This is the rather flattering self-portrait of a populist leader who has already traveled quite far: Boris Yeltsin, once a protégé of Mikhail Gorbachev, is now his main, and very resentful, rival. Produced with the help of a ghostwriter, the journalist whom the author thanks in the introduction, the book recalls the quickies published in the United States to boost the chances of a presidential hopeful. It is not quite a rags-to-riches story, since Yeltsin made a successful second career as the scourge of the privileged, but the subtitle could have been From Shack to Kremlin. Elected last March to Russia’s Parliament and spoken about for the presidency of the Russian Republic, he is now obviously aiming for the very top.
He did start at the bottom. He was born in 1931 on a farm in the Sverdlovsk region of the Urals, but four years later his father went to work on a construction site because the family could not make ends meet. For the next ten years they lived in a crowded wooden hut, a communal building without any amenities. Poverty did not prevent the bright but boisterous Boris from getting excellent marks at school. He was good at games as well; a volleyball champion, he trained six hours a day. He nevertheless graduated brilliantly in civil engineering from the Urals Polytechnic Institute and did very well in his trade. At the age of 32 he was the manager of a house-building combine employing several thousand people. Then, switching to party work, he climbed that ladder just as successfully. By the end of 1976 he was the first secretary of the industrially important Sverdlovsk region, and he remained the local viceroy for the next nine years. or until the end of the so-called age of stagnation.
With perestroika came his rise on the national scale, his sudden fall and his even more spectacular recovery. In 1985 Gorbachev, having taken over, called him to the capital. Yeltsin became a member of the national party secretariat and was put in charge of construction: that December he replaced Viktor Grishin as party boss for Moscow. It was in that position that he gained his reputation as the purger of the apparatchiks, the enemy of corruption and privilege. He also approached the seat of supreme power, becoming a candidate member of the Politburo. His stay at the very top, however, was short-lived. Feeling that Gorbachev did not back him in his trial of strength with Yegor Ligachev, the leader of the conservatives, Yeltsin wrote him a letter of resignation in September 1987. The rest is public knowledge. A month later, at a dramatic session of the party’s Central Committee, Yeltsin was crushed. In November he was dragged from a hospital bed to attend a session of the Moscow organization that kicked him out of his job. He was also removed from the Politburo.
But things are not what they used to be. Opponents are no longer liquidated in the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, though down, was not quite out. He remained a member of the Central Committee and Gorbachev offered him a job of ministerial rank in Moscow (as deputy head of the building commission). Stunned by the first serious setback in his career, Yeltsin gradually recovered and began a comeback. At the special party conference in the summer of 1988 he climbed the rostrum and delivered another attack on privilege. Yet the really sweet revenge came in March 1989 during the first elections to the newly established Congress of People’s Deputies. Yeltsin picked the star contest, the huge Moscow constituency, and he crushed the candidate of officialdom by obtaining 89.6 percent of the votes cast. (Indeed, the book is built around this triumphal election, each chapter beginning with some reflections during the campaign and then proceeding in flashbacks.)