Vladimir Bukovsky Reviews  

Boris Yeltsin's Autobiography

The world learned about Boris Yeltsin long before anyone interviewed him on television. We all heard first about his meteoric rise in the Soviet firmament and then about his meteoric fall, and still we had no opinion. There were all sorts of rumors about him, there was the official biography, which was not much different from the biographies of many Party functionaries, but little was known. The fact that his political resurrection some months ago was greeted with amazement speaks for itself.


When I saw Yeltsin on television for the first time, a few months after his brutal but short-lived downfall, I could not believe my eyes. It cannot be true, I thought; this type of person does not exist any longer. For looking straight into the camera was a typical Bolshevik, a Bolshevik straight out of central casting. Stubborn, overbearing, self-assured, honest, irresistible, a human engine without brakes — he must have jumped from an armored car just a few minutes ago. We have all seen such faces in the old photographs, except that they were usually dressed in leather jackets, they usually dangled a huge Mauser from their belts, and they were usually executed by Stalin.


Where did they find this man? His autobiography is not much of a book, but it does provide a part of the answer, a few details to add to the portrait. Yeltsin was born in 1931 in Sverdlovsk, into an extremely poor peasant family, just when the country was devastated by collectivization. He was nearly drowned at his baptism by a drunk priest, who was paid for his labor with moonshine, and he was rescued at the last moment by his parents. The priest was not particularly worried, and offered a kind of blessing: "If he can survive such an ordeal, it means he is a good, tough lad, and I name him Boris.”


His childhood was joyless: hunger, violence, work. From the age of six he had to look after the younger children and to do all the chores while his parents were working. For the slightest misbehavior, the young Yeltsin was strapped by his quick-tempered father. Yet he was always a ringleader, at school, at the Urals Polytechnic, at the construction site where he was employed as a foreman after graduation. At thirty-two he was already chief manager of a large industrial complex. In 1976 he became first secretary of the provincial Party Committee, and ten years later a nonvoting member of the Politburo.


Yeltsin's most outstanding feature is his love of challenge, his appetite for adventure and risk. Some critics have misinterpreted this as braggadocio. Why, they ask, his long descriptions of his youthful exploits, why all these stories about traveling across the country on the roofs of trains, about playing volleyball without two fingers on his hand? Why did he insist on learning all the trades in the construction industry before taking his designated place as a foreman? Those who question Yeltsin's motives, however, do not understand what real socialism is about.


The psychological atmosphere that was created in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s pushed people to cross the limits of the possible. The slogan of the time was, "When the country commands us to be heroes, each and everyone must become a hero." And there were heroes. They were poorly fed and poorly clothed, but the pilots stormed the skies and the explorers conquered the North Pole. Practically with bare hands they dug canals, built dams, created some of the world's largest industrial complexes. Victorious proletarians marched from triumph to triumph, displaying the irresistible force of collective labor, harnessing the forces of nature, turning deserts into gardens. How could a socialist paradise be created, except by performing a miracle a day? And who but a superman could enter it?


Only much later did they look back and discover that the superhuman and the inhuman go hand in hand. There were a few heroes, but the rest were victims. While some burned with enthusiasm, the rest were terrified. Those magnificent dams and canals turned the rivers into stinking swamps, and those giant industrial complexes turned blooming land into desert, as if nature, the eternal enemy of the people, conspired to wreck the epic effort.


Still, victims and heroes alike remember with nostalgia the time in their youth when life had a clear purpose. Some still believe that another decisive effort, another campaign against corruption, can avert disaster and restore them to the right course. Boris Yeltsin was one of the heroes building socialism twenty hours a day. As first secretary of Sverdlovsk province, which is the third-largest industrial area in the country, he was an exemplary boss, hard-working, demanding, and fair; he even encouraged his subordinates to criticize him, as a good Communist should. Yet he also carried out a secret order from the Politburo to demolish (overnight) the Ipatiev House, in which Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918, which had become a tourist attraction. Yeltsin actually believed in the ideals and the wisdom of the Party. He had no reservations: his Party, right or wrong. He wept when Stalin died and he condemned Stalin's crimes when they were disclosed.


He was a leader, in other words, ideally suited for the age of perestroika. He was hand-picked by Gorbachev to be first secretary of the Moscow City Committee. There Yeltsin was very much out of place, however, and he quickly became a source of embarrassment for his senior colleagues. Since Stalin's death, true-believing Communists have been perceived as nuisances by Muscovites. Publicly, everyone pretends to be a true believer, of course; but privately they live by exchanging favors, goods, and services, helping each other as good neighbors should in a time of disaster. True true believers are a dying breed, found mainly among old-age pensioners.


If such a monster appeared in a healthy Soviet collective, he could be dangerous. Everyone's livelihood might be threatened by this bull in the china shop. I doubt that Gorbachev knew what was he doing when he appointed Yeltsin to be absolute master of Moscow. Surely he did not want to destroy Moscow, only to shake it up, but he dropped a bomb on his capital. From eight in the morning until two the next morning, Yeltsin was in action, fighting corruption, punishing incompetence, pursuing the "mafia" — and still he "could not get to the bottom of the filthy well." Hundreds of trade officials were sacked by the true believer, 60 percent of the Party bosses were purged.

And yet things got even worse, while his senior Party colleagues were becoming less supportive and more alarmed. Who knows? Had there been more people like Yeltsin in the Party leadership, we might not be witnessing the end of communism.


The higher Yeltsin was promoted, the more he encountered corruption and incompetence. His first serious doubts about his Party coincided with his promotion to the upper echelons of power. There he became aware of the privileges enjoyed by the Party elite. Later, after becoming a member of the Politburo, he discovered that "on the summit of Olympus, the caste system was scrupulously observed," and that the privileges were enormous. It happened also that he was assigned a villa that was previously occupied by Gorbachev, and he found the luxury repulsive:


If you have climbed all the way to the top of the establishment pyramid, then it's full communism! And it turns out that there was no need of the world revolution, maximum labor productivity, and universal harmony in order to have reached that ultimate, blissful state as prophesied by Karl Marx. It is perfectly possible to attain it in one particular country — for one particular group of people.


At the very top, he looked around and was deeply depressed by what he saw. His colleagues in the Politburo were just boring, incompetent windbags:


This, after all, is the general staff of perestroika. These are the brains of the Party, the best minds in the country. But what did I expect? All the members of Politburo are either career bureaucrats who have slowly climbed the ladder of the Central Committee's hierarchy, apparatchiks to the marrow of their bones, or they are former regional or provincial secretaries — such as Gorbachev and Ligachev and a certain Yeltsin, who also made their Party careers during Brezhnev’s era of stagnation…. I sometimes wonder how I managed to end up among those people.


Finally it dawned on Yeltsin that he and Gorbachev probably want completely different things from "perestroika." He, Yeltsin, wishes to save the country from destruction. Gorbachev wishes to change as little as possible. Hence Gorbachev's chief weakness, his fear of taking the decisive but difficult steps that are needed. "The main trouble with Gorbachev is that he has never worked out a systematic, long-term strategy. There are only slogans.”


It occurred to Yeltsin, moreover, that his promotion, as well as the promotion of some others, was just a well-calculated move in a game whose purpose was precisely not to change too much while producing the impression of a fierce struggle. "If I did not exist, Gorbachev would have to invent me," Yeltsin writes, as, indeed, he would have to invent Ligachev and the "conservatives." Yeltsin reached the point at which he could remain neither first secretary of the Moscow City Committee or a member of the Politburo.


And yet he still believed in perestroika, he still was persuaded of the ultimate wisdom of the Party, if only it could be purged of bureaucrats and if "a majority of the Politburo membership [could be] replaced by younger, fresher faces, by energetic people who did not think in clichés." If only he could speak to the Party, things might improve. When the chance to speak at the Party Plenum in the fall of 1987 finally came, however, he was afraid. He knew that he might not survive his imminent "civil execution." And yet he had to speak his mind or "become a different person." "The important thing was to screw up my courage and say what I had to say." What followed was, indeed, a civil execution, "when, eyes ablaze, people came up to the rostrum who had long worked beside me, who were my friends, with whom I was on excellent terms" and betrayed him. And that was just the beginning. Later another Plenum was convened, and then another, to which he was dragged half-dead after a heart attack to be exposed to the same abuse and the same betrayal. "What do you call it when a person is murdered with words? Because what followed was like a real murder…. They were a pack of hounds. A pack ready to tear me to pieces. I cannot describe it any other way.”


This shock almost killed him. He spent two months in the hospital, where he searched his soul:


It is hard to describe the state I was in. A real battle had started up within me. I would analyze every step I had taken, every word I'd spoken. I would analyze my principles, my views of the past, the present, the future. I would analyze my personal relationships with people and even with my family. I was engaged in a constant, obsessive process of analysis, day and night, night and day…. All that was left where my head had been was a burned-out cinder. Everything around me was burned out, everything within me was burned out.


By the time Yeltsin recovered from his nearly fatal illness, he was another man. A Communist had died. A human being was born.


Boris Yeltsin's second life has been no less tempestuous than his first one. From the start he was perceived by the people as the only true alternative to Gorbachev, as someone capable of fighting against the Party. The more he attacked the Party, the more his popularity grew, until he became a kind of St. George. His ideas at that stage were, ironically, not too different from Gorbachev's, and he even remained a member of the Central Committee; but almost 90 percent of the citizens of Moscow voted for him in the elections to the People's Congress in 1989. For the first time in seventy years, the country expressed its will in some sort of elections, and it voted clearly against the leadership wherever it had a chance.


In the ensuing months, the rapid polarization of the country and the logic of political struggle drove Yeltsin and Gorbachev further apart. Yeltsin had the courage to subject himself to the judgment of the nation, and received a popular mandate; Gorbachev never took the risk, and became a hostage of the Party. That fact, more than anything else, determined their subsequent political evolution. Reflecting the differences in their respective bases of power, Gorbachev must hold together a disintegrating empire, even if it requires violence and repression, while Yeltsin must support republics in their rebellion against the center. One chose democracy and left the Party, as a logical conclusion of his human and political development. The other has no choice but to defend the Party to the bitter end.


The evolution of Yeltsin in the last year has been quite spectacular. He started as a populist, campaigning mostly against Party privileges, but he ended as a democrat, advocating the most radical program of privatization. Initially suspicious of his intentions, the finest intellectual forces in the country have now joined his team. One can only guess how many more baptisms this man will have to survive before the country finally frees itself from the Communists. At present, however, and for at least as long as the Party continues to play a significant role. Yeltsin seems to be the only credible leader of the democratic opposition in Russia.


And yet it is difficult to predict what will happen to Yeltsin when the crisis is over, because his Communist past will certainly come to haunt him in any contest with a younger democrat with a "clean" record. He knows it:


I have always understood why many decent people have continued to regard me with suspicion even after I had fallen into disfavor. It is because Yeltsin is still seen as a Party functionary, a former first secretary of a provincial committee. It is impossible to attain that position, still less to be promoted to the Central Committee, and remain decent, fair, courageous, and independent. To make a career in the Party — and this belief is universally held by Soviet people — a person must excel at adapting his personality and convictions to whatever is required by the powers to be at any given moment. He must be dogmatic and learn to do or say one thing while thinking something else. It is no use trying to justify oneself and make excuses.


In the final analysis, for all his many lives, and however unfairly, Boris Yeltsin may be no more than a transitional figure in the Soviet Union, like Imre Pozsgay in Hungary or Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia. Only a figure of impeccable moral authority can lead the country to its spiritual recovery after so many decades of lies and crimes.


New Republic, September 1990.



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