David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb

lenins-tombConsider these two momentous events, both occurring in 2016: the rise of Bernie Sanders, who defied the odds to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination – and in the process demonstrated the massive leftward shift of that party’s electorate – and the total economic collapse of Venezuela, which has produced such horrifying images as newborn babies housed in cardboard boxes instead of cribs and zoo animals slaughtered by a starving populace desperate for food. I waited in vain for a reporter, journalist, pundit or interviewer to ask Bernie Sanders about Venezuela, about whether there might be some connection between the policies he wished to pursue and the economic ruin of an entire country. Venezuela was not much in the public eye, despite the lessons it might have offered for the American electorate, but I thought of it as I read David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days Of The Soviet Empire, for what he witnessed unfold for more than four years as the Washington Post‘s Moscow correspondent was eerily predictive of Venezuela’s plight.

Remnick begins by describing the excavation of a mass grave, one containing some 15,000 Polish murdered by Stalin’s NKVD in the 1940s; their deaths, for more than half a century, were blamed on the Nazis. History can be both friend and enemy, and Stalin, like all good tyrants, was determined to control this volatile force. “The Kremlin took history so seriously that it created a massive bureaucracy to control it, to fabricate its language and content, so that murderous and arbitrary purges became a ‘triumph over enemies and foreign spies,’ the reigning tyrant a ‘Friend to All Children, the Great Mountain Eagle.’ The schools, universities, newspapers, printing presses, radio broadcast companies and television stations were all under state control, and with such a monopoly on the channels of information, controlling history becomes a simple matter: history is whatever the Communist Party says it is. Small wonder, then, that when reformist-minded leaders emerge within the Party itself, their most revolutionary act is to challenge the official version of history. The heroic first blow for history was delivered by Nikita Khrushchev in 1952, in what has become known as the “secret speech” that criticized the “cult of personality” around Stalin. This much I had remembered from high school history, but what I am sure I did not then comprehend was the attractiveness of the lie, of the “official” version of history:

The men of the Communist Party, the leaders of the KGB and the military and the millions of provincial functionaries who had grown up on a falsified history, could not bear the truth. Not because they didn’t believe it. They knew the facts of the past better than anyone else. But the truth challenged their existence, their comfort and privileges. Their right to a decent office, a cut of meat, the month of vacation in the Crimea – it all depended on a colossal social deception, on the forced ignorance of 280 million people.

Those 280 million people, degraded and starving though they were, were not all willing to abandon the cheerful lie for the bitter truth. They had taken up arms for a common vision, had, in some cases, sacrificed their children for the good of the Party, and to abandon that now would mean that their sacrifices had truly been in vain. Remnick chronicles this struggle for truth as both historian and journalist, interviewing politicians and bureaucrats as well as the lowliest beggars and country peasants, widening our perspective on the Soviet collapse.

He describes, for example, the mafia-like economy, which forced average citizens to participate in an immoral system of theft, coercion and bribery. He interviews restaurant owners who, as part of the cost of doing business, pay off health inspectors with monthly bribes, before explaining that the government salary paid to these inspectors is so meagre, so inadequate for daily living, that they are all but forced into extortion. One of Remnick’s Moscow neighbours has a particularly painful experience dealing with the government bureaucracy when her mother dies, and the state benefits, designed alleviate the burden of paying for the funeral, cannot even cover the cost of the coffin. In the end, she has to bribe even the gravediggers, to ensure her mother is interred before the funeral. “In every relationship – in trade, on buses, in almost any simple transaction – people treated each other with contempt and suspicion,” Remnick writes.

In the West, the mob historically moves in where there is no legal economy – in drugs, gambling, prostitution – and creates a shadow economy. Sometimes, when it can buy the affections of a politician or two, the mafia meddles in government contracts and runs protection schemes. But in the Soviet Union, no economic transaction was untainted. It was as if the entire Soviet Union were ruled by a gigantic mob family; virtually all economic relations were, in some form, mafia relations. Between a government minister’s order for, say, the production of ten tons of meat and Ivan Ivanov’s purchase of a kilo of veal for a family dinner, there were countless opportunities for mischief. No one could afford to avoid at least a certain degree of complicity. That was one of the most degrading facts of Soviet life: it was impossible to be honest.

At another point in the book, Remnick will travel from Moscow, where the populace is starving, subsisting on bread and rotting vegetables, to a remote fishing village, where tons of salmon rot in nets as the fishermen wait for the government to set a price for their catch. And like any good mafia, there are dons aplenty in Soviet Russia. Remnick introduces us to Akdmadzhan Adylov, a decorated “Hero of Socialist Labor,” known to his constituents as “the Godfather.” He lives “on a vast estate with peacocks, lions, thoroughbred horses, concubines, and a slave labor force of thousands of men.” When reformers finally emerge within the Communist Party, it is the vested interest of men like this Adylov that they must overcome.

In the final years of the Union, the accumulation of all of the corruption and incompetence finally begins to overwhelm even the tyrannical government powers. The arms race with the United States was always untenable, but increased military spending in a starving country was destined to provoke insurrection. Add to that the growing influence of American culture – a growing black market supplied rock music and blue jeans – and the increasing awareness of the gulags, political suppression, and government censorship, and rebellion was inevitable. The first major strike was perpetrated by coal miners, who collectively walked off their jobs to protest their dwindling pay and dangerous working conditions. Remnick arrives on the scene to interview these men, covered from head to toe in coal dust. Many of them are elderly, long past the age of retirement, but cutbacks to their already meagre government pensions forced them to continue working to support their families. Day after day, for five days a week, they rise at the crack of dawn, descend long mine shafts they dug decades ago as teenagers, and crawl on their hands and knees, backs bent, in working conditions that were a century behind Western standards. Here is one miner’s description of his life:

This is not a life for human beings. We have no time for leisure. We have no decent clothes. We spend our entire lives making just enough to feed ourselves and our children. The shift starts at six A.M., so you have to be up at four-thirty. You go to the mine, work eight hours underground, and all your life is work. When you come home you are too exhausted to do anything but collapse. On the weekend there are chores to do at home. About the only leisure we have is a mug or two of beer in the morning after the night shift. That’s it. And then you quit – if you haven’t already been killed in an accident. A few years later, your lungs give out, or your heart goes. Bye-bye. You’re dead.

In total, some 300,000 miners went on strike. Documents recovered from the Kremlin revealed how consequential their strike was for the Soviet economy, and what methods were contemplated for putting an end to it, from using the KGB to intimidate the leaders to reducing the price of vodka in the local stores. Ultimately, however, the image of the rebellious miners provoked a wider resistance, one that spread from the mining towns to Moscow, from Moscow to the annexed states. Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, organized resistance became a possibility, and the collective interests of Soviet citizens, articulated by dissident writers and artists, finally overwhelmed the Communist Party.

Remnick has given us an insider’s account of a rare thing in history, the collapse of an empire, and he’s managed to blend journalism and history to report on all aspects of the decline and fall of not only a nation but a political ideology.