How Russia Is Clearing Away The Rubble


The Struggle for a New Russia

By David Remnick

Random House 398pp $25.95

David Remnick calls his second book about Russia Resurrection. A more apt title might have been Voices of Russia. For, as he sets out to describe "the struggle for a definition of the new Russian state," Remnick lets political and business insiders explain what's happening in their own words. It's a technique the author employed to advantage in his earlier effort, Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, which won a 1994 Pulitzer Prize.

Beyond the painful transition and current chaos, Remnick sees a bright future. "The Russian prospect over the coming years and decades is more promising than ever before in its history," he says. "Russia has entered the world, and everything, even freedom, even happiness, is now possible."

But it takes Russian insight to understand many of the current events. So, through the author's tape recorder, we hear Sergei Stankevich, a political adviser to President Boris Yeltsin, explain why Russians will carve out a "third way" of development, neither capitalist nor socialist. Human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov describes why many Russians vote for nationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky: "We are a Third World country, and everybody knows it...and so they try to imagine a great past and make of it a new politics." Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party hit its peak in the December, 1993, parliamentary elections, complains that ex-General Alexander Lebed "stole my act, and he stole my votes." Yeltsin campaign workers narrate how, during the 1996 presidential election, the Yeltsin team funneled money to Lebed to draw votes away from Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov.

But Remnick, a staff writer at The New Yorker, doesn't just spill his tape transcripts into the book. He captures the speakers' personalities with vivid descriptions. Anatoly Lukyanov, a leader of the failed coup of 1991 who won a seat in Parliament after he was released from prison, "greeted me the way a fighter greets his opponent in the center of the ring. He thrust out his chest and stared hard." Radical reformer Yegor Gaidar "came across on television as the overfed academic, the cool technocrat."

Remnick's eye for detail and descriptive powers would be the envy of any writer. At Moscow's Commercial Club, where he is staking out banker and media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, Remnick watches the nouveaux riches at play: "Near the drinks table, a very rich man stood with his very tall, very young girlfriend, saying nothing. She wore a skirt not much wider than a belt and smoked a cigarette that looked like a needle. She seemed cubist and dangerous: dominatrix of the duty-free shopping binge. No one bothered to stare."

It was this gift for eyewitness narrative that made Lenin's Tomb a best-seller. And it makes this book a good read, even though Resurrection is not as vivid or gripping as the previous volume. Granted, Russian history from 1992 to 1996, the period he writes about here, is not as dramatic as was the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

There's also a lack of immediacy, because Remnick hasn't lived in Russia for the past five years. He spends too much time on figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev and once-exiled writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who have had insubstantial influence recently. The author also relies too heavily on outdated sources--such as Gorbachev adviser Alexander Yakovlev--who were acquired during his 1988-91 stint as a Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post. And even though it's clear that Remnick traveled to Chechnya to gather color for the book, he wasn't there during any of the key events of that region's savage war.

The best chapters are those where Remnick has done his own reporting rather than rely on other journalists' accounts. Interviews with Gusinsky and other campaign insiders make the chapter on the 1996 presidential election as suspenseful as any in Lenin's Tomb. One sees how close Yeltsin came to canceling the election and how he won through a heavy-handed media campaign managed by Igor Malashenko, head of the purportedly independent television station NTV. "Yeltsin plays cards only when he can win," Remnick quotes Moscow journalist Leonid Radzhikovsky as saying. "He always wants a fifth ace up his sleeve. Otherwise he'll take out the Smith & Wesson and start firing. In the election, Malashenko played the role of the fifth ace."

Earlier chapters discuss how Yeltsin transmogrified from a reformist democrat to an often-drunk bully who was willing to use force against opponents in Moscow and Chechnya. Remnick also narrates the rise and decline of Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov. One wishes he had spent more time analyzing Lebed, who is now Russia's most popular politician. But such developments are admittedly hard to predict. As Remnick notes: "Change came so quickly in modern Russia that a few years marks an epoch."

The speed of change makes analyzing Russia a difficult task indeed. But Resurrection is a good primer for both the armchair historian and the diehard Russophile. Although Remnick doesn't break any new ground, he certainly knows how to compose a story. Vladimir Sorokin, a 38-year-old Moscow writer, tells the author: "For me, this is one of those times in Russia when real life is even more vivid than literature." Remnick's capable treatment delivers much of the daily drama in a highly compelling fashion.

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