New Russia's blurred boundaries
RESURRECTION David Remnick Random House, $250 The likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky would have been proud. David Remnick has assembled what feels like a cast of thousands in Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, his portrait of life following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Presenting them one after another with aplomb, they are as colourful, complex and turbulent as any in Russian fiction. Some are the subject of interviews, others are fleshed out, based on talks with third parties.
Predictably, one interviewee is Mikhail Gorbachev, who comes across as the born survivor still under the illusion that the Russian people need him (when apparently they do not). It seems survivor is an apt word - on becoming a former leader of the USSR's 11 republics in 1991, his pension was worth only US$140 a month, we are told.
Then there is the precarious Boris Yeltsin - he who was famously 'too drunk' to get off the plane in Dublin on one widely-reported occasion.
He was also apparently inebriated at the negotiations that formally declared the Soviet Union defunct on December 7, 1991. A source close to the talks said: 'Yeltsin got very drunk . . . so drunk he fell out of his chair.' Intriguingly, as Remnick did not interview Mr Yeltsin, he did not get the chance to ask about it.
My favourite is the radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who should take the crown for being Russia's crackpot. In 1991 he had come third from nowhere in the presidential elections, promising, among other things, free vodka. He was later successful in the 1993 parliamentary elections.
Remnick depicts him as a dangerous buffoon.
On one occasion, Remnick recounts, he sketched out with a black marker pen his imperial designs to a Swedish interviewer: Poland would be divided between Germany and Russia, Germany would have Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.
Russia would get the Baltic republics and would take back Ukraine and Moldova.
To a Russian with only a rudimentary sense of history this symbolism would not have gone unnoticed: Stalin divided up Europe with Hitler in a similar way.
But his actions and words struck a chord with the masses, who had gained the least from reforms.
There are superb interviews that indicate a sound eye for research as well as a good grasp of what makes colourful copy, like the excursion to Mr Gorbachev's home town or the interviews with dissident writer Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn and his family before and after his return to Russia from his American exile.
Yet overwhelmingly, in a country like Russia, what becomes clear is that the boundaries between the normal and the ridiculous have blurred.
Once, only a few years ago, everyone lived in drab grey flats and drove dreary Ladas. To be different meant owning a Czech Skoda.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing reforms have swept away this comforting, yet equally painful, predictability.
Now Moscow's streets are lined with designer shops, frequented by the newly rich who retreat in their latest BMW to their palatial homes.
Yet for most Russians in provincial towns and cities such as Ekaterinburg, there has yet to be any trickle-down effect and ironically they may be worse off than before.
Under communism, there might have been few goods to buy, but at least people could get them on the black market.
Now those luxury products that fill the shops are inaccessible because of the near-worthless Russian rouble.
In this fascinating book, Remnick gives the impression that the world's former superpower looks like a mass demolition site.
One realises most Russians have been sucked into a democratic way of life, the reality of which is very different to how they perceived it.