Lenin's Tomb Summary
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, David Remnick, then a reporter for the Washington Post, began to visit the new Russia. His profile of the new political and social landscape is both wide and deep, supported by thousands of interview he conducted with residents. One crucial event that he considers is an attempted coup in 1991. Contextualizing this effort and the reasons for its failure, Remnick both explains some of the fissures that had opened earlier and sheds light on the dissenting views that hindered smooth progress after Russia became a separate country.
One of the journalists’ strongest commitments was to contact as many people as possible from all walks of life. Convinced that the everyday person had played just as imported a role as any top-level political leader, Remnick aimed to analyze the changes of the 1980s rather than just lay out a disjointed mosaic. He did gain access to many figures who had played important roles, such as an advisor to the premier and former high-ranking Communist Party officials. At the same time, Remnick investigates social trends that were novelties in the newly reorganized country; these include the more general change to increasingly capitalist economic and financial relations to US popular cultural trends, such as baseball.
Remnick includes substantial attention to the failures of the reforms of the 1980s because, paradoxically, they both went too far and not far enough. The perestroika that Mikhail Gorbachev promoted was seen as a boon to many but a threat to the entrenched hierarchy of Party loyalists. While this aspect of his analysis is solidly supported, it offers little new theory beyond the ideas put forward at the time these events occurred. Similarly, the information on Boris Yeltsin, although important to understanding the 1991 failed coup, offers few surprises. It is rather in the attention to the “little” people—the masses, who were most disappointed by Soviet-style communism’s failed promises—who emerge as the real stars of Remnick’s ambitious narrative.
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),...
(The entire section is 2,511 words.)