Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Notes: Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick

I remember standing outside The Kremlin one icy November day and watching Mikhail Gorbachev, François Mitterand and their entourages, sweeping by in a fleet of black limousines. By then, Glastnost was eroding the secrecy and oppression of Stalin's state, while Perestroika was CPSU's final attempt to overcome the stagnation of the Brezhnev era. Little more than two years after I stood there, Gorbachev would be swept from power along with the Communist system on which he depended.

Throughout this period, from the death of Konstantin Chernenko, until the death of Soviet Union itself, David Remnick was present - writing insightful dispatches for the Western Media.

His book Lenin's Tomb, wonderfully captures the last years of the Soviet system. The first part of the book details many individual stories of people, moments, and movements - as they jostled to comprehend and influence the changes around them. His understanding of, and sympathy with, the people he writes about is affecting, and his knowledge of the dark world of Kremlinology and the inner wranglings of the one-party state is so thorough that he writes with great skill. Most striking of all however are the contacts that Remnick seems to be able to draw on in documenting his history. When the Stalinist faction within the CPSU first began to resist reform their spokesperson was Nina Andeeyeva. During that crucial time, Remnick spent time with her, listening and debating ideas. Likewise when Gorbachev rehabilitated Bukharin as a method of seeking to detach the extremes of Stalinism so as to protect the Leninist legacy - Remnick discusses the matter with Bukharin's widow. She was clearly as fascinated by the developments of the 1980s as she was to recall the tragedies of the 30s. Ligachev, Yeltsin, Kalugin, Fr. Men, Sakharov - and many more figures of significance appear in these 500+ remarkable and breathtaking pages. The book concludes with a detailed account of the attempted Coup d'Etat which finally ended the old order and the trials which followed it.

Alongside these sketches of the famous, infamous and powerful are also a handful of pen-portraits of lesser known figures, which are equally significant for what they represent. These include the amateur historian who collected the names of the people who disappeared in purges for decades, storing little index cards in shoe-boxes, which kept the flame of history gently burning below the radar of the censors and controllers of information.

The book begins with another story about the re-awakening of history, and features an army general with a huge decision to make. In the forests of Eastern Russia Gorbachev had finally allowed the excavation of a mass-grave dating from WWII. The Russians had always claimed the massacre was committed by the Nazi's, but the Poles and German's always insisted that these were the victims of Stalin's orders. The digging would reveal for all what CPSU files secretly contained - that the occupants of these mass-graves were sent there by Russian bullets; and laying the shame of the communist party open for all the people to see. As digging commences, word reaches the Colonel that the reactionary coup is underway. He receives orders from the Stalinist putch-ists to cease digging (the past must be kept from the people) and simultaneous orders from the more legitimate government to continue! Obviously if he continued to dig and the coup had been successful - he might have earned himself a place in the next unmarked grave of the disappeared. His choice, mirrored the choices of tens of thousands of people, soldiers, nomenklatura, apparatchiks, party officials, and citizens, as they decided whether or not to bow before this threat to their emerging freedom. Many more of their stories fill the pages of this book.

While this is a long book, and covers enormous ground, it is utterly compelling. There is a tragic beauty in Russian history, as there is in so much of its finest music. Remnick captures it all so well, in the most fascinating book on the subject I have come across since reading Susan Richards' "Epics of Everyday Life" many years ago. Space precludes mention of many very significant and moving chapters in this book - suffice to say that it a unique and brilliant read. As a teenager in the West watching the disintegration of the so-called 'evil-empire' I was amazed, shocked and scared in turns. Remnick allows the outsider to gain a little insight into what that staggering era was like from within the fragmenting system itself.

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