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Our man in Russia -- at just the right moment


LENIN'S TOMB: THE LAST DAYS OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE. By David Remnick. Random House. 576 pages. $25.

ABOUT 1988, the barriers to genuine journalism toppled in the Soviet Union. Both an old Russian tradition of secrecy and the more sinister system of information control that had developed under communist rule swiftly fell away. Suddenly the country was an orchard laden with untouched fruit, ripe for plucking by any enterprising reporter.

David Remnick, then with the Washington Post, now with the New Yorker, was one of the most enterprising. His rich and readable book is the first to take full advantage of the stunning shift that had everyone from Siberian coal miners to Politburo members ready freely to reminisce and opine into the nearest hand-held tape recorder.

In 1988, when Mr. Remnick traveled to the southern Russian region of Stavropol to research Mikhail S. Gorbachev's roots, government minders advised him that, alas, there was a "quarantine" in Mr. Gorbachev's native village of Privolnoye, and he would not be permitted to go there. He rose early the next morning, grabbed a private cab and went anyway, managing a score of interviews with childhood friends and teachers of the Soviet leader before the snoozing KGB caught up with him.

Some four years later, Mr. Remnick was one of the handful of reporters present for the trial of the Communist Party, a sort of tragi-comic epitaph for the Bolshevik experiment. He accompanied the team of anti-party lawyers to their dacha one evening and became one of the first reporters to paw over a cache of previously secret documents. He saw Politburo transcripts that recorded not only Mr. Gorbachev's rise to power, but such banalities as a proposal to change the name of the icebreaker "Arktika" to "Brezhnev" and a discussion of the influence of "Zionism" on the human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner.

"Lenin's Tomb" is thick with the drama and detail that comes from this kind of aggressive reporting. Its meat is the myriad portraits of the dramatis personae of the perestroika era. There are such familiar shishki, big shots, as the self-important last defender of socialism, Yegor Ligachev; the cerebral and decent theorizer of reform, Alexander Yakovlev; and the canny, brave, instinctive politician, Boris Yeltsin.

But still more interesting are the bit players who rarely made the newspapers: Dmitry Yurasov, who as a boy began accumulating cards of information on the millions "repressed" during the Stalin era and, at 19, suddenly discovered he was a hero of glasnost; Anatoly Kashpirovsky, most prominent of a host of television charlatans who offered faith healing and stress relief to Soviet citizens in search of new faiths; Dmitry Volkogonov, the army propagandist whose dip into the archives of Stalinism produced not only the first serious Soviet Stalin biography but turned him into an unlikely crusader for democracy. Mr. Remnick's sketches reflect long, probing interviews; he often includes telling biographical details I didn't know about people I interviewed and knew reasonably well.

One of the most accurate of the cumulative portraits is that of Mr. Gorbachev, who presided over this era at first as a courageous master manipulator of the party that had shaped him; later as man-in-the-middle between horrified reactionaries and radical parliamentarians; and finally as a petty, embittered anachronism clinging to bogus notions of "the people's socialist choice." But this book is important partly because it is the first book on this watershed era that is not excessively Gorbo-centric. Mr. Remnick does not underestimate Mr. Gorbachev's critical role in starting and managing the process of change, but he also recognizes the social and historical forces that made change inevitable and the irreplaceable roles played by other actors, notably the long-suffering people themselves.

In the West, people seized on Mr. Gorbachev as an understandable personification of reform. The question was always: Can he make it? In Moscow, Mr. Gorbachev's contradictory behavior was impossible to explain away, and the crucial roles played by the radical democrats and Mr. Yeltsin were unmistakable. Mr. Remnick properly seizes on glasnost as Mr. Gorbachev's first and greatest achievement. As he implicitly argues, once history was restored in a great rush of articles, books and television shows starting in 1987, the force for change that was unleashed was unstoppable -- even when Mr. Gorbachev occasionally was the one applying the brakes.

The virtues of this book overwhelm its faults. Among the latter are occasional slips into hero-worship or demonization. Anyone who knew and covered Andrei Sakharov will understand why Mr. Remnick drops his customarily skeptical gaze and portrays him as "a saint," but such labeling is not enlightening to readers. Likewise, when Mr. Remnick writes of anonymous party bureaucrats supposedly tearing up documents with their bare hands after the failed coup of 1991 as "these ashen men" who "would sooner die of paper cuts than leave the evidence to the hordes," he is unconvincing. In fact, as he points out later on, many of these same apparatchiks were called back to serve the new regime. They knew how to make the trains run on time.

Some readers might wish for more interpretation -- Mr. Remnick's more explicit views, for instance, on why the empire fell when it did and not 10 years earlier or later. Economists may carp that while he makes brilliant use of interviews, street reporting, literature and film, he underestimates the economy as cause and effect of change. But as a first draft of one of the central moments of 20th-century history, the brilliantly described demise the empire Mr. Remnick justifiably calls "the world's longest-running and most colossal mistake," a better book is hard to imagine.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, was Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991.

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