An Ambiguous Legacy

An Ambiguous Legacy

Mini Teaser: Boris the Not-So-Great.

by Author(s): Gabriel Schoenfeld

 Leon Aron, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000).

Has any peacetime political leader ever brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia, a former superpower turned into a mendicant? The old Soviet economy may have been creaking noticeably, but it hardly compares to the shambles that is the Russian marketplace today. Whereas the militia and the KGB formerly kept order in the streets (and everywhere else), there is now soaring crime and ubiquitous corruption. The army, once feared around the world, can no longer even put down minor insurrections within Russia's reduced frontiers. The communist leaders of the old USSR had their grave flaws, but at least they behaved with a measure of decorum. They did not appear in public intoxicated, as Yeltsin did during a state visit to Germany in 1994, snatching the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempting to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world.

From the public record of his deeds, it is easy enough to frame a searing indictment of Boris Yeltsin. Indeed, by the time he stepped down this past December, the Russian president was widely despised in his own land and, in the sharpest possible contrast to the last leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, had few if any admirers abroad. Yet, while the critics have ample ammunition to fire at Boris Yeltsin, there is, as we see from Leon Aron's richly researched and highly readable biography, another side to their target. The story of the Russian leader's "revolutionary life" is far more complicated, and his achievements far more significant, than his critics both within Russia and abroad acknowledge.

Boris Yeltsin was born into typical Russian misery in the village of Butka in the Ural Mountains in 1931. From an early age he emerges in Aron's pages as a frequent risk-taker, intermittent trouble-maker and somewhat erratic leader. While still a schoolboy, he guided a gang of friends into an arms depot to steal some hand grenades that he then attempted to disassemble with a hammer. To this day, he conceals his injury -- two fingers are missing -- by means of strategic placement of his left hand.

As he entered adulthood, Yeltsin's most distinctive trait was an extraordinary dedication to his work in his chosen field, construction. In a universe of sloth, thievery and alcoholism, he stood out as a relentlessly hard-driving manager who gave neither his subordinates nor himself a respite. His Stakhanovite devotion insured a quick rise up the rungs of the only serious career ladder around, the Communist Party. Unusual for anyone in those hard-pressed years, he shunned the advantages afforded the privileged class from the start. In Aron's portrait, he comes across as an example of a rare but not entirely unknown species: an honest communist, a man of integrity like Gorbachev, but, unlike Gorbachev, far more earthy and practical and not so deeply in the grip of communism's ideological inanities.

This is not to suggest that Yeltsin in his early years was in any way a heretic. After he became head of the Sverdlovsk party apparatus in 1976, his speeches were as fawning toward the "deep and profound" Leonid Brezhnev as those of any other communist apparatchik. What was distinctive about him beyond his zeal for toil was a proclivity for what Aron calls "bain de foule" -- bathing in the crowd. Unlike a good many of the officials running the workers' state, he was simply not afraid of the working class, and he would make his way around Sverdlovsk on overcrowded city buses, visit ordinary bare-shelved stores, and hold meetings with rank-and-file citizens in which he would give startlingly candid answers to questions from the floor. His reputation for conjoining efficiency with the popular touch was instrumental in securing him the successive promotions that took him from construction foreman to regional party chairman, and then, in 1985, to Moscow and membership in the ruling Politburo.

Gorbachev's decision to place Yeltsin in charge of the largest and most visible local Communist Party machine in the USSR was, in Aron's words, a "bold and shrewd gamble." In some ways it paid off -- but not for Gorbachev himself, for whom it ended in humiliation and disaster. Arriving in Moscow just when things in the USSR were looking as if they could not get worse -- three Soviet gerontocrats, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, had just died seriatim and the stresses on the system were mounting as never before -- Yeltsin was to set in motion forces that were hardly expected or welcomed by the man who had brought him to the center of power.

Operating under Gorbachev's slogans of perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin used his Moscow perch to declare war on the hidebound and highly recalcitrant local party apparatus. His vigorous attacks on the establishment's privileges gained him an appeal across the strata of the nominally classless Soviet society that rapidly outstripped Gorbachev's. In short order, the two men were locked in combat, with Yeltsin publicly chastising Gorbachev for launching an incipient "cult of personality", and Gorbachev lambasting Yeltsin for aberrant behavior and disloyalty. Whatever the merits of these competing charges, the emergence of a genuinely popular politician from within the Communist Party's ranks was an unprecedented development for the USSR. But Yeltsin's rise as an authentic leader coincided with so many other tectonic shifts that it was little appreciated in the West, particularly a West that was in the grip of a Gorbomania that the Russian populace never shared or grasped.

Indifference to Yeltsin's significance was certainly a pronounced feature of the Bush administration's hyper-cautious diplomacy in this period of revolutionary change. Its primary consequence was to leave the United States more or less on the sidelines in the midst of great events. As Aron recounts, on the occasion of Yeltsin's 1988 visit to the United States, Bush's national security team invited the Russian politician to the White House only to deliver a series of petty snubs, ushering him through a rear door away from the attention of the press, insisting that he wear a visitor tag ("I am Yeltsin", Yeltsin angrily declared as he thrust it aside), and refusing to arrange an official meeting with President Bush (who dropped in on Yeltsin's discussion with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft only as a carefully prearranged "afterthought"). This rudeness was dictated in part by Scowcroft's assessment that Yeltsin was a "flake", and in even larger part by the administration's unbending drive to maintain strong ties with Gorbachev, to whom it clung uncomprehendingly even after his power had evanesced.

Even if the main bet had to be on the man who was still in charge, Yeltsin was a horse on whom the Bush administration should have been placing money. When he began his assault on the party establishment in 1985, his outlook was radical for its time and place, but hardly as radical as it was to become. Like Gorbachev, he appears initially to have been convinced that the Soviet system could be repaired by shining a spotlight on corruption, malingering and privilege. But unlike Gorbachev, as he ran into a brick wall of resistance from conservative elements above and desperate bureaucratic infighters below, his essentially pragmatic disposition led him to jettison cherished dogmas with relative ease.

By 1988 he was no longer characterizing the Soviet system as "socialist" but rather as "state authoritarian" and "state bureaucratic", and he began openly to discuss the virtues of private ownership of capital and land. He also was unafraid to challenge the holy of Leninist holies: one-party rule. "To have free debates, and to avoid the cult of personality", Yeltsin told a student newspaper, "we must have two parties." By 1990 he had resigned from the Communist Party and won a free and democratic election to become chairman of the new Russian parliament.

Yeltsin's increasing radicalism coincided with Gorbachev's increasing conservatism, manifested in the latter's appointment to high office of the men who launched the abortive coup d'Žtat against their own patron in the summer of 1991. This tragicomic episode, recounted by Aron in exceptionally vivid and gripping detail, discredited Gorbachev for good and sent the USSR into its death rattle. Yeltsin's courage in this crisis, and the resonance of his appeal to Russian soldiers not to follow the illegal orders of the coup plotters -- "One can build a throne of bayonets but one cannot sit in it for long" -- turned him into an immensely popular national hero. By the close of 1991, the Soviet system dissolved, Gorbachev was pushed aside, and power fell into the hands of Russia's first-ever democratically elected president.

If Yeltsin gained glory on the way up to this mountaintop, he would encounter tragedy and disgrace on the way down. There was, of course, no roadmap for transforming a chaotic planned economy into a market one, and the transition had to be carried out in the midst of a staggering downward economic spiral. The remnants of the Communist Party, making use of freedoms they had themselves denied to others and increasingly showing a radically nationalist and anti-Semitic face, took every opportunity to paralyze the newly founded democratic state. The Russian republic, composed of peoples who had greatly suffered under the Soviet boot, itself began to splinter along ethnic lines. As Aron has little trouble demonstrating, Russia's problems in every sphere were so acute that no leader, no matter how wise and no matter how stalwart, could have successfully grappled with all of them at once. And Yeltsin, as Aron readily concedes in his generally admiring portrait, was not always wise or stalwart.

Certainly, his personal shortcomings, particularly visible in his last years of ill health but traceable throughout Aron's account, must be weighed in the balance. Drinking was one such shortcoming, but this was by no means the worst, both because it was greatly exaggerated by a hostile press and because Yeltsin had another far more consequential character defect. This was a tendency to lapse into melancholy and inactivity when not engaged in a fight. "In an urgent situation", as Yeltsin himself once explained, "I am, as a rule, strong. In ordinary ones, I can be lackadaisical."

But even this self-critical appraisal, along with all of Yeltsin's other real and imputed character flaws, must be placed in a context, and this is where Aron's biography truly excels. He shows that in condemning him as harshly as they have, Yeltsin's critics are suffering from amnesia with respect to the USSR's recent and not-so-recent past. If one considers the morass that was Russian society only a decade and a half ago under communist rule, not to mention the rivers of blood that were flowing there another five or so decades earlier, the Yeltsin era appears in a rather favorable light.

For one thing, Russia has held more than a half-dozen democratic elections since 1991, imperfections in the way they were conducted notwithstanding, and this year has witnessed the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected official; this is no small accomplishment for what was not long ago a totalitarian regime. For another thing, Russia has a press that is freer and more vigorous (again, allowing for imperfections) than anything throughout its long history of dictatorship and oppression. Though an ugly and brutal war has been waged in Chechnya, the forecasts issued by more than a few observers a decade ago of widespread civil war and total disintegration have not come to pass. The cutting-edge army that once drained the coffers of the government has been pared and pared again; Russia, it can be said, is no longer a military-industrial state. Millions, it is unquestionably true, have been thrust into poverty by the transition to a market economy, and thousands upon thousands have been unduly enriched, but it is too easily forgotten that virtually the entire citizenry lived in poverty under the old regime, while a privileged elite governed every last detail of their life and squeezed every last breath out of society. Today Russians live in freedom, and their country, far behind but rich in resources and talent, has a chance.

In the end, Aron is quite persuasive when he argues that Yeltsin would have had to work "miracles" in order to transform Russia in the way that his foreign critics, and much of the Russian populace, seem to assume was possible. Russia under Yeltsin may not have done all that well, but in comparison to what it was and to the disasters that could have happened but did not, it has done well enough. That is Boris Yeltsin's ambiguous but by no means trivial legacy.

Essay Types: Book Review