If you suddenly ask someone a question here, you must wait patiently. For you can see in the face of the one queried that it is only under the influence of this stimulus (the question) that he seems to awaken, comes to life, and starts the laborious journey from some other planet to earth. And this requires time. Then an expression of slight and even amused surprise crosses his face --- what's the moron asking for?

The person to whom the question is addressed is absolutely right to consider his interrogator a moron. For his entire experience teaches him that no advantage accrues from asking questions, that no matter what, a man will learn --- questions or not --- only as much as they will tell him (or rather, won't tell him), and that, on the contrary, the asking of questions is very dangerous and can cause a man to bring a great misfortune down upon his head.

It is true that a bit of time has elapsed since the epoch of Stalinism, but its memory is alive, and the lessons, traditions, and habits of that period remain, are fixed in consciousness, and will long influence people's behaviour. How many of them (or their families, acquaintances, and so on) went to the camps because during a meeting, or even in private conversation, they asked about this or that? How many in so doing ruined their careers? How many lost their jobs? How many lost their lives?

For years, the bureaucracy and the police maintained a well-developed system of spying and informing designed to uncover only one offense: Did someone ask? What did he ask about? Give me the name of the one who asked?

In literature (in Vasily Grossman, for example), scenes describing a return home from the camps. A man has come back after ten years of suffering in Siberia. He sits down the first evening at the family table together with his wife, his children, his parents. They eat supper, perhaps there's even a conversation, but no one asks the newcomer where he was during those years, what he did, what he experienced.

What would one ask for?

A wise sentence from Ecclesiastes: Who gathers knowledge, gathers pain.

Developing this bitter thought, Karl Popper once wrote (I am quoting from memory) that ignorance is not a simple and passive lack of knowledge, but is an active stance; it is the refusal to accept knowledge, a reluctance to possess it; it is its rejection. (Or, in a word, antiknowledge.)

The sphere of questions --- so vast and, it would seem, so indispensable to life --- was not only a forbidden minefield, but an outright inimical and odious form of speech, and this was because in Soviet practice the monopoly on asking questions was reserved to interrogating police officers. "I'm the one who asks questions around here!" shouts the interrogating officer, Livanov, at the terrified, falsely arrested Evgeniya Ginzburg (in Journey into the Whirlwind). Yes, only he, the interrogator, has the right to ask questions.

Because interrogative language was appropriated by the police, by the so-called organa, by the dictatorship, the very inflection of a sentence expressing the desire to learn something signaled danger, perhaps foreshadowed a sinister fate. This resulted in fewer and fewer people asking questions in the Imperium, and then simply fewer and fewer questions.

That is why gradually the art of formulating questions (for it is an art!) vanished, as did even the need to ask them. Increasingly everything presented itself as being what it was supposed to be. Unchallengeable and irrefutable reality was triumphing. And since that was the case, there simply were no more questions.

A civilization that does not ask questions, one that banishes from within its compass the entire world of anxiety, criticism, and exploration --- the world that expresses itself precisely through questions --- is a civilization standing in place, paralyzed, immobile. And that is what the people in the Kremlin were after, because it is easiest to reign over a motionless and mute world.

--- From Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska
©1994 Vintage Books

Go Home    Go to another reading from Kapuscinski     Go Up