All the President's Mien | The Nation


All the President's Mien

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Like Lincoln and de Gaulle, two men the biographer reveres, Aron is confident that Yeltsin will come to be regarded as a member of a "club, perhaps history's most exclusive, consist[ing] of those who took over great countries on the very brink of a national catastrophe, held them together, repaired and restored them, and, in the process, changed them fundamentally for the better." Both de Gaulle and Lincoln, he says, did not "hesitate to deploy large-scale and often indiscriminate violence," and both regarded "the acquisition, retention and aggregation of personal power...[as] inseparable from the good of the nation." Ditto presumably for Yeltsin who, like de Gaulle and Lincoln and other (unnamed) members of the "club," never "crossed the line beyond which fundamental democratic principles were irreparably compromised. 'Dictators' to their 'critics,'" they all "belong instead to that rare political breed: authoritarian democrats."

About the Author

Abraham Brumberg
Abraham Brumberg has written extensively on Russian and Eastern European developments.

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Few of those who followed the David Irving libel trial held in London
three years ago could avoid being struck by the calm but towering
presence of the British historian Richard Evans.

A tantalizing term, but how did Aron arrive at it? For one thing, by his predilection for seemingly compelling but in fact misleading comparisons. I am not an authority on either Lincoln or de Gaulle, nor have I read the rather sparse sources on which Aron based his comparative reflections, but I find it difficult to see how Yeltsin's career, first as a Communist believer and then as an authoritarian (all right, democratic authoritarian) anti-Communist, has much in common with the political biographies of those two men.

Moreover, Yeltsin wielded power under turbulent but quite different circumstances. In 1993, perhaps the most crucial year of his tenure, he repeatedly used arbitrary methods and blatant lies (such as indiscriminately labeling his adversaries "fascists," "Communists" or both) to hobble the democratically elected legislature, many of whose members were at first highly sympathetic to him, and to concentrate more power in his own hands. (In his autobiographical The View From the Kremlin, published in l994, Yeltsin gloats about preparing to give the Parliament "a good horse-whipping.")

Yeltsin's rhetoric was applauded by many "democrats" who demanded the abrogation of all political rights enjoyed by their right-wing adversaries. As the year drew to a close, he finally succeeded in dissolving the Congress by force, in the process causing more than a hundred casualties, gutting the Supreme Court and foisting a new Constitution on the country with enormous powers vested in the presidency. The legitimacy of the vote approving that Constitution has been challenged by a number of distinguished Russian intellectuals; Yeltsin, however, managed to sidestep this criticism, and the critics finally gave up. The biographer writes not a word about this.

It is true that in 1991 a severe shortage of goods afflicted food stores and living standards were ravaged, but Aron offers no evidence to demonstrate that these forces determined Yeltsin's behavior. Nor is it helpful to speculate that Yeltsin truly believed in the "retention and aggregation of personal power" as "inseparable from the good of the nation." So, one can assume, did Stalin. So certainly did Lenin (if we substitute the word "proletariat" for "nation"), and so thought many other would-be and actual dictators.

Aron pays scarcely any attention to Yeltsin's personal ambitions and dubious methods. Although he does not give his hero an entirely clean bill of health, he generally portrays the events of that year, 1993, in Manichean terms, a struggle between Boris, Angel of Light, and the multiple demons of Darkness. He never considers the possibility, one that has been convincingly argued by the former Guardian correspondent in Russia, Jonathan Steele, that Yeltsin himself deliberately precipitated the violent confrontation between the Supreme Soviet deputies and the Russian armed forces that October (see Steele's Eternal Russia, 1994, a book not listed in Aron's bibliography--which is in general very short on works critical of Yeltsin).

Aron stresses Yeltsin's rejection of traditional Russian nationalism and gives him credit, rightly, for helping to remove all restrictions on Jewish cultural, religious and political activity, and thus for being instrumental in reviving Jewish life in a part of the world long infected with anti-Semitism. He also points approvingly to Yeltsin's settlement of many fractious issues between Russia and Ukraine, capped by the 1997 treaty of friendship and cooperation between the two countries. (Though it is hardly surprising that Yeltsin was sympathetic to the country that stood by him in December 1991, along with Belarus, in a secret meeting at which Yeltsin and his cohorts, with a stroke of a pen, announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and thus dealt a powerful blow to Yeltsin's main rival, Gorbachev.) Finally, he mentions Yeltsin's consistent support for the national aspirations of the Baltic peoples.

All these points are true--to a degree. But the major credit for bringing about the end of imperial Russian behavior--that is, in Eastern Europe and in Soviet relations with the West--belongs squarely to Gorbachev, to his new foreign policy and "new political thinking." True, there were differences between the two men: Yeltsin, eager to undermine Gorbachev, was bent on bringing about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, on the other hand, wanted to preserve it in one form or another--though emphatically not (Aron to the contrary) by resort to force. It is Gorbachev, not Yeltsin, who was the major architect of the Soviet Union's and then Russia's foreign policy, of establishing the era of peaceful relations (rather than the specious "peaceful coexistence") with the West. Similarly, when Aron praises the vitality of political pluralism (as evidenced by regular elections) and the relaxation of censorship, he attributes both to Yeltsin, thus minimizing the enormous importance of Gorbachev's policy of glasnost.

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