Lenin's Tomb. The Last Days of the Soviet Empire.

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Remnick, David. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. Read by Michael Prichard. Books on Tape, Inc.

David Remnick, an American journalist with roots in Russia, reported on the period from 1989-1994, the time of transition from communism to today’s rather unstable democracy. At home in the Russian language and culture, he was able to poke about and travel and speak with persons great and clearly not so great. He pulls together many essays from his journalistic writing in this book, which I listened to in audiobook form. The people he interviewed and the observations he made make for a fascinating view of what Russia was like across this period. Lest the title confuse, the whole of the Soviet Union was “Lenin’s Tomb.” Some of the chapters:

A woman of low station had a great impact when her essay defending the communist system was reprinted in papers across Russia. She was one of many who felt that the communist government with its tight controls made for a clean, moral country. If anyone was sent to a prison or camp or to Siberia, even if it was for a minor offense like being late for work, they had it coming. They should have been there on time.

Remnick tried very hard but with little success to get an interview with a quiet-appearing man who had committed some of the worst crimes during the communist takeover times. High-ranking communists guarded to the bitter end what was, at the time and place, a lavish lifestyle.

The offenses for which people received terrible punishment were often so trivial, to the western mind, that one wonders how anyone could have respected their government .

Remnick visited a detention camp out on the open Siberian steppe. He spoke with a number of the dispirited persons still held there.

Soviet journalism, print and broadcast, had its formulas which distorted almost everything it reported on. He observed increasing efforts by a few to report honestly on what was happening.

Remnick evaluates the Soviet leaders who followed Stalin’s footsteps: Khrushchev et al. They believed in the communist system but made efforts to ease some of the very worst abuses.

Throughout the book, the KGB lurks, ready with its Black Mariahs to grab someone and take them to interrogation or torture or worse. Remnick describes the circumstances under which large numbers of persons would be executed assembly-line style, with a bullet to the head. An apron on the drunken executioner would shield him from the blood. While Remnick was doing his reporting, the KGB made an attempt to improve public relations using western PR methods. Nobody took the new image very seriously.

Yeltsin and Gorbachev come across clearly as they lead the effort to overthrow the corrupt old system and replace it with representative democracy. Remnick respected those men, imperfect as they were, for their leadership during extremely difficult times.

Remnick, perhaps, sees a brighter, more democratic future for the Soviet Union than materialized during the years after 1994. His first-person account of what these years were like make this an excellent source for anyone curious about the process.

I have read two accounts by Germans from Russia who were traveling and visiting in the Soviet Union at the time the communists tried to regain control of the government (1991). One was by Timothy and Rosalinda Kloberdanz (“Thunder on the Steppe: Volga German Folklife in a Changing Russia”) and the other by Rev. John Block (“Escape: Siberia to California: the 65 Year Providential Journey of Our Family”). Remnick’s account fit very well with their experiences. There were no CNN reporters to tell the public what was going on; the media played classical music without comment on the most dangerous days, so they knew they were in big trouble. It was impossible for them to get a phone call out of the country. Later, they learned that the communists had large stashes of handcuffs and blank arrest warrants. Clearly, the communists were planning to play the early revolutionary years all over again. Good they were more clumsy than they had to be.

The reader of this audiobook, Michael Prichard, has a fine, mellifluous voice. This is the second audiobook I have listened to with him as reader, and he wears well over the hours. If you are interested in this book, try to borrow it in audiobook form. You may want to ask your local public library to get it. There are references by name to hundreds of persons and, for a non-Russian speaker, it would be easy to give up reading the book because of the difficulty of reading the names. Prichard has done it for you, so give him a chance to help you over this rough spot.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller