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

by David Remnick
Random House, 576 pp., $25.00

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…

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