MAY 1999 |
ALSO | Mitchell's "Your Other Half"
LAST | Colin Renfrew's
ARCHIVES | Books
David Remnick's book "Resurrection", charting the history of Russia over the past few years, has just been reissued, so I thought it was about time that I got around to reading his Pulitzer Prize winning volume on the death of the Soviet Union, whose 588-page bulk has been standing firm at the right-hand end of my bookshelf for some months, keeping lesser tomes from a grisly death in the fireplace.
I've been a Russophile for years, but my first trip there cured me of many of my "evil empire" notions, since it was abundantly clear that the only successful enterprise the Communist party was likely to run was a vodka store. Remnick is a fluent Russian speaker, and has therefore been able to pick up snippets lost to some other foreign correspondents; from a British viewpoint, for example, his thoughts on the infamous Ivanov, the military attaché at the heart of the 1963 Profumo affair, were enlightening. How could Ivanov have had deep secret conversations with Christine Keeler when he spoke next to no English and she had absolutely zilch in the Russian line?
Now that a few years have passed since first publication, it is obvious that Yeltsin's problems were even bigger than Remnick hints at. Things have moved back and forth so fast that people written out of history in Lenin's Tomb as yesterday's men have reappeared in Resurrection - and reviewers have been quick to point out that they will be gone again in a revised edition. In that respect, perhaps Lenin's Tomb is the better monitor of history, since Remnick wrote it after the events rather than in parallel, and sufficiently after them to expunge any erroneous first thoughts. Most reporters have at some time committed a thought to paper they would rather no-one ever saw again, but Remnick has been able to selectively quote his own work (without any deceitful intent) to describe his feelings at the time.
I found the book overlong and depressing. Too many anecdotes, whilst interesting in themselves, made basically the same points. However, one has to applaud the honesty with which Remnick paints the neo-Stalinists and conservatives, men with whom one suspects he has little in common. Ligachev comes across as consistent and reasonably gifted, and if Remnick is a fan of Yakovlev, at least he recognizes his failings honestly.
I think two images stay with me after reading this. One is of the inexorable decline of Gorbachev's influence as the agenda moved away from him and he failed to act. As it happened, I could not understand what was taking place, but Remnick explains much of it. The other is of some choice asides, my favorite being his description of the coup's puppet President Yanayev as a drunk, following which Remnick tells us that you have to go some in Russia to get a reputation as a hopeless drunk. That explains quite a bit too.
Remnick's history is comprehensive and gossipy. There will be better accounts of the facts, no doubt, but as an expression of the flavor of the dying Soviet Union, it can hardly be surpassed.
GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.