Unwrapping the Russian Enigma

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

AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE END OF THE COLD WAR By Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott. Little, Brown, 498 pp., $24.95.

INSIDE GORBACHEV'S KREMLIN By Yegor Ligachev. Translated from the Russian by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, Michael A. BErdy, and Dobrochna Dyrcz-Freeman. Pantheon Books, 369 pp., $27.50.

FOR half a century, the world teetered uneasily as Western democracies and the Soviet bloc vied for power. Through those decades, Western leaders and experts speculated - mostly erroneously - how the superpower rivalry would play out.

By 1989, events were spinning out of control. The Berlin Wall came down; countries in Eastern Europe broke away from Moscow; and Germany headed toward unification against uncertain rumblings in the Kremlin.

Yet Russia did not intervene militarily as it had in the 1950s and '60s. Instead, an unstoppable series of events demonstrated that the Moscow Communists could and would reform, dismantling their stagnant system in a relatively peaceful way.

How did this come about?

Three books, whose points of view intersect, go a long way toward answering the question.

My preference is David Remnick's "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire," which details the disintegration of the Soviet Union from his arrival in Moscow in 1988 as a correspondent for the Washington Post through his departure after the coup in August 1991, and when he returned in 1992.

Remnick is an observer of great scope. The grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia, he is familiar with the culture of the West and the literature of the East. He writes with enormous ease, and the humor and honesty of a modern de Tocqueville.

Remnick documents the moral and physical corruption of the Soviet Union as he meanders through the dangerous pits of the Kuzbass coal mines and the sleazy bars and potholed back streets of Russian cities.

But his explanation of how human termites turned the Soviet system into a brittle, easily collapsible structure is probably the most compelling aspect of his book. Remnick documents the rot, from the archive rat and the modest journalist who methodically cataloged and exposed Stalin's crimes; to the intellectuals who were drawn to democracy but were ignorant of its complexities; to the secret-police commanders who were unwilling to fire on their own people; to power brokers like Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexan der Yakovlev, Boris Yeltsin, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Anatoly Sobchak, who did not realize they were opening Pandora's box but were capable of heroism when the great moment of truth arrived on Aug. 19, 1991.

By contrast, "At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War," by Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, provides an extraordinary insight into the Bush administration as it attempted to cope with disintegrating Russia and coax it toward reform. Talbott, a longtime friend of President Clinton who is now ambassador-at-large for Russia and Eastern Europe, lived through the era as a correspondent for Time magazine. Beschloss is known for easy-to-read histories, most recently his accoun t of the Kennedy-Khrushchev epoch.

In this narrative history, the reader learns, as if present in the corridors of power, that the Bush advisers had varying assessments of Russia's plight.

Some, like Robert Gates at the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, feared that Gorbachev would fail and be replaced by a more hostile regime. Others like Secretary of State James Baker III, and Bush himself, felt that Gorbachev could succeed, could be trusted, and should be encouraged.

Weighing on their minds was the concern that history might castigate the US for missing a historic opportunity to nudge Russia toward democracy. No wonder Bush approached German unification with trepidation, signaled Gorbachev that he would not criticize him too much in public for use of force in the Baltics, and rushed to warn him of threatening conspiracy in June 1991.

But "At the Highest Levels" exhibits a failing of American journalism: The writer's views are hidden under a seemingly objective presentation of facts.

Yegor Ligachev's "Inside Gorbachev's Kremlin," the latest in the new genre of tell-almost-all memoirs of Russian political leaders, is a justification of Ligachev's conservatism and a cri de coeur over the dismantling of a superpower's hard-won might by Russia's liberal reformers.

Particularly fascinating are Ligachev's clashes with Alexander Yakovlev. In the 1950s, Yakovlev was one of the first Soviet students to study in America. He later served as Soviet ambassador to Canada. For America, Yakovlev became the hero-reformer within the Soviet establishment. For Ligachev, he proved to be the evil genius who found the straw that broke the camel's back.

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