In 1983, the French journalist Jean Francois Revel (Comment les democraties finissent; How Democracies Perish, 1984) predicted that democratic societies, with their tolerance of internal dissent, would prove no match for the ruthless single-mindedness of the totalitarian Soviet Union. As an analyst of the short term, Revel made sense; as a prophet, he could not have been more wrong. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was not democracy that perished but Soviet and Eastern European Communism. Barely a decade after Revel’s work was published, David Remnick, a young reporter for The Washington Post, presents a valuable eyewitness account-based on indefatigable travel throughout the old Soviet Union and on hundreds of interviews—of the death agony of the twentieth century’s most formidable totalitarian system.
Remnick’s work can be compared with an eyewitness study of an earlier turning point in Russian history, also by a young American reporter: John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1919). Reed was a partisan of the Bolsheviks and of the socialist utopia that they promised; Remnick sympathizes with those who wish to purge their country of the Bolshevik heritage and to bring democracy to a Russia so long deprived of it. Whereas Reed covered dramatic events compressed within the space of the summer and autumn months of a single year (1917), Remnick traces a process that took three years to reach its climax, in the abortive coup of 1991 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The attention paid to long-term process as well as dramatic events also distinguishes Remnick’s account from another book on the 1991 events, Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope(1992), by the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. Whereas Billington focuses narrowly on the abortive putsch of August 19-21, 1991 (that was the week he happened to be in Moscow for a librarians’ conference), Remnick allots a little less than sixty pages to those three crucial days. Remnick’s account of the coup is more densely packed with facts than Billington’s; Billington, a historian rather than a journalist, did not take extensive notes and took absolutely no photographs. Remnick argues that it was the profound change in people’s attitudes during the previous four years, and not any particular errors of judgment, that doomed the efforts of the coup plotters (KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov) to failure. During the years 1987 to 1991, says Remnick, a fearless search for the truth about Soviet history replaced, for many Russians, the old passive acceptance of Communist mythology. Those who dug up data on the crimes of the once-revered dictator Joseph Stalin, the author suggests, did as much to end Communism as those who defied the putsch in August, 1991.
To give the reader a feel for the change in Russians’ hearts and minds between 1987 and 1991, Remnick interviewed ordinary people as well as politicians, the obscure as well as the well-known. He talked to everyone from priests to peasants, from miners to journalists, from such dedicated reformers as Aleksandr Yakovlev (a key adviser to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev) to such hard-line Communists as Nina Andreyeva and Yegor Ligachev, and from Baltic nationalists to Eskimos. By no means do all of Remnick’s anecdotes deal with great political events; his report on the introduction of American baseball into Moscow, for example, is entertaining as well as insightful. In its emphasis on the effect of political change on ordinary people, Remnick’s book can be compared to The New Russians (1990) by reporter Hedrick Smith, written just before the Soviet Union disintegrated.
The key to the overthrow of Communism in both the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites was a crisis of belief within the hearts and minds of members of the Soviet elite. Remnick helps American readers to understand how individuals who enjoyed privileges under the old Soviet system came to see the need to reform that system. His biographical portrait of Gorbachev, although difficult for the reader to follow (bits of information on the pre-1985 Gorbachev are found in different parts of the book, in no particular chronological order), is probably the most accurate one written up to 1993. The author views Gorbachev as a half-hearted reformer who clung too long to the notion that one could liberalize the Communist system without destroying it. Remnick also offers the reader fascinating insights into the career of Boris Yeltsin, although these, too, are scattered throughout the book (information on Yeltsin’s rebellious youth in the Urals, for example, is shoehorned in to the chapter on the August, 1991, coup). The reader should compare Remnick’s discussion of Yeltsin with that found in Boris Yeltsin: A Political Biography (1992), by the Russian emigre’s Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova.
By paying attention to both ordinary people and members of the elite, Remnick helps answer a question that provokes the curiosity of many American readers: How could such a powerful wave of popular anti-Communist sentiment arise in a country where no effort had been spared to indoctrinate the young in Communist ideology? Through his interviews, Remnick points to...
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