As a historian, Tumarkin is an iconographer -- an intensely involved student of two of the Soviet Union's three great cults: the cult of Lenin and the cult of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet name for World War II. In both cases, her interest entwines with a personal quest to come to terms with frequent and early death in her family. Her first book was on the Lenin cult. Here she attempts to understand the meaning of the war for the Soviet people and the use made of it by the regime, particularly in Brezhnev's time, when not much else existed by which to inspire workers and citizens.
Because she puts so much of herself into the book, because she lets the history echo through the moving stories of individuals, and because her writing carries the reader along, the book is engaging and emotionally satisfying. From the moments she spends with a volunteer group along the Volga river, unearthing the bones of unburied soldiers, cleaning them, and reburying them through her conversations with the sculptors who carved the war's monuments, one comes away from these pages with a much deeper and richer understanding of what the awful exactions of World War II have done to the people of this country. Analytically, however, Tumarkin does not try seriously to fathom the complex relationship of the regime to the war or the war's place in the leadership's mentality. Opposite her portrait of an immensely human people, she creates a cardboard government, too vacuous and vulgar.