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Friday, April 6, 2012

“Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire”, by David Remnick


624 pages, Vintage Books, ISBN-13: 978-0679751250

Lenin's Tomb, David Remnick's frank, insightful analysis of the Soviet Union's final days, filled me with inspiration and sadness: while I'm inspired by the almost superhuman perseverance of the Russian and Soviet bloc people, I’m also saddened by the intense and lethal persecution of these same 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.

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 the country's collective historical memory and its feeble attempts to give the country just enough perestroika and glasnost to keep it at bay, are chronicled in a series of chapters, or themes. Ironically, the limited attempts by Gorbachev to instill some democratic policies was just enough to whet the populace's appetite for more and set the country on a road it could not turn back from. Remnick argues – accurately, I think – that Gorbachev was at heart, a true communist who only wanted to make adjustments to, not change, the communist system. One gleans from this 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 USSR's demise; rather, he has done is written the most compelling account of the country's downfall as orchestrated from within its borders and in the process graphically illustrated the moral degradation and viciousness of communism, its practitioners, and the suffering endured by its people. The Soviet Union was essentially a Third World Country with a first world military, with over 80% of the population lived in squalor equal to most third world citizens.

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.

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