Lenin In Ruins

David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, (New York: Vintage, 1994). 588 pp.

Lenin's Tomb illustrates a fascinating period of history, but it fails to fulfill its comprehensive objectives. This text, winner of a 1993 Pulitzer prize, and with glowing recommendations from prestigious reviewers on the jacket, is not what it claims to be. It is an interesting reflection and personal account of the fall of the Soviet Union, but it is not a definitive historical analysis - alhough the danger is that it will be taken as such. It is, however, most useful as an insight into the official western media viewpoint on the fall of communism: reiterating support for Yeltsin, alleviating the Russian general population of any responsibility for Communism, laying all the blame for the ills of Russian society on the lasting effects of the former regime. After exposure to U.S. media analysis of the collapse of the Soviet empire, none of David Remnick's conclusions come as any surprise.

With his focus on the collapse of the Soviet empire and the "escape" of history from Communist Party control, Remnick provides a chronology and popular account of the return of history to Russia. As a journalist, he approaches the topic at a rather basic level, without any substantial attempts at historical or political analysis, providing instead personal impressions and interviews with a wide range of participants. These include, among others: political leaders, dissidents, journalists, writers, former apparatchiks and hard-line communists. However, his first-hand account of life in Moscow during 1989-1992 gives the sense of watching history unfold. It is indeed a fascinating narrative: the Communist Party loses control of the State, and consequently, loses control of history. The connection between the manipulation of history and the manipulation of political power has rarely been so clearly illustrated as during this period.

The man responsible for these astounding events, Mikhail Gorbachev, remains an enigmatic and ambivalent figure in Remnick's account of the period (he has an evident preference for Boris Yeltsin). Glasnost, indeed, had been initiated by Gorbachev merely to facilitate the restructuring of the system (perestroika). Gorbachev needed to pressure the bureaucrats and apparatchiks "from below," and thus to enlist the support of the population, particularly the intelligentsia. But the accelerating momentum of glasnost ultimately overtook and overwhelmed perestroika. Once Gorbachev permitted historical examination in some areas, he could not control the tidal wave it created - a tidal wave that eventually toppled the regime, as each new revelation ate away at more of its foundations. Remnick's account catches this momentum, particularly his interviews with Russian citizens. From the hard-line communists who blame Americans for Communism's decline, to the anti-Communists who blame foreigners for Communism, and to the pervasive anti-Semitism of contemporary Russia (where "Jew" had become synonymous with "enemy," and Jews are blamed for both the creation of Communism and its fall), the confusion of Russians caught up in this deluge of revelations is unmistakable.

Indeed many Russians appear to have lost any common thread uniting their past into a common and cohesive narrative, a narrative giving meaning to their past and direction to their future. There is no longer a commonly accepted interpretation of history nor a common ground of identity (many claim that the creation of a "Soviet" identity among Russians was one of the few successes of the USSR - thus the previous basis for identity has been irretrievably lost). The Soviet past has lost its meaning as well as its legitimation and rationalization functions. The search for a new commonly acceptable paradigm within which Russians can perform historical interpretation, and which they can use to chart their future, is proving increasingly difficult in this time of social, political, and economic upheaval. Thus the population is grasping for new ground on which to cast their identity: the Tsarist and Orthodox past is experiencing a revival, and the hard-liners are still mythologizing Communism. One can now add a psychological and identity crisis to the list of contemporary Russian problems: the outcome of the past is suddenly in doubt, after all these years of stasis the society no longer has a clear understanding of where it is headed. Remnick recognizes this condition as a fertile breeding ground for xenophobic nationalism and the very real threat that the "red-brown" alliance (Communists and Fascists), whose members, dissatisfied with the presence of reform, long for the mythologized utopia of the past. The refrain of these hard-liners is often as simple as: "Well, under Stalin, at least we had food..."

Despite his overwhelming satisfaction with the collapse of communism, Remnick is dismissive of those who waited and attempted reform within the system. These figures, however ambiguous, were necessary for reform, and allowed Gorbachev to put in place his changes. He reserves his praise for Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov (who are both undeniably important figures in the process of disintegration), but these smaller figures played a role which Remnick fails to recognize. He insinuates that even Gorbachev was not personally necessary , that he only accelerated the initiation of reforms that were preordained in any event. Remnick even criticizes Gorbachev for his "totalitarian" obsession with his own public image, although this is clearly something that Gorbachev learned from Western leaders. Aleksandr Yakovlev, a leading Gorbachev advisor, had been ambassador to Canada for many years prior to Gorbachev's ascension to power, and even though Remnick acknowledges the importance of this access to the media and politicking of the West, he fails to recognize the influence of his own political system on Gorbachev.

The text suffers from yet another substantial oversight, in failing to recognize that historical writing is intrinsically an act of bias and interpretation: the very act of choosing and retelling facts guarantees this. Remnick, in a way, thus falls victim to his own critique of the USSR: by not acknowledging the importance of the creation of history, beyond the blatant manipulations of authoritarian regimes. For history is a narrative constructed by the historian, an act of fact-choosing and interpretation regardless of the objective aims of the writer, and what is left out can indeed be more important than what is left in. The selection of events cannot but influence the interpretation. Remnick senses this: his emphasis on the Soviet regime's insistence of control of its own "official" history indicates his partial awareness of this issue, yet he fails to apply this critique to himself as an author, instead blaming the authoritarian regime for this "control." But, in writing his history he himself creates a particular narrative with a certain focus, for this is not an effect that only authoritarian regimes suffer from. Remnick, as a journalist for the Washington Post, and an American of Jewish and Russian origin (and whose wife's family suffered severely at the hands of the Soviets) and who came of age during the cold war, will write this history differently from another - yet he fails to acknowledge the effect of this background on his text, and instead claims to achieve objectivity.

Remnick also lays claim to a definitive and comprehensive account of the fall of the Soviet Union (as do the quotes chosen for the book jacket), yet the text lacks a real historical and intellectual perspective. It is indeed interesting, personal and anecdotal but, despite its claims, it is not definitive. It suffers from "blank spots" of its own. The leaders (and the careerists who followed them) are blamed for imposing a system on a completely unwilling population, indicating Remnick's ignorance of recent historical research in the field. Social history has become an important tool of analysis for Soviet history. Indeed, a new generation of historians (these include, among others, Sheila Fitzpatrick and Lynn Viola) claim there was substantial "support from below" for the Revolution, the NEP of the twenties, and even Stalinism, as they focus on the importance of the interaction between leaders and at least some significant segments of the population. Remnick ignores (or is ignorant of) this possibility (failing even to suggest and critique the possibility). Additionally, Remnick examines the Soviet period more or less in isolation of the Tsarist past, blaming Lenin and Stalin for repression of the population, not acknowledging this traditional tool of Russian rulers, reaching back through history. Stalin openly borrowed from the Tsarist tradition (particularly to reinforce patriotism during World War II), and openly admired the most brutal ruler of the imperial past: Ivan the Terrible. He even blames Lenin for inventing the term "concentration camp," thus insinuating that Lenin was responsible for this invention, yet the tsarist prison camps predated those of the Communists. Remnick ignores the similarities between Tsarism and Communism (especially the Stalinist variant), and blames socialism for all of Russia's ills, yet the political culture of repression and authoritarianism already existed, and was manipulated by the Communists (who obviously recognized the opportunity!). This is not to infer that Russians were "born" for authoritarianism (as some Western commentators have suggested), but merely that there is a connection. The Soviet period cannot be examined in isolation from the rest of Russian history, just as it would be pointless to analyze current Russian events while ignoring the Soviet period. Each period is inextricably linked to the others, and does not exist in isolation.

Alexis Gosselin is a researcher and writer in the area of Russian and East European Studies. She is also studying law at the University of Toronto.