Lenin’s Tomb

Just finished “Lenin’s Tomb” by David Remnick. The book’s subtitle is “The last days of the Soviet empire.” At ca. 550 pages, it might seem a lot of text to devote to a few days or weeks, but that’s not what the book is really about. Remnick shows us how the history of the Soviet Union as codified by the Bolsheviks and Stalin became the foundational myth that drove that society. In the face of daily evidence that the USSR was fundamentally a terrorist state built mostly by slave labor, the memories of those who managed to escape state murder and the gulag were of heroic sacrifice for Stalin. They lauded Stalin and his party for moving the Soviet Union from a peasant society to an industrialized nation in the space of 35 years. They revered him for defeating the Nazi army, even though had had decimated the Soviet officer corps just a few years before Operation Barbarossa and he ignored warnings of the invasion.

Setting aside the fact that Stalin’s industrialization failed to penetrate most of the vast landmass of the USSR, even Moscow fell short of a modern industrialized Capitol of the time:

“Gorbachev came to Moscow in September 1950 . . . Zdenek Mlynar, a Czech Communist and another of Gorbachev’s college friends, arrived at the same time in Moscow as an exchange student from Prague and recalled a Moscow of “poverty and backwardness . . . a huge village of wooden cottages” where people had barely enough to eat, where “most families lived in one room and instead of flush toilets there was only an opening leading directly to a drainpipe . . . what you didn’t hold on to tightly would be stolen from you in a crowd, drunks lay unconscious in the streets and could be dead for all the passersby knew or cared.” pp. 158-159

To be fair, I rode the NYC subways many times in the 1970s and there were drunks and homeless people unconscious on the floors at the stations who could have been dead for all I knew.

The brief thaw of the Khrushchev years was followed by Breshnev’s attempt to rehabilitate Stalinism. Yuri Andropov, who succeeded Breshnev, was a true believer but an ascetic who was appalled by the bloat and corruption. When his health was failing, he tried to appoint Gorbachev as his successor, but the Kremlin leadership rejected Gorbachev in favor of another geriatric apparatchik, Constantin Chernenko, who only lasted 13 months. That was enough time for Gorbachev to line up the necessary support to seize party leadership. While he’s known for Glasnost and Perestroika, Gorbachev still believed he could hold the USSR together by reforming socialism and the one-party state rather than replacing it.

In Eastern Europe, where communism was imported on the backs of tanks, the citizens of Soviet client states were looking not to reform socialism but to bourgeois democracy. Already by 1986, the USSR had given up on maintaining soviet control in the periphery. But Gorbachev insisted on seeing the core empire as united in purpose. His government simply refused to accept that the Baltic states were only part of the USSR as the result of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact which gave Stalin Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and parts of Poland and Romania in exchange for Nazi German control of the rest of Eastern Europe. By mid-1989, the Baltic states had all declared their autonomy.

As the slow collapse of the USSR proceeded, one of the catalysts of its demise was Andre Sakharov. The father of the Soviet atomic bomb, he turned his superhero status to the peaceful attack on the Soviet Empire. His death and funeral figure prominently in the book as his iconic status became a focus for the democracy movement in a land for which icons were the symbols of religious devotion.

Gorbachev, the hero of perestroika and glasnost, ended up being an impediment to the reform he contemplated. His vision of the one-party Soviet state was of historical preservation through limited and incremental evolution. As a result, he ended up left behind:

“By the beginning of 1990, the collapse of the Communist Party monolith was at hand. Sakharov was gone, but his demand to eliminate the Party’s guaranteed hold on power had become a banner of the growing democratic opposition. Nevertheless, Gorbachev needed convincing. The proposals of Sakharov or Yakovlev—and the rise of dozens of new parties across the country—were not enough for him. He had to be beaten over the head before he dared make a move on the Party. Lithuanians as usual, were only to pleased to provide the drubbing.” (pp. 300-301)

Lithuania led the charge that ultimately forced Gorbachev to acknowledge the sordid and corrupt history of Soviet occupation of the Baltics. At the same time, corrupt party officials were exposed and forced to resign en mass throughout the USSR. In February 1990, a massive peaceful protest at the Kremlin gates forced the Central Committee to accept the platform of a multiparty system.

The final act of the Soviet Union was the failed coup of August 1991. Remnick does a great job here of conveying the fog of uncertainty. While Gorbachev was cut off from the outside at his Crimean dacha, the putschists clumsily tried to wield the flabby levers of crumbling Soviet power. The military and KGB proved unwilling to shed Russian blood and the coup leadership collapsed in incompetence and alcohol. Their collapse was aided by the steadfastness of Yeltsin and his supporters in the Russian White House. In retrospect, the coup looks like folly from the start, but as Remnick shows us, its failure didn’t seem assured to most people on the ground at the time. I found these fifty pages to be the most riveting and heart pounding in the entire book. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas 1991, beginning the Yeltsin era. Lenin’s Tomb ends in 1995. In an afterword, Reminck is pessimistic about a democratic future in Russia and points to political currents strongly favoring some form of autocracy.

A few days before my first visit to Moscow in the summer of 1998, the ruble collapsed, losing 50% of its value in a single day. By the second day of my visits, all the cash machines were shut down. Restaurant prices fluctuated hourly. But the subways ran, the stations were clean and a band played ragtime music in the Arbat. Lenin’s tomb was still in Red Square. The statue of Yuri Gagarin still towered over Leninsky Prospekt, a few blocks from the Hotel Sputnik where I was staying. The Kremlin grounds still hosted “the largest bell that never rang” and “the largest cannon that never fired.”

In 2000, Putin succeeded Yeltsin. The Yeltsin years were characterized by an explosion of criminal enterprises and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few oligarchs. This has continued under Putin, with Putin believed to be among the richest persons on the planet. Putin clearly yearns for the international stature of the Soviet Union, or some amalgam of it and the Russian Empire of the Tsars. Now that he is 70 years old and the war in Ukraine has exposed the Russian military as a paper tiger, it is unclear whether he can maintain his grip on power and if not, who and what will follow.

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “banality of evil” to describe the infamous Nazi Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, but it just as well describes many of the totemic evil figures of the Soviet Union—Stalin, Beria, Molotov—and ultimately the state they superintended. Today, we have the spectacle of Putin justifying his invasion of Ukraine to neutralize a ‘Nazi state’ lead by a Jewish president. Has the Russia of Putin returned to the Stalinist brand of banal evil, with its indifference to human suffering and death? Will the Russian people accept autocratic government under the guise of “free enterprise?”

The challenge of writing history for a lay reader is conveying the drama of events as they happened, even though we know the outcome already. Remnick was a reporter for the Washington Post at the time this book was written (he’s now the editor of The New Yorker). He has an ear for a good anecdote and can tell a gripping story. This is history written by a reporter, not an academic historian; he goes beyond the abstractions of economics, politics and the immensity of the Soviet carceral state, introducing us to people, places and personal narratives. This is great history and great history writing.