Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire
by David Remnick (New York: Random House, 1993); 576 pages; $25.
In July 1919, during the Russian Civil War, the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky sent an article from southern Russia to the British journal New Age. He said that he had no idea what the reader knew about what was happening in Russia, but he was sure that
“You do not even know the significance of the words ‘living in the old way’. . . . To understand what ‘living in the old way’ means, you would need to be here, in Russia, and to hear people saying, and yourself, too, from time to time, ‘Shall we ever live again in the old way?’. . . You will surely begin to think that it is something to do with the re-establishment of the old [Czarist] regime or the oppression of the working classes, and so on. But in actual fact it means something very simple. It means for example: When shall we be able to buy shoe-leather again, or shaving soap, or a box of matches? But, no, it is no use. I feel sure you will not understand me. . . . We know what such words as ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ mean; we know what ‘revolution’ means, and ‘a Socialist State,’ and ‘winter,’ and ‘bread,’ and ‘soap,’ and many, many more of the kind. You have no sort of idea of them.”
When Ouspensky wrote those words, the socialist state was only in its infancy in Russia. More that we in the West still find difficult to comprehend fully was yet to come. Some of these incomprehensible things are explained in David Remnick’s book Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate during the last days of the Gorbachev era, more and more secrets about the communist experience came to light.
Demitri Volkogonov, a Soviet general turned historian, gained access to many of the closed state archives, and ended up writing a biography of Stalin:
“I would come home from working in Stalin’s archives, and I would be deeply shaken,” Volkogonov told Remnick. “I remember coming home after reading through the day of December 12, 1938. He signed thirty lists of death sentences that day, altogether about five thousand people, including many he knew personally, his friends. . . . This is not what shook me. But it turned out that, having signed these documents, he went to his personal theater very late that night and watched two movies, including Happy Guys, a popular comedy of the time. I simply could not understand how, after deciding the fate of several thousand lives, he could watch such a movie. But I was beginning to realize that morality plays no role for dictators.”
Remnick also recounts that during the trial in Moscow in 1992 over Yeltsin’s banning of the Communist Party following the failed coup attempt, he was spending an evening with two of the lawyers defending the banning of the Party. They had been going through the secret archives to gather evidence on the criminal conduct of the Communist Party for over seventy years. One of them said,
“Recently I read a Central Committee document from 1937 that said that the Voronezh secret police, according to the ‘regional plan,’ repressed in the ‘first category’ nine thousand people — which means these people were executed. And for no reason, of course. Twenty-nine thousand were repressed in the ‘second category’ — meaning they were sent to labor camps. The local first secretary, however, writes that there are still more Trotskyites and kulaks who remain ‘unrepressed.’ He is saying that the plan was fulfilled but the plan was not enough! And so he asked that it be increased by eight thousand. Stalin writes back: ‘No, increase by nine thousand!’ The sickness of it! It’s as if they were playing poker.”
In Moscow, the burial sight for many of the mass murders was the Donskoi Monastery. A Russian historian trying to preserve the memory of those evil times explained:
“See this gate? . . . Well, every night trucks stacked with bodies came back here and dumped them in a heap. They’d already been shot in the back of the head — you bleed less that way — at the Lubyanka prison or at the Military Collegium. They stacked the bodies in old wooden ammunition crates. The workers stoked up the underground ovens — right in through the doors — to about twelve thousand degrees centigrade. To make things nice and official they even had professional witnesses who counter-signed the various documents. When the bodies were burned they were reduced to ash and some chips of bone, maybe some teeth. They then buried the ashes in a big pit. . . . When the purges were at their peak . . . the furnaces worked all night and the domes of the churches and the roofs of the houses here were covered with ash. There was a fine dust of ash on the snow.”
David Remnick was one of the Washington Post correspondents in Moscow during practically the entire Gorbachev period. His book is a detailed and moving account of the people and events during the final years of the Soviet Union. He came to know all the players — Soviet officials, dissidents, ordinary people — and traveled from one end of the country to the other.
Unlike the treatment from most of the Western press during Gorbachev’s reign of power, Gorbachev receives no whitewash in Remnick’s story. Gorbachev is shown to be a power-hungry, manipulative politician who knew all the tricks of rising to the top in the Soviet system — and one who desired to save the socialist system, not destroy it.
But in the end, the socialist system could not be reformed, for it was not reformable. It collapsed under its own weight of corruption and decay.
It is still an open question as to whether, after living through this ordeal, the Russian people will finally live a normal life in a normal society. They are still asking the question, will we ever live again in the old way-a way in which liberty, prosperity, civilization and culture are once more the taken-for-granted elements of the environment of social life? Two years after the formal end of the Soviet Union, they are still waiting.