Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire
In 1910 a fortuneteller in Berlin told Nikolai Bukharin, then a young and dedicated henchman of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, “You will one day be executed in your own country.” The art of fortunetelling, no doubt, like that of political commentators, is to make a shrewd guess at what might be going to happen to an individual in certain circumstances; and this particular prophecy was no more prescient than those which other persons of political common sense might have made at the time. Rosa Luxembourg herself foretold disaster, tyranny, and the loss of freedom if the Bolsheviks behaved like a Mafia of professional political terrorists, and her knowledge of Lenin made her fear that might happen.
The fortuneteller is just one of the many minor parts in David Remnick’s extraordinary and wonderful book, which swarms and pullulates with the human material of politics in Russia. Like Simon Schama’s remarkable history of the French revolution, Citizens, it is as much about the ordinary human beings of its time as about ideologies—if not more. The title “Citizens” was ironic, for although the men and women of France had become “citizens,” and in most cases gloried in the new title, the historian removed it in order to show in detail what was actually going on at an individual level. Writers about history like Schama and Remnick are a bit like the fortuneteller who foretold the manner of his death to Bukharin. Their sense of historical probabilities is based on finding out about the individual and listening to his story, after which their predictions have a good chance of becoming true.
The story of Bukharin is a case in point. Remnick contrived to interview an old woman in her seventies called Anna Larina, who at the age of sixteen had fallen madly in love with the forty-two-year-old Bukharin. Her father, Yuri Larin, was a close comrade of all the old Bolsheviks, who would come to their rooms in the Moscow Metropole Hotel. Once, when both Bukharin and Lenin were present and Lenin referred to Bukharin as “the golden boy” of the Revolution, the young Larina protested that he wasn’t made of gold, he was alive. Soon afterward, and just like her namesake Tatiana Larina in Pushkin’s Evgeny One-gin, she wrote Bukharin a declaration of love, and asked her father’s friend Stalin to deliver it to his room on another floor of the hotel.
They married and had a child and six years of happiness before Bukharin, who had come to distrust and dread Stalin but could not believe that he himself would be sacrificed, was finally arrested and shot after a show trial. His widow was exiled to Astrakhan and remained in the camps for twenty years, not seeing her son, Yuri, again until he was a young man of twenty. They finally met in Siberia. Bukharin’s case has a special historical and psychological interest, for he, much more than Trotsky, had represented the possibility of communism with a human face—“a far less brutal collectivization, a more mixed economy, and a limited pluralism.” In his biography the Princeton historian Stephen Cohen saw Bukharin as a figure especially attractive to reformers like Gorbachev, in whose time his reputation was rehabilitated, and a symbol of hope that all was not lost, that the Leninist system could be saved, and that even in the Thirties it need not necessarily have led to the dead end of Stalinism.
Of course Gorbachev hedged as usual, quoting Lenin to the effect that Bukharin was the Party’s most valued theorist, even though he had never fully learned the principle of Marxist dialectics. In his famous novel Darkness at Noon Arthur Koestler tried, in a sense, to cheer up the shocked left-wing intellectuals of the late Thirties by presenting Bukharin as the true and noble Communist alternative, whose tragedy was that of a man so wedded to the system that he allowed it to destroy him, even regarding his own martyrdom as a last act of loyalty to the Party. In his more ignoble fashion, Gorbachev too clung to the idea that whatever else had gone wrong the Party itself must and should be what mattered. As the medieval theologians used to say, “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salvatio“—there can be no salvation outside the Church.
Unlike Cohen, Koestler showed himself as more of a historical determinist. The last sentence of Darkness at Noon eloquently testifies to the death of all systems in “the shrug of eternity.” But Koestler was a writer, not a politician, a Gorbachev who like the Pope must cling to the Church however corrupt it may be, and however much it may seem to be at its last gasp. For Gorbachev and for many of his followers, the “saintly” figure of Bukharin, Stalin’s number one martyr, could be offered to the populace as a Saint George, a new Ikon of what had gone wrong as a result of Stalin’s evil machinations, but what was and had been essentially right about the system and its key upholders, Bukharin, intellectuals and persons of culture were told, was the politician who had striven to protect the great poet Osip Mandelstam from the secret police: a curious argument in defense of a system that needed to have secret police, and to liquidate its greatest poets. And indeed the attempt to make a sort of ex post facto cult of the rehabilitated Bukharin never got off the ground.
The reason why not is found in some of Remnick’s most vivid portraits of people he interviewed. Even more striking than his sad little chat with Anna Larina are the talks with robust and dignified Stalinists, good and worthy people who had worked and suffered for their country, done heroic deeds in the great war against Hitler and the Germans, and for whom their own leader had been the one and only hope and shape in their lives. There were and are very many of them, a frightening number: almost, one might think, a silent majority of the elderly, who are neither apologists nor rationalists of tyranny and violence, but simply the people who made Russia what it was in the war, and, incidentally, saved Europe from Hitler and German domination. How could they disown Stalin, as Gorbachev and his friends now expected them to do?
The same thought was constantly in the minds of the new thoroughgoing liberals and reformers. “It was a terrifying time,” said Yegor Yakovlov, the editor of Moscow News, referring to the period immediately before the attempted coup of August 1991. “Absolutely everything we had ever hoped for and dreamed of was on the line.” In a later chapter, “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce,’ ” Remnick describes the coup itself with his usual almost hallucinatory vividness; but the worst time for the out-and-out reformers was the prolonged uncertainty before it, when no one could be sure how the battle for hearts and minds was really going.
Evidence was far from reassuring. In 1989 Remnick walked in the funeral cortege of the real saint and most fearless martyr of the regime, Andrei Sakharov, who had died worn out by the struggle. The metaphors his greatest friends and colleagues used are again significant, reminiscent of religious legend and the story of Saint George. “I’m only glad,” said one friend, “that before he died Sakharov dealt the system a mortal blow. If God sent Jesus to pay for the sins of humankind, then a Marxist God somewhere sent Andrei Sakharov to pay for the sins of our system.” But even then no one could know that the blow was mortal, least of all that courageous populist Boris Yeltsin, whose towering figure was just ahead of Remnick in the funeral procession.
In March 1988 a letter was sent to a conservative journal called Sovetskaya Rossiya which at once evoked phone calls and telegrams of enthusiastic and spontaneous support from war veterans and apparatchiks all over the Soviet Union. Written by a woman called Nina Andreyeva, a middle-aged chemistry teacher, it was at once seized upon by hesitant reactionaries and Party bigwigs like Ligachev as a piece of real evidence that popular feeling was on their side. So, in a sense, it was. As in other countries today, the old were very much a majority in the Soviet Union; and although there were plenty of exceptions, notably among those with relatives who had been imprisoned or who had died in the camps, it was the old and the middle-aged who formed what was by that time a usually silent majority. When Nina Andreyeva’s letter arrived, Ligachev and his friends saw the possibility of making them sincerely vocal, if not vociferous.
The letter began by denouncing a new play by Mikhail Shatrov called Onward, Onward, Onward, one of those cardboard political pieces to which Soviet audiences were wholly accustomed. The difference was that Shatrov saw the whole Soviet establishment and its history as the remnant of a golden but lost opportunity. If only Lenin had lived! This glorification of Lenin at the expense of Stalin was as old as Khrushchev’s time, but Gorbachev and his friends had reanimated it with a set purpose—to keep going the idea of the true Church, the pure and immortal Party—and Shatrov had seen which way the wind was blowing. The climax of his play is the speech by Rosa Luxembourg, prophesying doom unless the Bolsheviks changed their methods (“Socialism without political freedom is not socialism”)—a speech which has Lenin enthusiastically crying out “Bravo, Rosa!” (Incidentally the real Lenin might indeed have applauded, but ironically: he had a macabre sense of humor. But one might as well have asked Peter the Great to change his methods.)
Approved by Gorbachev and his friends for endorsing their anti-Stalinist line, and for being a timely variation on the classic “Lenin play,” Shatrov’s piece and the letter denouncing it had the effect of bringing the silent Stalinist majority out into the open; and incidentally of giving occasion for Remnick’s liveliest and most poignant interview. Even the Party journalist sent to interview Nina Andreyeva when her letter first scored such a success had been rather shocked by the depths of her conservatism. She had told him she was a Stalinist, and when he suggested that Stalinist economics hadn’t worked, she told him, “Just the opposite. The system hasn’t had a chance to show its real capabilities.” This was the woman Remnick confronted in her tiny flat; and his prose, with its wonderful feel for personalities as much as for politics, is equal to the situation.
Somehow she did not fit the role of a polemicist, not physically anyway. With her hair swept up in a loaf, her eyes narrow and darting deep within the plump meat of her face, she looked rather more like a head nurse, a starched and angry woman of fifty trying, when the occasion demanded, to be nice—I’d called ahead, but she seemed to have forgotten my last name. I reminded her. Smiling stiffly, she repeated the two syllables, sifting through them for ethnic clues, shifting the accent fore and aft, searching for a nugget of recognition. She was too polite, though, to ask any questions. Finding nothing, she smiled and invited her guest to sit down to tea and a box of candy.
Everything fits the part—the formidable Soviet nanny, the politeness, the faintly rude suspicion at a name: and yet Nina Andreyeva also comes across as wholly individual—in her pathos, her repulsiveness, in both of which there is a kind of antediluvian nobility, although she is far from being senile. Formed by the system and owing everything to it, she and her family have also, in the past, sacrificed everything for it.
“My eldest sister went to the front and was killed in 1943 at Donbass. Her husband, a commissar with an antitank battalion, was killed a week after she was. My father was at the Leningrad front, and my eldest brother was also at the war.”
Sympathetic as Remnick is, I doubt he quite realizes, being young himself, how completely the war years have separated the generations in Russia. Raised in total squalor but always with a “red corner,” a place where the Lenin portrait was kept and “where Christians used to keep their icons,” Nina Andreyeva heard on the same day that her father and brother had been killed at the front. Stalin was all she had left. Like all her generation she knew in her bones, and she was quite right, that without Stalin and his system Russia could never have survived the German attack. Stalin personified the Great Patriotic War, almost in the form of the redoubtable T-34 Russian tank which did so much to win it, and whose production he had personally decreed. Gratitude is one of the rarest of human emotions, but it can also be the most durable.
Remnick intuited this in the woman, and it impressed him; but he could not identify with it; and neither a fortiori could the young Russians at the time of the coup. They were fed to the teeth with hearing about the war and the glorious past, and gratitude was quite rightly the last thing they could afford to show; even, in their context, to feel or to know about. One of Remnick’s most brilliant but also in a curious way most alarming sketches is of Red Square on May Day 1990, when the anarchic young took over the festivities, and Gorbachev and his “enlightened” Politburo simply had to leave their saluting base on Lenin’s tomb. Despite his enthusiasm for the job they were doing, Remnick seems aware that most of the young people were in fact deeply irresponsible, as indifferent to future as to past.
The Bolshevik idea of history ignored this uncomfortable truth, like so many others. Len Karpinsky, a journalist friend of Remnick’s who had supported the Marxist theoretician Mikhail Suslov and applauded the fall of Khrushchev, understood very well the nature of anachronism, and how the heroic tanks of the war years became a wholly “inadequate weapon” in Czechoslovakia. “They ‘fired’ at—ideas. With no hope of hitting the target.” But Nina Andreyeva and her husband had no such intellectual qualms. For them the past was still going on, and as long as the Soviet Union had tanks and Stalin’s successors kept their nerve the system was bound to triumph, and show its “real capabilities.”
Nina Andreyeva was naturally delighted, in her self-possessed way, that her letter denouncing Shatrov’s play had made her such a celebrity. The editor had given her letter the title “I Cannot Forsake Principles”: an effective advertising slogan, if an ironical one. It suggested that Stalinism was somehow first and foremost a moral creed, which was being forsaken by the godless and unprincipled intelligentsia, in the same spirit in which new frivolities in the West might be denounced in the Bible belt. Nina Andreyeva of course dropped more than a hint to Remnick that intellectuals in Russia were mostly rootless Jewish cosmopolitans, and implied that Stalin in the war had helped to save the ungrateful Jews by defeating Hitler’s Germany. Otherwise they might all have been gobbled up. The look her colorless eyes gave him suggested that she thought that might have been no bad thing.
As we know, the Nina Andreyevas of the Soviet Union did not triumph, but at the same time it was a close thing, much closer than it seems today, after disintegration has become an accomplished fact. Nina Andreyeva might have become the Mrs. Thatcher of a new Soviet Union—who knows? Historically, “principles” have always meant a great deal to Russians, particularly to their intellectuals. The eighteenth-century thinker Chaadayev, in an unforgettable metaphor, compared a Russian with an idea to a man stretched helpless under a huge stone. Today the stone has been removed, and intellectuals are trying to learn how to do without ideas and principles, except negative ones.
When taking part in the award of a literary prize in Moscow last autumn I was struck by the almost prudish lack of interest in politics displayed by the prizeworthy novels on the short list, and by the writers and journalists I encountered. Anything even remotely political in tone—for instance a novel by Makanin called Manhole, with strong overtones of Orwell—was finally given a cold shoulder by the judges. Obscenity, privacy, family problems, Nabokovian artifice, were all in: anything to do with politics was definitely out. Would Nina Andreyeva have shaken her head even more disapprovingly than she had at Shatrov’s play, which made Lenin the first man of glasnost? Or would she simply have been bewildered?
Remnick visited Magadan, on the coast of Eastern Siberia, whose appalling conditions made even the czars forbid the dispatch of convicts there, but where Stalin’s NKVD had set up a network of Gulags. Few ever came back. Among those who did was Varlaam Shalamov, whose Kolyma Tales long circulated in samizdat. Solzhenitsyn wanted Shalamov to help him with his great camp investigation, but the storyteller was too worn out and sick, old before his time. In his compulsively vivid survey of its last days, and of the multifarious individuals and histories that once made up the Soviet Union, Remnick never forgets the sense of loss, of waste, and of horror which the great experiment in creating Homo Sovieticus brought with it. People, fortunately, continue to be enormously various, and their politics both resourceful and forgetful. But writers and poets did not forget. Remnick quotes Anna Akhmatova’s poem Requiem, which commemorates the time she stood outside the prison gates in Leningrad during the Great Terror, trying to catch a glimpse of her son. “An inconsolable young shade is seeking me.”
That shade still remains inconsolable, although in the last years of the regime quacks and faith healers abounded, like the egregious Kashpirovsky, who exploited the new video revolution and television’s “global village.” For Remnick, who attended one of his shows, Kashpirovsky was “a mix of spooky New Age and Beatlemania.” And he too lost his public when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Not Nulla Salvatio October 7, 1993