BOOKS: The Debris Is Piling Up

A Polish journalist takes the measure of a defunct empire

The dustbin of history overfloweth in Ryszard Kapuscinski's Imperium (Knopf; 332 pages; $24). After journeying 40,000 miles through the crumbling Soviet + Union between 1989 and 1991, the Polish journalist leaves the gloomy impression that debris is piling up faster than it can be removed. The windows of his railroad car frame pictures of rusted tanks and artillery sinking in the mud. From the air, polluted lakes stare back like the cloudy eyes of dead fish. At the Yerevan airport, Kapuscinski finds four broken toilets and hundreds of travelers awaiting flights for days and sometimes weeks.

Kapuscinski is a writer who...

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