Leon Aron, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has over the past few years become known as an authority on Boris Yeltsin, a man he patently likes and has vigorously defended against his detractors, mostly on television programs such as The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. Regularly identified by his TV hosts as author of a forthcoming biography of Yeltsin, Aron has now produced the long-promised volume, and the least one can say is that it does not disappoint: The author is as generous in the assessment of his subject, as charitable in “accentuating the positive,” as one would expect from his television performances.
Aron’s book, more than 900 pages long, fairly brims with data and reflections–copious quotations from Yeltsin’s speeches and interviews; minute descriptions of the circumstances under which they were delivered; faithful reconstructions of Yeltsin’s moods, varying from euphoria to dark depression; apposite quotations from other thinkers (Isaiah Berlin, for one); historical digressions and comparisons pondered by the author during the book’s lengthy gestation. The intellectual fare produced by such cogitations–I might as well lay my cards on the table–is not very compelling. But it testifies to Aron’s earnest investment in his subject.
Aron also devotes a fair number of pages to Yeltsin’s childhood, youth and formative years as party first secretary in Sverdlovsk. Which is to the good, inasmuch as some of the traits that became so prominent during Yeltsin’s presidential (cum, for a time, prime ministerial) tenure were already sprouting during his apprenticeship. Yeltsin’s stamina, ebullience and industriousness were evident–as was his habit of running roughshod over subordinates who failed to meet his exacting demands, his scant concern for the niceties of democratic procedure and his uncanny ability to project a populist image combining scorn for the privileged higher-ups with concern for the man on the street. Notwithstanding Yeltsin’s stern criticism of his superiors’ bourgeois appetites, he earned their blessings and substantial popular support as well. Clearly, here was a man who knew how to get things done.
Aron is not merely an undiscriminating groupie. He takes note, for instance, of Yeltsin’s fawning attitude to his onetime boss bubbling energy” he extolled. Yeltsin’s speeches also bristled with mordant condemnations of the mistakes, ineptitude and grandiloquent claims made by party and government bureaucrats, some of them–this by implication–high-level colleagues. All this, however, was typical of Soviet rhetoric, with its pattern of extravagant praise for this or that achievement, immediately followed–with the mere introduction of the word “however” (odnako)–by a litany of criticisms and denunciations. (In time the “odnako syndrome” became a favorite subject of Soviet cartoonists.) In Yeltsin’s case both the censure and acclaim tended to excess (as did much else in his behavior), but Aron offers little evidence for his observation that astringent remarks about bureaucrats should be interpreted as a presentiment of Yeltsin’s future “revolutionary” challenge to the verkhushka (top leadership).
Indeed, the term “revolutionary,” which Aron uses in the title of his book and to describe the bulk of Yeltsin’s tenure, encapsulates the author’s basic approach to his subject. “Revolution,” after all, is a good word (forget 1917). Yeltsin, Aron acknowledges, committed many horrendous errors. Some of them arrested the country’s political and economic progress, some resulted in misery for millions of people, some vitiated the very democracy he vowed to uphold. Yet in Aron’s view, these were bound to be temporary and were indeed justified by their “revolutionary” end: to bring Russia into the realm of freedom and plenty.