I recently finished Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, a superb piece of reporting—David Remnick was one of the few American reporters in Russia who actually knew the language and could go out and talk with ordinary people, and it shows. Anyone who wants to know what the last years of the USSR felt like from the perspective of an informed outsider will want to read this book. Here’s a bit about Dmitry Likhachov:
When he was a boy, Likhachev watched the February and October revolutions from his window. A decade later he had an even closer view of the rise of Soviet civilization, courtesy of a five-year term in a labor camp. Likhachev was arrested in 1928 for taking part in a students’ literary group called the Cosmic Academy of Sciences. The club posed about as great a threat to the Kremlin as the Harvard Lampoon does to the White House. For election as an “academician,” Likhachev presented a humorous paper on the need to restore to the language the letter “yat.” The Bolsheviks banned the letter as part of a campaign to “modernize” Russian after the revolution. Later, one of Likhachev’s interrogators railed at him for daring to waste his time on such things.
“What do you mean by language reform?” the interrogator shouted. “Perhaps we won’t even have any language at all under socialism!”