Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2182
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 many things that gradually eroded the Russian people’s faith in Communism: the corruption among many local Communist Party bosses under the regime of Leonid Brezhnev; the emergence, during Brezhnev’s rule, of the former political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov as models of courageous, nonviolent resistance to Communist totalitarianism; the memories that many Russians had of family members who were persecuted unjustly by dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s; the impact on young future members of the Communist elite of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956; and, for some especially privileged members of that elite (such as Gorbachev adviser Aleksandr Yakovlev and KGB agent Oleg Kalugin), the broadening effects of travel to the United States. Remnick has interviewed not only the relatively well-known members of the pre-1991 elite but also some of the lesser-known figures, not only Yakovlev but also the journalist Len Karpinsky. The author ably traces the evolution of such men from careerist opportunism to determined support for liberal reform.
Perhaps understandably, Remnick’s book lack’s comparative perspective. The reader learns something about why Communism had, by the beginning of 1992, collapsed in the Soviet Union. One learns little, however, about why Communism had not collapsed by that time in Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, and mainland China. Political scientist Ken Jowitt’s collection of essays New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (1992) provides a starting point for those who wish to understand Communism as an international, and not merely a Russian phenomenon.
In general, Remnick’s book is quite well written. He is skilled in the use of irony and is a master of the apt metaphor. His comparison of the Soviet state under Brezhnev to a senile old man is an especially powerful image. In a sense, the book’s title itself is a metaphor. The constant efforts through the years to preserve the publicly displayed corpse of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), the founder of Communism (efforts that Remnick derides), did not, after all, prevent the Russian people themselves from ultimately burying Leninism.
Remnick’s frequent comparison of Russian phenomena to things that Americans are familiar with is especially helpful to those readers (probably a majority) who are neither of recent Russian immigrant stock nor acquainted with Russia through travel. By calling the prominent Stalinist Nina Andreyeva an advocate of “traditional values,” Remnick makes an implicit analogy between her views and those of America’s religious right; such a comparison, while perhaps controversial, does drive home a point.
Remnick’s physical descriptions of individuals paint vivid word pictures; his emphasis on sartorial details, however, seems a bit excessive at times. Occasionally the author slips: The effect of Yeltsin’s personality and oratory on the average Russian of the late 1980’s is described as “narcotic” when “intoxicating” would have been a better word choice.
Remnick is not completely unbiased; he freely confesses his sympathies for the Russian reformers against their hardline Communist opponents. Since this bias is shared by most Americans, and indeed by most persons of goodwill outside Russia, it will arouse little controversy. Remnick is not impressed by the argument, put forward by Russian foes of reform, that moving away from the Communist economic system will increase income inequality and impoverish the Russian masses. Citing evidence from his travels across the former Soviet Union, he shows how the old Communist economic system produced equality in poverty rather than a broadly shared middle-class standard of living. Such things as the destruction of the environment (especially in Central Asia), the sorry state of collectivized agriculture, and the primitive living and working conditions of Russian miners are all described vividly, and with some indignation, for the American reader.
Remnick is honest enough, however, to concede the existence of a downside to the new freedom of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. There has been a rise in crime in Moscow, including the growth of protection rackets that prey on the new entrepreneurs; there have been ugly manifestations of anti- Semitism that previously had been submerged; and quarreling has broken out between the various nationalities in the once- subordinate republics of the former Soviet Union. The author also points out that Boris Yeltsin, who built up a reputation by attacking the opulent lifestyles of Party bureaucrats, himself came to live rather luxuriously once he became President of the Russian Federation.
Remnick’s book is valuable for the light it sheds on the history not only of the period from 1985 to 1991 but also of the Stalinist era (1929-1953). The book opens with the story of the official Soviet reinvestigation, in 1990 and 1991, of the Katyn Forest murders of Polish Army officers, an event that had occurred some fifty years earlier. By interviewing a man who had been one of the executioners and by digging up the remains, the head of the investigation, Colonel Aleksandr Tretetsky, discovered that these officers had been murdered not by the soldiers of Nazi Germany but by Stalin’s secret police. Interviewing the very few survivors of the Stalinist terror and the surviving relatives of the victims, Remnick himself shows just how arbitrary Stalin’s despotism was and how many Russians were personally affected by it. It becomes clear, for example, that some of those who were exiled or killed had committed no crimes whatsoever but were chosen by Stalin’s ambitious subordinates merely in order to meet a quota. In presenting such evidence, Remnick confirms the conclusions reached earlier by such Western experts on the Stalinist period as Robert Conquest.
By jumping around chronologically, Remnick sometimes makes his account a bit hard to follow. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, for example, is treated in the same chapter (that on Soviet nationalities) in which the nationalist revival of 1989-1990 in the Baltic states is discussed; the apparent justification for doing so is the Chernobyl disaster’s role in strengthening the Ukrainian resolve for independence. If Remnick had included a timeline, he would have made it easier for readers (especially those who do not follow Russian affairs closely) to keep their chronological bearings.
Lenin’s Tomb: The Lost Days of the Soviet Empire includes a detailed (more than twenty-page) index. The note on sources delivers more than it promises; it not only lists the names of the better-known individuals whom the author interviewed in the Soviet Union but also provides some critical evaluations of other works written by Americans about political change in the Soviet Union between 19.85 and 1991 The well-chosen photographs do much to help the reader understand the text. There is also a bibliography, which is not annotated.
Although both a diligent historian and an excellent journalist, Remnick does not have the gift of prophecy. He does note the existence of strong anti-Yeltsin sentiment among right-wing and left-wing extremists in early 1992, but he does not predict the violent rebellion against Yeltsin’s reforms that erupted in October, 1993. About the two key anti-Yeltsin leaders in the 1993 crisis, Aleksandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov, Remnick’s book says little, aside from mentioning their participation in the resistance to the August, 1991, coup. Rutskoi’s reputation in 1991 as a conservative is alluded to only briefly. Nor does Remnick seem to have interviewed these two men, who came to play such a significant role in politics later on. Like most books on Russia that have appeared in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Lenin’s Tomb—which received the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction-will inevitably be overtaken by events. It is nevertheless one of its time’s most helpful books on Russia.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor. July 29, 1993, p.14.
The Economist. CCCXXVIII, July 24, 1993, p.87.
Foreign Affairs. LXXII, September, 1993, p.167.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 20, 1993, p.1.
National Review. XLV, August 9, 1993, p.64.
The New York Review of Books. XL, August 12, 1993, p.3.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, May 30, 1993, p.1.
Newsweek. CXXII, July 26, 1993, p.44.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 19, 1993, p.41.
Time. CXLI, June 14, 1993, p.74.
The Wall Street Journal. June 29, 1993, p. A12.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, June 13, 1993, p.1.
World Policy Journal. X, Fall, 1993, p.97.