When General Secretary Gorbachev announced the policy of perestroika and the floodgates of glasnost opened in March 1985, the press, and the Western press in particular, suddenly became a functioning unit of Russian civil society. This is not to say that a reporter could not report prior to liberalization, but the deep and intimate research required to understand the anguished Russian situation had been largely impossible.
David Remnick, now editor of The New Yorker, arrived in Moscow as a reporter for the The Post in the late 80’s. His time there would become the subject of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of The Soviet Empire.” The book is pure New Journalism, and is composed of unprecedentedly intimate interviews and previously impossible research. Remnick excels at finding the quotidian example and drawing it as a microcosm of Soviet History and as an explanation for the disarray of Russia: from Lubyanka archives of NKVD assassinations to a tight set of critical interviews outlining the silliness of May Day parades. In a style almost like that of Svetlana Alexievich, who won acclaim for interviews with the disillusioned soldiers of the USSR sent to Afghanistan, Remnick weaves stunning interviews and eyewitness accounts together. Binding Russia’s history to its past, Remnick has created a combination of historical analysis, cultural examination, and anecdotal journey.
Russia has changed dramatically since 1994, when “Lenin’s Tomb” was published, but in many respects it has also stayed the same. A new breed of Western journalists have rooted themselves in Moscow and chief among them is The Guardian’s Shaun Walker, author of “The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past.”
“The Long Hangover” is similar to Remnick’s prize winner, and yet it also remains very different. Walker’s book focuses much more closely; on the importance of history in Putin’s rhetoric and the Russian identity, specifically the legend of victory in The Great Patriotic War. He keenly displays the legacy of Stalingrad and the slow march to Berlin in the everyday through a crew of Russians from Sakhalin Island to Crimea. The book’s main focus is twofold; Putin’s rise to power as explained by his use of history and Trumpian-victim rhetoric, as well as the unfolding events of Eastern Ukraine and the newly Russian Crimea. Walker’s book also highlights Putin’s tactics, especially his Soviet-like money funneling in Chechnya and Crimea in order to orchestrate full loyalty to a united Russia. Walker also documents his pilgrimage to Magadan in the Russian far East, the capital of the Gulag archipelago which is so isolated that residents refer to Russia as ‘the mainland.’ In this sense, Walker provides a more focused history of the Soviet Empire. Despite spanning the Great Patriotic War, the Gulag, and the development of the Donetsk region and Russia’s coal industry, it is not a comprehensive analysis but a concise definition of his thesis. This is not ineffective, post-reading one can easily recognize his point, although Remnick’s book does a far better job at portraying the Russian mood at a pivotal moment and throughout history.
The two books are recommended to be read alongside each other. Both document serious events in Russia’s history (the fall of the USSR and the rise of Putin and ‘make Russia an empire again’ rhetoric) and both comment on similar themes. Large portions of each book are dedicated to provincial despair, historical context, popular opinion, deportation, and unsurprisingly, corruption. It was Remnick who said, “There is no single field of activity, not a single institution, free of the most brutal sort of corruption. Russia has bred a world-class mafia.” However, it would not surprise me if Walker had said it in his outstanding bit on the Chechen hierarchy and their master, Putin’s pocketbook.
Although Remnick is a wise observer with a more wholesome view of the country’s past and present, Walker has much to contribute on the country’s trajectory ahead.