Reliving the collapse of the Soviet Union as though it were only yesterday

June 13, 1993|By Antero Pietila

LENIN'S TOMB: THE LAST DAYS OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE.

David Remnick.

Random House.

576 pages. $24.50. During the botched-up 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, men from the Soviet military prosecutor's office were digging up the bones of Stalin's victims near Moscow. Should they go on or stop?

The prosecutors had interviewed a local man who described how, in April 1940, his secret police unit had shot Polish officers in the woods -- 250 a night, for a month.

Like many another cog in Stalin's death machine, the aging secret police veteran had chosen to build his retirement home in those killing fields. Why not? "I took no part in the killings. I never went to the execution room," he explained.

Hitler's tyranny was easy to judge. It did not last that long, its cast of characters was relatively small. In contrast, the full devastation of seven decades of Soviet power is still being assessed. Untold millions of Soviets and foreigners fell victim to Red terror.

But that's just a part of the larger Soviet disaster.

Nature itself was spoiled through senseless experimentation, quackery and mismanagement. Agricultural land was poisoned, lakes and seas laid waste.

And while communists never quite developed the New Soviet Man, they succeeded in perverting the makeup of Soviet people so that they were made "slightly unbalanced mentally -- not exactly ill, but not normal either," as Nadezhda Mandelshtam, a survivor of Stalin's death camps, once observed.

The Big Lie became the new normalcy. Killing fields became sites for dachas. Such was the sense of communist propriety that they built a gym and buffet underneath Lenin's mausoleum, the holiest place on Red Square. Beneath them was a "control room" to monitor the temperature and deterioration of the waxen likeness of the Soviet founder.

The Soviet experiment was under thorough revision in 1988 when the Washington Post sent David Remnick, a writer in its Style section, to Moscow as its correspondent.

Mr. Gorbachev had been in power for three years -- long enough to suggest his attempts at modernizing communism had backfired and the genie was out of the bottle.

Things that had been unthinkable a few years before were becoming commonplace. People were losing fear. The system was falling apart.

Those were the end times, and they were definitely strange.

As Stalinists kept arguing with reformers, faith healers dominated the airwaves. From McDonald's to Pizza Hut, capitalist novelties were being introduced in the Soviet Union.

At one of the first baseball games in Moscow, "a guy took his gift of Red Man chewing tobacco and gobbled it down like chocolate. He threw up and spent the rest of the game in a hopeless daze."

In this remarkable book, Mr. Remnick re-creates the dramatic atmosphere of these last days of the Soviet empire.

He relives the power struggles and political jockeying with unprecedented intimacy. He describes how the changes affect lives and close relationships.

He talks to the major players but also seeks out little people. Whether he interviews an early Gorbachev flame ("I was attracted to him, he was magnetic") or a Leningrad woman instructor whose Stalinist manifesto became the center of a protracted cultural battle or many others, their profiles serve as vehicles for inspiring discussions of wider themes. This is not a history, this is not a diary. It is a superb piece of reportage.

By now, the Soviet collapse is an old story. But somehow Mr. Remnick makes it so fresh and compelling, his book reads like a thriller.

We cannot but shake our heads in disbelief as an increasingly self-isolated Mr. Gorbachev keeps alienating himself from such once-trusted aides as Eduard A. Shevardnadze and Alexander N. Yakovlev.

When a disenchanted Mr. Yakovlev bids farewell to Mr. Gorbachev and says that "the people around you are rotten," his one-time friend dismisses the warning. "You exaggerate," Mr. Gorbachev insists.

This book is admirably free of many of the recycled junk factoids that filled so many previous works by former Moscow correspondents. Mr. Remnick was able to talk to the principals and see many of the original documents, so there is no need to repeat such famous fabrications as Mr. Gorbachev supposedly "having a nice smile but iron teeth."

Since the Soviet Union is gone, Mr. Remnick does not have to worry about political sensitivities, either.

"The Communist Party apparatus was the most gigantic mafia the world has ever known," he writes. He goes on to call one vice president "a witless apparatchik, philanderer and drunk." Anatoly Lukyanov is " 'Lucky Luke,' the creepy chairman of the Supreme Soviet."

A one-time military boss is "a theocratic-militarist wacko," and a Leningrad television personality is "equal parts Geraldo Rivera and propaganda minister, a master of the basest instincts of schlock and vengeance."

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