In general, I avoid histories written by journalists. They are usually bowdlerized accounts in which the facts are pruned to fit a narrative portrayed in black and white. Great care is usually taken to describe individuals in a way that can leave no doubt in the mind of the reader about whether they are “good guys” or “bad guys.” David Remnick’s “Lenin’s Tomb” is no different in this regard. Here, for example, are typical descriptions of Communist party officials;
Kunayev unfolded himself from the backseat. He was enormous, silver-haired, and dressed in a chalk-striped suit. He wore dark glasses and carried the sort of walking stick that gave Mobuto his authority. He had a fantastic smile, all bravado and condescension, the smile of a king.
…the most flamboyand mafia figure in the country was Akhmadzhan Adylov, a “Hero of Socialist Labor” who ran for twenty years the Party organization in the rich Fergana Valley region of Uzbekistan. Adylov was known as the Godfather and lived on a vast estate with peacocks, lions, thoroughbred horses, concubines, and a slave labor force of thousands of men… He locked his foes in a secret underground prison and tortured them when necessary. His favorite technique was borrowed from the Nazis. In subzero temperatures, he would tie a man to a stake and spray him with cold water until he froze to death.
Perm-35 was a tiny place, five hundred yards square, a few barracks, guard towers and razor wire everywhere. Osin (who ran the camp) was there to greet us, and he was much a Shcharansky had described him, enormously fat with dull, pitiless eyes… Osin had a broad desk and a well-padded armchair, and he affected the pose of a contented chief executive officer… He was, to use the Stalinist accolade, an exemplary “cog in the wheel.” He did what he was told, “and all the prisoners were the same to me.” Equal under lawlessness.
You get the idea. Nevertheless, “Lenin’s Tomb” is an exception to the rule. It is well worth reading. Remnick was an eyewitness to events in the years leading up to and immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was also an excellent reporter who went out and “got the story,” seeking out and talking to people all over the country in all walks of life. Beyond that, he had a profound knowledge of Russian history in general and the history of the Soviet Union in particular that gave him an exceptional ability to portray events and individuals in their historical context. As a result, the collection of vignettes he has captured for us in “Lenin’s Tomb” provides rare insight into what it was like to live in the Soviet Union in the years leading up to its collapse, and the sort of thoughts that were going through people’s minds in all walks of life. In the process it sheds a great deal of light on a stunning and unprecedented historical event, the magnitude and implications of which we are still far from grasping. I recommend it to anyone who suspects that the sudden demise of the Bolshevik’s great experiment was not entirely explainable as the inevitable effect of Reagan’s increase in defense spending.