am 28. September 1999
With the release of Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, David Remnick further strengthens his reputation as one of America's premier journalists. The book is the sequel to Lenin's Tomb, Remnick's superbly written Pulitzer Prize winning account of the fall of the Soviet Union. Resurrection continues where Lenin's Tomb left off, brilliantly chronicling Russia's painful effort to emerge from under the rubble of a collapsed system and recreate itself.
Remnick lived and worked in Moscow between 1988 and 1991 as a Washington Post correspondent, witnessing and writing about the last days of the Soviet Empire. During his tenure at the Post and in more recent years, Remnick has traveled extensively throughout Russia and the former Soviet Republics, conducting countless interviews with key Russian political figures, businessmen, cultural icons, and ordinary citizens. Fluent in Russian, he possesses an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge of Russian and Soviet history, politics, and culture--tools he effectively employs to enhance the reader's understanding of events and personalities in modern-day Russia. In Resurrection, history, politics, and biography are skillfully woven together to create a beautiful, tightly knit journalistic tapestry.
Not merely content with recounting events, Remnick probes the deeper currents that underlie these events and give them their meaning. His writing is vivid and passionate, and his sharp journalistic instincts and keen understanding of human nature enable him to perceive and analyze crucial details.
Penetrating, insightful, and tragic, his account of the war in Chechnya is Remnick at his best. He traces the Chechen struggle with Russia from the nineteenth century to the present, a legacy of Czarist and Soviet brutality and domination culminating in Stalin's 1944 mass expulsion of the Chechen population to the wastelands of Kazakstan. He further describes the influence the Chechens have had on the Russian psyche, as depicted in the literature of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, and others. "In verse and prose, the Chechen becomes more of a trope than a man; he is nature itself--untamable, wild, raw" (267). Or, as Remnick also writes, "In the Russian imagination... Chechnya is an obsession, an image of Islamic defiance, an embodiment of the primitive, the devious, the elusive" (266).
It is this defiant, mafia-ridden tiny republic that Russian President Boris Yeltsin sought to tame in November 1994, an enterprise that was to take no more than two hours, according to then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. In the weeks before the conflict, conservatives in the Kremlin elite--including Grachev, Yeltsin's bodyguard Alexander Korzakhov, and Deputy Prime-Minister Oleg Soskovets--convinced Yeltsin to go ahead with plans to bomb the republic into submission. Yeltsin decided that he needed a short, victorious war to boost popular morale, and regain the support of a constituency that expressed disappointment with his policies at the ballot box in November 1993, when Vladimir Zhironovsky's virulently nationalistic Liberal Democratic party won more seats in the Duma than any other. But as has been the case before in Russian history, short, victorious wars are usually neither short nor victorious.
Yeltsin's complex character is explored at length in Resurrection. His drinking problem, bouts with depression, boorish behavior, and failing health are common knowledge to most Russians. On a deeper level, Remnick analyzes the dual nature of Yeltsin's personality. His authoritarian impulses--instilled in him by decades of serving the Soviet state and most evident by his actions in Chechnya--are at constant war with the more recently developed reformist, market-oriented Yeltsin who helped topple the Soviet regime in 1991.
Indeed, the book abounds with colorful, substantive portraits of many of Russia's well-known contemporary figures: the blunt but honest General Lebed, who brokered the peace in Chechnya but was fired from Yeltsin's staff for insubordination; the theater choreographer turned wealthy businessman Vladimir Gusinsky; the great Slavophile author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who condemned the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Soviet government in his books but now is nothing more than an anachronism to most Russians; and the vociferously anti-Semitic, nationalistic buffoon Vladimir Zhironovsky.
Through brief biographies of these and other contemporary figures, Remnick paints a vivid picture of current political, social, and economic conditions in Russia.
His diagnosis of Russia's present state is understandably cynical. The transition to a parliamentary democracy with a market economy has been painfully uneven and slow. Corrupt oligarchies rule the nation's economy; social and economic inequalities abound; the rule of law--or what exists of it--is openly flouted; and the war in Chechnya has claimed 80,000 lives. Russia is in crisis, adrift in a sea of uncertainty and despair.
Can Russia change? Remnick is cautiously optimistic. He points to Russia's potential and the progress that has already been made since the deep historical rupture of 1991. The Russian population is 99% literate, and although the economy is still in shambles, inflation has steadily decreased, while privatization continues. Only a few years after the fall of Communism, political parties vie with one another for constituents, and a relatively free press is thriving.
Only time and the further suffering of the Russian people will verify Mr. Remnick's prognosis.