David Remnick covered what he calls "the last days of one of the cruelest regimes in human history" for the Washington Post. Now at The New Yorker, he discussed his new book, "Lenin's Tomb," while in Boston recently.
Prior to Gorbachev, Western journalists in Moscow had little access. But you were there from 1988 to '91.
The Russian people had been silent for so long that it was an absolute feast for a journalist. Even if you were a very bad reporter and all you did every morning was walk out your door and go six steps, you had to find a story.
You open your book with a Soviet colonel investigating the secret, systematic murder of 30,000 Polish officers by the KGB in 1940 and his reaction to the August 1991 coup.
The episode seemed symbolic of the excavation of history so crucial to the opening up of the Soviet Union. The colonel had become disillusioned. On the day of the coup he is told to stop work and report to the KGB, and he just refuses. This showed how irreversible the process of liberalization had become by '91.
The fall of the USSR already seems ancient history.
Yes, particularly in Russia. In 1993, no one cares about this. In the ultimate existential society, the crisis in always now. But we do need to understand what that regime was in order to understand the pathologies that still exist in Russia. The fear of the past and the need for an authoritarian figure - this is bred in the bone, especially for older generations. Opposition to Yeltsin today has nothing to do with communism in cold-war terms. It is a nostalgia for the order of the 1970s - a regularity, a
hierarchy that no longer exists, and a disgust with a secondary role in world affairs.
If you are a 20-year-old Russian, the myths of Soviet power and blamelessness are not very deep within you. For the last five years, you have been reading newspapers and magazines that have given a serious reckoning of the past. If you are 65 and participated in the "great patriotic war" [World War II] and thought you helped "save the world" with your own grit and blood, and then you hear these things are hollow ... it is difficult.
What role did nationalism play in the breakup?
Nationality was insidiously suppressed and deformed by a Stalinist policy of deportations and purges. But the effort to assimilate everyone into a mash called Soviet man failed so miserably that the one psychology that remained that was strong in opposition to official Bolshevism was national identity. There is some argument to be made that the tiny Baltic states toppled the Soviet empire. [Nationalism] is certainly a huge element in the undermining of the empire.
With the rise of regional powers in Russia, some wonder if Yeltsin is becoming irrelevant.
The great obedience to central authority decreases every day. Lots of laws and decrees are passed in Moscow that are just ignored. There is a breakdown of authority on every level - police, economic links, political links. Much is disintegrating. This is a country that is tap dancing on the abyss and has to invent itself with almost nothing, and it is going to take a long time.
Did you find it difficult to leave Russia?
What was different for us in the glasnost era was the ability to create truly lasting friendships with ordinary extraordinary people. I miss friends from Moscow more than I miss almost anyone else. These are passionate people who care intensely about their children and their country. The nature of friendship and style of personal relations is so different. Serious conversation and wit are valued enormously, and not only among intellectuals. What you do takes a back seat to who you are. I miss a level of intensity there. It [was] very difficult to get on an airplane for New York in October of 1991 in the middle of a reform that [had] just toppled the old regime of the last empire on earth, buy a TV, cruise through 57 channels, and not find anything to watch.