David Remnick
David Remnick
Lenin's Tomb:  The Last Days of the Soviet Empire
ISBN: 0679751254
Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire
David Remnick discussed the research behind his book, "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire," published by Random House. In the book, Mr. Remnick explores the mood and political events in Russia surrounding the end of the Soviet Union in the late 1980's and the early 1990's. Mr. Remnick was a Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post between 1988 and 1991.
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TRANSCRIPT
Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire
Program Air Date: July 25, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Remnick of The New Yorker, why is Lenin still in his tomb in Red Square?
DAVID REMNICK: I think he's still in his tomb because they want to avoid a political war. You remember at the end, as the Soviet Union was falling apart, there were more and more calls saying, "We have this very grotesque symbol of the country. We have Lenin still in his tomb. It's time to give him a decent burial." We thought that this would happen, and Yeltsin gave his sort of half-hearted support. You see now that the Communists, such as they are, would raise bloody murder about this, and there's really no political percentage for the moment in taking the founder of the Bolshevik state and putting him in the grave, where, really, he'll probably end up being after a few years. But there are many more important political wars to win, and, at the moment, the constitution is the first one.
LAMB: Is that really him?
REMNICK: Well, he has the consistency of the kind of -- did you build models when you were a kid of airplanes? He has that kind of plastic, waxy look, but it's been quite a while. It's been since 1923 or '24. I forget what it is.
LAMB: At some point you refer to a gymnasium underneath?
REMNICK: Yes. It's quite incredible. This was the holy of holies in Bolshevik mythology -- Lenin's tomb. As the mystery around the Soviet regime began to dissipate and disappear and there was more good journalism about what it actually looked like and that there are tunnels underneath the Kremlin leading to the KGB and a special subway system in Moscow that was just for Stalin's use to get out of town fast, they also discovered that, first of all, right now the ministry controlling Lenin himself so that he doesn't completely disintegrate into nothingness is the Russian Institute for Aromatic Plants and Herbs and that underneath the floor where Lenin is kept there's a control room that looks like a NASA space lab where they keep very careful temperature control and all the rest, and also there's a gymnasium where the guards can go and work out. I've never seen the weights myself, but apparently it's quite a fully equipped gym. There's a men's room for the Politburo, which was mostly men, if they wanted to stop in and use the facilities before or after the May Day parade, and a couple of refrigerators for food and potables. That kind of takes away the mystery when you start to hear about that.
LAMB: What years were you in the Soviet Union?
REMNICK: I went as a traveler before this, but I finally arrived as a reporter for the Washington Post January '88, just as things were starting to percolate in a significant way. Gorbachev had already been in for two and a half years, but this was really significant -- glasnost was starting to cook. I left after the coup and went back again in December '91 to see the final collapse of the Soviet Union.
LAMB: Why'd you call your book Lenin's Tomb?
REMNICK: I think Lenin's tomb is a kind of ironic image, an image of the death the Leninism, of Bolshevism. I think that will never return. And also for some of the things we were talking about before -- a kind of ironic look at a mysterious regime that is now laid bare.
LAMB: When you were there, you tried to find -- I don't know what you'd call it -- the oldest living hatchet man for Stalin.
REMNICK: Henchman, sure.
LAMB: Henchman or whatever.
REMNICK: There was really only one left alive. Of all of Stalin's circle, he had either slaughtered them himself one by one or they had died off. After all, it was many years since Stalin's death. He died in 1953. The one left alive was a man named Lazar Kaganovich, and I was determined to go interview him. I was looking for him and looking for him and one fine day I was in one of those apartment buildings along the river that are kind of nice by Moscow standards, and I was interviewing friends of mine, Flora and Misha Litvinov.

In fact, Misha's father had been Maksim Litvinov, the foreign commissar under Stalin who had barely escaped execution himself and happily died in his bed a natural death. I said, "You know, I'm looking for Kaganovich. I'm obsessed with this search." He said, "Oh, Kaganovich. He lives six or seven floors underneath us. Why don't you just go knock on his door?" So for months thereafter I knocked on his door, I slipped notes underneath the door and occasionally I'd hear this shoop-shoop of padded slippers going along a kind of dusty floor, but he never answered the door. He was too smart for that and maybe too old.

But I discovered these very odd little tidbits about him -- that he was the dominoes champion of the neighborhood, that he had demanded from the Brezhnev government that lights would be strung up in the courtyard so he could play dominoes at night. The old man still had a little power left in him. Finally he died about two months short of the Soviet regime. He died in July of '91 at the age of 97. I went to the funeral, saw him laid out. One of the liberal writers that I knew in Moscow, Ales Adamovich, also went to the funeral, and he said, "You know, this is a lot like going to the funeral of Nero or Himmler or somebody like that. What could possibly be next? Kaganovich is dead. What could die next? The Communist Party?" He said this in a disbelieving way, and two months later the Communist Party was dead.

LAMB: Tell us the difference between Lenin and Stalin.
REMNICK: I think the main difference is the number of corpses left behind. Lenin was a different kind of man, admittedly more intellectual, but I think blood-thirsty in his own way. We kind of gave Lenin a free ride in some Western histories of the Soviet regime, saying that he was kind of an intellectual who in order to make an omelet had to break some eggs, but he had this wonderful revolution and so on. I being extremely simplistic in this, but there was thinking that if Lenin had only lived beyond the early '20s that he would have liberalized the regime and you would have had socialism in our time. I think that's hokum, bunk. Had he lived longer, I think there would be many, many corpses still to come. Stalin was a brutal czar on the order of Ivan the Terrible, and in many ways, as Robert Tucker's biography showed, his model for his behavior, his comportment and what he wanted for Russia was modeled more on the most brutal of the czars than it was on Lenin himself. His commitment to socialism, as we understand it academically, was nil. He wanted to be the great tough leader who was required by Russian history all along.
LAMB: Do you speak Russian?
REMNICK: I do.
LAMB: How many men and women did Stalin kill?
REMNICK: It's a figure that is under dispute, and Solzhenitsyn, for example, has come up with the figure 60 million based on the collectivization of the countryside in which there was forced starvation and executions, the great purges, the civil war. It's very hard to know where to draw the line, but we can safely say it's in the tens of millions.
LAMB: How did he kill them?
REMNICK: You know, his technology wasn't as fine as Hitler's. There were no gas chambers that we know of. There were two main ways of dying under Stalin. One was to be shot in the back of the head by an executioner wearing a long raincoat and rubber gloves. Very often you'd be shot by being put into a room with a little door, and the door would open and the hand would come out and you'd be shot in the back of the head. In fact, in Lenin's Tomb there's a long account given by a man who saw these executions near the Polish border of Polish officers, yet another large group of Stalin's victims. The other way to die -- and most likely the way my wife's grandfather died, for example, in the camps -- was just to be worked to death, because, after all, the slave labor camps were free, cheap labor for the Soviet regime to mine gold in the Soviet far east or to build steel mills or whatever. They would just work you to death until you died of consumption.
LAMB: Your family? Your wife is a journalist?
REMNICK: She is. She is now on maternity leave. We just had a child a couple of weeks ago.
LAMB: How many kids do you have?
REMNICK: Now two. She's with the New York Times, Esther Fein, and she writes about publishing. When she was in Moscow obviously she wrote about the same thing, so we were rivals in crime in a way -- the Washington Post, New York Times. It was kind of an odd arrangement.
LAMB: Where did you live?
REMNICK: We lived at the time the only place you could live which were these state-rendered apartments. They were fairly grim, but they were far more comfortable than most Muscovites were accustomed to. A very ordinary one-bedroom apartment. It was kind of spartan, fairly near the office, 10 minutes away. Nothing special.
LAMB: If you had to go back to Russia or anyplace in the old Soviet Union today, if you had to pick one character that you knew, who would you go seek out?
REMNICK: To seek out? Although I think the world may be tiring of him, I think that Gorbachev, of the living characters there, still the most endlessly fascinating. He is Shakespearean in his attempt to do something great, and it became something else and his inability to react to that something else was tragic. Maybe I should explain that. He wanted to liberalize Communism. He wanted the regime and the Soviet Union to modernize, to get into the wave of modern technology, for example, and to do that, he knew he had to open the system at least a bit so that you could accommodate computers, which they really didn't have, or even Xerox machines or an understanding of history that accorded with the world. He needed to romance the intellectuals and he wanted to end the Cold War, because the Cold War, after all, cost a fortune.

He wanted to do all these things and in many ways he did them, but it led to another chain of events. It led to a logic of events -- the birth of nationalism, the birth of the desire for free speech as opposed to just limited glasnost. All these things happened in such a rush and such a cacophony at a time when he was surrounded by the KGB and the military and forces that didn't want this in any way. They didn't want to see this liberalization. He had to do a political juggling act that finally went awry, of course, in the coup.

LAMB: You went back to where he was born?
REMNICK: I did. I had a bit of a time of it, too.
LAMB: You looked for an old girlfriend?
REMNICK: I went to southern Russia. Gorbachev is from southern Russia, and he has, in fact, a southern accent. He's a peasant boy, and he was born in a place called Privolnoye, which means "free and easy," and his father was the head of the collective farm and he won an award for harvesting. He was kind of the Eagle Scout of his town, and he was a good Komsomol boy in school and kind of a class-president type, a bit sanctimonious in his behavior, a bit bossy.
LAMB: Where is this picture from?
REMNICK: That is a picture of the school play that he was in. I guess that's from "Masquerade," which is Lermontov play, and he's there with his girlfriend, who's the leading lady. It's kind of touching thing.
LAMB: When you went back to his village, were they glad to see you?
REMNICK: Anything but.
LAMB: What year did you go there?
REMNICK: I went in '89, just right before the summit in Malta. I went south and I went to Stavropol, which is the regional capital, an agricultural center, beautiful, good weather, very unlike northern Russia where it's hard to grow things. Got a sense of his geography, of his topography, of the kind of rich soil, an easier lifestyle. You could see the roots of his optimism a little bit. Things grew more easily there.

I went around and saw people that he knew as a young man and even as a child. But Privolnoye itself, which is a tiny village, extremely rural -- I don't even remember how many people are there now; less than 100 -- just some chickens and some peasant huts and a small schoolhouse. But there was also a KGB guardhouse there looking over Maria Panteleyevna, his mother. They didn't want any reporters knocking on the door American-style, like going to see Mrs. Clinton or Bill Clinton's mother, as is the style here. They don't want any of that, and they certainly didn't want it in 1989.

They told me that there was hoof-and-mouth disease in the village and I couldn't go. I knew this was ridiculous, and I woke up 4:30, 5 o'clock in the morning. It was still dark out, and there were no cabs to speak of on the street at 5 o'clock, much less at 4:30 in the morning, and so I just hailed the nearest car and I gave him some hard currency, $20 for the day, which was an enormous sum at that time. First we went to a village called Krasnogvardeiskoye, "Red Guard," which is the place where Gorbachev went to high school, and he would make the long walk from Privolnoye to Krasnogvardeiskoye every week with his satchel and his friends, and he'd stay in kind of a rooming house. I met a lot of people there. I got to meet a lot of people, but after five hours, the local authorities caught up with me. On the way back and on the way there, I got a glimpse of Privolnoye as well, but it was much harder to do much work there.

LAMB: How did Mr. Gorbachev treat his mother?
REMNICK: Apparently he always wanted her to move to Moscow, which is in the style of Politburo members, and she refused. Her hut is fairly ordinary, although she's considered fairly wealthy for having a nice big color television. It's slightly cleaner than the other huts, and she obviously gets protection that the others don't. Once, I remember, on his birthday, in his attempt to recapture some popularity, which was fast fading, as you remember, in the Soviet Union, they had a kind of Andy Williams Christmas special sort of thing -- this is your life, Mikhail Gorbachev -- and they interviewed him at great length and her at great length. She talked about how he played the balalaika. It was kind of a parody of Western network television, I'm afraid, and it was rather pathetic and had the opposite effect. People laughed at it.
LAMB: There's a lot we can talk about with him, and we'll come back. But if you did go back there right now and seek him out, what would you find him doing?
REMNICK: Hustling. I'm afraid that he is extremely money conscious and, maybe even more so, extremely reputation conscious. He spends a lot of time touring the world and speaking for large fees. He was recently -- a couple of months ago, I think -- in Virginia.
LAMB: University of Richmond.
REMNICK: Yes, but he was everywhere. Unbeknownst to the various sponsors there, he had booked himself at every dinner in the state of Virginia for about a week. It's at the level almost of embarrassment. He came to the United States, you remember, a year or two ago flying in the Forbes plane, The Capitalist Tool, and he saw no irony in this. It's a very odd thing. For somebody who's seemingly so self-aware, I don't think he's doing himself any favors in the reputation department. He's also writing his memoir, and finally, it seems, he's going to do a serious memoir because his other books are really quite awful.
LAMB: You say that the BBC is paying him $600,000?
REMNICK: I forget the figure. It's in the book. It's quite a lot of money by Moscow standards -- $600,000 will buy a lot of blinis, much less plots of land. Apparently he's giving them lots of papers and access to his friends and making things easy for them to do a TV documentary.
LAMB: Is there any comparison at all between Mr. Gorbachev and an American politician?
REMNICK: In spots, yes. I'm 34, and so my memories of Lyndon Johnson are somewhat vague, but to watch him rule over a Congress of People's Deputies at the height of his powers, '88 and '89, it puts you in mind of Lyndon Johnson in the Senate or Sam Rayburn or somebody like that. He had that kind of wheeling and dealing and ultimate power of the institution. Of course, he had an advantage. He was the czar and you listened to him even more acutely than a House of Representatives member would listen to Sam Rayburn, so on that level he had that kind of power. Remember, he was the first real TV politician in Russia, but he controlled the TV. He would call the studio.

I mean, you can imagine the strangeness of somebody in the Senate calling Brian Lamb and saying, "Look, I want to be shown in a certain way on C-SPAN. Cut out that shot where I kind of was scratching my ear. That's no good. When I made that grammatical flub, get rid of that, too, and try to get the Secret Service men out of the picture so it looks more natural." But that's what he did, and he had propagandists around him doing this. They were very TV-conscious. This was the first time that they were so self-aware. In fact, TV was the real enemy of the regime until Gorbachev. When Brezhnev would go on television, he could hardly speak because he was so old and infirm. People would laugh at him. They said, "He talks like a crocodile." His mouth would flap open and shut. It was rather sad. That became the symbol of the decay of Soviet power.

LAMB: It's way off the subject, but maybe you can help us better understand. We carry Channel One's Evening News show five days a week here.
REMNICK: I watch it religiously.
LAMB: What are we getting now? You write about how that was so controlled. Is the Yeltsin administration controlling it now?
REMNICK: Although I've been called a great supporter of Yeltsin, and I think that's slightly unfair, I think that Yeltsin has too much control over state television. It is state television, by the way, but you also have state television in much of Western Europe. I think, for example, when there was the great conflict a few months ago between Yeltsin and his conservative rivals in the Congress that as much as I wanted to see Yeltsin win that conflict, the conservatives had a point when they said, "Look, Yeltsin's really controlling these newscasts." They were extremely, in an unsophisticated way, propagandistic -- not maybe like it was 10 years ago under the Communist regime, but in a way that still makes me uncomfortable.
LAMB: This is a tiny little footnote question. In the back you have your notes on sources where you tell us how you got some of the information for the different chapters. I just wanted to quote back to you. "Raisa Gorbachev's memoir I Hope is sentimental and almost entirely useless, but it contains some interesting letters and other glances at life in Stavropol and in the Kremlin."
REMNICK: I'm afraid that it's a very bad book, and I sort of feel that if I'm going to make the point that there's no good biographies of him and I'm having at least a short analysis of the extant literature on Gorbachev, I should give an opinion or two about what's out there. Raisa's book is a kind of a -- I don't know. You see them here, these kind of supermarket package quickie biographies, and she did one where she allowed herself to be interviewed extensively. It was a trifle, but there are letters in there that I find very interesting if they're authentic, and I assume they are -- Gorbachev writing to Raisa when they were quite young, Gorbachev expressing his extreme frustration with the local authorities, how hidebound they were, how conservative, how they say things they don't mean, how mechanical they are. It showed a certain germ of frustration, but we should also never forget what a good player in public Gorbachev was. He, after all, became general secretary of the Communist Party, and you don't do that by being a rebel.
LAMB: You also talk in that same section about an American journalist. Gail Sheehy's biography, quoting you, "contains some interesting information from her own trips to the Stavropol region, but the book is too weighted down by inaccuracies and misunderstandings of Soviet history and politics."
REMNICK: Well, I just feel that it's not a very good book. If it was a book that got no attention and just sort of fell by the wayside, I wouldn't feel compelled to comment on it at all. But if it's something that has a place in the literature, at least the contemporary literature, I feel compelled to say that it's not very good. When a biographer begins talking about how the spot on Gorbachev's head changes colors with his moods or begins overrating terribly the influence of his wife on the history of perestroika, I think that's just absurd and at least a short comment is due. I thought the good review done on that was by Tatyana Tolstaya in the New Republic at the time and really was quite tough, to say the least, and really jumped on her for any number of inaccuracies. It's something I hope doesn't happen to me, but if I'm filled with inaccuracies, it should.
LAMB: On the flap of your book: "'Lenin's Tomb is full of arresting anecdotes, lively characters, and a panoramic view of the Soviet Union in its last years under Gorbachev.' Norman Mailer." Is that your idea?
REMNICK: Is it my idea? No, and I don't know Norman Mailer, I hasten to add.
LAMB: I always wonder where these things come from.
REMNICK: So do I.
LAMB: Robert Caro is on the back. Do you know him?
REMNICK: I've met him for five or 10 minutes, and I interviewed him once. I was in your chair interviewing him long ago for Texas Monthly, but in a very kind of impersonal way. He is somebody, and Mailer as well, that I admire tremendously. I'm very flattered to have their billboard.
LAMB: It's 550 pages. What do people get in this book?
REMNICK: What I hope they get is a kind of sense of what was important. The first quarter of the book is about the opening up of history. Many people feel that Gorbachev's primary project in the beginning, in the mid-'80s, was to improve the economy. That's true enough, but he was a dismal failure at it, as we see to this day. What I think was the key moment was when he got up in November of 1987, the anniversary of the Revolution, and all the assembled Communists were there, even from other countries, and they were very nervous about what he was going to say about the history of the Revolution, because, after all, the legitimacy of their regimes depended on the stability of the Soviet regime. Castro is an example, all of Eastern Europe. He got up and he gave what we now see as a very mild speech, an outdated speech, but, for the time, extremely important. He said, "Comrades, of course things are going splendidly. Of course the Revolution is glorious and we should never spit on it. But there were moments in our history that were awful." He used the word "criminal" to describe the regime of Stalin. This was an incredible breakthrough. Now, Khrushchev had done something similar.
LAMB: What year was that and what year was the Gorbachev speech?
REMNICK: 1987, and 30 years before, Khrushchev had done something similar in what we now call "the thaw," but he had done it in secret, the so-called secret speech to the 20th Party Congress. This was on national television. It was being watched very carefully. He said that the crimes of the Stalin era were criminal and that people who had been executed didn't deserve it. Bukharin was one of them, Nikolai Bukharin, who was one of the original Bolsheviks, a follower of Lenin and someone considered more liberal or less draconian than Stalin. This was wrong. He didn't speak very highly of Trotsky. There was no reason he should have, actually.

But this was a crack, a fissure, in the monolith. It was the Communist Party attempting to redefine history, to bring up some new heroes. The new heroes were Khrushchev, as a reforming czar, which is what Gorbachev wanted to be, and Bukharin, who presented an alternative to Stalin, the road not taken, and to some degree even Andropov, who, after all, was Gorbachev's political mentor. Andropov had been general secretary two people before him. This was a crucial moment, and what happened in the ensuing year or year and a half was that everybody took this as a cue to really examine history. Why is this important? It's not just an academic thing.

For example, in the Baltic states, it opened the discussion about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was the document, the event, that captured, in a sense, the three Baltic states. It had always been considered official Soviet history that the Baltic states had voluntarily joined the Soviet Union. Well, that was complete nonsense. We put the lie to that with an examination of history. This began the Baltic independence movement in a serious way. Or the relationship with Eastern Europe. We began to look at that much more carefully in the Soviet press and books that were now being published. That was absolutely crucial. To me it really opened the Pandora's box and began the revolt that ended the way we see in having ended.

LAMB: You also have in here a rather extensive account, 100 pages worth, I believe, of the whole coup attempt. Is there anything new in there?
REMNICK: Yes. In fact, there's a lot new, to be honest.
LAMB: By the way, when did you write that?
REMNICK: I wrote it and continued revising it up until this past March and April. Because of the wonders of modern publishing, you can now still monkey with things. One of the boons for me was that there was a prosecutor's report. Prosecutors for the Russians went and interviewed everybody that had organized and taken part in the coup. They amassed hundreds of volumes. We don't have access to that, but the prosecutors amazingly -- God knows what they were thinking -- published commercially, before any trial, an account of what these people had said on the most important issues, who said what to whom.

It's only been published in Russian, and I was able to get a copy of this while preparing this chapter, and so I have dialogue within the Kremlin on sort of forcing people to sign this document and this one being drunk and that one having to be carried out of the Kremlin because he was so smashed or the other one being sick. As Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post wrote at the time, "The coup had begun like Dostoevsky and it ended like the Marx Brothers." It really was, when you think about the coup, an incredibly historic moment because its failure was what finally collapsed the regime. But the way it was carried out, if you saw Duck Soup tomorrow, it would look rather similar to the Soviet coup.

LAMB: It appears that there was a lot of drinking going on around the coup.
REMNICK: Especially a couple of them, and, in fact, the titular leader of the coup, Gennady Yanayev, who was the vice president at the time, was just stone drunk.
LAMB: Why did he ever go on television with that group? We all remember seeing his hand shaking, smoking a cigarette.
REMNICK: His hand was fluttering. God, he was so nervous.
LAMB: Why did he do that?
REMNICK: Why did he do it? Because they had to. What were they left with, after all? They had to go in front of the people unless they were willing to go back to Stalinist times and kill everybody that objected, and that option quickly ran out. They had to lie. They had to use the old methods of propaganda. So the assembled leadership comes into the Foreign Ministry press center -- I forget how many there were. Not all of them were there, but Yanayev and Kryuchkov and all the cast of characters. They had to get up and say, "Well, our friend Mikhail Gorbachev is temporarily indisposed in Foros," which is his vacation home in the south, "and, of course, we will continue with reforms, but after all, comrades, things have gotten out of hand. It's unstable. The country is falling apart. We need to have emergency rule for a while. We're going to take care of it, and when that's taken care of, Gorbachev will come back up. He has his frequent flyer miles. He'll fly up and that'll be the end of it and everything will be back to normal." Of course, it was nonsense, and all you needed to know to know that it was nonsense was to see Gennady Yanayev's hand shaking like a leaf out of sheer nervousness because he had to do a preposterous task.
LAMB: You've got a couple of pictures here. This is you. Who's the man you're standing next to?
REMNICK: That's Yegor Ligachev, who was Gorbachev's ally in the beginning of perestroika, but within a couple of years became his main conservative foe.
LAMB: Where was he during the coup?
REMNICK: He was on vacation. He really, so far as we know, had little or nothing to do with the coup. I think he probably -- in fact, he's told me -- supported the aims of the coup in terms of stabilization, but he was out of harm's way by then. He was retired. Gorbachev had finally pushed him aside.
LAMB: Where is he now?
REMNICK: He's on a book tour so far as I know, Brian. He's written a very good memoir, filled with fables and lies, but very good in that it gives an inside look at the opposition within the Kremlin during perestroika. It's called Inside Gorbachev's Kremlin, I believe -- called The Enigma of Gorbachev in Russian. It's filled with interesting stories. Some of them may be true.
LAMB: How many of the coup plotters are still in jail?
REMNICK: They're not in jail anymore. In fact, they've come up for trial, and the trials have been put off and put off. I think it's something that even the Yeltsin government would like to sort of suspend indefinitely because it's in nobody's interest politically, except justice's interest, to have this trial going on. It's very embarrassing.
LAMB: Where are they then?
REMNICK: They're at home. I went and interviewed Gennady Yanayev the last time I was in Moscow, which was just a few months ago. I went and saw Gennady Yanayev. The only reason I saw Yanayev and not all the others is because the others were charging a lot of money to be interviewed. They've all gotten a bit of Hollywood in them. It's incredible.
LAMB: Who pays their bills every month besides this kind of fee stuff?
REMNICK: They get these fees here and there, and they have their big apartments left over from their time in government. It's pretty cheap to live, even if you have just a little bit of hard currency. Some of them write books.
LAMB: You point out that the former Communist apparatchiks or the bureaucrats were pulled back into the government and they're still there now?
REMNICK: Because they're competent. This is the great dilemma in the former Soviet Union and throughout the Communist world. Yes, a lot of them are morally tainted. Yes, they did business with some very bad people and were themselves very bad people during the regime. But, after all, who knows how to run a steel plant? Who knows how to run a shoe factory, however badly? You've got to do this to get along, and you can't just pluck people right out of college and say, "Run the steel plant." So, as with politicians, I think it's going to be a long transition before you see these 25-year-olds become 40-year-old managers and politicians.
LAMB: Where were you born?
REMNICK: I was born in New Jersey.
LAMB: Where?
REMNICK: Hillsdale, N. J.
LAMB: What was the family like?
REMNICK: A fairly ordinary family. Father now a retired dentist; mother, housewife. They're, thank God, still around and very excited that the book is out.
LAMB: Where is your family from originally?
REMNICK: Well, all of it from Russia. Russian Jews, so I can't call them Russians. My grandfathers both escaped or got out of Russia or Ukraine before the Revolution.
LAMB: The 1917 Revolution.
REMNICK: Yes. And before I left, the one who is still alive, was 102 at the time and I went to visit him in Florida. I said, "Grandpa, I'm going to go move to Moscow," and he looked at me like I was absolutely crazy. His worst nightmare had occurred. His precious grandchild was going to go back into the land that he had escaped from. It all seemed very weird to them.
LAMB: What about your wife, Esther Fein?
REMNICK: That is even more dramatic. Esther's grandfather -- well, that whole side of the family had been in camps. Esther's grandfather died or was killed in a camp. Her grandmother and Esther's mother and aunt and uncle got out. They were in camps, though. They were in children's detention camps and happily survived them and made their way west across Europe and left.
LAMB: You write a lot about being Jewish and living in the Soviet Union and being Jewish and being a Soviet citizen or Russian citizen. What's the genesis of the hatred?
REMNICK: This is a very large question. Where does anti-Semitism come from? It's extremely complicated. I would say, though, that one of the best outcomes of this whole process in the last six, seven years is that anti-Semitism, contrary to a lot of scare journalism on the rise of the right wing and neo-Fascism, is that anti-Semitism is on the fade. Part of it is that so many Jews left.
LAMB: On the fade there.
REMNICK: Yes. This is borne out in Arthur Hertzberg's piece in the New York Review about the easing of anti-Semitism, thankfully, in Ukraine and Russia. On the other hand, there are new groups to hate. If the Jews were hate group number one 10 years ago, they've now sort of descended on this dubious ladder, and at the top of the ladder are Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Central Asians -- because they're so much more present. They're just as Turks are in Germany. They're the kind of guest workers who are in the midst of a very humiliated people, the Russians.
LAMB: Was this your first book?
REMNICK: It is.
LAMB: Is it what you thought it would be?
REMNICK: You know, very much so. I had a read a lot of the journalists' books about Russia before I left and am an admirer of many of them, but some of them seem to have a certain quality of kind of John Gunther-type books. In other words, they were the book about everything about Russian society -- education, the economy, sports, medicine -- and I didn't want to repeat that performance. I wanted to tell more of a narrative story. The revolution certainly provided a hell of a narrative, and my job was to find some shape to it.
LAMB: Go back to your New Jersey upbringing. Do you remember when you first got interested in writing?
REMNICK: Yes, very early on in junior high school and in high school where nobody had an interest in making a school newspaper. I was doing basically the whole thing at my bridge table at home, staying up until 2 o'clock in the morning.
LAMB: Where did you get that interest?
REMNICK: I don't know. From reading, being not only a newspaper junkie but also interested in books more serious than that.
LAMB: Who got you interested in that?
REMNICK: My parents are readers. My father is a very serious reader, my mother to some extent. It's like anything in life. If you're lucky enough to hook into a friend and find something to share, it's very exciting. It doesn't seem like homework. I went to a pretty good high school, but they didn't assign books in any serious way, unfortunately. But I had a friend, and we would go to used book sales and trade books. Things Russian I was really always interested in, but not through Russian politics. When I was growing up, Russian politics were a bore. It was a kind of stolid, ideological, off there-ness that I wanted nothing to do with. I was interested because Chekhov was so interesting and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It sounds pretentious to say, but there it is.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
REMNICK: I went to Princeton.
LAMB: Why?
REMNICK: Because I got in. At Princeton I was a disastrous Russian student. I had had some Russian in high school. I had insisted on advancing a little bit and that was a fatal mistake, so my Russian was no good when I left Princeton.
LAMB: Your language or your understanding of Russian was no good?
REMNICK: My Russian language was just no good. I sort of blew it in college and then finally dropped it. But afterwards, and when I found out I'd be going to Moscow especially, I really intensified Russian language study. I studied with a woman here in Washington, but the real breakthrough was at Middlebury College in Vermont, which has a remarkable language program. My wife, who started from nothing, and I, who started from just slightly more, after a while were getting pretty good. Certainly in Moscow we got a lot better.
LAMB: Where did you meet your wife?
REMNICK: I met her here in Washington on a kind of semi-blind date. When faced with going to Moscow, we kind of gave them a twin announcement. The good news is we're getting married, and the bad news is we're going to Moscow.
LAMB: What was she doing then?
REMNICK: She was at the New York Times.
LAMB: And you were at the Post?
REMNICK: Yes.
LAMB: Did you come right out of Princeton and go to the Post?
REMNICK: Strangely enough, yes.
LAMB: How did you get to do that?
REMNICK: Blind luck. I was an intern a couple of times at the Washington Post, and somebody who's now the editor of the L.A. Times, Shelby Coffey, said, "Come back, but the Star has just folded, so get lost for a year." I went and taught in Japan and traveled around India and got lost for a year and came back and started and did night police and sports. I was a sports reporter in Washington for a couple of years. I think I may have set the record for being in more sections than anybody in the history of the Washington Post.
LAMB: Some place back there -- I remember this popped up during the campaign in 1992 -- you became the object of Ross Perot. What I remember is you wrote a piece on the op-ed page of the Washington Post about an experience you had with Ross Perot, and then that became an issue later on. What was that story?
REMNICK: I think it was an issue or an incident that became rather indicative of his behavior, rather odd behavior. Long before we had heard that he was going to run for president, I did a two-part magazine story on Ross Perot for the Washington Post magazine.
LAMB: How long ago was this?
REMNICK: Gee, Brian, I'm not really sure of the year, but it was maybe '85, '86 -- whenever the magazine sort of changed itself. I forget the year at the moment. Maybe even '86, '87. I forget. I was interviewing him, had several interviews with him in Dallas. His family took me all over the state and Texarkana. These were the days when this was still possible. It was the usual seduction process, writ large by Ross Perot. The subject jumped to his interest in Vietnam POWs. His real whipping boy at that point was a man named Armitage.
LAMB: Richard Armitage.
REMNICK: Richard Armitage, who was, if I recall correctly, was in charge of POW affairs for the Reagan administration.
LAMB: At the Pentagon.
REMNICK: Yes. And Perot did not like him, thought he was a dishonest cover-up artist or whatever it was. I don't want to try to quote him exactly from memory. Then Perot got up and in his kind of funny way went into his safe, which is quite large, as you can imagine. He has a lot to save. He came out with some photographs of Armitage seated with a Vietnamese woman, who apparently was of unsavory reputation for one reason or another, and then to me began to impute all manner of things about Armitage. Again, I want to keep this story as vague as possible, because I'd have to review my notes to get it exact. But, as we saw in the campaign, this kind of behavior was not unusual. That kind of sense of paranoia, that willingness to attack like that became rather commonplace. In fact, he claims to have dropped out of the campaign because of an attack on him and his daughter and the whole wedding scene. You remember that all too well. So that's what it was. That wasn't even in my magazine piece because I was, at that point, writing about an extremely rich, slightly eccentric businessman. As I look back on those pieces, they weren't terribly tough. But when you run for president, it's a different matter. He was a serious candidate, and I thought I needed to put what I knew out there, not out of any self-aggrandizement -- I was on leave from the Post but I just thought it was important.
LAMB: But then you did come back, though, and write a piece last year -- for what reason? -- in the Post about all this.
REMNICK: No, I wrote a piece during the campaign for the Washington Post op-ed section.
LAMB: That's what I mean. That was the first time you'd ever written about it?
REMNICK: About that incident?
LAMB: About that incident.
REMNICK: Yes. To be honest, Brian, it didn't fit into the magazine stories. It just was such an odd little incident. Sometimes things go out of your mind or off the radar screen and they don't make any kind of personal or dramatic or journalistic sense until a context appears, and a context was beginning to appear during the presidential race.
LAMB: Did you hear from him after you wrote that?
REMNICK: No, but he would go on TV and say it was false. It wasn't false. It was absolutely true.
LAMB: You've spent how many years with the Washington Post?
REMNICK: Ten.
LAMB: When did you leave?
REMNICK: I left with great regret in 1992, essentially. I came back from Moscow at the end of '91. They gave me a leave and I went off and wrote this book at the Council on Foreign Relations. Another opportunity came up, and for reasons personal and in terms of what I wanted to do with my life, I stayed in New York and joined The New Yorker.
LAMB: Why did you use the Council on Foreign Relations as a place to write this book?
REMNICK: I got a grant. I was the Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council, which provided some money and a small room in which to work. It was paradise.
LAMB: How often do they do that?
REMNICK: They have one a year. In fact, I think one of my colleagues from Moscow is going to be it in the coming year, a woman from Business Week.
LAMB: Any strings attached when you take that grant?
REMNICK: No. It's really remarkable and other journalists have used it to write their books and others have used it just to study or to open up some new vista for themselves in terms of language or area studies.
LAMB: What are you doing now?
REMNICK: Right now I'm writing various pieces for The New Yorker, thinking about the next book. I have a piece out in The New Yorker on Luciano Pavarotti, on opera. I've written about Gary Hart recently for The New Yorker and Moscow as well, so I've been kind of free-range chicken these days.
LAMB: Do you have a certain beat or do they let you do anything you want to do?
REMNICK: Paradise again has found its way, and it's pretty much -- well, anything I want to do with Tina Brown's say so.
LAMB: Why did you pick The New Yorker?
REMNICK: I picked The New Yorker because I was raised to think that that was where nirvana was. More than a daily newspaper reporter, I fancied myself a writer of longer things -- not better, just different. Happily at the Washington Post they had room and found room for longer things in the "Style" section and even foreign. There's a very innovative foreign editor there, Michael Getler, who really does like to open up the section quite a bit. But in the end of ends, a daily newspaper is a daily newspaper and to buck that is folly. The New Yorker is where New Yorker pieces should be, not the Washington Post.
LAMB: You live in New York City in Manhattan?
REMNICK: Right in the hole.
LAMB: What's your wife doing now?
REMNICK: On leave, but she's a New York Times reporter and writes about publishing and writers -- not me.
LAMB: Let's go back to the book "Lenin's Tomb." I've got a picture I want to ask you about inside. It's the one down here.
REMNICK: That's Boris Yeltsin.
LAMB: You referred earlier that a lot of people think you're pro-Yeltsin.
REMNICK: There was a review of "Lenin's Tomb" in which the reviewer said, "Remnick seems to really be in love with or a great admirer of Yeltsin." Well, if there was any public figure that I loved while in Moscow, it was Sakharov, a far greater man than any I've had the privilege to be in proximity to. Yeltsin is a great politician, a great confrontation politician, and history, for once, found the right order for the figures it required. Gorbachev came at the right time. He was a liberalizer, a continuer of the Khrushchev tradition of opening the system bit by bit. Yeltsin was a great destroyer in a way. He came along and he, through his impudence, helped smash the monolith of the Communist Party. You remember when he had that great outburst and he was fired from the Politburo. That helped open up the Communist Party even more. Then he comes along and finds his political niche in the Republic of Russia and he finds for himself a power base there and he is there at the right moment to stand up to the coup. Gorbachev was more of a juggler, somebody who would kind of temporize, try to find compromises eternally, and that was very important. But the moments when Yeltsin was there, Yeltsin was the right person.
LAMB: That was a picture of Sakharov on that sign. You mentioned that when Sakharov came back to Moscow after living in Gorky when he was freed . . .
REMNICK: He didn't just live there. He was put there by the government, who wanted him out of sight, out of mind for a number of reasons, but specifically his opposition to the Afghan war.
LAMB: When he did come back, you say he didn't give many interviews.
REMNICK: He wasn't quite as available as he had been. If you were a Moscow reporter in the '70s, you spent a lot of time if you were any good at Andrei Sakharov's kitchen table, just shooting the breeze and finding out what's going on in the dissidents' movement. His kitchen table was, to some extent, a center of dissidence in the Soviet Union. But when he returned, he became, especially after his election to the Congress of People's Deputies, the moral leader, certainly, of the democratic opposition, but a tired man and one who needed to spare himself endless interviews with a growing press corps, so his kitchen was a little bit more sacred territory than it had been. I've been there and talked to him there, but it wasn't the same frequency.
LAMB: You also mention quite often Sobchak.
REMNICK: Sobchak was probably a politician that we Westerners took a liking to faster than Russians themselves. Sobchak is the mayor of then Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, kind of handsome, a little bit proud of his own oratory, quite smart. But he doesn't have that quality that Yeltsin has, which is of being a guy you could imagine knocking back a few vodkas with. Sobchak is a little too academic to get that kind of broad-based support.
LAMB: I just want to show a couple of photos and just talk about these folks. Len Karpinsky.
REMNICK: Len Karpinsky described himself as a half-dissident. He was a man of the Gorbachev generation who was blessed by the Communist Party. His father was an old Bolshevik who knew Lenin. He grew up in very privileged Bolshevik circumstances. He had gone rapidly up the ladder of the Young Communist League and all the rest, but finally, like many semi-liberal Communist Party apparatchiks, when it came to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he said no more and began separating himself from the world of officialdom and finally was fired from Komsomolskaya Pravda and Izvestia.
LAMB: Two photos over here on this page. Where did they come from and why are they in there.
REMNICK: Those photos really, to me, have written on them Soviet history and the difficulty of life there really etched in their faces, not to say that you wouldn't see faces like that necessarily in West Virginia or anywhere in the world. Both of these people are from Siberia, and life is tough in that part of the world. I just could feel it and see it in those faces. A Siberian photographer took those photographs, a man named Kuznetsov.
LAMB: How about this photo?
REMNICK: This is, to me, a symbol of the frustration of the apparatchik, the local official who's worked under the portrait of Lenin for many years, and it's all going to hell. It's all falling apart, and his confusion is really evident there, I think.
LAMB: Do you still see photos of Lenin around?
REMNICK: Mostly in dumpsters, I'm afraid, or in ironic settings. You see a lot of old Communist memorabilia being sold to Western tourists who come back and buy it for a giggle. It's kind of sad, the whole thing.
LAMB: You say that you wrote for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Part of that is in the last chapter when you talk about the trial. One point I just wanted to ask you about -- I just had never seen this before. It's a small point, but when General Akhromeyev committed suicide, you say that he tried once and it didn't work? The rope broke and then he did it again?
REMNICK: He wrote a note and he said, "Even at this I'm failing." As a little background, General Akhromeyev was greatly admired in some way by the military establishment here in the United States, especially Admiral Crowe, if I remember correctly.
LAMB: Our audience saw a lot of him because we carried those hearings when he testified.
REMNICK: But I think he was a little bit romanticized in the United States. He really was quite a hardliner. He was on vacation during the coup. He was not, so far as we know, in on the planning of it. But when the coup began, he rushed on his own to Moscow and did what he could. He was sort of there in the military collegium and making decisions on what to do about raiding or not raiding the Parliament, as you remember. But the coup fell apart, and he wrote a note, a very profound letter to Gorbachev saying, "I felt I had to do this to save the country, and the country is falling apart. Everything I've worked for in my entire life is going to hell. It's falling apart." He just was defeated. He was a defeated man who had given everything for his country and now it was being shattered and people were calling it an illusion and a fraud and a brutal regime and he killed himself.
LAMB: You have a photo. You credit Reuters in the back and this book's called "Lenin's Tomb" and that is from Lenin's tomb. How often do they let photographs of this?
REMNICK: I think quite rarely. Lenin's tomb is quite controlled, and I should say the lines are a lot shorter to go see him. It used to be a required stop for any Soviet tourist coming from Tashkent or Ashkhabad. You would be required to go see Lenin's tomb and stand in a long line. I don't think you can take a picture very often. It's quite a good one, actually.
LAMB: How much longer will that name be around?
REMNICK: Lenin?
LAMB: In that country. Will there ever be an attempt just to . . .
REMNICK: I think it'll be around forever because of his effect on the landscape of Russia and the states that were part of the Soviet Union. In many ways, it's going to take a long time to get rid of the ill effects of that regime. It's in the souls of so many people.
LAMB: Is his statue still there?
REMNICK: The picture you're showing there, Brian, is a statue of Lenin in front of the would-be Magadan Communist Party headquarters in the far east. In fact, Magadan was the center of the labor camps in the far east. Symbolism came rather cheap there, and the Communist Party decided they didn't have the funds to build this new plush party headquarters, and they abandoned it after they had built the shell. People used it for picnics and they broke the windows and it was rather pathetic.
LAMB: What's your next book?
REMNICK: I wish I knew. I'm sort of still casting around.
LAMB: What about the next trip to Russia?
REMNICK: Oh, I hope in the fall. I hope to go a couple times a year. I'm very interested, for example, in what's going on -- how things are much the same in some places and how far they've come in others. For example, in Estonia you see almost a kind of Chicago School Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand economics in place, a kind of crazy capitalism going on. And in Turkmenistan nothing's changed. In fact, the human rights violations are as they were in some instances, and the authoritarian, totalitarian grip has not eased very much at all.
LAMB: We are out of time. David Remnick, who is the author of this book called "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire," we thank you very much for joining us.
REMNICK: Thank you, Brian.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.