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Book Reviews, SMH
RESURRECTION: The Struggle for a New Russia
by David Remnick, Random House
RUSSIA: Which Way Paradise? by Monica Attard, Doubleday
David Remnick does with his most recent book The
Struggle for a New Russia (his Lenin's
Tomb won a Pulitzer
Prize in 1994) is to stake a new level of expertise, proficiency,
historical perspective and sheer journalistic grit in the crowded and
distinguished field of books by foreign correspondents in Moscow.
The former Washington Post correspondent guides the reader through the labyrinth of some of the most important events in recent Russian history. The distinguishing feature of Remnick's work is his access to and thoughtful interviews with just about every major political figure in contemporary Russia, as well as with businessmen, writers, philosophers, soldiers and ordinary people.
There is a detailed portrait of Gorbachev, so beloved by the West and so hated in Russia. It seems that the almost universal resentment at home against the bumbling former First Secretary was one of the deciding factors in the dismantling of the Soviet empire by a band of conspirators in December of 1991.
Of course, the CIS which the conspirators cobbled together with such unseemly haste, its chief proponent-Yeltsin-being stone drunk during most of the proceedings, was in shambles before it got off the ground. The search for a new identity for Russia began, writes Remnick, in a state of "pure hysteria". "From such trash," he adds, alluding to the words of poet Anna Akhmatova, "comes history". But, as Georgi Satarov, a Machiavellian figure, and an adviser to Yeltsin, commented, the collapse of the system was inevitable, controlled or uncontrolled.
What came from under the rubble of the old system was no new democracy. In the atmosphere of moral vacuum and of growing lawlessness at every level, the shelling of the Parliament by the Russian Army tanks in 1993 announced the birth of a new species of a mutant Homo sovieticus-Comrade Criminal, who invaded every sphere of economic, social and political life.
As a result, as much as 300 billion dollars in stolen money has left Russia in the past few years. Anyone in a position of power with no qualms about breaking the law could get rich quick. Russia seemed to be ruled by a bunch of scheming oligarchs, many of whom, as the nationalists never tire of pointing out, are Jewish.
The search for a new "national narrative" made some look for a Russian Pinochet to create at least a semblance of order, while others, like Moscow's Mayor Luzhkov, looked towards the restoration of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral as the symbol of Russian rebirth. Literature was affected. As one writer commented, "People want a little pleasure. If they read about another concentration camp-they'll die".
So, the early perestroika euphoria and a spate of quality books like Anatolii Rybakov's The Children of the Arbat and Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate gave way to the sleaze of Larisa Vasileva's Kremlin Wives. But while older writers like Andrei Bitov were complaining that they were now older then Lenin was when he died, the younger ones, like Vladimir Sorokin, felt that the time would come again when "people will yearn for dreams".
Finally, Remnick tries to show that there is indeed a possibility of resurrection for Russia. He surveys the positive currents in Russian history, from the progressive zemstvos that run local affairs after the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to the 1906 constitution that spelled out the basic democratic rights of Russian citizens.
It is a far cry from Tolstoy's concept of resurrection through atonement and repentance, a longing that has grown stale in that perpetually battered land, but perhaps a harbinger of a future society that is "good enough" to live in.
The very "heroic and desperate scale" of the Russian experiment make it a moot point whether the New Russia, after its "collapse into freedom" will become "resurrected", or whether it will get bogged down in crime, drunkenness and the abuse of power.
The decreasing longevity of the population (men in particular), the growing threat of drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic, the loss of economic independence by Russia through its reliance on Western goods and investments, all suggest cautious prognosis. After the shameful Chechen debacle, not only Russia's body, but its very soul is badly bruised.
Like the ailing Mir space station, Russia is adrift and in need of a major overhaul. To anyone contemplating the magnitude of such an undertaking, Remnick's book offers a range of thought-provoking ideas.
Russia: Which Way Paradise? is a first book by Monica Attard, the former ABC TV correspondent in Moscow (1990-1994). But, as the author makes it clear in the preface, the depth and duration of her connection with Russia and with the story of the broken promise of Communist ideology far exceeds her term of duty.
It began in her youth with breakfast time conversations in her native Malta. In accordance with her father's theories, "workers' paradise" existed and money was the "root of all evil". It took three years of Russian experience (1983-1986) for her to start changing her mind. And it took a couple of bloody coups, the frustrations and joys of Russian life and maybe the heart-rending poetry of Anna Akhmatova, for Monica Attard to finally call the land of her old dreams "a sad shell of a Tolstoy epic".
She "wanted to portray and explain the lives of the Russians" she had met and befriended. Judging by some of the generalisations in her book, perhaps she also wanted to explain Russia itself and in the process to exorcise the ghost of a false paradise that her father's breakfast talks implanted in her impressionable young mind.
She begins, commendably, by a note on the Russian patronymics which, as any non-Russian reader of Doctor Zhivago will attest, can be a source of endless vexation. She also provides a chronology of events for the non-academic. In addition, she generously sprinkles her narrative with Russian slang and commonly-used phrases (only occasionally erratically transliterated and translated), attaching a list of sources for further reading.
Monica Attard's Russia is a personal and emotive journey. The Communist Party is a Mafia that laid the foundation for the recent explosion of crime. The system of almost universal fear was no workers' paradise but a rumbling historical juggernaut that destroyed millions of lives in order to turn a system of haphazard privilege into a new class system.
Her continual tracking of the changing views and reactions of her friends and confidants, ranging from a true believer in Communism, to a KGB staffer, are especially informative. There are plenty of insider stories, such as her meeting with the ex-KGB British agent William Blake, or a mention of a drunk Yeltsin urinating on the wheel of the aircraft that brought him on his first trip to the US, to keep the reader from drowning in a minutiae of a correspondent's version of current events.
Often personal and lively, and revealing a feminine touch that Remnick lacks, are her descriptions of the abortion clinics, the collapsing educational system, her own bizarre wedding ceremony, the debauched opulence of the New Russians and, of course, her experience of the 1991 coup where, despite the personal risk, she braved the crowds and cajoled a tank crew to get her first-hand material.
It is only occasionally that she commits an error (like saying that under Communism only the elite had access to state resorts and sanatoria) or indulges in a generalisation that Remnick, for example, would never permit himself ("No-one read Solzhenitsyn or even liked him"; "Dishonesty was so firmly implanted, cynicism so ingrained in the Russian character...").
As with Remnick, her analysis of the causes of collapse of the system could have benefited from a broader economic perspective (the Soviet "economy" in retrospect seems little more than a giant potlatch ceremony run by a bunch of ill-bred and power hungry Party hacks) and perhaps even a psycho-historical one (there must more to the "generations' conflict" than meets the eye, when a country allows itself to be run by a murderous psychopath for 30-odd years, loses millions of people in the process, and then begins to hanker again for a "strong hand").
If Remnick is an expert guide taking us on a Hermitage tour of the post-Communist chaos, Monica Attard is a friend who leads us through the nooks and crannies of Russian minds, as well as their flats and streets, to give us a taste of the daily life and struggles of contemporary Russians trying to build if not a paradise, than at least a liveable purgatory.