BOOK REVIEW: Dark corners of democracy

Mary Dejevsky explores three enticing accounts of the new Russia
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There must be an unwritten law of non-fiction publishing according to which the richest crop of books on a given subject is harvested just as readers' interest is at its nadir. Recent months have seen the appearance of perhaps a dozen volumes cons idering diverse aspects of the Soviet collapse and the state of Russia. Yet the relative stability prevailing in much of the former Soviet Union and the complexities of the region's post-communist development have pushed the subject out of the headlines.

Market conditions for books about Russia are said to be tough.

There is a logical reason for the current mismatch between supply of Russia books and demand. Russia was very much in vogue when these books were conceived. Many of them - including the three reviewed here - are written by journalists who reported the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Russia. It was only when things settled down that they had time to write their books, and the lead time between submission of manuscript and publication brings us to now.

These three, at least, deserved to appear in more propitious times, especially David Remnick's account of the So viet Union's last days, Lenin's Tomb (Viking, £18.99). This is a cleverly titled, stylishly presented and elegantly written collection of essays, loosely linked chronologically and thematically, which had their genesis in the author's articles for the Washington Post.

Remnick is as much a writer as a reporter; he can be spare or lyrical, pedantic or polemical, as his narrative requires. He is a master of the mini-investigation - tracking Gorbachev and his wife Raisa back to their origins through those who knew them; and tracing the minutiae of the 1989 Nina Andreyeva affair, when a minor Leningrad lecturer of Stalinist tendencies was taken up by the conservative opposition in Moscow in an almost successful attempt to depose Gorbachev.

Remnick's list of interviewees and contacts reads like a Who's Who of the unmaking of Soviet communism. At one point in his book he almost regrets that so many of his contacts were "politicians or journalists" - but such, he adds at once, were the times.Indeed they were, and Remnick's colourful accounts of his meet ings will ensure for his characters, even the smallest bit play ers, their place in history.

It is perhaps the author's sense of the bigger historical picture that is this book's chief merit. Not only has Remnick caught the exhilarating mood of those years (1988-92) when anything could, and did, happen; he has also grasped the enormity of what he has witnessed - the end of an empire and an era. Appreciating the historical aspect as he does, a recurrent theme is the rediscovery by the Russians and other peoples of the Soviet Union of their history, including their gradual and painful realisationthat for decades their leaders fed them lies.

Remnick's is, by and large, an optimistic account. Of the August 1991 coup, he says in his preface: "We all saw that day what so few could have predicted: Soviet citizens, workers, teachers, hustlers, children, mothers, grandparents, even soldiers - all standing up to a group of ignorant men . . . in their hurried calculations the conspirators assumed the masses were too exhausted and indifferent to fight back. But tens of thousands of ordinary Muscovites were ready to die for democratic principles. It was said then, and is said even now, that the Russians know little or nothing of civil society. How strange, then, that so many were willing to give up their lives to defend it." He is convinced that there will be no return to the past.

The tone struck by Stephen Handelman in his Comrade Criminal (Michael Joseph, £16.99) is, while not quite despairing of Russia's future, far less confident than Remnick's. Taking up the story almost where Remnick leaves off, Handelman sees Russia's second revolution as having been "stolen" - by communists-turned-speculators on the one hand, and the criminal underworld on the other. Hence his title.

Until now, only two things have been widely known about crime in Russia: that it seemed to spiral out of control after the end of Soviet rule; and that finding out about it is difficult and dangerous. Much painstaking research and many bizarre encountershave enabled Handelman to shed light on some very dark corners of contemporary Russia: from the everyday gangsters who control whole regions of cities, to the army top brass who sell weapons to buy cars.

Post-communist Russia, Handelman argues, is in danger of becoming a state run by criminals for criminals, in which the honest are the losers. It is his section on the clandestine trade in nuclear ma terials that will probably attract most attention, if only because the unauthorised transfer of nuclear weapons across national frontiers is the stuff of the West's worst nightmare - a nightmare, incidentally, that was deliberately and unscrupulously exploited by the KGB as the Soviet Union neared its end.

Handelman's quizzical approach and easy style make the book as entertaining as it is informative. Of the three works reviewed here, it is the most satisfactory as a book: the subject is well-chosen and discrete. Yet I cannot completely subscribe to its overall thesis - the new Russia as criminal state.

Crime, to be sure, is far more visible than it was, as is wealth. But comparisons with the Soviet era can be misleading, because crime was a taboo subject. Russia's transition from misguided central planning to a law-governed state was bound to be messy,and the dividing line between ill-gotten gains and legitimate profit will be fluid for a while yet, but it does not mean that Russia is, or will be, a criminal state.

John Kampfner's "insider" book, Inside Yeltsin's Russia (Cassell, £17.99) brings the story almost up to the present - through the attempted parliamentary coup of October 1993 and the ensuing elections in which Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalists made such gains. While eminently readable, Kampfner's book is a curious mixture of themes and styles: part memoir, part analysis, part history.

Kampfner's problem in writing of Yeltsin's Russia is that the story is far from complete. As Russians like to say, things are often clearer when viewed from a distance, and this account may be just too close up. Although it is well spiced with anecdotes and bizarre personal encounters, the narrative is sometimes hard to follow.

Yet Inside Yeltsin's Russia has its merits. It conveys the feel of the times - unstable, insecure but worth a gamble - and the authentic sense of the place - chaotic, dirty and glitzy by turns. Kampfner also knows how Russia used to be in those distant Soviet times and recognises how far it has come in less than five years. He knows from his own experience that life for many Russians has improved and he is not afraid to say so.

Each of these books, in its own way, improves on what is already available about the Soviet collapse and its aftermath. David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb recreates the authentic atmosphere of the Soviet Union's last days as no one else has been able to do; Stephen Handelman's Comrade Criminal offers a wealth of insights and information, and John Kampfner's Inside Yeltsin's Russia demonstrates both the fragility of the present regime and the great progress that has been made.

Yet none by itself answers a question I am repeatedly asked by non-specialist readers: which single book can they read to understand what has happened in Russia in the past five years? Remnick's needs to be read alongside a conventional history; Handelm an's is a study of just one side of Russian life; Kampfner's is a detailed slice of Nineties Russia, but lacks the broader historical perspective. We are still waiting for that single, authoritative, all- encompassing account.