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Jealous Gods : LENIN'S TOMB: Russia and the Fall of Communism, By David Remnick (Random House: $25; 512 pp.)

June 20, 1993|Michael Ignatieff | Ignatieff's most recent novel, "Asya," is an historical tale of Russia after the Bolsheviks took power

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?

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