Boris on a Pedestal


Editor’s Note: This piece by David Pryce-Jones, in which he reviews Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, by Leon Aron, appeared in the March 20, 2000, issue of National Review.

Boris Yeltsin had a career unpredictable from beginning to end. A hard-core Communist, he reinvented himself as Russia’s first democratically elected president. In the process he engaged in a power struggle with Mikhail Gorbachev that had a Homeric quality about it. Yeltsin’s energy was as reckless as it was impressive, and he had a gambler’s dangerous courage. Did he really have the measure of his historic role as he crashed his way through failures and successes alike, or was the destruction of Communism and the Soviet empire one of those happy accidents that every so often regenerate human hopes? That is a question to fascinate posterity.

The man was massively built, with a sportsman’s physique, the voice of a Russian bass, and hair prematurely white and beautifully combed. He had presence, and projected it variously to suit the audience and the mood of the moment-the Siberian primitive, a bear in a wild rage, and then in contrast a czar, simultaneously savior and sinner, and finally the spokesman for nothing less than the aspiration of Russians at last to be free from the unrelieved despotism of their history. The years in power expired in impotence and corruption, and he resigned like a chess player under the menace of inescapable checkmate. His successor, Vladimir Putin, lately a KGB shining star, now promises an updated mutant of Communism, or despotism with a human face.

Yeltsin himself has published several ghostwritten pleas in his own defense, and there are Russian journalists who form a claque to give him the benefit of the doubt. Leon Aron is the first to come up with a full-throated oratorio of praise. For him, Yeltsin was faultless, a great man who did no wrong; but if in fact he did do wrong, then it was right; and if it wasn’t right, then he had no other choice. Instinctively sound, he rose to every occasion.

Born in Moscow in 1954, Aron was just too late for Stalin but in time for firsthand knowledge of Communism. In the gloomy days of Brezhnev, he was able to emigrate to the United States, and today he is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Relief that he is no longer a Muscovite permeates his book. He brings a lot of inside information, some of it rather showy, and in Russian phrases too. Everyone who is anyone in Moscow opinion-making circles gave him interviews by the hundred, all duly scissored and pasted and footnoted over 900 garrulous and exhausting pages. If there is a byway, Aron cannot resist dawdling in it, indulging in minute details of politics which are far beyond the scope of biography. Though Yeltsin will never have a biographer more determined to justify him, he himself seems to have provided Aron with no information. This failure to collaborate in what should have seemed providential image-fixing is the book’s chief mystery.

Like all Russians of his generation, Yeltsin grew up in squalor and fear. His grandfather was deported from his village as a kulak, a peasant accused of being rich, and he soon died. His father was sentenced to three years in a hard-labor camp. An uncle was exiled as a “saboteur.” Thoroughly brutalized, the Yeltsin parents were eventually reunited with their children-and a goat-in a one-story wooden barracks which they had to share with a score of other families. The need to escape seems to have motivated Yeltsin. A good student, a hard worker, by profession an engineer, he was self-made. In the industrial city of Sverdlovsk, which has now reverted to its former name of Ekaterinburg, he rose through the ranks of a typical Soviet construction enterprise, and simultaneously up through the Communist party.

Provincial and intellectually limited, he never had time for theory, Marxist or any other. A party man through and through, he bullied others to achieve whatever the plan demanded. This single- minded Stakhanovite concern with norms and output earned him promotion. Himself appointed general secretary in 1985, Gorbachev handpicked Yeltsin that same year to run the Moscow city party organization, and then to join the Politburo, the supreme ruling body of the totalitarian state. Gorbachev too had grown up amid squalor and fear. By means of reform and openness, the famous perestroika and glasnost, he believed that he was in a position to perfect Communism, and in Yeltsin he thought he saw a man like himself.

The evolution of Yeltsin from loyal ally of Gorbachev into deadly rival is open to several interpretations, to do with personality and the exploitation of opportunity through the lying and intrigues that the Communist system standardized for everyone. But the decisive factor, according to Aron, was Yeltsin’s discovery in Moscow that perestroika and glasnost were beautiful but inapplicable ideas. Ordinary people, as Yeltsin was the first Communist leader ever to admit openly, led lives of helpless degradation, while party bosses were privileged thugs. Nothing could be done to change these extremes. Taking the unprecedented step of resigning from the Politburo in October 1987, Yeltsin became an instant folk hero and martyr.

Lenin had always maintained that the only real danger to Communism lay in factionalism. The moment the party ceased to speak in a single voice, its claim to absolute authority was open to challenge. To protect themselves against such an emergency, previous general secretaries would have had Yeltsin murdered or at least exiled. Gorbachev merely demoted him. This was also unprecedented, and a credit to Gorbachev’s character. At the same time, the leniency of the response revealed that he completely misread the essential nature of Communism. The instrument of force alone guaranteed the party’s supremacy, and the least attempt to moderate it- never mind genuine reform-led straight to confusion and chaos.