Last Updated September 5, 2023.
David Remnick was the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent during an extraordinary period in Russian and world history. For three years, from 1988 through 1991, he traveled widely throughout and prodigiously reported on the Soviet Union. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire is his record of that momentous period. It was the period during which the Soviet Union, under the command of its first truly reformist and liberal leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began its transformation from a brutal totalitarian system to one in which capitalism and basic freedoms (e.g., speech, religion) were installed. For generations of Russians in particular, the concepts of political and economic freedom were not only alien, but disconcerting as well. Remnick’s book documents this transformation and includes numerous observations on the transformation’s effects on all manners of Russian and Soviet life.
Among Remnick’s many observations were the hypocrisy endemic in a society purported to have been constructed upon utopian Marxist ideals about equality and the scale of brutality required to keep it all together. The sudden introduction of basic freedoms caught the populace off guard, and into the vacuum brought about by the disintegration of the centralized government and police-state structure that had been imposed and maintained since the 1917 revolutions emerged genuine democrats and avaricious businessmen alike, with the latter having the most prominent influence on the new Russia. Much of Lenin’s Tomb, then, details this evolution of a very old society and culture and the political turmoil that occurred during his time there.
One of the central themes of Lenin’s Tomb is the difficulties inherent in coming to grips with the horrors of a nation’s past. In a system that produced Joseph Stalin, those horrors were beyond comprehension, yet Russians remained nostalgic for the stability they believe the population enjoyed under his long period of rule—beliefs enabled by the government’s history of hiding the facts of its past from the populace.
In addition to the travails involved in moving from a police-state to a democracy (short-lived though it would be) was the psychological effect of watching one’s empire disintegrate. The old Russian Empire and its reconstitution by the Bolshevik Party once in power was all the citizens of the Soviet Union knew by the time Remnick came along. All of a sudden, that huge political entity ruled by Moscow was gone, and resentments on the part of non-Russian nationalities newly liberated were emerging into the open. The end of the empire was traumatic for millions of Russians, and many had no idea how to process these developments.
Remnick’s narrative also includes, as noted, observations and insights from a myriad of individuals throughout the Soviet Union who represented all possible perspectives, including unrepentant communists, dissidents (including nuclear physicist-turned liberal critic of the government Andrei Sakharov, who died during Remnick’s tour in the Soviet Union), liberal Communist Party members disillusioned by the failures of the system they swore to support, and common workers and professionals. A common refrain among many of those Remnick interviewed, at least among the more-educated, was the sense of disillusionment felt when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1968 to crush the liberalization movement that had taken hold there. To some, however, preservation of the Soviet state was paramount, and such interventions outside of the Soviet Union’s borders were justified on that basis.
The main takeaway of Lenin’s Tomb, in conclusion, is the extent to which planned and unplanned developments in the Soviet Union during the 1980's and early 1990's left Russia and its environs with uncertain futures and little in the way of preparation for the emergence of free markets and free speech.