On Lenin’s Tomb

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book: Lenin’s Tomb – The Last Days of the Soviet Empire – by David Remnick.

Below are key excerpts from this masterpiece:

In the years after Stalin’s death, the state was an old tyrant slouched in the comer with cataracts and gallstones, his muscles gone slack. He The state was nearly senile, but still dangerous enough. He still kept the key to the border gate in his pocket and ruled every function of public life. Now and then he had fits and the world trembled.

When Brezhnev shoved Khrushchev out of power, the state M had the means to squash what little freedom it had allowed. The censors went through the libraries with razor blades and slashed from the bound copies of Novy Mir Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich…The regime would rather kill its brightest children than give way.

“It is perfectly obvious that the lack of the proper level of democratization of Soviet society was precisely what made possible both the cult of personality and the violations of the law, arbitrariness, and repressions of the thirties—to be blunt, real crimes based on the abuse of power. Many thousands of members of the Party and nonmembers were subjected to mass repressions. That, comrades, is the bitter truth. Serious damage was done to the cause of socialism and the authority of the Party, and we must speak bluntly about this. This is essential for the final and irreversible assertion of Lenin’s ideal of socialism. ‘The guilt of Stalin and those close to him before the Party and the people for the mass repressions and lawlessness that were permitted are immense and unforgivable…even now we still encounter attempts to ignore sensitive questions of our history, to hush them up, to pretend that nothing special questions of our history, to hush them up, to pretend that nothing special happened. We cannot agree with this, it would be a neglect of historical truth, disrespect for the memory of those who found themselves innocent victims of lawlessness and arbitrariness.”

But Gorbachev had not finished. There was a reason for his revelation. It tied out that he had saved his confession for traditional ends. “I’ve been told more than once that it is time to stop swearing allegiance to socialism,” he was saying now. “Why should I? Socialism is my deep conviction, and I will promote it as long as I can talk and work.” By late 1990, political opinion polls showed that only a minority of Soviet people—not more than 20 percent—still shared Gorbachev’s faith in the efficacy of socialism. But attempts to turn away from the “socialist choice” were inconceivable to Gorbachev—a betrayal, a “counterrevolution on the sly.”

But things had changed. The sharp ideological divisions within the Party had now become an open secret, an open struggle, and the trick was to get the support of powerful liberals within the structure. Three old friends—Yuri Afanasyev, Nikolai Shmelyov, and Yuri Karyakin—brought to the Nineteenth Special Party Conference, in June 1988, a petition demanding Karpinsky’s rehabilitation. With the help of his old acquaintances Aleksandr Yakovlev and Boris Pugo, the tactic worked. By the next year, Len Karpinsky was in the regular rotation as a columnist at Moscow News—a golden boy, he says, “of a certain age.”

The Communist Party apparatus was the most gigantic mafia the world has ever known. It guarded its monopoly on power with a sham consensus and constitution and backed it up with the force of the KGB and the Interior Ministry police. There were also handsome profits. The Party had so obviously socked away money abroad and sold off” national resources—including the country’s vast gold reserves—that just after the collapse of the August coup, the Party’s leading financial officer took a look into the future and threw himself off” a high balcony to his death.

But Gorbachev knew that he could not conduct a genuine investigation into the Partv’s corruption. First, the Party, of which he was the head, would sooner kill him than allow it. Second, even if he could carry out such an investigation, Gorbachev would be faced with the obvious embarrassment: the depths of the Party’s rot. Instead, taking a page from Andropov’s style manual, he made a grand symbolic gesture. Yuri Churbanov, Brezhnev’s son-in-law and a deputy chief of the Interior Ministry, was indicted and tried son-in-law and a deputy chief og the Interior Ministry, was indicted and tried for accepting more than $1 million in bribes while working in Uzbekistan…But just as he could never distance himself enough from a discredited ideology, Gorbachev’s inability to jettison the Party nomenklatura and his political debts to the KGB spoiled his reputation over time in the eyes of a people who had grown more and more aware of the corruption and deceit in their midst.

At first, the Kremlin had not seemed so threatened by the Baltic republics. They were, after all, a “special case,” minuscule states absorbed into the Soviet Union more than twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution…But the Baltic example became the model not for the revitalization of the Union, but rather for its collapse. In the three years it took to win independence, the Baits were never violent, only stubborn. It was that very temperament—Sakharov’s calm confidence on a mass scale—that characterized their revolution. None of the other republics organized quite so well or thought with such precision and cool.

The idea that the individual was of absolute value appeared in Russia only in the nineteenth century via Western influences, but it was stunted because there was no civic society. This is why human rights was never an issue. The principle was set out very clearly by Metropolitan Illarion in the eleventh century in his ‘Sermon on Law and Grace,’ in which he makes clear that grace is higher than law; you see the same thing today in our great nationalists like Prokhanov—their version of grace is higher than the law. The law is somehow inhuman, abstract. The attempts to revise this principle were defeated. The Russian Revolution was a reaction of absolute simplification. Russia found its simplistic and fanatic response and conquered its support. What we are living through now is a breakthrough. We are leaving the Middle Ages.’

“When Mikhail Sergeyevich rejected the 500 Days program he was rejecting the last chance for a civilized transition to a new order,” Aleksandr Yakovlev told me. “It was probably his worst, most dangerous mistake, because what followed was nothing less than a war.”

And just as a change in consciousness in the people had led to this incredible resistance, one could not rule out that even the conspirators had evolved beyond their ancestors. They had the same Stalinist impulses, but not the core of cruelty, the willingness to flood the city in blood, call it a victory for socialism, and then go off” to a midnight screening of Happy Guys. They could pick up the pistol, but not always shoot it. They were bullies, and bullies could be called on their bluff”.

But without Yeltsin, Gorbachev might well have dallied more than he did, the radical democrats Gorbachev might never have found a single, strong leader, the coup might have succeeded. As much as they had come to despise each other, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were linked in history.

What he hopes for now, he said, was not a new empire, not the resuscitation of a great power, but simply the development of “a normal country.” It was time to join in that process. After a life that had reflected the agonies of the old regime—a communist youth, the war, prison, the camps, the battle with the Kremlin. forced exile—now, at the age of seventy-five, he was completing the circle. He had tickets to return home. “Even at the worst tunes. I knew I would be coming home.” he said. “It was crazy. No one believed it. But I knew I would come home to die in Russia.”

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and world politics.

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