Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email


The "whys?" of the collapse of the Soviet Union will be debated for some time, especially because folks will seek to deny that Ronald Reagan had anything to do with it. But the "hows?" have been answered as well as we can ever expect them to be, thanks to the fact that there was a great journalist, David Remnick, on the scene to chronicle the events. He went to Moscow in January 1988, to cover the Soviet Union for the Washington Post, and spent four tumultuous years there. This book is based in large part on his original reporting and innumerable interviews with both the main participants and the ordinary folk. But he is necessarily a character in the book and unhesitant about being opinionated, so while it has been justly praised as one of the great journalistic achievements of all time, it is very much a book of New Journalism --though Mr. Remnick is part of a subsect called McPhinos, who studied under John McPhee at Princeton, or were influenced by him. These days Mr. Remnick is even the editor of The New Yorker, which has published most of Mr. McPhee's work. At any rate, we are served up a generous mix of personal observation and interaction with various characters and events along with detailed reporting and some historical background. The author makes no bones about being a partisan, very much in favor of the toppling of the regime, but it doesn't seem to impair his ability to tell the story in honest and straightforward fashion.

The book appropriately opens at the excavations of the corpses of the Polish officer corps, slaughtered in the infamous Katyn Massacre. With the collaboration, witting and unwitting, of many in the West, the Soviets had long denied that they had perpetrated this heinous mass murder, which occurred in 1940 and which, if admitted by FDR, Churchill, and company, would have, and should have, made it impossible for the Soviets to be an ally in WWII. The bones being dug up on August 19, 1991, are a metaphor for history rising out of the grave that the Bolshevik regime had tried consigning it to, with no little success, for seventy years. This return of history is the crux of Mr. Remnick's story and the main subtext is that Mikhail Gorbachev, though he must be recognized for shoveling up the first layer of dirt, had no idea just what he was letting loose:
After some initial hesitation at the beginning of his time in power, Gorbachev had decreed that the time had come to fill in the "blank spots" of history. [...] He did not dare criticize Lenin, the demigod of the state. But despite Gorbachev's hesitation, the return of historical memory would be his most important decision, one that preceded all others, for without a full and ruthless assessment of the past--an admission of murder, repression, and bankruptcy--real change, much less democratic revolution, was impossible. The return of history to personal, intellectual, and political life was the start of the great reform of the twentieth century and, whether Gorbachev liked it or not, the collapse of the last empire on earth.
In the pages that follow Mr. Remnick makes it clear that Gorbachev didn't like it much at all, believed that by keeping Lenin and the Russian Revolution itself sacrosanct he could use a little bit of history to secure a little bit of reform and retain communism, and was just as stunned as anybody when dissidents and genuine reformers seized on the opening to thoroughly discredit Bolshevism from day one and demonstrate that the cancer in the system began with Lenin, not Stalin:
[G]orbachev himself was still convinced of what he called the "rightness of the socialist choice." He continued to see Lenin as his guiding intellectual and historical model. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Gorbachev was out to undermine, much less destroy, the basic tenets of ideology or statehood of the Soviet Union.
In this account, Gorbachev becomes almost a figure of Shakespearean tragedy here as the system he sought to save collapses around him because of processes he set in motion without understanding. Mr. Remnick is even at least ambiguous about Gorbachev's role in the 1991 coup, if not outright dubious that he was a victim and not a co-conspirator. In contrast to Gorbachev are the dissidents generally, but Andrei Sakharov in particular, and reformist politicians like Boris Yeltsin, who, whatever his personal flaws, demonstrated tremendous moral and physical courage in the last days of the Soviet empire. Mr. Remnick was handed a great story and he dramatizes it superbly. It's a must read for anyone hoping to understand the 20th century.


Grade: (A+)


David Remnick Links:

    -The New Yorker
    -David Remnick (Wikipedia)
    -ESSAY: Can Russia Change? (David Remnick, January/ February 1997, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: SEASONS IN HELL: How the Gulag grew: a review of Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (David Remnick, 2003-04-14, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Afterlife: Natan Sharansky’s evolution from dissident to political leader (David Remnick, 1997-08-11, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: In his short career in power, from 1917 until his death in 1924, Lenin created a model not merely for his successor, Stalin, but for Mao, for Hitler, for Pol Pot... (David Remnick)
    -COVERAGE ARCHIVES: One Day That Shook the World: Ten Years After the Soviet Coup (The Washington Post)
    -New York State Writers Institute - David Remnick
    -David Remnick (Seattle Arts & Lectures) -#57: Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick (Best American Journalism of the 20th Century, New York University's journalism department)
    -ESSAY: HELL WEEK: the current crises in the Bush White House. (David Remnick, 2005-11-07, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: JOHN PAUL II: the life of Pope John Paul II (David Remnick, 2005-04-11, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: UNDER WATER: the President’s response to the disaster. (David Remnick, 2005-09-12, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: TYSON’S CORNER (David Remnick, 2005-06-27, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Sacred and Profane: on the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza (David Remnick, 2005-08-29, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: MISS GOULD: David Remnick remembers the New Yorker grammarian. (David Remnick, 2005-02-28, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: REPORTER GUY: Stephen Colbert’s new fake-news show (David Remnick, 2005-07-25, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: POLITICAL PORN: the latest literature on Hillary Clinton (David Remnick, 2005-07-04, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: HERBERT WARREN WIND: David Remnick remembers the late New Yorker writer (David Remnick, 2005-06-13 and 20, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: HIGH WATER: How Presidents and citizens react to disaster (David Remnick, 2005-10-03, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: THE WILDERNESS CAMPAIGN: Al Gore lives on a street in Nashville. (David Remnick, 2004-09-13, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: PRISONERS OF THE CAUCASUS (David Remnick, 2004-09-20, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: THE SPIRIT LEVEL: Amos Oz writes the story of Israel (David Remnick, 2004-11-08, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: EXIT HAVEL: The King leaves the Castle (David Remnick, 2003-02-17 and 24, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: After the Battle: What strength and courage will mean after the missiles stop. (David Remnick, 2003-03-31, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Making a Case: Giving the war a reason (David Remnick, 2003-02-03, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Money and the City: On October 30th, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, spoke with Robert Rubin, the Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton Administration, and Felix Rohatyn, who was instrumental in solving New York City's fiscal crisis in the mid-seventies. Remnick, Rubin, and Rohatyn discussed the economic and psychological ramifications of the September 11th tragedy, and what might be done to stimulate the economy and recovery. Here is a partial transcript of that conversation. (David Remnick, 2001-11-19, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: GOING NOWHERE: In Mubarak’s Egypt, democracy is an idea whose time has not yet come (David Remnick, 2004-07-12 and 19, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: War Without End?: The shock waves of war (David Remnick, 2003-04-21, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Experiment: Will Turkey be the model for Islamic democracy? (David Remnick, 2002-11-18, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Us and Them: On the promise of war, and the risks of going it alone (David Remnick, 2002-09-23, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: A Year After: The anniversary brings emotions, and questions. (David Remnick and Hendrik Hertzberg, 2002-09-16, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Hearts and Minds: The real failures at Abu Ghraib (David Remnick, 2004-05-17, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Escalation: The widening war in Iraq (David Remnick, 2004-04-19, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: After Madrid: what the train bombings in Spain and the election that followed mean for the world (David Remnick, 2004-03-29, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Faith-Based Intelligence: A motive that was manipulated, forged, or bullied into shape (David Remnick, 2003-07-28, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Trap: How to define the confrontation. (Hendrik Hertzberg and David Remnick, 2001-10-01, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Many Voices: the rising of the national spirit (David Remnick, 2001-10-15, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Israeli Link: Whether the September 11th attacks help forge a peace with the Palestinians (David Remnick, 2001-10-22, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: After Kabul: The fall of Kabul, and what comes next (David Remnick, 2001-11-26, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: In a Dark Time: The chance of peace in the Middle East (David Remnick, 2002-03-18, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Dreamer: In a time of violence, no one is speaking the language of Shimon Peres (David Remnick, 2002-01-07, The New Yorker)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Instant Replay: From the 2003 New Yorker Festival, David Remnick discusses Roger Angell’s writing and his years covering baseball (David Remnick, 2004-05-31, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: THE OLD MAN (David Remnick, 2004-11-22, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: SEASONS IN HELL: How the Gulag grew: a review of Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (David Remnick, 2003-04-14, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: THE MORALIST: Can Lennox Lewis redeem the world of professional boxing? (David Remnick, 2002-07-01, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: GEORGE PLIMPTON (David Remnick, 2003-10-06, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: PASSIONS, PAST AND PRESENT (David Remnick, 2004-03-08, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: PHILIP HAMBURGER (David Remnick, 2004-05-03, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: ONE WAY OUT (David Remnick, 2002-04-15, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Conventional Warfare: John Kerry’s acceptance speech (David Remnick, 2004-08-09, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The real Mr Blair (David Remnick, May 1, 2005, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: How Muhammad Ali Changed the Press (David Remnick, October 29, 1999, SportsJones Magazine)
-REVIEW: of Mailer: his life and times (David Remnick, Washington Monthly)
    -EXCERPTS: A Remnick Reader (Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1998)
    -ARCHIVES: remnick (The New Yorker)
    -ARCHIVES: David Remnick (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: remnick (NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: David Remnick (Fresh Air from WHYY, January 4, 2002)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: New Yorker: Robert talks with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, which finished its next issue last night. The magazine often carries a witty, whimsical tone. This week has required a different approach. (All Things Considered, 9/13/01)
    -INTERVIEW: A New Leader for the New Yorker: David Remnick in conversation with Dean Orville Schell (UC Berkley School of Journalism)
    -INTERVIEW: THE ZYUGANOV TWO-STEP (Elizabeth Farnsworth, MAY 24, 1996, Online Newshour)
    -INTERVIEW: "We don't want to forget hilarity" (Columbia Journalism Review, Sep/Oct 1998)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Josef Stalin's Legacy (The Connection, 3/5/2003)
    -INTERVIEW: Grappling with the greatest - interview with writer David Remnick on boxing great Muhammad Ali (Brendan Lemon, November 1998, Interview)
    -ARTICLE: Insider to Succeed Editor Tina Brown At New Yorker (Lloyd Grove, July 14, 1998, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Where Terrorism Meets Optimism (MARGO NASH, November 24, 2002, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: 'The New New Journalism': Gonzos for the 21st Century (JACK SHAFER, March 20, 2005, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: A Must-Read: Gulag (David Frum, 4/05/03, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Remnick and Morrison (Benjamin Wallace Wells, October 28, 1998, Dartmouth Review)
    -ARCHIVES: "david remnick" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb : The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick (John Lloyd, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Richard M. Ebeling, Freedom Daily)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Richard Pipes, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Peter Galuszka, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Arnold Beichman, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Mary Dejevsky, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (Alexis Gosselin, CTheory)
    -REVIEW: of Lenin's Tomb (GRAHAM BRACK, Rennaisance Online)
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia By David Remnick (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection (ABRAHAM BRUMBERG, NY Times Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection (Patricia Kranz, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection (Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection (
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection (Ron Hogan, Urban Desires)
    -REVIEW: of King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero By David Remnick (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of King of the World (Hal Hinson, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of King of the World (David Levi Strauss, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of King of the World (John Upton, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of King of the World (Frank Diller, City Paper)
    -REVIEW: of FIERCE PAJAMAS An Anthology of Humor Writing From The New Yorker Edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder (Janet Maslin, NY Times)

Book-related and General Links: