Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia

by David Remnick
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2003

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. When the new year dawned, by agreement of the political entities that composed it, the Soviet Union was dissolved. The creation of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Joseph Stalin, born in blood in 1917, dubbed “the evil empire” by President Ronald Reagan, had endured some seventy-three years of revolution, civil war, famine, terror, and wars hot and cold. The hopes that arose in the post-Stalin era under Nikita Khrushchev had been dashed by the progressive putrefaction of the Soviet regime that followed under Leonid Brezhnev and his successors. Now the totalitarian creature of Soviet Communism was dead.

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What would become of Russia? Could it even be called a “nation,” or was it not rather an unstable set of nations making up the vast expanse stretching eastward from European Russia west of the Urals, across the Asian steppes of Siberia to the Pacific? Whatever it was, it had no background in democracy; its populace was docile, accustomed to instructions from above dictating the course of socialist life.

Many observers believed that democracy was—and is—an impossible proposition in this still backward half-Asian, half- European hybrid. No large, civically active middle class—an essential foundation of a free social order—had developed under Communism. Instead, a significant, mostly male, portion of the populace was steeped in alcohol and incivility. By 1993, life expectancy for Russian men had fallen from its 1987 peak of sixty- five to only fifty-nine years—a statistic characteristic of Third World conditions.

Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia is David Remnick’s second book on Russia, exploring the complex dilemmas of the post-Soviet era. The first, Lenin’s Tomb (1993), chronicled the decline and fall of the Russian Empire known as the Soviet Union, based on the author’s stint as Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. While not the comprehensive, Russian-novel-sized tome of Remnick’s first book, Resurrection (whose title plays on Leo Tolstoy’s novel and, perhaps unintentionally, on attempts to revive Russia’s Christian heritage) constitutes a substantial contribution by a considerable literary and journalistic talent. Remnick, who has become a staff writer for The New Yorker, is bilingual and well connected in the key urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. He is an altogether able and fastidious guide to Russia “after the fall.” In the end, he insists on an optimistic appraisal of Russia’s future, though whether his assessment has sufficient grounds is difficult to judge.

As told by Remnick, the story that unfolds after 1992 is both fascinating and appalling. Economic adviser Yegor Gaidar’s “shock therapy” cut state subsidies, which had lowered the prices of everything from bread to subway rides, and began the process of privatizing state property. Society groaned as mass unemployment and ruinous inflation convulsed the economy.

Parliament, protesting this suffering, locked horns with the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The president won a referendum of support for his policies on April 23, 1993, but a constitutional crisis simmered, then moved to climatic resolution when, in September, Parliament refused to heed a presidential decree dissolving it. As the world looked on via CNN, on October 3-4, units of the Russian army attacked the “White House,” as Parliament was known, crushing resistance led by Ruslan Khasbulatov and Aleksandr Rutskoi, parliamentarians longing for the return of the ancien règime. That such an event could occur constitutes a stark reminder of the legacy of autocracy that casts a cloud over Russia’s attempts to establish democracy.

Apart from the highlights and lowlights of national politics, Remnick surveys the scene of the capital, microcosm of all that is bright, hopeful, and horrible in Russian life after communism. Here readers find signs of the new Russia as varied as a $300 million reconstruction of the historic Cathedral of Christ the Savior, destroyed by Stalin; and the posh Moscow Commercial Club, where tasteless nouveau-riche entrepreneurs await the arrival of media titan Vladimir Gusinsky. It is suggestive and symptomatic that Gusinsky maintains a security force of twelve hundred men to guard his empire.

Remnick devotes an entire chapter to a different kind of titan, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who prepared a triumphal return to Russia after years of exile. Solzhenitsyn’s hopes of informing and reforming the conscience of his country, however, proved stillborn. His east-to-west tour of Russia aroused little interest; the young found the great man an often-pompous irrelevance.

Remnick’s exploration of the place of Russian literature in the post-Communist era shows the secondary, essentially private place that literature and literary figures occupy in the new Russia. Writers are no longer the prophets, saints, spiritual leaders, and political opposition—“alternative governments”— they once were under czar and commissar alike. They are no longer able to nourish the nation’s moral roots; times have changed.

Evident in this account is an underlying theme of the absence of a moral compass that plagues Russia after the fall of communism. The Russia Remnick surveys lacks an identity—it does not know what it is or by what coherent set of beliefs it will live. “One of the most troubling deficiencies in modern Russia,” he writes, “is the absence of moral authority. The country lacks the ethical compass provided by Andrei Sakharov, who died in December 1989.”

Every society requires rules by which to be governed; it requires basic social norms. Nearly everywhere those norms are premised on religious, legal-moral, or political ideas and beliefs inherited from the past, often centuries or millennia in the making. Material security and well-being, especially in the context of a technologically oriented, postindustrial economy, cannot develop unless everyday social rules are observed—for example, a minimum of taxes collected; basic physical safety; wages and bills paid; the young cared for. Without rules and the moral order to secure them, there is chaos. This is a condition sociologists call “anomie,” the absence of what ancient Greece called nomos—sacred law or custom.

The Russia described by Remnick is in a state of anomic disarray, lacking a sense of identity. What history and shared ideas identify this people, setting them apart from all others? The old Soviet ideology was one answer to the identity question, but it constituted a denial of the historical past of the various peoples that made up the Soviet empire. With the Soviet Union’s demise, Russian politics presents a motley panorama of old Communists, new fascists, Slavophile haters of the West, extreme national chauvinists such as the virulent presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and modern liberal democrats uneasily cohabiting the same political space. In urban civil society, a new generation of youthful, moneyed entrepreneurs with private security guards live next to enormous cohorts of hopeless older workers, struggling professional and other nominally middle-class groups, corrupt, underpaid civil servants, and swarms of ruthless mafia.

Remnick also examines with care the personalist institution of the Yeltsin presidency, especially the problematic character of the president himself. Readers are reminded that Yeltsin spent his career as a Party apparatchik, hardly the environment for a democrat in training. The president’s disgraceful policies in the reconquest of Chechnya are a case in point.

The jury is out on the realistic possibility of an eventual successful transition to democracy in Russia. The brief history of Russian politics after 1991 presented by Remnick, capped by the executive’s assault on the legislature with tanks and automatic weapons, shows how far the nation is from democratic government. In part this uncertainty stems from Russia’s chronic ambivalence toward all things Western, since democracy, though having nearly global appeal, is undeniably a set of Western inventions.

For centuries Russia has maintained a schizoid view of its relationship with the West. On one hand, it has seen itself as inferior—“backward” in manners, culture, and economic development—in comparison with Europe (and later America), and therefore in need of catching up. On the other hand, Russians exhibit a deep distrust of the West, together with nationalist feelings of superiority. Remnick cites Anglo-Russian scholar Isaiah Berlin on this well-known phenomenon. Russia has tended to see itself as intellectually inadequate but emotionally superior. The “Russian soul” is deeper and richer than its impoverished Western counterpart, “cramped, cold, mean, calculating, fenced in, without capacity for large views or generous emotions.”

Beyond this ambivalent attitude are perhaps deeper questions of culture and politics. Some scholars, notably Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, believe that a fault line dividing Western civilization from its Eastern neighbors is drawn by the influence of Western Christianity. Russia, in this view, is beyond the pale, its version of Christianity being Eastern Orthodoxy, product of Constantinople. It was little touched by the Western Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment. All these seminal movements, it is argued, are essential stages on the high road to liberal democracy. Instead, Russia was left relatively uninfluenced by ideas such as the separation of church and state or religious (ideological) toleration, or the Enlightenment love of rationality. Given that it has not followed this Western path to democracy, is Russia condemned to some version of autocracy?

The restraints every society requires on the behavior of its members combine the internal controls of the individual with external controls—a system of rewards and punishments. When self-discipline is weak, either external force such as the state compels restraint or some degree of disorder results. Political “myth” and ideology and religious and philosophical beliefs and ideas are essential supports to prudent behavior. In the case of the Soviet Union, for some time Communist ideology was such a force for self-discipline. Its influence declined during the Brezhnev era, however, as the spiritual and practical hollowness of Communism became increasingly apparent. Under Communism, no competition was allowed to challenge the ideological monopoly of Marxism-Leninism, and consequently once it died, there was no ready replacement. Under a system of state persecution of religion, the influence of Russian Orthodoxy was limited.

After 1991, the need for a foundation for a moral order, for sources of inner restraints, was magnified. Yet no such unifying foundation has emerged or is anywhere in sight. Moscow in particular has become a “wide open” city, where in 1994 alone fifty “bankers” were murdered, and where ubiquitous organized crime is sometimes difficult to distinguish from organized government.

“What is the state without justice,” St. Augustine asked, “but a great robber band?” Before 1991, members of the top Soviet bureaucratic class, the “nomenclatura,” appeared increasingly like so many organized swindlers. Afterward, however, they were well placed to aggrandize themselves without restraint during what Remnick calls “the biggest property distribution in the history of the world.” Organized crime appeared everywhere, more or less openly. Remnick skillfully charts the progress of this social-moral disease:

So many of the “democrats” became corrupt because they just could not resist temptation. Under Soviet rule, there were fewer temptations; moreover, the regulator was external and strong, even brutal. When the rules of the game changed, it turned out that the moral regulators within the individual had atrophied; when the external regulator was gone, all hell broke loose.

The “struggle for a new Russia,” as Remnick subtitles his book, is the search for a way out of this moral morass. Russia is, no doubt, in the process of resurrection, after being crushed by the state and its “opium of the intellectuals,” Soviet Marxism. But what is it that is coming to life? A nuclear-armed version of Frankenstein’s monster, a new authoritarianism and nationalist state—armed, let it not be forgotten, with nuclear weapons? Or is the world witnessing the first shoots of a Russian spring—a Slavic version of liberal democracy? No one knows, and they will not know for a long time to come.

Sources for Further Study

Business Week. March 17, 1997, p. 14.

The Economist. CCCXLII, March 8, 1997, p. 100.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVI, May, 1997, p. 138.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 9, 1997, p. 9.

National Review. XLIX, June 2, 1997, p. 51.

The New Leader. LXXX, March 10, 1997, p. 18.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, April 24, 1997, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 16, 1997, p. 7.

Time. CXLIX, March 31, 1997, p. 82.

The Wall Street Journal. March 13, 1997, p. A12.

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