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Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (1993)

by David Remnick

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1,0041414,639 (4.16)25
A moment in history, the collapse of the Soviet empire, is examined, along with the restoration of truth, the truth about the brutal Soviet past and the bleak Soviet present.
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Very interesting, like a bunch of extended New Yorker "Talk of the town" features. But like those, this can be hit or miss. Occasionally it is tiresome, and occasionally it is brilliant. Remnick doesn't give too much background; he often assumes that you basically know everyone and know the basic events. The selected background he does give I found to be very useful. In the current context of course the stories are a bit dated, but I still found them to be insightful for understanding modern Russian history. I wish Remnick would update the book with his own insights, and how he sees these stories from the current perspective. Probably this has appeared in the New Yorker, to some degree.

> "A friend of mine met Molotov before his death and he told Molotov, 'You know, it's a pity that Lenin died so early. If he had lived longer, everything would have been normal.' But Molotov said, 'Why do you say that?' My friend said, 'Because Stalin was a bloodsucker and Lenin was a noble person.' Molotov smiled, and then he said, 'Compared to Lenin, Stalin was a mere lamb.'"

> On November 2, 1987, at the Kremlin's Palace of Congresses, Gorbachev delivered his speech to a national television audience and the great relics of the Communist world. Erich Honecker of East Germany, Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Milos Jakes of Czechoslovakia, Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania, Gorbachev's own Central Committee: they were all there to hear what would, and would not, be said about the history of the regime. Soon, all of them would fall to revolution and election—all but Castro—and in large part, the reason was this speech. Bland, hedged, filled with the Communist Party Newspeak imagined by George Orwell and perfected by committees of cowardly men, Gorbachev's speech nevertheless opened the gate. And the lion of history came roaring in.

> What was really incredible in 1988 and 1989 was to ride the subways and see ordinary people reading Pasternak in their sky-blue copies of Novy Mir or the latest historical essays in the red-and-white Znamya. For a couple of years, stokers, drivers, students, everyone consumed this material with an animal hunger. They read all the time, riding up escalators, walking down the streets, reading as if scared that this would all disappear once more into the censor's black box

> By the time she was sixteen and Bukharin was forty-two, she had a terrific crush on him. One day she wrote Bukharin a love letter finally confessing her feelings. As she climbed the stairs to slip the letter under Bukharin's door, she saw Stalin's boots ahead of her. He was clearly headed for Bukharin's room. She gave Stalin the letter and asked him to deliver it; for a moment, at least, one of the great murderers of the twentieth century played mailman for a young girl in love.

> His unerring sense of rightness, like that of scientist-moralists from Galileo to Oppenheimer, was steeped in his understanding of the scientific problems of light and time, his firsthand appreciation of both the laws of the universe and man’s tragic tendency to turn progress into catastrophe. He held in mind, it seemed, a picture, even a music, of eternity. Sakharov once turned to his wife and said, "Do you know what I love most of all in life?" Later, Bonner would confide to a friend, "I expected he would say something about a poem or a sonata or even about me." Instead, Sakharov said, "The thing I love most in life is radio background emanation"—the barely discernible reflection of unknown cosmic processes that ended billions of years ago. … His physics and his politics grew out of the same mind, the same sense of wholeness and responsibility. "Other civilizations, perhaps more successful ones, may exist an infinite number of times on the preceding and following pages of the Book of the Universe," Sakharov wrote in his Nobel Prize lecture. "Yet we should not minimize our sacred endeavors in the world, where, like faint glimmers in the dark, we have emerged for a moment from the nothingness of unconsciousness into material existence. We must make good the demands of reason and create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only dimly perceive."

> But with glasnost, the directors grew humble and put up an astonishingly frank display: "The Exhibit of Poor-Quality Goods." At the exhibit, a long line of Soviets solemnly shuffled past a dazzling display of stunning underachievement: putrid lettuce, ruptured shoes, rusted samovars, chipped stew pots, unraveled shuttlecocks, crushed cans of fish, and, the show-stopper, a bottle of mineral water with a tiny dead mouse floating inside. All the items had been purchased in neighborhood stores.

> was suffering from that terrible envy born of years of serfdom under czars and general secretaries, an envy embodied in a classic Soviet joke: A farmer's cow dies, but a great spirit grants him one wish. And what is the wish? "Let my neighbor's cow drop dead, too,"

> When perestroika began, Gorbachev had at least some sense of the deterioration of the national economy and the difficulty of creating semidemocratic politics in a totalitarian state. But he and his colleagues started out nearly oblivious to the nationalities question.

> Major Dronin got to talking about politics, about the "lawlessness" in the country these days. "There will be a dictatorship soon," he said with a certain relish in his voice. "It won’t be the Communist Party organs, it will be the real organs—the KGB. They will try to develop the economy, but there will be a strict discipline." As in Stalin's day? I asked. "No, that was too harsh," he said. "But maybe as it was under Brezhnev or Andropov."

> He and Gorbachev began with the idea of "cleansing" socialism and the Party, but they had precious little idea of how they would do it and where it would all lead. The truth is that Yakovlev, Gorbachev, and Shevardnadze—the lead reformers in the Politburo after Yeltsin resigned in 1987—were flying almost blind, and against a terrific conservative headwind, from the start. "Speaking generally," Yakovlev said, "our baseline principle was that some things could be improved: more democracy, elections, more in the newspapers—limited, but slightly more open—the management system should be improved, centralization should be less strict, power should be redistributed somewhat, maybe the functions of the Party and the government should be divided. But you can find all of these democratic axioms since 1917, even under Stalin. 'Socialist democracy' was talked about as an ideal even then. But speeches are speeches." … Yakovlev's most radical proposal in the early days of power was to dismantle the one-party system. In his secret memo to Gorbachev dated December 1985, Yakovlev suggested as a first step toward the creation of a democratic, multiparty system that the Communist Party be divided into progressives and conservatives. Such a split would acknowledge the obvious: the Party was unified by nothing but its pretenses and camouflage

> the appearance of Stalin was no aberration, but rather the direct result of Lenin's "revolutionary romanticism" that idealized violence as an instrument of class struggle and a force of purification. Until perestroika, even the most radical underground historians in the Soviet Union denied this. … it was Lenin and Trotsky who were the first Europeans to use the term "concentration camp" and then use the device to such effect. Three months after Trotsky used the term, Lenin sent a telegram to the Penza Executive Committee on August 9, 1918, demanding the local Red leaders carry out "ruthless mass terror against the kulaks, priests, and White Guards; confine all suspicious elements in a concentration camp outside the city."

> I could not get past the fact that he still kept an enormous painting of Lenin hanging behind him. As I was leaving the office, I whispered to an aide, "What's the painting doing there?" He laughed. "Pay it no mind," he said. "We tried to take it down, but we found a huge stain on the wallpaper. We don't have the money for new wallpaper."

> The idea that the individual was of absolute value appeared in Russia only in the nineteenth century via Western influences, but it was stunted because there was no civic society. This is why human rights was never an issue

> He told me that when he first started listening to rock and roll, it was impossible to get records and it was before the era when audio cassettes were easy to find. "We had friends who worked in medical clinics and they would steal used X rays," Kolya said. "Someone would have a primitive record-making machine and you would copy the music by cutting the grooves in the material of the X rays. So you’d be listening to a Fats Domino tune that was coming right off of the X ray of someone's long-forgotten broken hip. They called that 'on the bones.'"

> Most of the men who ran the Kremlin had never been to the West, or when they had been, it was in the "bubble" of an official visit. It was not by chance that the two men who had traveled in the West extensively before coming to power were also the two main figures of official reform: Yakovlev and Gorbachev.

> As opposed to the Catholic Church, which developed its independent structures after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Church was always dependent on the state. The Byzantine emperors presided over all the synods of the church and were considered "God on earth."

> The Gulag Archipelago would never fade from the history of Russian literature or the history of Russia. No single work, including Orwell's novels, did as much to shatter the illusions of the West; no book did more to educate the Soviet people and undermine the regime … Solzhenitsyn did not recognize just how deeply Ukrainians, for example, had come to believe in their own distinctiveness, how much they wanted a capital in Kiev, not Moscow. And, as always, Solzhenitsyn created problems for himself with the pitch of his voice, its hyped-up grandeur.

> On October 15, Gorbachev received the Nobel Prize for Peace. On October 16, after the leaders of the KGB, the police, the army, and the defense industry made it quite clear that they would not tolerate a radical reordering of political and economic power, Gorbachev withdrew his support for the 500 Days plan. Gorbachev had caved in to the people who had everything to lose from the reform of the country. When he did that it was clear to everyone in the Soviet Union that Gorbachev had begun listing to the right. Soon he would reject all the reformers in his team, he would begin to speak, with a sneer, of the "so-called democrats." … While Gorbachev may well have thought he was finessing the hard-liners and playing for time, he was ruining himself forever. The more he attacked Yeltsin and Landsbergis, the more he made cult figures of them. The man who had mastered his own personality and the tactics of the Communist Party now found himself unable to master the new form of politics he had set free. Gorbachev's compromises, his ugly language, betrayed him. A great man now looked weak, mean-spirited, and confused. There he was, in prime time, railing against the "so-called democrats" who got their marching orders from "foreign research centers."

> Victory in the war served to legitimize the brutal collectivization and industrialization campaigns that went before it. Although these men no longer celebrated Stalin, at least not in public, their view of history was surely Stalinist.

> You know there were many people, especially young officers of the KGB, who thought liberally because they had more information than anyone else. That's why there have always been a lot of thinking people in the KGB, people who understand the West as it really is and what our own country really was

> Weaving in and out of the convoy and racing up and down the columns, we saw an amazing display of joy. The armies of Napoleon, Hitler, and other would-be conquerors of Moscow had time and again fled Russia in despair and defeat. These soldiers were retreating in relief and sheer pleasure, as if they had won the victory of an age.

> Even after he returned from captivity to Moscow following the fall of the August coup, Gorbachev defended the Communist Party. He was its son, its protector, and he would neither abandon nor kill it. At his first press conference after the putsch, Gorbachev spoke earnestly about his allegiance to the "socialist choice" and the Party's "renewal."

> Much of the old regime survived. The smartest of the Communist Party men had long ago hired themselves out as "biznesmeny" and "konsultanty."

> The mere mention of a trial was revolutionary, for one of the fundamental principles of the Bolsheviks had been to deny the primacy of civil law. Constitutions were written, celebrated in the pages of Pravda, and ignored: the Party was above the law. Or as Lenin put it in 1918, the dictatorship of the proletariat "is unrestricted by law." Within months of taking power, Lenin liquidated the fragile legal system that had been in place since the czarist reforms of 1864 and commenced a system of state terror that was designed to intimidate the population and ensure the survival of the regime. "We must execute not only the guilty," Lenin's commissar of justice, Nikolai Krylenko, said. "Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more." ( )
  breic | Jan 24, 2020 |
My and I were driving to Columbus, OH in 2007 for a work seminar for her new job. We heard about Boris Yeltsin's death on NPR. The palace coup, Yeltsin's dancing on TV and the two Chechnyean wars occupied the next stretch of our drive. I found this book in a shop in Columbus a few days later and snatched it on the spot.

Remnick approaches his subject with an even hand. There is no Western arrogance about matters. When he discovers fault, he reports it.

I remember when Yeltsin resigned. I was going to a fancy soiree w/ some friends for New Years (don't ask) There was no way in 1999 one could predict the steely constictions of the Putin Imperium. Remnick's book offers a sober nudge to all predictions concerning Russian politics. The same can be said for political animals from almost every other land as well. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
It was an easy and interesting read about how the popular view changed regarding the party and communism in the decades leading up to the fall of the USSR. He made some prescient predictions about the KGB maintaining power after all was said and done. I wonder how well his interpretation of events holds up with the current historical approach to the era. If you are interested in the transitional period of Russia, then you will enjoy this book. ( )
  FriskySquirrel | Nov 27, 2018 |
Insightful and well-written. I read this book in conjuction with other books on this era and/or geopolitical background spanning many eras. Balkan Ghost by Robert Kaplan is a very good read and compliment to Remnick's book. ( )
1 vote trek520 | Dec 7, 2015 |
A fascinating account of the end of perestroika and glasnost by one who was there, who had access to the principals and can tell a very good -- and often disturbing -- tale. Remnick reported for the Washington Post, and was posted to Moscow during the final years of Communist Party rule. What is clear is that the rule of the Party failed because it rotted out from within: corruption, drunkenness and the Marie Antoinette "Let them eat cake" syndrome. He delves back into Soviet history to see the trends: first admission of Stalinist "mistakes," then the revelation of the atrocities of that era, finally Lenin himself is debunked by a people fed up with an economy and society of fear that simply didn't work. Remnick's research is not only first class, but his skills in telling the story are also of the highest quality. Read him not only to learn about the end of Communism, but also to learn how to write better.
1 vote KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
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David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (1994). Remnick won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for his brilliant retelling of the Soviet Union’s final days. He had a front-row seat in witnessing the Soviet demise; starting in January 1988 he served a four-year stint as the Washington Post’s Moscow correspondent. In Lenin’s Tomb, he draws on the many conversations he had with Russians inside and outside of government to explain Mikhail Gorbachev’s push for reforms and why they led to the collapse of communism rather than its rebirth.
 
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The struggle of man against power
is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Milan Kundera
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On a dreary summer's day, Colonel Aleksandr Tretetsky of the Soviet Military Prosecutor's Office arrived at this latest work site: a series of mass graves in a birch forest twenty miles outside of the city of Kalinin.
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A moment in history, the collapse of the Soviet empire, is examined, along with the restoration of truth, the truth about the brutal Soviet past and the bleak Soviet present.

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