Too Good to Be True

Too Good to Be True

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 re


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.)

It is not only a success story, it is an edifying one. The man is virtue personified. The two defects he admits–being “prickly and obstinate”–can be viewed as a strength: He is stubborn enough to be unyielding. Otherwise the man is almost perfect. He is not only a sportsman and a scholar; he is a devoted husband and a loving father and grandfather who cannot spend enough time with his family because he works twenty hours a day, claiming a “total dedication” and an “insistence on high standards, and constant checking of work.” Even on his birthday he does not celebrate: “I would have spent the day doing something useful, and thus have given myself a birthday present.” The man is just too good to be true.

But this is, after all, that kind of a book. Its only difference from its American counterparts is that it was produced for foreign consumption, as if, jealous of Gorbachev, the author wanted to build up his international reputation. The book was published simultaneously in a dozen Western countries, but it has not yet appeared in Russia. Yeltsin, who toured Europe selling the book, offered a simpler explanation on French television: A book dealing with members of the Politburo must have that body’s approval before publication: glasnost has not yet gone that far but it soon may.

What do we learn in this plea pro domo sua about the issues at stake and about the man climbing to the summit? In Yeltsin’s version, the 1987 crisis was brought about by his refusal to be Gorbachev’s yes man as well as the latter’s reluctance to back him in the struggle against Ligachev and “the party’s bureaucratic machine, that holy of holies of our system.” When Yeltsin dared to criticize his proposed speech for the seventieth anniversary of the revolution, Gorbachev became “almost hysterical,” and, when he received Yeltsin’s letter of resignation, he procrastinated. Yeltsin was thus driven to bring matters to a head at the dramatic session of the Central Committee, and an incensed Gorbachev then masterminded the political massacre. Indeed, a vain, vindictive and pusillanimous Gorbachev gradually emerges as the villain of the story.

Yet between the lines you can decipher another interpretation. Yeltsin, as he himself admits, moved up the Moscow ladder unopposed because he was treated as a “Gorbachev man”–and a very ambitious one at that. He stresses the fact that he had been the first secretary of Sverdlovsk, a more important region than Gorbachev’s Stavropol, and adds, “But he had been promoted to the rank of the general secretary of the Central Committee. I think Gorbachev knew this was on my mind, but neither of us gave any sign of it.” One can guess that the ambitious newcomer wanted, at least, the place of second-in-command. He also tried to dictate the pace of events and the hour of confrontation with the conservatives. When Gorbachev, who had his own plan of battle, would not listen, Yeltsin simply precipitated things…and got slaughtered. Gorbachev let Yeltsin’s enemies have their fun and the campaign, particularly the witches’ trial at the Moscow party meeting, was ugly and reminiscent of the Stalinist past. The victim, clearly, has neither forgotten nor forgiven. The skilled politician, judging by these pages, is now driven not only by ambition but also by a thirst for revenge against Gorbachev.

Are the two men separated by their attitude toward inequality? Yeltsin did build his reputation as the stern critic of perks, and the most interesting pages in this book are those describing the privileges of the party aristocracy: “special hospitals, special vacation retreats, the excellent Central Committee canteen, the equally excellent service for home delivery of groceries and other goods, the Kremlin telephone system, the free transportation.” All this is for the nobility. For the real princes, the sky is the limit, or, as Yeltsin wittily puts it, at the top of the pyramid “it’s full communism!… A dacha behind a high green fence encircling spacious grounds along the Moscow River, with a garden, tennis courts, and playing fields, a bodyguard under every window.” He himself, as a candidate member of the Politburo, had “three cooks, three waitresses, a housemaid and a gardener with his own team of assistant gardeners.”

Compared with the standard of living prevailing in the country, this is undoubtedly shocking. On closer reading, however, the indignation is less convincing. Yeltsin accuses Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev of having public dachas. He would not mind if they had private dachas, as in the West. He thus shows both his ignorance (Bush, Mitterrand and Thatcher also have public “dachas” at their disposal) and his bias. On his recent American journey, overwhelmed as he was by the American supermarket, Yeltsin was unable to distinguish between the accumulation of joys and the joy of accumulation. This,bias, however, is also politically understandable. The populist leader is now the ally within the so-called Democratic Platform of the “meritocratic” intelligentsia, which is not against privileges as such, only against those of the apparatchiks. Hence, probably, the shift in his position.

Indeed, the reader has a sneaking suspicion of maneuvering all along. Yeltsin was certainly the victim of the police and a section of the propaganda machine. Yet his own explanations about, say, how he was pushed from a bridge into the river but told the police to hush the whole thing up are not always very convincing. Even more troubling is the passage about Pamyat, the reactionary and anti-Semitic association. Yeltsin was often accused of having received its leaders when he was party chief in Moscow. Here he describes the circumstances under which he decided to do so. Whether one agrees with his choice is a matter of taste, but what is perturbing is that he does not seize this opportunity to dissociate himself from any form of Russian jingoism. He gives the impression of being a populist who would hate to lose any bloc of potential votes.

The impression is reinforced by the absence of policy proposals in the book. Yeltsin says nothing serious about Stalinism, but that, after all, was not his time. The lack of any analysis of the Brezhnevian society within which he prospered is more problematic: Would it have functioned adequately had there been many more Yeltsins? In the last pages, where he tries to mix theory and program, the author is not at his best. To argue that the acceptance of private property will, among other things, bring to an end “the alienation of the state from the individual and his labor” is rather strange coming from somebody who claims to have been trained in Marxism. But then, Yeltsin now suggests that Russia is the last country “trying to enter the twenty-first century with an obsolete nineteenth-century ideology,” presumably Marxism.

The hitch with Yeltsin is that it is difficult to pin him down to any ideology or line. One cannot accuse Gorbachev of lacking any long-term strategy and fail to provide even the rudiments of an alternative. The attack on Gorbachev is not a substitute for policy. The root of the evil in perestroika is not that Mikhail and Raisa, who love luxury, want to have a public dacha rather than a private one. A book is only a book. Judging by this one, Boris Yeltsin has the political skill but not the intellectual and moral stature of his ultimate ambition.

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