Book Club: I love Russia, I don’t care who knows, and that’s why I’m reading about Soviet history
Editor’s note: This monthly-ish column by the Vail Daily’s entertainment editor will discuss what she’s reading currently and how it affects her life.
Most people who get to know me well enough eventually learn one particular fun fact about me: I love Russia.
I love Russia. Yes, I know the United States’ relations with the world’s geographically largest country are on the fritz and have been for the better part of the last 100 years. Yes, I know Vladimir Putin isn’t exactly the democratic ideal of a leader. Yes, I know they drink a lot of vodka there.
That could never stop me from impulse-buying “Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire” by none other than David Remnick, current editor of The New Yorker. At the time, Remnick was reporting from Moscow for The Washington Post, and his account of Soviet life in the early 1990s earned the book a Pulitzer Prize.
I’m not very far into the book, I’ll admit. Unfortunately, the small margins, small font size, and deceptively hefty size remind me a bit too strongly of my undergraduate history textbooks, so I’ve been taking “Lenin’s Tomb” in small bites. But each bite is worth it.
I’ve never really been quite sure where this weird obsession came from. My best friend since middle school is a first-generation American (hi, Yonah), and when her babushka used to spend winters in Massachusetts away from Moscow’s hideous winters, she made us these tiny, oil-fried, delicious pancakes. Besides babushka, (grandma) I learned the words “da” (yes), “nyet” (no), “spasiba” (thank you) and “masla” (butter).
Or at least, that’s where I think my Russia thing came from. I took Russia-related classes in college: Politics of Russia, 20th Century Russian History and I was even brave (or stupid) enough to take Russian literature. I actually participated in class discussions, which was a rarity for me. I even won an award for a paper on the brain drain — the period after the Soviet Union’s collapse when Russia’s smartest people left the country in droves. My friend’s parents were among them.
Regardless of where it came from, Russia has captured my imagination because its history is similar and yet so different from the Western history narratives you usually get taught in school. Yeah, you probably learned about the October Revolution and the World Wars and Stalin’s purges. But that barely scratches the surface, and Reminck’s first person account opens up a whole new world.
A few years ago, I read a similar book called “Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life” by journalist John Conroy. Like Remnick, Conroy was reporting from Northern Ireland on the Troubles, sharing stories from his next-door neighbors in Clonard — a Catholic neighborhood with many low-income residents that was a frequent battleground between its residents, radical Catholics and antagonistic Protestants.
The result of both books is a deeply intimate look at life in these countries. It’s the storytelling that makes “Lenin’s Tomb” special. Remnick’s ability to act as both historian and time travel guide breathes humanity into life in the USSR, and into its demise in 1991, a narrative that’s often portrayed as a failed experiment.
Take, for example, this story from “Lenin’s Tomb.”
Nikolai Bukharin was an outspoken opponent of Stalinism. He was an Old Bolshevik in the years post-Revolution. Anna Larina, grew up watching him in political meetings with her father, Yuri Larin, another of the most prominent Bolshevik leaders at the time. Anna was 16 when she climbed the stairs to Bukharin’s apartment. In her hand, she held a letter confessing her love for him: She was 26 years his junior. The eventually married, but on her way up the stairs, she bumped into Josef Stalin, who was also headed for Bukharin’s room. She asked him to deliver her letter.
Bukharin was one of many old Communist Party officials killed in Stalin’s Great Purges. He was sentenced to death after trial in 1938.
Remnick wrote: “For a moment, at least, one of the great murderers of the twentieth century played mailman for a young girl in love.”
To me, those stories are the best parts of history. Those moments where we see humanity and real stories of love and love lost through the lens of a historical event. I’m sure there are many more to come in the 450-odd pages I have left in “Lenin’s Tomb.”
Even if you’re not ready to take the full dive into All Things Russia, I’d recommend picking up a history book – if it’s written well, you’ll learn something about yourself and about human nature along the way.
Casey Russell is the entertainment editor and in high school, she invented Russian nicknames for everyone on her junior year softball team. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.