Commentary Magazine

Lenin's Tomb, by David Remnick


Lenin’s Tomb: Russia and the Fall of Communism.
by David Remnick.
Random House. 576 pp. $25.00.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire will occupy historians and political theorists for years to come. The very suddenness and the nonviolent course of an event desired by many but foreseen by none are bound to raise questions about the standards used by academics to estimate the viability of states. For it was virtually axiomatic among so-called Sovietologists that the Communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were stable and had the capacity, by a combination of repression and concessions, to repel any internal challenges. Proceeding from this premise, many Sovietologists urged a policy of accommodation with the Communist bloc on the grounds that, whereas confrontation was futile, an enhanced sense of security would induce Communist authorities to relax their grip and eventually to shift toward democracy.

To anyone acquainted with Russian history, this line of reasoning had a familiar ring. It restated, in contemporary academic jargon, the old argument of the Mensheviks, or moderate social democrats, after the Bolshevik seizure of power. Much as they criticized the Communists, the Mensheviks were against countering Bolshevik force with force. They opposed the anti-Bolshevik White movement and sided with the Reds in the Civil War; they similarly rejected any foreign intervention in Russian affairs. From October 1917 onward, they placed their faith in the gradual evolution of the Soviet system, in their eyes a corrupt version of a progressive socialist movement which, if left alone, was bound, sooner or later, to “evolve” in the right direction. Confrontation, on the other hand, would frighten the Communists and compel them to perpetuate their coercive methods.

No such evolution took place; the system was of a piece. As was predicted by some conservative Russians as early as the 1920’s, it could either stand or fall, but not change. Its seeming stability was a sham made plausible by unprecedented controls over expressions of opinion. The rigidity which enabled it to withstand internal and external assaults precluded peaceful evolution. In the end, Communism was brought down by the willingness of the West, especially the United States, to engage in protracted confrontation, which in the 1980’s under Ronald Reagan led Washington openly to question the legitimacy of the Soviet government.

The founders of the Soviet state had gambled on two developments, neither of which occurred: the spread of the revolution from Russia to the industrial countries of the West, and the emergence in the realm under their control of a new breed of human beings, free of the craving for freedom and the acquisitive spirit. The failure of these expectations deprived Communism of its raison d’être. A regime was produced that within a few years of its founding had no other purpose than to perpetuate itself in order to safeguard the privileges of its ruling class: a regime that, in David Remnick’s words, was run by “the most gigantic mafia the world has ever known.”

Such a system, by virtue of its absolute power, could carry out impressive crash programs, especially in the field of military procurement. But it could neither win the loyalty of the population nor harness its full potential. It suffered from a slow but unstoppable erosion of morale and productivity which in the 1980’s came to confront its leadership with two equally unpalatable alternatives: steady regression, with the attendant risk of decline to the rank of a second-rate power, or reform, with its threat of destabilization. The leadership procrastinated as long as it could: and when it finally ventured on reform, the whole rotten structure promptly collapsed in a heap.



The great merit of David Remnick’s book is to bring to life the agony of the Communist regime during the critical period of unsuccessful reform. This Remnick accomplishes not by theorizing, not by seeing events in “broad perspective,” but by depicting, in vivid portraits, the minds and souls of those whose actions determined the outcome: courageous dissidents as well as the regime’s conservative defenders, alongside passive and generally bewildered ordinary citizens.

Remnick, who spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent for the Washington Post, employed his time there by pursuing with indefatigable energy every person of importance and making certain to be present wherever there was any significant action. Apart from the many nameless Russians whose opinions he solicited, the list of persons he interviewed in what was then the Soviet Union, as well as in the West, covers six printed pages. The result is a highly informative as well as lively account of Communism’s breakdown by an eyewitness who, without hiding his aversion for the Communist regime and its apologists, succeeds in maintaining throughout the attitude of a professional journalist.

The publishers of Remnick’s book, apparently meaning to enhance its appeal, call Lenin’s Tomb a “historical bookend” to John Reed’s paean to October 1917, Ten Days That Shook the World. This comparison is unfair to Remnick. Reed, a Communist fellow-traveler, knew neither Russia nor the Russian language. A romantic in search of high adventure, he treated the events in the midst of which he happened to find himself as a gigantic spectacle in which the forces of good, represented by the Bolsheviks, battled the forces of evil, represented by everyone else. For his effort he received Lenin’s endorsement and—as has become recently known—one million rubles from the treasury of the Communist International.

Remnick, by contrast, has studied Russian history and speaks Russian. He has gone out of his way to depict the drama in terms of human perceptions and aspirations. Both in 1917, when the new regime was born, and in 1991-93, when it died, these were far more complex than suggested by Reed’s cardboard protagonists. Whereas Reed’s book retains value mainly as an example of a successful propaganda work, Remnick’s is a reliable primary source which future historians are certain to consult and quote.

The account, which begins in the late 1980’s, culminates in the abortive putsch of August 1991 and the subsequent trial of the Communist party. The reader can only regret that Remnick, at present on the staff of the New Yorker, was not in Moscow early in October 1993 when the process he so ably describes had its denouement.

What Remnick’s face-to-face interviews reveal—and what so many Sovietologists, in their endeavor to be “scientific,” consistently missed—is the immense variety of the motives that inspired the people living under Communism. By the very excessiveness of its demands, which required citizens to sacrifice all but their most banal personal wants to the state, the totalitarian regime could never gain their complete loyalty. Even the most dedicated Communists retained a sphere of personal autonomy which enabled them, once the system began to unravel, to break loose. At the same time, however, the vast majority, made up of some active and many passive opponents, could not entirely escape the regime’s hold: wishing to preserve its positive features, they could never quite make a clean break with it.

One of the numerous figures making an appearance in the pages of Remnick’s book is Aleksandr Yakovlev, who experienced the painful transition from being a prominent Communist ideologist and propagandist to providing, as adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev, the theoretical justification of Communism’s destruction. What extraordinary psychological processes must have taken place in this remarkable man to account for such an evolution!

And then there is Nina Andreeva, an obscure chemistry teacher from Leningrad who remained true to the old faith and whose sensational newspaper article of 1988, encouraged by Gorbachev’s conservative opponents, seemed to herald the return of Stalinism. Remnick interviews her and finds not a monster but a woman worried about the spread of anarchy and the demoralization of youth, frightened by Jews, convinced that if it were not for Stalin and collectivization Russia would have been destroyed by the Nazis. She also happens to be an excellent cook. Not an attractive individual but a credible one.

There is also Iurii Afanasev, a historian who showed admirable courage in criticizing the regime when it was dangerous to do so and yet managed to secure an important post in its archival administration. This man, despite his impeccable record as an anti-Stalinist, once confided to me that all Russians, himself included, harbored in their souls a residue of Stalinism.



The picture that emerges from such personal contacts and observations is neither black nor white, but composed of innumerable shadings of gray, in which ideological commitment and self-interest are nuanced by personality traits. The battle for and against Communism was fought and decided in the hearts and minds of living human beings whom the abstract categories of political theory can hardly hope to encompass.

Of course, from the point of view of social and political science, an account like Remnick’s must appear amateurish and “unscientific.” Why is it, then, that it not only reads better but provides a better understanding of how and why the USSR collapsed than the turgid volumes churned out by the profession with generous subsidies from the government and foundations? The question touches on our very ability to apprehend political and social reality—whether the abstractions with which science of necessity operates are capable of grasping human phenomena made up of countless individual opinions and actions. Remnick’s excellent book suggests that, in addition to thoroughgoing knowledge, there is no better guide to the understanding of human affairs than trusting one’s eyes and ears.

About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).

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