Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Remnick's Pulitzer prize winning book covering the end of the communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union from the late 1980s to the early 1990s offers an eyewitness account of life as it unfolded during that time, interviews with Soviet citizens, and Remnick's own analysis of events. Remnick's analysis has sometimes been criticized as biased or sentimental, but it is up to the readers to weigh what Remnick has to say and decide for themselves what to believe. Regardless of the frame, the book offers a vast amount of valuable eyewitness testimony from a turbulent period.
Remnick, for example, quotes the mayor of St. Petersburg at that time, Anatoly Sobchak, explaining why change and reform has been so difficult in the Soviet Union:
A totalitarian system leaves behind it a minefield built into both the country's social structure and the individual psychology of its citizens. And mines explode each time the system faces the danger of being dismantled and the country sees the prospect of genuine renewal.
Remnick himself goes further in explaining the source of the so-called minefields. When history and truth are uncertain, he explains, it is all the more difficult for people to know how to react to the present and how to guide reform. As he puts it:
It's as if the regime were guilty of two crimes on a massive scale: murder and the unending assault against memory. In making a secret of history, the Kremlin made its subjects just a little more insane, a little more desperate.
Change is also difficult when people have been trained—or perhaps indoctrinated—from childhood to think and act in a certain way:
These were children, after all, who were taught to revere Pavlik Morozov, the twelve-year-old Young Pioneer who was made a national hero and icon for all Soviet children when he served his collective by ratting on his own father for trying to hide grain from the police.
Remnick also quotes Gorbachev's ideologist, Aleksandr N. Yakovlev, commenting on the reality of Soviet life as he understood it:
We had a slave system here. Who can talk about a socialist choice?
Remnick moves from interviewing powerful people to observing the lives of the ordinary. Here he witnesses the work of coal miners, for whom the Soviet promise of worker's paradise had fallen far short:
Along the way, we passed men, many of them in their 50s and 60s, tucked into crevices and cracks only a couple of feet high. They lay on their backs, or in some other contorted position, chipping at the coal face or repairing some part of the support structure. When they opened their mouths, coal dust would fall in.
Many of the ordinary people Remnick interviews show an awareness of how much killing the Soviet regime was responsible for instigating over the course of the twentieth century, and the extent to which ideology trumped rationalism. For example, Lydia Korneievna Chukovskaya notes that
It is horrible to say, but you must imagine a state that used every means to kill the best among us.
Some people, such as Vyacheslav Molotov, pointed out that the terror that characterized the Soviet Union did not begin with Stalin, stating that:
Compared to Lenin, Stalin was a mere lamb.
Remnick writes ironically, however, of Nina Andreyeva, a Stalinist true believer who in 1988 wrote in defense of the Soviet system, saying of her:
she was a defender of 'traditional values'—the homey Stalinist values of collectivization, central authority, the dictatorship of the proletariat . . .
Remnick shows a country in flux, facing difficult choices and upheavals after a century characterized by both change and stasis.