Totalitarian regimes live not just by violence, but by mystery. The most effective dictators are the ones who remain unseen, whose power is exercised from behind high walls. Their terror reaches perfection only when it awakens awe, when fear is transformed into reverence.
It’s scarcely surprising that so many Russians weep nostalgically at the mention of Stalin’s name or that Georgian truck drivers still tattoo his face on their chests. Stalin’s terror was so vast, so capricious, that people loved him as they loved a jealous God. Disgruntled Stalinists, surveying the ruins of the empire he created, believe the empire might still be standing if Stalin’s successors had only been more merciless in defending the holy mysteries of terror.
But terror can only clothe itself in mystery if it lies. Such lies may not dislodge private truths from people’s memory--Stalin’s repressions were an open secret for millions--but as long as private memory could not enter public discourse, it was rendered mute and harmless.
David Remnick, the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Moscow throughout the Gorbachev era and now a writer for the New Yorker, argues that the single most important reason for the fall of the Soviet regime was the devastating insurgence into public life of the memory of Stalin’s terror. It was memory that dispelled mystery, and with it the legitimacy of a whole regime. Since Khruschev’s party congress speech of 1956, certain “excesses” had been admitted. But the public legitimacy of the Soviet regime continued to rest on the heroic achievements of the ‘30s and the victory against Hitler that Stalin’s reign made possible.
Of course, the elite knew otherwise. As they rose through the nomenklatura in the 1950s, figures like Edward Shevardnadze, Alexander Yakovlev and Mikhail Gorbachev concealed the fact that the hand of Stalin had fallen upon their own families. Outwardly, they rose and prospered under the comatose regime of Brehznev. Inwardly, these memories of repression forced some of them to realize that the crisis of the regime was systemic, not just a passing phase of senile leadership. As Gorbachev said confidentially to Yakovlev in 1983, “we can’t go on living like this.”
Gorbachev’s most important decision, upon taking power in 1985, was to permit the return of historical memory. His greatest single mistake was to suppose that he could control its volcanic force once unleashed. He supposed that if the truth were known about Stalin, the banner of socialism could still be rescued from the river of sorrow. Forty years inside the apparatus never prepared him for the democratic power of memory. What had been the guilty secret of the party elite since 1956 became in the 1990s a vast public awakening. As the bones of the dead were dug up, as the camps were found, as the unending roll call of the disappeared was finally read out, legitimacy drained from the very regime, which had haltingly called this exercise in truth into being.
All the heroes of this extraordinary act of public truth-telling figure in Remnick’s pages, from the indomitable Andrei Sakharov, to the ordinary Russians who used picks and shovels to uncover the mass graves in the forests. At one point, Remnick tells the story of the men and women who died, in their hundreds of thousands, building the Moscow-Volga canal in the 1930s. Long after they had vanished without trace, their children would come to the canal to drop bottles filled with messages into the water. As one witness told Remnick, “They said they were sending the names of their loved ones into the future. They cast their names on the water.”
From the courage learned from re-honoring the dishonored dead came the courage to confront the miserable present. Soon the very heroes of socialist labor--the miners--were looking at the miserable soap in their showers and asking why the rhetoric of socialist labor and socialist reality were in such flagrant contradiction. A movement that began with a few lonely scholars stripping the mystery from Stalin’s reign soon widened into an unstoppable social challenge to his heirs.
As the Soviet elite’s imperial self-confidence ebbed away, the Soviet public’s civic courage grew and matured. At the barricades in front of Yeltsin’s Russian Parliament, in August, 1991, one middle-aged woman, standing in the rain, told Remnick that “obedience and inertia” had been pounded into her brain all her life. Now, she said, “I’ll let a tank roll over me if I have to. I’ll die right here if I have to.” The whole future of democracy in Russia depends, not on the dreary machinations of Ruslan Khasbulatov and Boris Yeltsin, but on the civic courage such women learned in the ‘80s. Will it survive the gray gloom of the Russian ‘90s?
During the turbulent ‘80s, Remnick seems to have been everywhere: down in the coal mines, talking to disgruntled miners; at the railway stations, speaking with thieves and travelers; in the dachas of the elite, listening to the nomenklatura edge toward honest disillusion; in the cramped apartment of dissident heroes such as Sakharov and Stalinist anti-Semites such as Nina Andreyeva. As in a good Russian novel, they all get their say, and they all talk at once, contradicting each other, arguing with the anguish and confusion of people who know history is moving beneath their feet.
Out of a babble of voices, Remnick has fashioned an eloquent and riveting oral history of an epochal moment of change. Occasionally, too, his writer’s eye lingers over what did not change, what has never changed in Russian life: “the winter smell of Russia indoors, the smell of the woman in front of you on line, the smell of every elevator . . . dozens of overcoats on long rows of pegs, somber and dark, lightly steaming, like nags in a stable.”
What I miss from Remnick’s symphony of voices is any serious analysis of the Russian economy. As Remnick himself says, by the 1980s, the Soviet Union had turned into “Oz, the world’s longest running and most colossal mistake.” How ever did Ronald Reagan persuade us to fear “the evil empire”? The more we learn about the economic realities of “Upper Volta with rickets,” the more mysterious our Cold War neuroses become.
Remnick details the root and branch corruption of the Soviet economy, yet fails to explain how a command system that had beaten Hitler and had shown itself capable of growing robustly during the Khruschev and early Brezhnev years suddenly began to break down in the late 1970s and ‘80s. Why exactly was Soviet industry unable to follow the West into the computer and microchip era? Was it the culture of secrecy, the absence of markets and price mechanisms, the Mafia-style corruption? Remnick’s collage style of anecdote and dialogue brings the period brilliantly to life, but left me restlessly searching his pages for connecting thread of analysis.
Except for some discussion of the Baltics, Remnick also has little to say about nationalism and thus doesn’t have much to offer by way of explaining why the failed coup in August, 1991 so quickly turned into the disintegration of an entire empire.
These two omissions--on the economy and nationalism--raise an ominous counter-factual challenge to Remnick’s thesis about the crucial importance of the return of historical memory. Suppose that the socialist economy had continued to grind out a passably decent standard of living. Suppose Gorbachev had been played a more sensitive hand with the nationalist issue. Isn’t it possible then that the amnesia, the organized forgetting essential to the survival of the regime might have continued? The Brechtian question Remnick needs to have asked is whether historical truth would have prevailed over lies among a people well fed. We should thank our lucky stars, both for ordinary Russians’ thirst for truth, and for the fact that socialism didn’t work. If it had worked, I have my doubts that the angels of truth would have won.