Remnick paints like Seurat. Rather than depict reality in straightforward analytical terms, he lets the shape of the Soviet Union's passing emerge from a mass of variously subtle and vivid dots of paint. The dots are the people he came to know during his assignment to Moscow as the Washington Post's correspondent from 1985 to 1991. He offers no conceptual framework for understanding the demise or Gorbachev's ultimately counterproductive effort to prevent it. Instead he lets the system's defects speak for themselves: the corruption, the reckoning with the Gulag, the trivial self-seeking of the apparat, the failure of social safeguards (for example, against homelessness) and much more. Even these are not described and weighed in a formal sense. The scale and nature of the corruption emerges from the tale of the Remnicks' nanny, who to bury her mother had to bribe everyone from the scheduler of funerals to the grave digger and, in the end, pay a sum equal to three months' wages. At the other end of the spectrum stands the regional Uzbek party leader who lived in a vast estate with peacocks, lions, thoroughbred horses and concubines. Thus each of the dimensions of the problem and of Gorbachev's answer is revealed.
With relish Remnick sets aside his journalist's neutrality, letting his emotions show throughout the book. As a result some of the people who represent evil, such as the dotty woman who does not so much embody Stalinism as pine for the man, are more caricatures than characters. Other more serious players, like Yegor Ligachev, when Remnick does not have much time for them, emerge as but half themselves.
Because he is such a fine writer, Remnick's tales and portraits are superb, and his book, from beginning to end, is as absorbing and entertaining for the specialist as the general reader.