(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. When the new year dawned, by agreement of the political entities that composed it, the Soviet Union was dissolved. The creation of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, born in blood in 1917, dubbed “the evil empire” by President Ronald Reagan, had endured some seventy-three years of revolution, civil war, famine, terror, and wars hot and cold. The hopes that arose in the post-Stalin era under Nikita Khrushchev had been dashed by the progressive putrefaction of the Soviet regime that followed under Leonid Brezhnev and his successors. Now the totalitarian creature of Soviet Communism was dead.

What would become of Russia? Could it even be called a “nation,” or was it not rather an unstable set of nations making up the vast expanse stretching eastward from European Russia west of the Urals, across the Asian steppes of Siberia to the Pacific? Whatever it was, it had no background in democracy; its populace was docile, accustomed to instructions from above dictating the course of socialist life.

Many observers believed that democracy was—and is—an impossible proposition in this still backward half-Asian, half- European hybrid. No large, civically active middle class—an essential foundation of a free social order—had developed under Communism. Instead, a significant, mostly male, portion of the populace was steeped in alcohol and incivility. By 1993, life expectancy for Russian men had fallen from its 1987 peak of sixty- five to only fifty-nine years—a statistic characteristic of Third World conditions.

Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia is David Remnick’s second book on Russia, exploring the complex dilemmas of the post-Soviet era. The first, Lenin’s Tomb (1993), chronicled the decline and fall of the Russian Empire known as the Soviet Union, based on the author’s stint as Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. While not the comprehensive, Russian-novel-sized tome of Remnick’s first book, Resurrection (whose title plays on Leo Tolstoy’s novel and, perhaps unintentionally, on attempts to revive Russia’s Christian heritage) constitutes a substantial contribution by a considerable literary and journalistic talent. Remnick, who has become a staff writer for The New Yorker, is bilingual and well connected in the key urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. He is an altogether able and fastidious guide to Russia “after the fall.” In the end, he insists on an optimistic appraisal of Russia’s future, though whether his assessment has sufficient grounds is difficult to judge.

As told by Remnick, the story that unfolds after 1992 is both fascinating and appalling. Economic adviser Yegor Gaidar’s “shock therapy” cut state subsidies, which had lowered the prices of everything from bread to subway rides, and began the process of privatizing state property. Society groaned as mass unemployment and ruinous inflation convulsed the economy.

Parliament, protesting this suffering, locked horns with the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The president won a referendum of support for his policies on April 23, 1993, but a constitutional crisis simmered, then moved to climatic resolution when, in September, Parliament refused to heed a presidential decree dissolving it. As the world looked on via CNN, on October 3-4, units of the Russian army attacked the “White House,” as Parliament was known, crushing resistance led by Ruslan Khasbulatov and Aleksandr Rutskoi, parliamentarians longing for the return of the ancien règime. That such an event could occur constitutes a stark reminder of the legacy of autocracy that casts a cloud over Russia’s attempts to establish democracy.

Apart from the highlights and lowlights of national politics, Remnick surveys the scene of the capital, microcosm of all that is bright, hopeful, and horrible in Russian life after communism. Here readers find signs of the new Russia as varied as a $300 million reconstruction of the historic Cathedral of Christ the Savior, destroyed by Stalin; and the posh Moscow Commercial Club, where tasteless nouveau-riche entrepreneurs await the arrival of media titan Vladimir Gusinsky. It is suggestive and symptomatic that Gusinsky maintains a security force of twelve hundred men to guard his empire.

Remnick devotes an entire chapter to a different kind of titan, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who prepared a triumphal return to Russia after years of exile. Solzhenitsyn’s hopes of informing and reforming the conscience of his country, however, proved stillborn. His east-to-west tour of Russia aroused little interest; the young found the great man an often-pompous irrelevance.

Remnick’s exploration of the place of Russian literature in the post-Communist era shows the secondary, essentially private place that literature and literary...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)