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Second Coming : RESURRECTION: The Struggle for a New Russia. By David Remnick . Random House: 398 pp., $25.95

March 09, 1997|WALTER LAQUEUR | Walter Laqueur is the author of numerous studies, including "Fascism: Past, Present, Future" (Oxford University Press) and "Fin De Siecle and Other Essays on America and Europe" (Transaction)

David Remnick covered the exciting years of perestroika for the Washington Post in Moscow. A byproduct of these years was "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire," a well-informed and well-written book that rightly gained a variety of awards and other distinctions. "Resurrection" is a compelling postscript.

The book is based in part on essays published in the New Yorker. It is equally well-written and reliable; although Remnick no longer lives in Moscow, he frequently visits there and seems to know everyone in the Russian capital worth knowing and, given the exorbitant prices of Russian restaurants, he probably spent a small fortune entertaining them for lunch or dinner.

But "Resurrection" must have been a more difficult book to write than "Lenin's Tomb." The enormous excitement of 1989 has been replaced by widespread dejection, even lethargy, in 1997; when the great monolith began to disintegrate, almost anything seemed possible--for better or worse. Today, expectations are much lower and the number of options much smaller. Russia is no longer the superpower threatening the rest of the world; espionage, of course, continues, and there are conflicts of interest between Russia and the West (and even more so with her neighbors), but the Cold War in its old form and intensity is over.

The war in Chechnya, which Remnick extensively describes in "Resurrection," has shown, if further proof was needed, the limits of Russian military power. He rightly stresses that the present lack of interest in things Russian (particularly pronounced in the United States) is unwarranted. Russia still is one of the most important countries in the world, in its weaknesses as much as in its strength, and the currently fashionable tendency to overrate China and to underrate Russia is unwise even in a short-term perspective.

But there are other difficulties facing the observer of the current Russian scene, above all, the rapid changes in its leadership. In a time of transition, there is a quick turnover and those who seemed all powerful only yesterday find themselves on the famous rubbish heap of history within a year.

"How the mighty have fallen" could be a fitting heading for this chapter in Russian history. "Resurrection" is to a large extent a chronicle of yesterday's men, the heroes like Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, as much as of the villains like Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, and who but a few specialists still remembers Gennady E. Burbulis, Alexander V. Rutskoi, Andrei V. Kozyrev and Ruslan I. Khasbulatov? Alexander I. Lebed makes his entry in this book not far from the end, and while he may have his own personal resurrection, this is by no means certain: He has no organization supporting him nor much access to the media.

If these individuals--or certainly most of them--belong to the Russian past, who are the coming men and women, those riding the wave of the future? No one can say for certain, and it would be unfair to blame the author for having talked only to public figures. There always have been tremendous differences--economic, social and geographical--in this huge country, and in recent years polarization has further increased. What might be true for the denizens of certain parts of Moscow, or the owners of certain dachas, might be quite untrue for other regions of the capital, not to mention other cities and villages. It can be predicted with reasonable certainty that both the neo-communists (national socialists, to be precise) and the centrist gosudarstvenniki (patriotic advocates of very cautious reforms) will be around in the foreseeable future, Boris Yeltsin or no Boris Yeltsin. When writing about the leading personalities of these camps as well as the relations between them, Remnick is an excellent guide. His observations of the New Russians (meaning the new rich), the widespread lawlessness, television and a variety of other subjects are remarkably acute, and his judgment fair and intelligent.

It is only toward the end of this book that his comments are less convincing. He argues that "the Russian prospect over the coming years and decades is more promising than ever before in its history," but given the tragic character of much of Russian history, this prophecy does not amount to much and it could be too sanguine. Among the positive signs, according to Remnick, is a renewed interest in Ivan Ilyin, Nikolai Berdyayev and other Russian emigre writers preoccupied with Russian traditional spiritual values.

But Remnick, I suspect, never read Ilyin, an anti-democratic and ultranationalist philosopher whose extremist views are certainly not what a new Russia needs. As for Berdyayev, he belongs to those religious thinkers like Martin Buber, who have a tremendous reputation among people of every religion but their own; the Russian Orthodox Church would not touch him with a barge pole.

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