Jacek Hugo-Bader is a reporter and specialist on Russia. He was born on the 9th of March 1957 in Sochaczew.
Reporter and one of the most valued Polish reporters covering the countries of the former USSR
He studied pedagogy. Since 1990, he has worked for the popular Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. His previous jobs included working as a therapist at a marriage counseling service, weighing pigs at a buying station, and loading trains. He was also a member of the anti-Communist opposition. He is one of the most valued Polish reporters covering the countries of the former USSR. He spent four years in them in total, travelling through Middle Asia, the Gobi Desert, China and Tibet on his bicycle. He also paddled across Lake Baikal on a kayak.
How it began
He became a reporter by chance. He lost his job during martial law – he was fired from the school where he taught history because of his support for Solidarity. Later, in order to provide for his family, he undertook various occupations. In 1990, having read an announcement which informed that Gazeta Wyborcza was searching for journalists, he went to the interview. Roman Kurkiewicz asked him to write a text titled What I See in This Room. A day later Hugo-Bader received a phone call. Over the phone, he heard that he should come to the editorial office. That was how he became a member of the Magazyn team (today known as the Duży Format supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza).
At first, he wrote about Poland excluding Warsaw. This changed when editor Kurkiewicz asked him whether he would like to write a text on the Kalashnikov machine gun, the most popular firearm of the 20th century. Hugo-Bader became interested in the subject and discovered that Kalashnikov was still alive and that he lived in Izhevsk in the Urals. A decision was made that he should go there. The matter was slightly complicated by the fact that he didn’t know Russian. Nevertheless, he succeeded. Kalashnikov received his Polish guest in a nice, three-room flat on the second floor of an apartment block. The furniture was purchased with money from a Stalinist award. The study turned out to be a 'heritage park of communism, a mausoleum of Marxism-Leninism, a chamber of proletarian internationalism'. The reporter counted twenty-three heads, busts and whole figures of Lenin and a dozen representations of Dzerzhinsky. The shelves were crammed with miniatures of tanks, ships and planes. Apart from that, there were 'tens of "knickknacks" with AK-47 motifs: small rocks, little bases, glass balls and green crystals'. The constructor showed the reporter a photograph taken in the USA, in which he stood alongside Eugene Stoner, the creator of the famed M-16. The American is a millionaire, he has his own private jet, whereas Kalashnikov in America felt like a beggar. Hugo-Bader wrote that Mikhail Timofeyevich evoked ambivalent feelings in him. Sometimes he felt distaste, anger, even aggression, and, sometimes, he simply felt pity.
"In the Paradise Valley among the Weeds" (2002)
The reportage Comrade Kalashnikov was published in the tome In the Paradise Valley among the Weeds (Prószyński i S-ka Publishing House, Warsaw 2002). The book contains texts from the years 1993-2001. Hugo-Bader travelled through Crimea, Siberia, Kyrgyzstan and Chechnya collecting materials for the volume. He spoke with veterans of the Afghan War, with the mothers of the soldiers who went missing in the conflict in Chechnya, he portrayed mobsters and the people of the old system who were distinguished with the order of the Hero of the Soviet Union.
"White Fever" (2009)
White Fever (Czarne Publishing House, Wołowiec 2009) is Hugo-Bader’s most famous book. It’s the story of a journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. The reporter insisted on travelling by car. At first he considered buying an off-road Audi Q7 with a petrol engine and four-wheel drive (350 horsepower, 0 to 100 km/h in seven seconds) but he thought that it might look strange when he stopped in such a vehicle next to a shop in a kolkhoz to have a drink of beer and talk to the locals about life. After all, he had written earlier that the whole philosophy of journalistic work comes down to two words: “blend in”. One should not stand out. The objective is to integrate oneself with the background. With an Audi Q7 in a kolkhoz, he would look like a spaceman.
He came to the conclusion that it would be best to buy a Russian car with local number plates in Moscow. He chose a jeep. The kind that – as rumour has it – every tractor driver can fix with a hammer. Grisha, a fan of the UAZ brand, whom he found on the internet, asked him: 'Do you like to tinker?' Hugo-Bader replied truthfully that he didn’t. 'Then you’ll get to like it' – he heard. He came to the idea of the journey thanks to a certain book. In 1957 (on the day of his birthday) two journalists working for Komsomolskaya Pravda – Mikhail Vasiliev and Sergei Gushchev – received instructions from their editor in chief: 'We have to tell our readers about the future. Describe how life in the Soviet Union will look fifty years from now, let’s say on the ninetieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution'.
The journalists did their job. From the book Report from the 21st Century, readers could learn that in the future they shall use electron brains (meaning computers) and miniature transmitting stations (cellphones) on an everyday basis. They also read that they’ll have access to a library-transmission (internet) and that they’ll open their cars from a distance (remote controls).
Hugo-Bader decided that for his fiftieth birthday he’ll travel through Russia with this book. He wanted to repeat Kowalski’s feat from the legendary movie Vanishing Point. He intended to realize the dream of his youth – to travel across a continent alone in a car, explaining, 'Only that mine is two and a half times bigger than America – he added – the road ends in Chita and I insist on traveling in the wintertime'.
The book was reviewed by Mariusz Wilk:
White Fever (drunkard’s insanity) is an effect of long-term alcohol abuse, which in Russian is called zapoy. Groundless fear, hallucinations and aggression are among its symptoms. The post-Soviet world portrayed by Hugo-Bader is a reality of delirium tremens… Tourists don’t wander into such places, neither do the travel agencies recommend them. This is the area of various vagabonds. Great prose!
When asked about his thoughts on travelling Hugo-Bader replied that it’s a reward and great pleasure. It’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey itself. It is imperative to give an accurate account of the voyage later. He says that love is the most important thing to him and that he loves his characters.
"Kolyma Diaries" (2011)
Kolyma Diaries (Dzienniki Kołymskie) is a record of a journey of a few months through the most remote corners of Siberia. This work is a collection that was written during the reporter’s trip and gradually sent to Gazeta Wyborcza. As Hugo-Bader hitchhikes down the road, he stops in cities and villages that are often deserted. He learns about shatoons, bears that kill people. He talks to gold prospectors. He gets acquainted with a retired military man, who guards a junkyard and assembles motorcycles from found parts. He encounters many other interesting personalities. 'I met a genius dog, a talking stone, I found a rejuvenating machine and editor Smoliakov, who passionately plays preferans, even though he doesn’t have hands. I was amongst all of this – the small Polish bug moving on the outskirts of great history' said the author.
Kolyma Diaries is a masterpiece of a reportage. The fact that the oligarch Aleksandr Basanski – a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet intelligence service – treats Hugo-Bader as a secret agent attests to the skills of the author. Basanski can’t at all believe that he’s dealing with a journalist. 'It’s really apparent that you have completed the secret service academy. You’re checking me out all the time' – the Russian says. He sticks with his conviction to the end. A part of the true Russia, not a mere reflection of this country, was captured in this small book. Russia is present not only in the people and photographs but also in the language. We encounter plenty of Russianisms and their use is a great device. Hugo-Bader smuggles in words, tiny words, whole phrases and he makes us believe that we’re reading this book in Russian. And we understand everything perfectly (Magdalena Szeliga, rosyjskaruletka.edu.pl).
"Return to Broad Peak" (2014)
In summer 2013, Jacek Hugo-Bader took part in an expedition to Broad Peak in the Himalayas, the aim of which was to find the bodies of Mateusz Berbeka and Tomasz Kowalski – two climbers who, in March 2013, died while descending from the peak. During this expedition, Hugo-Bader collected material for his upcoming book, A Long Film About Love: Return to Broad Peak, that was released in May 2014. On 19 December of the previous year, the internet version of Gazeta Wyborcza published a multimedia reportage by Hugo Bader titled Boskie Światło (Divine Light), considered to be the first reportage in Poland created in an interactive, multimedia format.
However, when Znak published the book version of the reportage A Long Film About Love: Return to Broad Peak (May 2014), it provoked opposition from the members of the expedition, including its organizer Jacek Berbeka (the beginning of the conflict can be traced back to an interview published in the Tygodnik Powszechny before the end of the expedition).
Another wave of controversy arose when Bartek Dobroch and Przemysław Wilczyński, reporters for Tygodnik Powszechny and the authors of a series of articles about the Broad Peak expedition which turned into a book titled Broad Peak: Niebo i Piekło (Broad Peak. Heaven and Hell), accused Hugo-Bader of plagiarism. The reporter responded to the accusations in the subsequent issue of Tygodnik Powszechny.
Later on, in an interview for Dwutygodnik, he talked about the controversies surrounding the book:
The overload of emotions was incredible. That's why it was a good subject. There's no point in writing a reportage about mediocre things. Only emotions are worth describing. The more emotions, the better the movie... oh! I'm sorry... the better the movie, the reportage, everything. I write with blood, sweat and tears. My pen is filled with raw emotion. Everything which destroys me from the inside. I feel the emotions of my protagonists. (...) I dedicated a huge part of my life to this subject. The peak of my effort, meeting the readers, is my eight-thousander. But I have none of this with this book. Everything was spoiled by what you're asking about: my protagonists' emotions (Adrian Stachowski in a Conversation with Jacek Hugo Bader, no. 135, 06/2014).
The nearest Escape
In 2016 he published his Skucha (Slip). After many long journeys and fascinating meetings, the author talks about his most important trip: he describes the story of his own generation, the generation of 'Columbuses, born in the 1950s'. The fate of oppositioners, his own 'siblings', are diverse: some of them have great careers, others – 'wasted' their lives.
Some collegues in free Poland shine in politics, others gained big fortunes, others still have nothing to eat. Many of them do business, both honestly and not. Some of them went on a pension and others went to prison. For true and imagined crimes. Some of them already know they wasted their lives, squandered twenty six years. A few boys and girls believe the fight is only beginning. Some of them died, some became drunks, some got divorced, some fight depression. Some of them did truly awful things in their life...
In his Audyt (Audit, trans. AP) published in 2018, Hugo-Bader returns to the people and events that he described in the early 1990s in his reportages written for Gazeta Wyborcza. He performs a vivisection of Poland’s symbols during the transformation period: state-owned farms, former officers of the secret police, the infamous Brzeska Street located in Praga, Warsaw. The outcome of Hugo-Bader’s journey is a complex mosaic of human experiences 25 years after the political transformation.
The reporter describes how he chose the protagonists of Audit:
I didn’t seek out average characters for Audit but for people that I had been sent to at the beginning of the transformation in Poland because they were badly affected by it. We described a revolution. I would sometimes write five features a week. I’d collect information during the day, write during the night, and transfer the text to Małgosia Szejnert in the morning. There was a lot going on, so that was the tempo that I had to get used to! Revolutions are especially good at inflicting suffering. I would examine the pain thinking that perhaps this way I could alleviate it. Maybe the decision-makers reading Gazeta Wyborcza, and all of them did at that time, would think about people, and perhaps treat former employees of state-owned farms differently. Audit was a quest for a follow-up to the human suffering. (Dariusz Jaroń in conversation with JHB, 06/2018).
- In the Paradise Valley among the Weeds, Prószyński i S-ka, Warszawa 2002,
- White Fever, Czarne, Wołowiec 2009,
- The Kolyma Diaries, Czarne, Wołowiec 2011,
- A Long Film About Love. Return to Broad Peak, Znak, 2014,
- Skucha / Slip, Czarne, Wołowiec 2016,
- Audit, co-published by Agora S.A and Czarne, Warszawa 2018.
Awards and nominations:
- Grand Press – in the years 1999 and 2003,
- Nomination for the Nike Literary Award 2003,
- Amber Butterfly 2010,
- Nomination for the Ryszard Kapuściński Award 2010,
- Nomination for the Gdynia Literary Prize 2010,
- Distinction awarded by the Polish Journalists Association 2011,
- Nomination for the Dolman Travel Book of the Year 2012,
- Award from the Magazynu Literackiego Książki (Books Literary Magazine, trans. AP) 2016,
- MediaTory Award 2016 in the Authority category,
- Nomination for Nike Literary Award 2017,
- Nomination for Newsweek’s Teresa Torańska Award 2017.
- English: White fever [Biała gorączka], trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, London: Portobello Books 2011
- French: La fièvre blanche [Biała gorączka], trans. Agnieszka Zuk, Lausanne, Noir sur blanc, 2012
- German: Von Minsk nach Manhattan. Polnische Reportagen, trans. Martin Pollack, Joanna Manc, Renate Schmidgall, Wien: Zsolnay-Verlag 2006 (text: Die Revolution sollte doch eine Freude sein, trans. Martin Pollack).
- Swedish: Ouvertyr till livet, ed. and trans. Maciej Zaremba, Stokholm: Brombergs 2003 (text: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Semipalatinsk, trans. Maciej Zaremba).
Author: Bartosz Marzec, December 2010, updated by AP, February 2019.