Commentary Magazine

Yeltsin-and After

Yogi Berra is said to have once proffered this advice: “If you come to a crossroads, take it.” Russia seems to be following his counsel. It is simultaneously moving forward, toward democracy and the free market, and backward, toward authoritarian rule and imperialism. The man who has presided over this perplexing behavior is Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin has three major accomplishments to his credit: during the critical post-Gorbachev years, he prevented Russia from sliding back into Communism; he dissolved the Russian empire; and, for the first time in Russian history, he rose to be head of state by popular vote. How durable these accomplishments will prove to be is, however, far from clear. For no sooner were they put in place than their author began to backpedal.

Yeltsin’s legacy, and his place in history, thus remain very much in doubt. In the meantime, we are indebted to a new and illuminating biography by the Russian émigré scholar Leon Aran1 for insight into where this fascinating creature came from, and who he became.



Nothing in Yeltsin’s youth or early career—he was born in the Ural Mountains in 1931—pointed to a remarkable future. He started out as a construction engineer, dutiful and hard-working, and joined the Communist party in 1961 at the age of thirty. The move indicated not so much political ambition as a desire to get ahead in his profession. But the party hierarchy had its eye on him. In 1976, he was appointed first secretary of its regional committee in the city of Sverdlovsk (now once again, as before the Revolution, Ekaterinburg), an important industrial center. There, in 1977, on orders from Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB, he demolished the so-called Ipatev House where, 59 years earlier, Communist thugs had murdered the Russian imperial family. In 1981, he rose to full membership in the party’s central committee.

Yeltsin soon attracted the attention of the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev. Within months of becoming the party’s general secretary in 1985, Gorbachev brought him to Moscow to take charge of the country’s largest and most important local party committee. The authorities had every reason to expect he would play by the rules. Just to make sure, they rewarded him with the customary emoluments of a top-level member of the nomenklatura, including, in Aro8/28/2008n’s words, “an enormous official dacha . . . serviced by three cooks, three waitresses, a maid, and a gardener,” plus access to exclusive food stores, hospitals, and resorts and the use of a jumbo jet.

That Yeltsin was no ordinary careerist, however, should have become clear to the authorities when he refused to move into his luxurious country house, preferring to stay in a two-bedroom apartment in an unfashionable part of Moscow that he and his wife shared with their daughter. Such behavior spelled trouble because the entire Communist system was held together by elite privileges and entitlements that had given rise to social inequalities inconceivable in “bourgeois” countries. Yeltsin, of course, knew how the regime worked, but he apparently had no idea how wide the gulf was in Moscow, where 40,000 members of the nomenklatura enjoyed a living standard comparable to that of Western elites while the capital’s ten million ordinary citizens had to struggle for the most basic necessities. Impulsively, he probed the system, taking his place incognito in store queues and riding the subway. The experience left him enraged.

As word got around that, unlike his predecessors, the capital city’s new boss cared for ordinary people, Yeltsin became something of a popular hero. Emboldened, he began to challenge the very fundamentals of the Leninist-Stalinist system, asserting in speeches that party officials owed responsibility not to the party but to the people, and insisting that all Soviet citizens be treated equally: “We cannot allow again [a situation in which] some live under the law and others above it.” With the instinct of a born politician, he sensed a groundswell of support for his views, and decried with increasing daring the inequalities pervading Soviet society.



Under normal circumstances, such defiance would promptly have led to dismissal and disgrace. But these were not normal times: the situation in the country was quite desperate, and growing more so with every passing day. Although many Russians today look back with nostalgia to life under Communism, Aron reminds us just how misplaced such feelings are. In the late 1980’s, when the system was still intact, 43 million Soviet citizens lived below the official poverty level, set at 75 rubles or $7.50 per person a month. Another 100 million barely survived on 100 rubles or $10 a month. Together the two groups made up 47 percent of the Soviet population. One-sixth of Soviet hospitals had no running water; 30 percent lacked indoor toilets. And so it went. The Communist system was grinding to a halt, incapable not only of keeping up with the rest of the industrialized world but of providing its people with minimal goods and services.

In the face of this reality, Gorbachev and his advisers, determined to implement a (limited) program of reform, were struggling to overcome the resistance of entrenched party interests. But Yeltsin moved audaciously to take charge of the mounting popular disaffection. In late 1987, criticizing the slow pace of change and complaining that he had no party support for his efforts to improve conditions in Moscow, he asked to be relieved of all his posts, including candidate (nonvoting) membership in the Politburo. It was a move without precedent in the entire history of the Soviet Union. The Communist party was not a political party in the ordinary sense, to be joined or left at one’s pleasure, but a militant order, permanently at war with the rest of the world, whose officials could no more ask to be released from their posts than army officers could resign their commissions in the midst of battle. For violating this hallowed principle, Yeltsin came under furious attack as a renegade by, among others, two future heroes of the anti-Communist movement, Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev.

What saved Yeltsin was Gorbachev’s realization that reform was impossible within the existing political framework: to overcome the resistance of the nomenklatura, it would be necessary to carry out a certain degree of democratization, enlisting the populace in a struggle against the elite. This was an immensely risky step, but one undertaken in the apparent conviction that both the reform program and the Communist ideal enjoyed broad popular support.

Gorbachev’s revolution from above was institutionalized in early 1989 by the formation of a “Congress of People’s Deputies”—a hastily conceived representative body outside the Communist-party structure. A certain proportion of the delegates to this assembly was to be chosen in free elections, and Yeltsin seized the opportunity to present himself as a candidate from Moscow on an openly anti-Communist platform. The only objective of socialism that had been realized, he asserted, was the socialization (i.e., the expropriation) of property: hence, there could be no perestroika, or renewal, since there was nothing to “renew.”

As Aron relates, his assault on the regime made him a national hero: he was swamped with mail from all parts of the country, and wherever he went he attracted immense crowds. In the event, he won a seat in the 1989 Congress with a stunning 92 percent of the Moscow vote.



In the fall of the same year, Yeltsin, well on his way to becoming the most popular politician in the USSR, visited the United States in the hope of seeing the country for himself and gaining support for his democratic agenda. He was overwhelmed by what he saw; as he himself would later relate, the journey was an “endless row of collapsed stereotypes and clichés.” An unplanned visit to a supermarket near Houston made him realize what his own country was missing: Yeltsin, Aron writes, quoting an eyewitness, “was in ‘shock.’ ‘For a long time,’ on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands. ‘What have they done to our poor people!’ he said after a long silence.” In the opinion of a close adviser, “the last vestige of Bolshevism collapsed” in Yeltsin during this trip.

Yet, for all his open admiration of America, Yeltsin’s request to see President George Bush was turned down. It is sobering to learn from Aron’s biography how remarkably insensitive the Bush administration was to the Yeltsin phenomenon. So fixated was the White House on maintaining “stability” in the Soviet Union—as, two years later, it would be concerned with maintaining “stability” in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—that it avoided doing anything that might offend Gorbachev or undermine his authority. It preferred moderate Communism to democracy.

Rebuffed in his request to meet Bush, Yeltsin was instead passed on to Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser. On his way to the meeting he was repeatedly humiliated, being ushered through a basement entrance to the White House and asked to wear a visitor’s tag. A “two-bit headline-grabber” was Scowcroft’s impression of his visitor, while President Bush, who by prearrangement had dropped in for a few minutes of inconsequential banter, observed that Yeltsin was no “Mr. Smooth” like Gorbachev.

Tragically, and as if to lend inadvertent credibility to such assessments, Yeltsin, the greatest popular tribune Russia had known since Alexander Kerensky (the moderate revolutionary overthrown by the Bolsheviks in November 1917), was about to reveal a trait that would prove most unfortunate both for him and his country: a tendency to fall into depression at the very moment of triumph. The cause of this behavior lay deep in his psychology—temperamentally, he was a man who flourished in crises. This trait, which would surface time and again, and in the end cause him untold harm, became apparent at the end of the 80’s when, rather than press his victory, he withdrew and let others organize the liberal forces in the congress.

Before long, however, he emerged from his lethargy to champion a fresh cause: the breakup of the Soviet Union. The various so-called Soviet republics—nominally sovereign, but in fact colonies of Moscow—were beginning to stir as Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and political liberalization provided the first legal outlets for their frustrated nationalism. The three Baltic republics, acquired by the USSR in 1940 in a deal with Hitler, were the first to demand genuine sovereignty; others followed.

To curb these strivings, Gorbachev resorted to a combination of concessions and coercion. Yeltsin, by contrast, came out in support of the republics, and in a most unconventional manner: he not only affirmed every Soviet republic’s right to secede, as guaranteed by the constitution, but called on Russians to exercise the same right. The tactic proved popular. In June 1990, at Yeltsin’s behest, the Congress of People’s Deputies declared Russia a sovereign republic, democratic and law-abiding, with strict separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

In this manner, Yeltsin and his allies, in Aron’s words, “snatched the powerful idea of Russian national ‘renewal’ from party conservatives and ‘national-patriots’ and pressed it into the service of democratic modernization.” The secession of Russia from the union enabled Yeltsin to circumvent not only Gorbachev but the whole Communist apparatus, and to carry his case directly to the people of the largest and most populous of the Soviet republics. In the summer of 1990, he resigned from the party. One year later, he ran for the presidency of Russia and won with 57 percent of the vote. He now had his own power base.



The same events that propelled Yeltsin to the presidency of Russia had the effect of pushing Gorbachev to the right. Having distanced himself from the reformers, and having quietly abandoned his ambitious “500-day” economic-reform program, Gorbachev now became a captive of the conservative party establishment. That establishment was especially alarmed by Yeltsin’s moves to dissolve the empire. In August 1991, a group of party functionaries and generals staged an abortive putsch.

Yeltsin responded to this act of sedition with the same courage and energy he revealed in the face of other crises. Backed by thousands of Muscovites, he neutralized the troops whom the putschists had sent to the so-called White House and liquidated the mutiny, emerging as the savior of Russia’s fledgling democracy; indeed, the putsch would prove to mark the last gasp of the Communist regime. But then, at this culminating point of his political career, he once again faltered.

In November 1917, having seized power, Lenin had moved with remarkable speed to liquidate all opposition and eradicate every trace both of the czarist government and its democratic successor. Three-quarters of a century later, Boris Yeltsin proved far less deliberate. He did outlaw the Communist party, which had stood behind the putsch, but he soon relented, allowing a reconstructed party to participate in elections. He refrained from bringing the August putschists to trial. He left undisturbed the myriad symbols of Communism scattered across the country, including statues of Lenin and place-names commemorating him and his regime. He even failed to remove Lenin’s mummy from its mausoleum in Red Square, which at that moment he could have done with impunity.

Aron interprets this inaction as proof of Yeltsin’s tolerance and conciliatory spirit. In some measure it probably was: he may well have desired to avert a disastrous split in the nation between Communists and anti-Communists. But it was also, and above all, a symptom of weakness and indecision. Post-World War II Germany had outlawed the Nazi party and prosecuted wartime criminals, and yet remained democratic. Tolerance of mutiny is not a sign of democracy; to the contrary, it can prove fatal to democracy.

Yeltsin’s revolution—for such it was—stopped halfway, leaving in place its, and his, most determined foes. Barely two years later, in October 1993, he had to resort to military force to crush another antidemocratic rebellion, this time centered on the Supreme Soviet. And once again, victory having been gained, he retreated, allowing the mutineers to run in parliamentary elections with free access to public radio and television.



He did take two decisive steps after August 1991. One was to meet with the heads of Belorussia and Ukraine and sign an accord dissolving the Soviet Union. This act not only unraveled the Soviet empire created by Lenin and Stalin but deprived Russia of the imperial conquests of the czars going back to the 17th century. The traditional link between the nation-state and the empire was broken.

The other post-August 1991 measure was to carry out a sweeping reform of Russia’s economy. The immediate objective of this program, directed by Yegor Gaidar, was to unleash the nation’s productive forces and prevent an economic catastrophe. But there was also a political goal: to neutralize the Communist elite by allowing it to appropriate a good part of the nation’s wealth and, at the same time, to undercut the economic basis of Communism. In pursuit of this goal, Gaidar abolished fixed prices and wages in favor of prices determined by supply and demand, and privatized many state enterprises.

The reforms succeeded in their objective of shifting ownership of resources from state to society: by 1996, 70 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product would come from the private sector. The effect was to depoliticize the bulk of the nation’s trade and industry. But the reforms also had a negative effect, in the form of hyperinflation. This wiped out savings at the very moment when the dismantling of the Soviet state had deprived citizens of basic social services. A large proportion of Russians thus found themselves drifting in a world of private enterprise that they neither understood nor were equipped to cope with. Yeltsin’s popularity dropped precipitously.

Faced with problems for which he was intellectually and temperamentally unprepared, and losing contact with his constituency, Yeltsin grew despondent. “After clearing the ground of huge stumps and boulders,” Aron writes, “he seemed not to know how to till and husband.” And he adds: “In 1994, the Kremlin press secretary often found the president at a bare desk in ‘deep and sad pensiveness.’ ” It was in this mood that he ventured on what Aron describes as “the most serious political error of his life”: the assault on Chechnya.

Ostensibly carried out to defend the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, of which Chechnya was a part, this operation was in fact driven by the perception that “reform and democracy no longer united and inspired.” The stunning electoral triumph of the nationalist demagogue, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, in the 1993 balloting for the Duma persuaded Yeltsin that Russians had become more responsive to nationalist appeals. The military campaign was a replay of events 90 years earlier, when the czarist government, under mounting assault from peasants and liberal intellectuals, decided that it needed, in words attributed to the then-minister of war, A. N. Kuropatkin, “a short victorious war” to unite the country—and so provoked a fight with Japan.

As had happened in 1904-5, Yeltsin’s offensive against rebellious Chechnya turned out to be neither short nor victorious. The demoralized Russian army, battling a fanatical Muslim enemy thoroughly familiar with its terrain, suffered defeat after defeat, each of them brought to the public’s attention by Russia’s now uncensored press. In the end, facing mounting public clamor, the government had to concede defacto sovereignty to the Chechens.

Coming on top of inflation, this was a humiliating blow. Yeltsin’s popularity continued to sag: by January 1996, his support plunged to 10 percent. Nevertheless, he managed to win the presidential election the following summer by cleverly presenting the contest between himself and the leader of the Communist party, Gennady Zyuganov, as a choice between advance toward a promising future and retreat to the unpalatable past. To this end, he ruthlessly exploited the media at the government’s disposal.

This victory was the last gasp of the old Yeltsin; from then on, it was all downhill. As his health deteriorated, he found himself less and less able to direct state affairs, management of which passed to what came to be known as “the Family,” consisting of his daughter, Tatiana, the oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, and a handful of trusted insiders. The man who but a few years earlier had denounced privilege now became fond of power and the entitlements it brought. Immured in the Kremlin, he lost contact with the citizenry to whom he once had been so close. He cut a pathetic figure.

To some extent, it is true, Yeltsin’s decline was due to the fickleness of the Russian electorate, which displays no political allegiances and expects its leaders to accomplish what it is unable to do for itself. In the fall of 1917 the same fate had befallen Kerensky—the country’s idol only six months earlier. But much of the blame must rest on the erratic behavior of a man who had lost his bearings.



Leon Aron has written an outstanding political biography. In some respects, indeed, his book provides the best available account of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fitful attempts to build a modern state on its ruins. His research is prodigious, involving, in addition to a wide range of published sources, interviews with people who have worked with Yeltsin at various stages of his career. The book is written vividly and with considerable literary skill.

It is, of course, not without flaws. On the minus side, I would mention Aron’s superficial knowledge of pre-1917 Russia, which deprives Yeltsin of historical depth. Curiously, he pays more attention to the French revolution of 1789 than to the Russian one of 1917. And there are numerous minor but irritating mistakes in historical allusions.

Unfortunately, too, the narrative slows with the beginning of Yeltsin’s second term and ends abruptly in late 1997. Since the final, catastrophic two years of his administration are gone over rapidly, Aron is able to offer a rather too sanguine assessment of Yeltsin’s overall achievement. The book’s concluding chapter, “In Search of a Historical Yeltsin,” is a 50-page paean to the creator of a new Russia, the man who has broken definitively with the legacy of authoritarian rule, militarism, and imperial expansion. Indeed, Yeltsin is compared here with no lesser a historical figure than Abraham Lincoln.

I believe history will not judge Yeltsin so grandly. Undeniably, he tried to replace the defunct totalitarian state with democracy, and he succeeded in demolishing the work of Lenin and Stalin to the point where a revival of Communism in Russia appears virtually inconceivable. But, as Jean-François Revel has said, “escaping the consequences of Communism is harder than escaping Communism itself.”

Yeltsin’s enemy was not just the Communist apparatus, to which he delivered the coup de grâce, but the mentality of the Russian people—a mentality shaped by centuries of arbitrary authority and lawlessness that 70 years of Communist rule had only served to reinforce. This enemy he did not in the end fight, but joined. If, in the late 1980’s, Yeltsin’s keen political sense had told him that the country yearned for democracy, so in the late 1990’s it delivered a different message: Russia craved a strong hand, and the restoration of its pride as a great power. As he had listened to vox populi then, so he listened again; this time, it propelled him rightward.

Yeltsin’s greatest disservices to Russian democracy occurred during the last year: first, resuming, on specious pretexts, the offensive against Chechnya, and then, three months later, resigning in favor of his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin. In so doing, Yeltsin moved up the presidential elections from June to March, making it difficult for rival candidates to organize, and giving Putin the opportunity for three months to serve as the country’s acting head of state. In the light of Russians’ awe of government authority, this will make a defeat of Putin appear to be a virtual coup d’état. Already his people have hinted that a vote against the acting president in the midst of a war against Chechen “terrorists” would be an unpatriotic act.

To judge by some of his public pronouncements, Putin stands for everything that Yeltsin, in his earlier incarnation, fought against. He believes that Russia is not ready for democracy—that what it needs is “the restoration of a guiding and regulatory role of the state.” In his view, the state should intervene in the economy; the security services are a bulwark of statehood; and the improvement of the nation’s economy requires a substantial increase in military spending. This successor to the man who a decade ago had adopted the United States as his model in nearly everything is an ex-KGB spy who seems to regard the United States with deep suspicion.

The first decree Putin signed after assuming office was to grant Yeltsin immunity from prosecution for serious charges of corruption. Aside from everything else, one cannot help wondering what has happened to the principle of “one law for all,” so bravely proclaimed by Boris Yeltsin a mere ten years ago.

I suspect that as Russia slides back into its old habits, future generations will see Yeltsin as an astute politician rather than as a statesman and father of democracy.



1 Yeltsin. St. Martin’s, 896 pp., $35.00.


About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).

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