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.
Virtually all observers had always agreed that, for human reasons, Communism was not sustainable in the long run; but the likely ending of the Soviet system in world war and apocalypse was too frightful to envisage. The introduction of a process of election to the Soviet and then the Russian parliaments proved to be all that was necessary. The process was partial, and rigged in several respects, but it was still enough to widen factionalism out into open politics. An alternative to the Communist monopoly of power was at hand. The merits of democratic procedure have rarely been so convincingly demonstrated.
Almost certainly, Yeltsin saw in these elections only the means to have his revenge on Gorbachev. Their mutual animosity had become obsessive and total. Nobody could predict who would win, or what the consequences might be for the losers. Anxious to be on the winning side, petrified by Stalinist memories of Siberia and worse, bureaucrats and generals and even the KGB suspended all decision-making until they knew which way to jump in safety. The state was paralyzed.
Far less intelligent than Gorbachev, Yeltsin won through tactical skill, daring, the support of Andrei Sakharov and the handful of like- minded reformers who understood what was at stake-and last but most importantly, luck. Unforeseeably, the coup of August 1991 enabled Yeltsin to seize the role of popular tribune and champion of liberty, standing on a tank for all the world to applaud and remember. The August conspirators well knew that force was the prime Communist instrument, and it is again inexplicable-the hand of fortune-that they did not make sure to kill Yeltsin. In the aftermath, he duly rubbished Gorbachev, dissolved the Communist party and the Soviet Union too, granting the national republics their freedom. What Gorbachev had begun unconsciously, Yeltsin finished consciously. It was in his interest to do so, but a wonderful feat all the same, and Aron is right to acclaim it.
The Russia that Yeltsin took over was a ruin the like of which had never been seen in peacetime. Here was a constitutional and legal void, a bankrupt economy, and, most dire of all, a moral wasteland. In his own bulldozer style, Yeltsin pushed through his form of a state and called it democracy, a word he misappropriated like the old Communist he was-its proper functioning seemingly remained alien or remote to him. He promulgated a constitution that gave him as president an almost absolute power, including supremacy over the legislature and the judiciary. He ruled directly by decree, signing thousands of them every year and appointing governors to do his bidding in the provinces, as czars had done in their own day. In the absence of any checks and balances, he set the unique record of flattening with artillery two parliaments, one in Moscow, the other in Grozny. Threatened with losing the 1996 elections, he was tempted to annul them altogether in the tried and tested Communist manner, but at the last moment refrained from doing so. He had trouble accepting privatization as the indispensable basis of future freedom and prosperity, but nonetheless allowed it to proceed, and then drifted in the nationwide and criminal asset-stripping that ensued. There is freedom of the press in Moscow, but still no rule of law.
In the mid 1990s, rumors first bubbled up that Yeltsin might be railing loudly against corruption, but was himself a symptom of it. Supposedly, he had foreign accounts, and owned property abroad. His daughter, Tatiana Dyachenko, was accused of accepting bribes and then laundering the money on her own and her father’s behalf. Yeltsin’s cronies were businessmen, generically called the Family, most of them busily transforming former state monopolies into private monopolies of their own, protected by hired gunmen. A Yeltsin signature on a decree was the equivalent of a title to property, and clearly the man could not possibly read and digest the stack of decrees placed every day on his desk. Here was the ideal breeding ground for middlemen, lobbyists, intermediaries, and percentage-brokers. No social contract could form. Yeltsin came to preside over a state without functioning taxation and welfare systems, without a responsible bureaucracy or military. So close was this experiment to anarchy that many poor people were hungry, and some of them hankered for a return to Soviet tyranny.
Yeltsin’s intellectual limitations caught up with him. Apparently incapable of analyzing and remedying the causes of breakdown and lawlessness, he retired into a secluded moodiness and increasing illness. Stirring himself, he would fire his prime ministers and their cabinets, sometimes on television, without any warning, in the manner of a conjurer with a favorite trick. Clapping and cheering from the Clinton administration drowned the groans of Russians.
According to Aron, always on the defensive, Yeltsin in office broke the law but only in behalf of some higher interest, and he compares Yeltsin in this respect to Abraham Lincoln and Charles de Gaulle. There were no ground rules about how to make a fresh start after a catastrophe like Communism, it is true, but lawbreaking is hardly the convincing test of greatness that Aron thinks.
About Yeltsin the man, his tastes and beliefs, his personal conduct and character, Aron has little to add to the official version crafted in the Kremlin. For some time now, the Moscow media have been publishing more and more detailed allegations about the activities of Tatiana Dyachenko and the Family. Gigantic scams briefly loom into sight, only to vanish like the Flying Dutchman. This may be all malicious gossip, but then why was it necessary for Yeltsin to obtain an indemnity from all investigation into his financial affairs before he was prepared to resign in favor of Putin? Aron is silent on this whole topic, either through reticence or reluctance to remove his rose-tinted spectacles.
Communism vanished with hardly a shot fired in anger, and humanity will always have reason to be grateful for this miracle-grateful too for Yeltsin’s leading part in it. But in spite of its length, this biography might one day soon prove less than complete.