Friday, June 29, 2012

David Remnick's Russia

"Under Brezhnev, everyone thought that life would stay the same for a thousand years.  They couldn't imagine it being different."  Vladimir Voinovich.

"People cannot quite fathom why, in order to reach democracy, people must be killed in the streets." Aleksander Terekhov.

"We passed herds of goats, bell-clanging oxen, a pack of wild dogs.  We passed a holy man kicking a cat."  David Remnick.

I don't recall much about David Remnick's celebrated book about the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lenin's Tomb, but the strength of his book about Yeltsin's Russia, Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, makes me wonder if it isn't time to re-read that first book.  Remnick's rich and subtle description of the New Russia reminds one that Russia's story in any era--past, present, or future--is, or will be, endlessly fascinating.  Remnick's book demonstrates the bewildering complexity of Russia's transformation.  In the wake of 1991, Russians were left with no clear identity.  Millions of ethnic Russians lived outside of its national borders, and unprecedented numbers of those who remained were trying to flee abroad each year.  Russians had little to unite them;  the basic milestones of their past, from October 1917 to December 1991, were still being bitterly contested.  The capital and countryside seemed to have almost nothing in common.   Russian intellectual culture was being overwhelmed by vulgar popular culture.  Russians grappled with the meaning of capitalism, the legitimacy of popular culture, their place in the world, and the value of democracy.  Russians were hooked on television--but what that censored television was teaching them about how to live was difficult to say.  They were also deeply affected by the war in Chechnya, though the state-controlled press did its best to minimize the coverage most people saw.  It was an incredibly confusing time for everyone.  

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