Editor’s Note: This article by Eugene H. Methvin appeared in the March 19, 1990, edition of NR.
Last month Leninism filed for Chapter 11. Gorbachev’s reform Communism now looks like a halfway house. Suddenly, it’s multiparty time. Could it be Yeltsin’s hour?
Mikhail Gorbachev, who a few months ago called the notion of a multiparty system for the Soviet Union “rubbish,” rattled the Central Committee meeting on February 5 by declaring himself all for it–”at a certain stage.” And like good democratic centralists, all the committeemen who could be cadged into an interview by U.S. network correspondents outside the Kremlin gate agreed–some glumly, some gladly.
One who was grudging in praise for Comrade Gorbachev was Boris Yeltsin, now universally labelled a “maverick” in Western news shorthand. He was the only one of the two-hundred-plus members to vote “No” on Gorbachev’s proposed new Party program renouncing the Communist monopoly on power–because the reforms didn’t go far enough: “The time for half measures is over. We are sitting on top of a volcano.” Asked whether he would lead a new party, Yeltsin answered he would have to wait to see what kind of new program Gorbachev and the Communist Party adopt.
But in fact Yeltsin and his followers were what the regional secretary from Kazakhstan, Svyateslav Medvedev, was talking about when he told the Washington Post’s David Remnick, “Let’s face it. We already have a multiparty system in effect.” In effect, but not actually yet effective in the sense that people can vote the rascals out and see new faces in office after the election.
But wait. The USSR’s largest republic, the Russian Republic (RSFSR), embracing 52 per cent of the nation’s people, has an election March 4 for republic and local Soviets. And Boris Yeltsin is running in Sverdlovsk, where he was first Party secretary from 1976-1985. A local journalist says “there is no question whatsoever that he will win.” And if nominated for chairman of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin says he will “not back out of the contest.”
In that post he will have a “bully pulpit.” He will quickly become the second most prominent, and probably second most powerful, political figure in the country.
YELTSIN, like the USSR itself, is a man very much in evolution. Last September he had hardly landed in Manhattan before he told the press: “All my impressions of capitalism, of the United States, of Americans, that have been pounded into me over the years have changed 180 degrees in the day and a half I have been here.”
Asked by Dan Rather in September to predict Gorbachev’s future, Yeltsin said he has “maybe a year,” and if there is no improvement in the living standard and “social justice” there will be a “revolution from below.” His broad grin at the start of his comment revealed volumes about his own idea on who would be the logical leader for such a revolution, though he termed it potentially “a very dangerous thing.” Dangerous indeed–and one can imagine Boris Nikolaeyevich being shot as a result of that grin.
But probably not. Gorbachev finds in Yeltsin a useful scarecrow to keep the apparatchiki moving toward perestroika. At key turns, Gorbachev has helped him, not altogether out of altruism.
For example, the Washington Post reported Yeltsin drank a quart and a half of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whisky during his night at Johns Hopkins University. An Italian reporter leaped from that to cable his paper that Yeltsin was touring America as if it were “a bar five thousand kilometers long.” Pravda republished the Italian’s dispatch, stirring up a storm of protest from Yeltsin admirers.
Then two revolutionary things happened. Pravda published a retraction and apology–a “grovel,” some Westerners called it. This astonishing about face reportedly came at Gorbachev’s personal and direct command, and in a couple of weeks Pravda’s conservative editor, Viktor G. Afanasyev, was replaced by one of Gorbachev’s close personal aides. Then, after Yeltsin’s return, Soviet state television broadcast in the prime-time slot just before the evening news his Johns Hopkins speech and his interview in America on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour. Amazed Soviet viewers saw him predict cataclysm at home and tell how he felt “twice as free” after circling the Statue of Liberty. Observed Remnick, the Post’s Moscow correspondent: “The truth is, Yeltsin is a hambone . . . [who] will doubtlessly walk away from the whole affair with his popularity higher than ever.”
Gorbachev had hardly been in power in the Kremlin six months when he reached way out to Sverdlovsk, in western Siberia, for Yeltsin. Gorbachev and Yegor Ligachev, second-ranking Politburo member and the man in charge of Party cadres, knew him as a capable manager and leader, and they needed such men. They put him in charge of construction, the lowest job in the Party leadership.
Gorbachev and Yeltsin are the same age, both born in early 1931. But their careers were notably different. Gorbachev was a Party activist by age 21, in 1952, when he was a student at Moscow University, and when Stalin the Terrible was still living. Yeltsin did not join the Party until a decade later. He stayed in Sverdlovsk, graduated in 1955 from the Ural Polytechnic Institute, and at thirty years old was a rising construction engineer-manager, before he took the political plunge. And that happened to be the same year Stalin’s body was removed from Lenin’s side in the great granite mausoleum on Red Square, when Khrushchev was in control and the “revisionists” were on the rise.
WHILE GORBACHEV was a model law student and Party careerist, Yeltsin was always a hellraiser. As a boy during World War II, he and two friends sneaked into an arms warehouse and stole two hand grenades. He tried to take one of the things apart, and blew off the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. He claims that just after the War, he bummed around, a tramp or “homeless,” looking for opportunities and trying to understand his country. Somewhere along the way he had a brief fling as a prizefighter.
In 1976 he was made first Party secretary–boss of the Sverdlovsk obkom, or region. In 1981 he began public meetings with students, non-Party members, and Komsomol leaders, apparently seeking to project a populist image. At those sessions questions about the Afghan war and Poland’s declaration of martial law were raised. He also made a reputation as a managerial tiger in 1982 when the American embargo jeopardized the gas pipeline to Western Europe; he prodded a factory into producing needed parts ahead of schedule and below cost. But he was independent or impolitic enough to object when the Kremlin leadership told him to open a museum in a building where Brezhnev had lived in the 1920s. Yeltsin was summoned to Moscow where, as he recalls, only the young Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev supported him.
When Gorbachev and Ligachev plucked him to Moscow in July 1985 a Siberian warned a Muscovite, “We have sent you a real bulldozer.”
In Moscow the Bulldozer proved so effective in the construction ministry that six months later, when Mr. Gorbachev decided to kick out Victor Grishin, oldguard Moscow Party boss, on February 18, 1986, he put Yeltsin in the post; he was also made a candidate member of the Politburo. Yeltsin pronounced Grishin’s epitaph, portraying him as presiding for twenty years over a growing mountain of corruption, complacency, and bureaucratic bungling. The Moscow health service, for example, was shot through with malpractice and peculation; some 20 per cent of its investment funds simply disappeared, and for those outside the nomenklatura elite, medical attention was virtually unobtainable without bribing somebody. Yeltsin infuriated some rank-and-file Party members. But the Bulldozer was only cranking up.
In April 1986, Yeltsin announced that eight hundred trade officials had been arrested for bribery and abusing the lines of shoppers. He attacked certain bureaucrats by name. In his pugilistic, lapel-jabbing style, he challenged them to get out of their limousines, ride the buses, and find out what life was like for ordinary folks. He stood in line at stores, listening to people’s complaints, and took to the streets, often with crowds at his heels, to admonish busdrivers and butchers to give better service. “We dig and dig and still we don’t get to the bottom of this filthy well,” he scolded.
Sprinkled through Moscow and clustered around the Kremlin, the heart of Soviet bureaucracy, are dozens of zakaz shops, special stores that prepare rich grocery parcels for delivery or pickup for top Communist Party brass. He and his wife made a point of shopping in state markets. After his ouster, Yeltsin told a Western reporter: “The head of the state Agriculture Ministry will never fight for a food program so long as delicious foods are still delivered to his house. For him, the food problem was solved a long time ago.”
Yeltsin liberated Moskovskaya Pravda, the local party newspaper, whose reporters began to produce probing articles about sensitive local issues such as special schools for the children of Party members. When the nomenklatura elitists argued that they work so hard they deserve their special cars, clinics, and stores, Yeltsin sneered and called them “an inert layer of time-servers with Party cards.” But when he launched personnel shakeups and mass firings of Party regulars, he ran head-on into their Kremlin champion, Cadre Commissar Ligachev.
IN APRIL 1987 the wife of a senior Party official wrote in a Moscow newspaper this warning: “Don’t snipe at us. We are the elite and you cannot halt the stratification of society. You are not strong enough. We will rip the puny sails of perestroika and you will be unable to reach your destination. So cool it.”
A few months later Yeltsin was out. He went to Gorbachev complaining that Ligachev was interfering in his personnel appointments. Only later did Yeltsin (and the world) learn that one of his secretaries was delivering all his messages and reporting on cabinet happenings to Ligachev.
When Yeltsin came out of the provinces, he still apparently had some idealistic belief in the Communist system and its ability to change. But Moscow showed him how it really ran, and Yeltsin was shaken to his core. He began vociferously interrupting Politburo meetings to criticize Party deadwood and the slow pace of perestroika. Gorbachev, by his own later public account, began to pull Yeltsin aside to urge him to be “more polite” to the Politburo’s white whales.
On October 21, 1987, the Central Committe met to hear a two-hour report by Gorbachev on the anniversary-celebration plans. Yeltsin surprised Gorbachev and everybody else by announcing that he had sent a letter of resignation both as Politburo member and as Moscow Party boss. He charged that perestroika had failed to deliver a better life for the common people and was being stifled by false reporting and false optimism, and sabotaged by Ligachev. Then Yeltsin delivered an unmistakable slap to Gorbachev himself. Politburo members are “too nice to one another” and “say too many nice things” about Gorbachev, he snorted, whereas they should be prodding him harder. It was an audible rattle of the old Stalinist “cult of personality” bones.
The three hundred or so Central Committee members sat in stunned silence for long moments. Then the comrades put on a sterling diplay of groupnost, solidarity in the face of the maverick. Ligachev led off, and one by one ten Politburo members and 17 other high officials rose in a three-hour barrage to denounce the upstart.
Finally Gorbachev spoke. It was clear he regarded Yeltsin’s fusillade as a kind of stab in the back. He gave Yeltsin a tongue-lashing: “Have you reached such heights of self-admiration and is your opinion of yourself so great that you have put your own ambitions above the interests of the Party and the cause? Are you so politically illiterate that we need to give you classes?” Nevertheless, Gorbachev magnanimously saw that Yeltsin was given a prestigious position as number two commissar in the construction ministry.
Word of this Vesuvian eruption leaked to the Western press ten days later. Though the Soviet press said nothing, Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, and other Western radios broadcast the news. And the Soviet public’s reaction was overwhelmingly pro-Yeltsin. Petitions of support were delivered to City Hall. A young actress departed from the script in the midst of a performance to accuse the audience of standing by and doing nothing while a new “Hercules” come to clean Moscow’s Augean stables was expelled; the audience responded with astonished silence, then applause, and the next performances were sold out. Lapel buttons popped out all over bearing the hero’s portrait and proclaiming, “Tell ‘em, Yeltsin!” He continued to tell ‘em. In Remnick’s analysis: “Giving interviews to Western television stations, blasting high-ranking Soviet leaders in the official press, Yeltsin has become a one-man populist party.”
The populist took his case “to the people.” He jumped squarely into the March 1989 election of delegates to the new 2250-member National Congress of People’s Deputies. (They in turn elect the 542 members of the new Supreme Soviet, the standing legislative body which is to meet for two sessions a year.) Of course the Moscow Party ignored him when it picked its candidates to fill its one hundred reserved seats. So he sent word to local constituencies he would resign his Party post and run, if nominated. Using a fine-print electoral law, Party activists tried to pack the pre-electoral meetings, where success was necessary to win a place on the ballot. But the ten rival candidates, including a much-decorated cosmonaut, were swamped. Yeltsin’s supporters turned the Moscow district nominating caucus into a virtual coronation. Yeltsin gave a stem-winding speech lashing out at the senior-party functionaries’ privileges and urging wide discussion of the benefits of a multi-party system. The ex-prizefighter bellowed into the microphone, “I am physically fit and ready to fight!” “Skazhee ‘um, Boris Nikolayevich!” became a campaign war cry. “Tell ‘em!”
The crowds were simply wild about him. New York Times correspondent Bill Keller wrote: “Mr. Yeltsin has a rapport with an audience that is rarely seen in Soviet politics and is a bit frightening even to some of his supporters.” And to Yeltsin too–in a quiet moment later he said to Keller: “The ineptitude of the leadership, their lies and libels about me, created an unhealthy hullaballoo around my name. Not a cult, but an unhealthy hullaballoo.”
In the midst of the campaign, the Central Committee created a commission to investigate whether Yeltsin’s call for discussion of a multiparty system violated Party discipline. This provoked an angry protest march by thousands of Yeltsin’s supporters through the center of Moscow. Chanting “Down with Party bureaucrats!” and “Hands off Yeltsin,” they ended up a block from the Kremlin outside Moscow City Hall, demanding an end to official attacks on their hero. The boomerang effect was huge. Sociologist Leonti G. Byzov conducted periodic polls and found that in early March Yeltsin had 60 per cent of the electorate, but two weeks later after the Central Committee action, his support had soared to 80 per cent. On election eve more than ten thousand rallied in his cause.
THE ELECTION was a stunning, shocking defeat for Party apparachiki all across the Soviet Union, and a colossal triumph for Yeltsin. He rolled up 5,118,745 votes to 392,633 for his chief opponent. The debacle was so embarrassing that Pravda for days made no mention of the victory margin. Sociologist Galina Staravoitova compiled statistics showing 20 per cent of the nation’s regional Party secretaries lost, and 30 per cent of other high-ranking apparachiks also lost. Some 35 regional Party secretaries were beaten.
The Party stalwarts were sobered but not daunted. They had a built-in majority under the election law, and they used it. When the Congress of Deputies met in May to choose the 542-member Supreme Soviet, the apparachiki simply excluded most of the radical reformers, including Yeltsin. While the reformers occupied up to 30 per cent of the Congress seats, they were reduced to between 10 and 15 per cent in the legislature.
Yeltsin’s exclusion provoked a furore. That night thousands filled a Moscow park under banners proclaiming: “Down with the Stalinist-Brezhnevite Supreme Soviet.” On the fourth day, the Congress reversed itself, and Gorbachev may have engineered the move. A university law lecturer from Omsk announced he would forfeit his seat in the Supreme Soviet if the Congress would give it to Yeltsin. Gorbachev welcomed and shepherded his motion through. That evening as Yeltsin walked from the Kremlin along Gorky Street toward his apartment, hundreds of Muscovites flocked to him, cheering, chanting, shaking hands, and holding out babies to be kissed. “Dissatisfaction with the election of the Supreme Soviet was mounting and by tomorrow the results might have been unpredictable,” Yeltsin said, and he claimed “a warming” with Gorbachev. “I always supported the strategic line of Comrade Gorbachev, and moreover I fought for it.”
The three hundred or so reform deputies elected a five-man collective leadership including Yeltsin and Sakharov. Yeltsin was tops in votes with 92 per cent, so he became the first rotating chairman. The reformers’ agenda called for radical reform of the economy and contested elections for the presidency. They also urged laws on pensions, children’s rights, and property.
Yeltsin, a simple construction engineer, may not be an ideological sophisticate who comprehends all this sociological claptrap, but he does understand that he is not able to build a new building without some prior demolition, and he sees a ramshackled old structure in the way. Just as clearly, Gorbachev sees a certain utility in reminding the nomenklaturists that the Bulldozer is ready to lead a populist revolution and to clean house of the Little Stalins.
On February 5, as many as three hundred thousand people marched in Moscow, easily the largest mass demonstration since Lenin’s day. They waved placards reading, “Freedom Now!” and “Soviet Army–Don’t Shoot at Your Own People,” and “Party Bureaucrats: Remember Rumania!” Yeltsin roused the crowd: “This is the last chance for the Party. . . . This is also Gorbachev’s last chance. Either he acts or he loses us.”
ANDREI SAKHAROV’S death leaves Yeltsin the only opposition leader with nationwide name recognition and stature to challenge or supplant Gorbachev in a crunch. In the July 1989 wildcat coal-miners strike a panicky Kremlin hierarchy openly admitted their own bankruptcy by calling him forth for a nationwide televised appeal to the strikers. Yeltsin made clear he spoke not for the Party but for the new legislature’s independent radicals. He is no Churchill, but today one can imagine an upheaval in which Yeltsin could be called to lead the Soviet equivalent of Churchill’s “National Government” of May 10, 1940. Whether events present the Bulldozer with his opportunity, and what he will make of it, constitute suspenseful elements of the gripping drama unfolding on today’s Moscow stage. Yeltsin is a Gargantuan player who enthralls Soviet and American audiences alike, and he will undoubtedly help shape the futures of us all.
Mr. Eugene H. Methvin is a senior editor at Reader’s Digest.