Robert Service, twice biographer of Lenin, reveals himself in this volume to be a writer of small things: of the anekdot, or joke, which larded Russian conversation in the Communist era, and does so still; of the revealing characteristics of leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin’s habit of playing spoons on the pates of bald underlings; of the rankings of authors borrowed from Russian public libraries (James Hadley Chase first, Dostoevsky fifth, and Mickey Spillane, Arthur Conan Doyle and Maxim Gorky sharing nineteenth spot).
Great buildings are made of small bricks, and post – Communist Russia is revealed in these and a myriad other facts, held together by Service’s slightly staccato but always clear narrative. He reveals himself, too, as one who likes, even loves Russia (not invariably the case, with Russianists), because of, as well as in spite of, its messiness, its frustrations, its tantrums, and the overwhelming emotional power of its people.
In the game that everyone who writes about contemporary Russia feels compelled to play, Service presents himself as a cautious pessimist, having been, when the Soviet Union ended, a cautious optimist. He says he ‘did not foresee the full scale of the ensuing disappointment’. The book is a chronicle, in large part, of this disappointment: a story of rampantly criminal businessmen, cynical secret policemen, corrupt officials and despairing people, told with care and moderation and with the constant illumination of the particular.
As befits a writer who has had to take the measure of both the horror and the stature of Lenin, Service’s portrait of Yeltsin avoids both the hyperbolic praise of the former president’s last biographer, Leon Aron, and the exaggerated distaste of many of Russia’s journalists and politicians. But disappointment is, indeed, the prevailing tone: that a Russian president who had ‘people skills’ rivalling those of Lyndon Johnson and the courage to take on the Communist Party, the KGB and potentially murderous coup – plotters should have lapsed so often into drunken aimlessness and wilful spite.
With Vladimir Putin he is even less in sympathy: he sees him as authoritarian, with at best a highly qualified view of freedom, and a streak of ruthlessness that allowed him to declare war on Chechnya for motives of personal power. His analyses of lesser figures (at least in the eyes of the West) are, I think, even better. The portrait that emerges of Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party, is complex, neither skirting round his demagoguery and cultivation of anti – Semitism nor denying that the Communist leader is widely read in pre- and even anti – Communist works.
Service’s own sources are wide – ranging. His resume of current Russian literature includes writers who have been able to make some sort of fictional sense – even if in baroque and lurid ways, as with my own favourite, Victor Pelevin – of a reality whose sheer zaniness outstrips any fiction. He is roused to indignation by the ‘bloodbath in Chechnya’ (the name of one of his chapters) and the waste of lives and talents which the new Russia seems to entail. But his sense of humour is equally prone to being engaged – as by the stubborn Russian fascination with astrology, and with doctors and faith healers; by the family that stuffed its small flat with (inter alia) a goat, some geese and a small bear in case starvation came; and by the acerbic cartoons which are one of the joys of the Russian press (in one, reproduced here, a prison guard says to the convict he is leading off in chains: ‘Seems to me your face is familiar. Didn’t I used to vote for you?’).
In my opinion, his pessimism sometimes betrays him into wrong judgements. He is dismissive of the young reformers who ran Russia for the first year or two of its re – creation, seeing in their leader, Yegor Gaidar, little more than a neo – liberal calculating machine. Gaidar was much more than that: a figure of intellect, and also of courage. I witnessed him, in the course of a bizarre evening in the former convict capital, Vorkuta, in 1993, reminding a theatre full of local officials who hated him for doing so that they were celebrating the anniversary of a labour camp where thousands died. That took courage, to be sure, but also a conviction at which he had had to arrive independently, having been born into the Communist nomenklatura himself.
I also felt the need, at many points in the story, of an organising thought: a sense that Service had come to a grand conclusion, or a series of conclusions, more rigorous than the moderate pessimism. I wanted him to tackle the question of how far Russian development after 1991 could really have been much better – given that, under any conceivable regime, the economy was going to plunge, and Russia’s standing in the world plunge even further. It may be that Yeltsin was as good as any ruler could be, since he let the country sort itself out, albeit chaotically and criminally. In a much less detailed little book, Armageddon Averted (2001), the Princeton Russianist Stephen Kotkin proposes the view that ‘Russia’s was not, and could not have been, an engineered transition to the market. It was a chaotic, insider, mass plundering of the Soviet era.’ Robert Service’s disappointment implies that it could have been different. I don’t think it could, but I would have loved to see him argue his case.
Peter Truscott has a simpler case to argue: it is that Russia is now a failing, flailing ex – superpower, which cannot bear its loss of status. He illustrates this through the story of the Kursk, the pride of Russia’s submarine fleet, which, because of the negligent handling of an ageing, leaking test torpedo, blew up in August 2000, with the loss of all its crew. Truscott – a former member of the European Parliament, who knows Russia well – has written a tremendously well – informed, taut account of the disaster and the aftermath. It effectively disposes of the story that the disaster was caused by collision with an American or British submarine – a deception the Russian top brass tried to keep alive long after it was obviously false. The greatest pity of it, apart from the waste of young and brave lives, was the stunning (to our Western eyes) insouciance of the military and political leadership, more concerned to hide the incident or blame it on the Americans than to save submariners by appealing for expert foreign help and high – tech equipment they no longer had. Lessons were said to have been learned: the shallowness of these has been revealed in the callous and secretive response of the Russian authorities to casualties from the storming of the theatre in which, in October, a gang of Chechen terrorists held 800 hostages. I think Truscott overdoes his point that the Kursk disaster is a symbol of the crisis of Russia: the power of his story makes it for him, without his emphasis.
Russia is cruel as well as funny, granite – faced as well as sentimental. Service and Truscott, in their different ways, continue the rich British tradition of grappling with the enigma.