Book review: Tunnel at end of the light

RUSSIA IS, to put it mildly, a confusing place. Never has it been so easy to be suffocated by such a surfeit of facts combined with such lack of clarity. In order to grasp the nature of the Russian beast, it may be simpler to keep your reading list very short indeed.

For the old USSR, it is safe to stick with The Russians, Hedrick Smith's superb chronicle and the best of a series of journalistic accounts that explored all the vivid contradictions of the Brezhnevite superpower. The union's collapse was represented by an equally brilliant book - Lenin's Tomb, by David Remnick, the former Moscow correspondent of The Washington Post and now editor of The New Yorker. I wrote a well-received book on the same period, with some overlapping material, but it is not half as powerful as Remnick's vibrant analysis-cum-reportage. Lenin's Tomb deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize.

As for the third act of the drama - the post-Soviet fallout, with all its implications - there have been various attempts to pull the literary sword from the stone. Many of these books have been enlightened and interesting - on crime, the economy, the nationalists or Kremlin power-plays. But none has had the must-read quality of The Russians or Lenin's Tomb. The acknowledged successor to those two titles remains a sit vac. But Remnick has attempted to fill the gap himself, in a follow-up with the Tolstoyan title of Resurrection.

Sequels are a notoriously dangerous business. Hedrick Smith himself tried it, with a Gorbachev-era book called The New Russians. The general consensus not a patch on volume one. But Remnick is a skilled navigator in tricky waters. He is admirably wary of conspiracy theories, while providing detailed behind-the-scenes accounts of key moments in recent Russian history.

Above all, what brings Resurrection alive is Remnick's ability to illuminate the broader picture with individual tableaux. He gives devastating examples of the reasons to be pessimistic: insider detail on the vodka-driven madness of Yeltsin's policy-making, especially on Chechnya; the burgeoning crime and violence; the grotesque contrasts between stinking rich and dirt poor.

He does not, however, fall into the common trap of believing that each of these truths automatically makes up the whole truth. As he notes, many Russians "mistake transition and change for apocalypse. The older the man or woman, the more likely it is that they suffer from anti-euphoria". Younger generations, by contrast, foresee at least the possibility of change.

Remnick is not an out-and-out optimist: "The creation of capitalism on the ash-heap of history has not been a pretty sight." But he points out that the absolute pessimists are also sometimes unrealistic. The failed coup of 1991 "so accelerated our notion of Russian history that expectations became outlandish; and now that many of those expectations have been disappointed, deferred and even betrayed, it seems as if we have gone back to expecting only the worst from Russia."

Times have really changed, he argues. "Russia has entered the world, and everything, even freedom, is now possible." The afterword was written before the Russian economic crisis this summer. Reality may, therefore, appear to have made his more upbeat predictions seem outdated.

Yet what is most striking about conversations with young Russians today is how few of them contemplate, even for a moment, a return to the comfortable certainties many of their parents and grandparents yearn for. Remnick concludes: "If business can advance in a way that begins to benefit more than a few Moscow tycoons, if Yeltsin finally fades away in a peaceful transition of power, then Russia will move further down the road toward becoming what so many of its people have hoped for for so long: to be part of the world, to be a normal country." That may seems a long line of big ifs - but a lot of big ifs have become real in recent years.

As a coda to Resurrection, the new issue of Granta (Russia: the Wild East, Penguin, pounds 7.99) is a mosaic of pieces about the country's disturbed legacy. There are testimonies from the land of the Gulag, a Chechen mother's search for her son, Colin Thubron with pilgrims and scientists in Siberia, Vitali Vitaliev on vodka, Orlando Figes on reburying the tsar. It is full of unsettling one-liners, as in the reminiscences of a Gulag official: "Life in Norilsk was better than anywhere else in the Soviet Union. In the first place, all the bosses had maids, prisoner maids. Then the food was amazing." And the prisoners? "They did not bother anyone - they just worked and worked. They were slaves."

For Andrei Cheburkin, that was normality. He sounds slightly surprised that anybody might see things differently. At the end of the collection, you are left with a lingering sense of wistfulness, and endless confusion - in short, a fitting Russian epitaph.

Steve Crawshaw