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An Optimistic Look Into the Daily Reality of the New Russia

RESURRECTION: The Struggle for a New Russia

By David Remnick

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Random House

398 pp.,$25.95

The great virtue of "Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia," by David Remnick, is that he gets the story right. In describing present-day Russia, that is no mean feat.

Watching Russia today is like watching molecules bounce: It is moving in every direction at once, so that almost anything one says about where Russia has come from or where it is headed will be at least partly true.

Intelligent and well-informed people look at the country and see a society in free fall, a sort of slow-motion collapse, with a new class of corrupt robber barons getting rich among the ruins.

Equally intelligent and knowledgeable people see a young economy on the brink of a boom that could last for decades as this well-educated and resource-rich country emerges into the world economy.

The daily reality of Russia provides plenty of evidence for both visions.

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Few writers are better equipped to tell this story than Remnick, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for "Lenin's Tomb," his story of the last days of the Soviet empire. He is a graceful and sometimes entertaining writer, his reporting is reliable, his knowledge is deep, and his judgment is sound.

The problems of the book, to a large extent, are the problems of the subject. Who can find the story line in the lurch and drift, the bouncing molecules, of modern Russia? Who can even tell if players such as Boris Yeltsin, still the only president Russia has ever had, is the hero or the villain of this story without conclusion?

Yet the narrative direction too often stalls as Remnick empties his notebooks onto the page from his interviews. Some interesting commentary there, but where are we going?

If there is a theme in this muddle of contradictions struggling to emerge, it may be in this line from Remnick: "One of the most troubling deficiencies in modern Russia is the absence of moral authority." The search for moral authority may even explain Remnick's long detour on these pages with the great writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn awoke both the West and Russia to the full moral horrors of Soviet communism. But that's a different book.

Some sections of this book are pulled directly from magazine pieces that Remnick has written for The New Yorker over the past year. A detailed account of his meeting with a former head of the KGB now trying to peddle his memoirs seems as pointless a distraction here as it did in a pre-election story in the magazine.

Remnick gets credit for keeping his balance. He makes it very clear that President Yeltsin's war on Chechnya was horrible and morally repugnant on a scale that Chechens will never forget and history will not forgive. He notices that while Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin represents stability and predictability to Westerners, "to Russians he represents the worst of Yeltsin's government: suspicion of corruption, oligarchy, and an almost fantastical disregard for the public."

And yet Remnick is an optimist, seeing a country that may be ready to break its long history of czarist, then communist, absolutism, just as postwar Germany and Japan broke absolutism in their histories. "An entirely new era has begun," he writes. "Russia has entered the world, and everything, even freedom, even happiness, is now possible."

But Remnick does not tell us how this will happen or satisfactorily develop this idea. Instead, he has strung together a newslike account of the political history of Russia since 1991 - an intelligent, well-observed summary, but not a great story.

* Marshall Ingwerson is one of the Monitor's Moscow correspondents.

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