Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#15 - JRL 7215
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
June 7, 2003
Reading code Red
You can admire June's lovely 'White Nights,' writes JOHN GRAY, but you cannot forget the country's haunted, tortured past
John Gray was The Globe's Moscow correspondent from 1991 to 1994.

There were pangs of raw jealousy, I admit, when I read that Jean Chrétien was going to St. Petersburg. This is the time of year to go. It is a northern city, roughly the same latitude as Whitehorse, and this is the time of the White Nights, when you can read a newspaper at midnight and the soft light bathes the city in a mellow contentment.

If you have been in northern Canada in the long days of June, you will understand at least part of my inspiration in scanning my bookshelves for three books about Russia. I wanted at least one to evoke those particular memories, the texture of the place and the lives of its people. Not just the white nights of June. Just as important were the dark evenings of winter when scurrying figures shrouded against the cold moved through the pale glow cast by the city's meagre street lights and made you think of Dickens, as they hurried toward their destinations.

When I went to Russia in 1991, it was to report on the end of the defining political struggle of the 20th century. At its height, the Soviet empire dominated half the world. The story of Russia in the last century is essentially the story of betrayal, which began with Lenin. When measured against Stalin, however, Lenin was small potatoes. They are still trying to determine how many people were murdered for the sake of the party, for Mother Russia, for the Great Stalin. But when I went to live in Moscow, there were still people who believed that he was a great man. There were also Russians who would weep with shame that they had believed it all, that as they survived in the gulags -- guilty only of devotion to the Communist party and a degree of naiveté -- that their one hope was to get word through to Stalin, who would intervene, and make things right.

The starting point of understanding that betrayal should be Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. A Hungarian communist, Koestler began to lose the faith during the Spanish Civil War, which he covered for English newspapers. What destroyed his faith were Stalin's purges and the show trials of the late 1930s. Published in 1940, Darkness at Noon was an insider's indictment of Stalinism.

I saw a stage version at Hart House theatre in Toronto when I was still a teenager. What was riveting was that the play was set in a prison and prisoners in cells on two or three levels on stage tapped out conversations on the pipes that connected the cells. I still remember, "She had breasts like champagne glasses. And the flanks of a wild mare." Right afterwards, I went out to buy the book.

The book is a masterpiece, an intellectual and psychological struggle between Nicolas Salmonovitch Rubashov, an idealistic, old Bolshevik, and his quite cunning interrogators. Their purpose is to break him down, to persuade an idealist that he has betrayed his ideals. Millions were killed without justification and without confession, but for the Soviet leadership it became important to prove that it was the old Bolsheviks, not the leadership, who had betrayed the revolution. They could simply have shot Rubashov; they wanted him to confess.

For Rubashov, the final choice is either to continue to insist on his innocence, or to bow before the party and the state.

My first unworthy instinct was not to include Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- not because of the work for which he is best known -- but because of the raging chauvinism that has overshadowed his final years. But he is too large a figure to ignore. Solzhenitsyn did not discover the gulag, the slave-labour camps scattered through the Soviet North. Those remote prisons were built for those who transgressed the laws of the state and the party; they were the camps where people like Rubashov were exiled if they were not shot. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn provided the most exhaustive documentation of the gulag for both Russians and the West.

Some of the book -- three massive volumes in Russian, one abridged volume in translation -- is Solzhenitsyn's own experience; more of it is the tales of survivors. When I visited Solovetsky Island there was nothing about it to suggest anything of note about the place, a small and barren northern island in the White Sea, except for its peaceful medieval monastery.

But for decades it was also a slave labour camp. Solzhenitsyn recorded, in appalling detail, how guards tortured the prisoners; they did not want information, the torture was a sport. Most spectacular was Sekirnaya Hill where the jailers would take prisoners to the top of a flight of 365 steep stairs: "They tied the person lengthwise to a 'balan' (a beam) for the added weight, and rolled him down (there wasn't one landing and the steps are so steep that the log with the human being on it would go all the way down without stopping)." There is nothing in The Gulag Archipelago that is heartening. It is a relentlessly brutal recitation of horror, but unless the horror of the gulag is understood, modern Russia will not.

David Remnick was, as he wrote, one of the last generation of foreign reporters in the Soviet Union. He described his as the luckiest generation because they were witnesses to "a singular triumphant moment in a tragic century." Now editor of The New Yorker, Remnick became Moscow correspondent of the Washington Post in 1988, just as glasnost and perestroika were beginning seriously to break open the shell.

Gorbachev was at his height when Remnick arrived and when he left Gorbachev was at the depth of his fall. Lenin's Tomb, The Last Days of the Soviet Empire is a brilliant chronicle of those extraordinary years.

Remnick has a wonderful eye for detail and an impressive appetite for hard work. He found the old scoundrels, the Communist party cementheads, whose dream was to perpetuate the old system, and he found young people and some old people, such as Andrei Sakharov, who wanted a new system and a new world. He wove it all together with grace and a sustaining sense of irony. One of the finest chapters, Lost Illusions, traces the career of Alexander Yakovlev, known to Canadians as a Soviet ambassador in Ottawa (in effect, in exile) who introduced Gorbachev to Western ideas. When Gorbachev was agriculture minister, Yakovlev escorted him around Canada, partly explaining agriculture, more importantly explaining democracy. Yakovlev shines as one of the enduring beacons of the collapsing Soviet system. Until the end, he did his best to drag a hesitant Gorbachev to the logic of his reforms, such as the day he savaged Gorbachev for talking about the renewal of the Communist party: "It's like offering first aid to a corpse."

Perhaps best of all, Remnick understood that much of what was happening in those years was, in a sense, a struggle for history -- first of all, whether it would be told, then, what would be told, and how it would be told. Central to that was Gorbachev because, whatever his failings, he understood that the Soviet Union had to face and understand its past.

The remnants of the empire linger on. It was just last week that Chrétien was offering millions to get rid of thousands of rotting Soviet nuclear weapons before they blow everyone to hell. Happily, the Soviet Union is gone; time alone will tell if the dream of empire has been extinguished.

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