on March 4, 2004
The book is a compilation of short stories (each chapter a dozen pages or so) about the author's first-hand experiences in the Gorbachev's Soviet Union. From Baltic to Sakhalin and from coal miners to Gorbachev himself, from Stalin to Yeltsin and from Solzhenitsyn to Sakharov, the book paints the picture of the monolith's fall. This colorful collage describing the critical period in Russian history, combined with keen commentary, creates for the reader the distinct flavor of the time.
For Russia, it was the age of confusion and disillusionment. Gorbachev's half-hearted reforms (the interest in truth ended where the Party interests were concerned, the pursuit of democracy gave way to the pursuit of the runaway republics etc.) were matched by the half-hearted '91 coup (no real plan, no propaganda with the military, Lenin wouldn't have approved).
For generations, Russian people did not know much of the sad history of their country and less still about the life in the West. The blissful ignorance was one thing that helped them in their miserable existence. Their various degrees of belief in the grand ideals were the other. With glasnost, Gorbachev aimed at opening the gates of truth while preserving the faith. In all honesty, it was impossible: the foundation for the faith was thoroughly rotten and relaxing the state control of mass media could only reveal it. All of a sudden, millions of people had to face hard evidence showing that the glorious history of their country never was. That the Bolshevik revolution was but a ruthless coup followed by a bloody terror. That many national heroes, all the way to Lenin, were privilege- and power-hungry maniacs. The Russian people had to go (and are still going) through an incredible adjustment of their understanding of right and wrong, brought about by a mere possibility of truth in the phrase of Molotov (himself not the most impeccable politician): "Compared to Lenin Stalin was a mere lamb". Similarly, it was a hard realization for many a soviet man that in the late 80's "an average Soviet had to work 10 times longer than the average American to buy a pound of meat". The full awareness of their tragic history and miserable reality must make it so much more difficult for Russian people to live in the country which is overwhelmingly corrupt, lawless and poor.
Remnick's parents and in-laws, all four having escaped from the old empire, could not imagine going back even for a visit, apparently having no faith in the Russian democratic changeover. On the other side of the ocean, the Russian military colonel excavating the Katyn massacre site, by disobeying direct orders from a KGB general to stop the work, believed in the prevalence of positive change in Russia. Today's Russia, with its authoritarian government and shady political and legal process, still leaves its democratic future a matter of faith.
By way of some criticism, Gorbachev brought about an incredible change. His glasnost and personal presence revived the anemic (or galvanized the non-existent) political forces unheard of in a largely Brezhnev-era Russia. He fought many of the first battles alone. The book does not make a case for that. Glasnost provided food for the hungry Soviet mind, but perestroika, restructuring, was supposed to change the way Soviet people live. The book could have benefited from taking on perestroika in some detail.
Overall, very enjoyable and engaging.
on May 16, 2002
Remnick's frank, insightful analysis of the Soviet Union's final days filled me with inspiration and sadness. I'm inspired by the inhuman perseverance of the Russian and Soviet bloc people and saddened by the intense and lethal persecution of millions at the hands of their so-called leaders. Remnick shows a society led by decades of fear - citizens who feared persecution and leaders who feared the loss of power. The author flows easily from dissecting the Communist party and power brokers of Soviet society to eating cabbage with Siberian miners who don't expect to live past 35 to intense discussions with the Russian intelligentsia who fought the system quietly and desperately. It is a long book and at times I found myself needing a Russian history reference guide. But Remnick is not writing a history filled with facts and statistics. It is all about the people. Lenin's Tomb should be read by any journalist who feels the urge to go beyond 8 graphs. Truly wonderful.
on March 6, 2000
Remnick's prose makes this history/political science book both readable and entertaining. Arguing that the country's downfall was due to the Soviet leaderships' ongoing assault against its country's collective historical memory and it's feeble attempts to give the country just enough perestroika and glastnost to keep it at bay are chronicled in a series of chapters or themes. Ironically, the limited attempts by Gorbachev to instill some democratic themes was just enough to whet the populace's appetite for more and set the country on a road it could not turn back from. Interestingly, Remnick argues that Gorbachev was at heart, a true communist who only wanted to make adjustments, not change the whole system. One gleans from this whole book that in a modern world, democratization of the body politic is inevitable, once its processes are set in motion. Though the author focuses very little on outside influences contributing to the USS's demise, i.e. the cold war or "evil empire" policies of the U.S. he has written the most compelling account of the country's downfall as orchestrated from within its borders and i nthe process graphically illustrated the moral degradation and vacousness of communisim, its practitioners, and the suffering endured by its people. The Soviet Union was essentially a Third World Country with a first world military, over 80% of the population lived in squalor equal to most thirld world citizens. A stupendous book!
on June 23, 2002
It's hard to imagine there was any dissention from the Pulitzer committee over "Lenin's Tomb". This book excellently combines top-notch journalism and fine, precise, descriptive writing for an increbidly enjoyable and informative read. Considering how most such "good for you" books are long slogs about as exciting as bran, "Lenin's Tomb" was a surprising pleasure.
I came to this book with minimal knowledge of Russia in general, let alone the Soviet transition, and disliking what I had encountered of Russia's culture and people. "Lenin's Tomb" manages to explain the basics to ignorant laypeople like myself without condescending or dragging through too much history. What you need to understand what was happening, Remnick provides, no more and no less.
"Lenin's Tomb" proved an eye opener about the Soviet experience, but it also reflects on the larger ramifications of Communist autocracy. So many of the explorations of the Soviet erosion of society and culture gave me a sense of Deja Vu compared with China, only China has perhaps been less scathed by the shorter span of its bureaucratic red terror. Also, while "Lenin's Tomb" did not make me like Russia or Russians any more, it did present the context of how and why people can be a certain way, so that I now hold it against them less.
"Lenin's Tomb" is almost novelesque in its readability, a page-turner and easily beach or plane fare. I doff my hat to Remnick's ability to carve dense political stuff into an involving, compelling narrative. Perhaps Russia scholars would find points to criticize, but from a journalistic perspective, "Lenin's Tomb" is the book all of us wish we could write.
on October 2, 2005
Mr. Remnick has given us a masterwork. He seamlessly meshes intimate portraits of Soviet citizens within the larger landscape of the last days of the Soviet Empire. He has a rare ability to blend the micro and the macro in a soul-stirring narrative. This is a profound work that is filled with compelling stories. Lenin's Tomb is so superb that even those who avoid "history books" will relish it. Could not more highly recommend this book. The scads of glowing reviews below are all well deserved.
on September 17, 2002
David Remnick in "Lenin's Tomb" writes a fascinating book on the demise of the Soviet Union. Remnick manages to convey the views of the liberals who want to democratize the country and the neo-Stalinist conservatives who want to turn the clock back to the repression of life under Stalin.
The author has little sympathy for Mikhail Gorbachev who once he launched "perestroika" could not make the final commitment to democracy and republicanism and remained trapped in the dying and corrupt Communist Party. Yet, Gorbachev's half-hearted attempts at reform nearly ended in a disasterous rigt-wing coup. Only, the incompetence of the plotters and will of the people not to turn back to a corrupt failed system prevented the USSR in falling back into despotism.
Because of "glasnost and perestroika" Remnick was able to obtain candid views from everyone he interviewed during his stay in the Soviet Union. Miners, dissident and even communist party apparatchiks spoke freely about the good and bad of Russia. Nearly, 50 years after his death, Stalin's shadow still hovered over everything and everyone in the nation. Liberals such as Andrei Sakharov wanted the government and the party to fully acknowledge the heinous attrocities of mass murder and imprisonments committed during Stalin's reign, Khrukhschev made a tentative start at 20th party congress in denouncing Stalin but failed to follow through with real reform. During the Brezhnev years the country lurched backwards thast by the time Gorbachev came to power the Soviet Union was totally morally, politically and economically bankrupt.
Remnick also does a fine job showing the first hesitant steps toward capitalism yet evenn today 10 years after the Soviet Union collapsed Russia still refuses to make the fundamental changes to bring a market economy fully to fruition. Under the Communists there was "equity in poverty" today in Russia you see the extremes of rich and poor. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the demise of the Soviet Union, but it needs an update to encompass the last decade.
on April 11, 2014
David Remnick’s book “Lenin’s Tomb…” is a gem; thorough, informative and instructive. He traveled the length and breadth of former Soviet Union countries, interviewed leaders of science, industry, trade workers, farmers, dissidents, and advocates who provided personal views of the Soviet political machine and its impact on their lives. The interviews with key political figures, journalists and ordinary citizens also provided stories of neglect and physical abuse amid those who blatantly disregarded basic human needs and others who didn’t seem to care.
Remnick’s fascinating book contained detailed historical accounts from those who witnessed the chain-of-events of Stalinism.These person to person contacts were very moving. Stalin’s brutal regime was hard and ugly. It was difficult to understand and discouraging to read comments of admiration, living under this system, rather than scores of condemnation.
History enthusiasts should read this book for an in-depth knowledge of Stalinism and how it dramatized and excoriated the “soul” of its peoples and, what life was like under a despotic Communist ruler. I could not put this book down. It’s readable, interesting and tells a good story; chocked full of events from people who were “drivers” of the Communist world and of those who orchestrated its demise.
An extraordinary revelation of a perverted political system perpetrated upon the innocent. A very impressive book; should rank with the best. Strongly recommend.
Bruce E. McLeod, Jr.
Las Vegas, Nevada
11 April 2014
on January 23, 1999
In the Pulizer-Prize winner Lenin's Tomb, David Remnick offers the reader a trip through history that is at once frightening and enthralling. Beginning with the horrors orchestrated by Lenin and continuing through the rise of Yeltsin to power, Remnick intertwines political and social history with first-hand accounts which he gathered during his time in Russia during the 80s. The result is a work of unparalleled genius, taking hard facts and presenting them in a personal way that makes the reader feel as if he is actually experiencing them. The end result is a chilling dose of reality for those who have idealistic notions of the world in which we live. I highly recommend this work in which Remnick portrays the brutal realities of socialist life as well as the inevitable downfall of such a system.
on September 7, 2002
Now that we are a decade removed from the fall of the Soviet Empire, it is a wonderful to look back and read a fabulous primary source about the events. Remnick, the Moscow correspondant for The Washington Post, during the late 80's and early 90's (and since the editor of the New Yorker, which was a well deserved honor for a fabulous journalist, if I may say so myself) was right on the scene when the incredible collapse of Communism took place. He interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of people who had lived through the Soviet regime and who played some role, regarldless of how small and seemingly insignificant, in the transformation of the nation, and this research paid huge dividends. He combines all these personal stories into one great book that explains and analyzes why and how this happened. It is very well written, and while being comprehensive remains comprehensible. It is a wonderful book and anyone who is interested in Russia (or would like to become so), likes history in general, or enjoys good semi-academic writing this book is for you.
After seventy-four years, the Soviet Union, a decrepit gerontocrat like its former pilots, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, shuffled off its mortal coil. Journalist David Remnick, who spent four years in Moscow, compiled a series of thematic events into Lenin's Tomb, and explained how glasnost, initiated in small doses by Mikhail S. Gorbachev, became GLASNOST that proved too potent for the dilapidated Soviet state, and in the end, the Marxist-Leninist foundation on which the State had been build. An overdose of GLASNOST gave the Soviet Union a fatal political cardiac arrest.
However, in his indicting assessment, he notes how the Party and the Soviet Union, like Lenin's mummified husk, was politically, spiritually, and economically bankrupt. "The Soviet Union was an old tyrant slouched in the corner with cataracts and gallstones, his muscles gone slack. He wore plastic shoes and a shiny suit that stank of sweat. He hogged all the food and fouled his pants. Mornings, his tongue was coated with the ash-taste of age. ... The state was senile but still dangerous enough." Nice analogy, huh?
Remnick further identifies the cause of that decay with the Party and its failure to keep the promises of socialism to the ordinary Soviets: "The men of the Communist Party, the leaders of the KGB and the military and the millions of provincial functionaries who had grown up on a falsified history, could not bear the truth. Not because they didn't believe it. They knew the facts of the past better than anyone else. But the truth challenged their existence, their comfort and privileges. Their right to a decent office, a cut of meat, the month of vacation in the Crimea--it all depended on a colossal social deception, on the forced ignorance of 280 million people. ... When history was no longer and instrument of the Party, the Party was doomed to failure. For history proved precisely that: that the Party was rotten to the core." And once ordinary Soviets realized they had been lied to, that the socialist utopia was a pipe dream, they wanted the riches and luxuries that only a capitalist system could provide. In short, the Party was over.
Gorbachev was willing to give the Soviet people an inch, i.e. glasnost. As the caretaker of History, he was willing to demonize Stalin but not Lenin. Denouncing Lenin would mean denouncing Marx and Communism, and flat out telling the Soviet people that they had lived a lie for seventy-four years. Instead, the Soviet people took their miles, GLASNOST, and ran with it to many finish line; for the Russians, it would be the demonstration in front of the parliament building on 20-21 August 1991.
Glasnost had thus led to GLASNOST. The influx of information and culture from the West, formerly forbidden books, had led to the ghosts of the past rising up again, be they formerly independent republics absorbed by Russia, or institutions that had been partially banned, such as the church.
Glasnost also revealed the failings of the system, and this was most painfully apparent with the Chernobyl tragedy 26 April 1986. Chernobyl was the epitomy of many things. One, it symbolized "every curse of the Soviet system, the decay and arrogance, the willful ignorance and self-deception." Two, "Chernobyl was not like the Communist system. They were one in the same. ... The system ate into our bones the same way the radiation did, and the powers that be--or the powers that were--did everything they could to cover it all up, to wish it all away"
According to Remnick, Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika as a bandage, albeit a piffling one, to the Soviet Union, and he should be credited for that courageous act in face of the opposition he faced. However, he was outshadowed by Andrei Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin, who advocated what the people really wanted, GLASNOST and PERESTROIKA, i.e. open heart surgery. They and the Soviet peoples took GLASNOST to its logical conclusion, chucking the Soviet Union's bones into the dustbins of History.
This is a well-detailed critical book that explores the whys and hows of the Soviet Union's collapse, and more interesting for those like me who witnessed the Gorbachev era.