Like the country he led, the first Russian President was a study in
contradiction and evolvement: at once sadly, hopelessly and gruesomely in the
past--and daringly and inspiringly in the future. He personified and condensed
the clashes that daily and hourly were joined in the new Russia. It is this
duality, this quality of work-in-progress, that makes Yeltsin such a
fascinating subject for a biographer--and such a difficult one.
Leon Aron is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Excerpted with permission St. Martin's Press , New York; pp.
He was the man who ordered troops into Chechnya and for a year and a half
prosecuted a war there - incompetently, with appalling brutality and in
complete disregard of his country's public opinion; who eroded the newly
created constitutional order and cheapened free political discourse by playing
cynical palace games and ignoring the freely elected parliament; and who was
responsible for a great deal of the alienation of the people from power in the
new Russia. He was also a man who allowed untrammelled freedom for his most
outrageous and crudest critics, and risked everything by seeking popular
mandates for his policies and his office in free elections open to those same
In the grip of authoritarian habits and urges, he was bound by self-imposed and
self-enforced constraints. He thirsted for power and was zealous to acquire and
hold it. Yet both the mode of acquiring that power (through two honest
elections) and the uses to which he put it - greatly weakening the power of the
state over society and the power of Moscow over Russia - were utterly
novel for that country.
In the case of Yeltsin, the difficulty of arriving at a coherent and final
judgment is not unlike the predicament that bedevilled Samuel Johnson as he
tried to pass a verdict on the subject of his first biography: his mysterious
friend and one-time mentor, the poet Richard Savage. Savage was a raffish,
deceitful, manipulative, violent and, on one occasion, murderous man. Boswell
averred that Savage's 'character was marked by profligacy, insolence and
ingratitude.'139 Johnson himself acknowledged that the man's
weaknesses were 'indeed very numerous' and described them in great
Yet, unmatched both in the mercilessness of his insight into the human heart
and in his compassion for its frailties, Johnson also recorded that Savage
'knew very well the necessity of goodness.'141 He was a man 'of whom
... it must be confessed that ... virtue ... could not find a warmer
advocate.'142 To Johnson, his subject's advocacy of 'virtue' was not
mere hypocrisy. His Savage was a man who knew the right thing to do and did
it on occasion and quite spectacularly - even as he failed to do it
consistently (or, indeed, most of the time). Johnson concluded that:
this at least must be allowed him, that he always preserved a strong sense of
the dignity, the beauty and the necessity of virtue . . . His actions, which
were generally precipitate, were often blameable; but his writings, being the
productions of study, uniformly tended to the exaltation of the mind, and the
propagation of morality and piety. These writings may improve mankind when his
failings shall be forgotten; and therefore he must be considered, upon the
whole, as a benefactor to the world.143
In one of the most powerful and subtle judgments in a work that is dazzlingly
replete with profound and elegant insights, Johnson pronounced Savage 'not so
much a good man, as the friend of goodness', who 'mistook the love' of virtue
for its 'practice'.144
Was not Savage to virtue what Yeltsin was to democracy? Was Yeltsin, although
not a democrat, a 'friend' of democracy - in the same way that the slave-owning
Thomas Jefferson, who declared that all men were created equal, was a 'friend'
As befits a 'friend' of democracy, Yeltsin left behind a hybrid: a polity still
semi-authoritarian, corrupt and mistrusted by society, but also one that was
governable, one in which the elite's competition for power was arbitrated by
popular vote, and in which most of the tools of authoritarian mobilization and
coercion appear to have been significantly dulled. The political organism that
he cultivated had many severe defects, genetic as well as acquired - yet it was
capable of development and of peacefully thwarting communist restoration
without succumbing to authoritarianism.
Wherein does Yeltsin's greatness lie? asked one of the best observers of
Russian politics (herself, it must be added, an entirely new Russian species: a
female political columnist). He was neither a great thinker nor a master
administrator. 145 But he had, Marina Shakina declared, in answer to
her own question, courage to make choices ('personal choices to which the
historic choice of Russia [was] so tightly welded') - and he had the enormous
shoulders on which to bear the responsibility for their consequences, a weight
which 'would have flattened all Russian politicians known to us at the
* The paradox did not escape Dr Johnson, who addressed it with customary
directness: 'How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the
drivers of negroes?' (Samuel Johnson, 'Taxation No Tyranny', in Donald L.
Green, ed., Samuel Johnson's Political Writings, p. 454).
Indeed, Yeltsin's entire public life had been full of choices which were, in
retrospect, fateful for Russia. In 1987 he chose to urge a faster pace for
perestroika. In 1990 he divorced the Russian national idea from communism and
empire, left the Communist Party and committed himself to the radical
free-market reforms spelled out in the '500 Days' programme. In 1991 he chose
to resist the communist reaction in the winter and the spring, and, again, on
19 August. He chose to put an end to the Soviet Union in Belavezhskaya Pushcha.
In 1992 he launched an economic revolution. He chose decentralization over a
Russia ruled from the Centre and laid the foundation of a federated Russian
In 1993 he chose to cut the Gordian knot of a political crisis by dissolving
the Congress of People's Deputies - and then chose a Presidential republic over
a dictatorship. In December 1994 he chose to restore Russia's sovereignty over
Chechnya and then chose to end that war by surrender twenty-one months later.
In 1996 he chose to run for the Presidency, instead of cancelling the election
for fear of losing it, and authorized governorship elections in the Russian
regions (many of which, he knew only too well, the opposition was going to
Some of these choices surprised even those closest to him. More often than not,
critical decisions were not preceded by a hint, much less by a sequence of
steps from which the choices could be divined. They were arrived at by lonely
and imperceptibly slow accretion, absorption and digestion of information and
events. After 1991, Yeltsin made his choices with increasing slowness,
painfully, often after much hesitation, backtracking and weaving, and lost
momentum. Behind him stretched a road full of detours, occasional dead ends (of
which the war in Chechnya was the epitome) and potholes.
And yet, in the end, at almost every critical juncture, despite the mistakes
that preceded the decision, he moved in the direction of greater political
liberty over authoritarian constraints; market over state control of the
economy; society over state; and integration into the world, peace and
accommodation over autarky, militarism and revanchism. 'He either consciously
or unconsciously tried to avoid decisions pregnant with the restoration of the
[Soviet] past,' wrote a Russian scholar.147
After Yeltsin's victory in 1996, a leader of the Russian liberal reformers Egor
Gaidar (who had led the democratic opposition to the Chechen war and publicly
broke with Yeltsin over it) told an interviewer: 'Yeltsin's administration is
not our administration. Chernomyrdin's government is not our government. But
the victory is ours . . . For me Yeltsin is a tool of history, and, overall, he
performs his role quite adequately . . . He will not extinguish private
property. He will not gag a free press. He is not a threat to the institutions
of civil society ... This is the key. The rest is secondary.148 *
When much of the story told in these pages fades and notoriously parsimonious
history reduces Yeltsin's life's work to one sentence, it is likely to read:
'He made irreversible the collapse of Soviet totalitarian communism, dissolved
the Russian empire, ended state ownership of the economy - and held together
and rebuilt his country while it coped with new reality and losses.'
Russia's first President both cast away stones and gathered them - a role that
only a handful of leaders in history were lucky enough to be given and even
fewer proved capable of performing. He managed somehow, to resolve the key
dilemma of modernity, which had evaded many a ruler since at least Louis XVI:
he secured a modicum of legitimacy, acceptance and stability for a regime that
undertook one of history's most extensive and most rapid economic
modernizations. He engineered a transition to the market without resorting to
terror and dictatorship, and he married capitalism and democracy in a country
that had known little of the former and none of the latter.
Lincoln relied on a democratic political system and his country allegiance to
liberty and equality to forge a new nation. De Gaulle used the equally strong
bonds of patriotism to reconstruct democracy in a proud and old nation. Yeltsin
had neither democracy to bind the nation nor national solidarity to help invent
and sustain democratic-politics. The country, its political system and its
economy had to be reinvented simultaneously. Against impossible odds, he
The cursed pendulum of Russian history- between deadly anarchy (what Pushkin
famously called 'Russian bunt [revolt], senseless and merciless') and
mortifying authoritarianism - had been stopped. Yeltsin created and sustained a
political space in which for the first time Russia could determine its way,
without the violence, death and repression that had attended this choice in the
past. He gave Russia the opportunity to catch its breath, what the Russians
* One is reminded of Raymond Aron, who, after many years and scores of articles
critical of de Gaulle, acknowledged the soundness of a friend's response to
Aron's public censure of the General: 'I see no one other than de Gaulle who
can preserve the basic freedoms that you have spent your lifetime
defending' (Aron, Memoirs, p. 259)
In that sudden breach with the pattern of Russian history, all sorts of wonders
became possible. Russia was no longer 'doomed to roll downhill to some hellish
bottom', the 'godfather of glasnost', Aleksandr Yakovlev, wrote in 1993. 'From
now on Russian soil can give rise not only to thistles and witches' weeds but
to fruit and flowers useful and bountiful.149
There is a poem by the great Russian poet Osip Mandel'shtam. The poem's hero is
a Decembrist, a dekabrist, a participant in Russia's first anti-authoritarian
mass political action: the failed December 1825 uprising of progressive
military officers who sought to establish a Russian republic. Many years later,
we find this brilliant officer, the best that the Russian nobility and
intelligentsia had to offer, exiled in a god-forsaken Siberian hamlet.
Everything the man had he sacrificed to the 'sweet liberty of citizenship'.
Buts alas, the 'blind' Russian gods would not accept the offering. (The poem
was written in 1917, the year when the Russian democratic experiment was ended
by the Bolsheviks.)
Our Decembrist is still unrepentant. He believes the uprising would have
succeeded but for the treachery and timidity of the 'pagan Senate'. But the
poet does not share this rebellious optimism, and concludes with a stanza,
unmatched in Russian poetry for the grace of resignation and for its haunting,
Everything's in disarray, and no one's there
To say, as cold sets in, that disarray
Is everywhere, and how sweet becomes the prayer:
Rossia, Lethe, Lorelei.150
There is no better description of Russia's century-old tragedy. Oblivious to
its own history (hence 'Lethe'), doomed to reject the daily effort at
incremented betterment and instead to succumb again and again to the vision of
a paradise conveyed by the angelic singing of murderous sirens ('Lorelei'),
Russia had seemed destined to travel, in the words of another great poet of the
twentieth century, 'the never altered circuit of its fate'.151
From Mikhail Speranskiy, who advised Alexander I at the beginning of the
nineteenth century, to Evsey Liberman, who for a while had the ear of the
Communist Party leadership in the 1960s, there was no shortage of purveyors of
political and economic reform. Yet, with the exception of Alexander II, the
rulers lacked the will to take enormous risks over the long run; to defend
reform with cunning and, if necessary, force; and to surround it with political
cover thick and sinuous enough for reform to take root outside the salons of
Moscow and St Petersburg and to mature. In the end, after exhaustive attempts
at achieving the 'sweet liberty of citizenship', the 'cold' and the 'disarray'
would set in, enveloping Russia in yet another period of authoritarianism,
impoverishment and dissipation of its immense natural riches and talent.
The attributes of the traditional Russian state- authoritarianism, imperialism,
militarism, xenophobia - are far from extinguished. Yet more and higher hedges
have been erected against their recurrence under Yeltsin's peredyshka than at
any other time in Russian history.
In the first century AD, a writer and philosopher recorded a scene that he
claimed to be typical of any 'great city of Greece or Italy' at the time:
One may see in all the crowd and cram and crush everyone calmly doing his own
business; the piper piping and teaching to pipe ... while the crowd passes by
and does not interfere with him; the trainer producing his dancers for a stage
play without noticing a few fights going on, and buying and selling and so
forth, harping and painting pictures . . . I myself saw all people doing all
sorts of things . . . piping, dancing, one giving a show, one reciting a poem,
one singing, one reading a story or a fable, and not one of them preventing
anyone else from his own particular business.152
There is something so quintessentially 'Western' in this vignette that it would
strike anyone familiar with Russia both before and, especially, after the
Bolsheviks as forever alien and unattainable there. More than a simple absence
of secret police, censorship, the Party or the KGB, it was the ability of
everyone to go their own way without supreme arbiters and enforcers of order
and propriety in the business of living. Nine years of Yeltsin's rule made such
scenes commonplace in Russian cities and towns.
Brutalized for centuries - rulers and ruled alike - by terror and lies, gnarled
by fear and poverty, paralysed by total dependence on the state, the Russian
people's journey from subjects to free individuals is not going to be easy or
fast. Yet, like a convalescing invalid, Russia is beginning to hobble away from
the prison hospital that tsars and commissars built - with its awful food,
stern nurses, short visiting hours and ugly uniforms. It is not out of the
hospital yard yet, but it can no longer be stopped.
The sublime pleasures and terrifying responsibilities of Unsupervised Life are
Russia's at last.
139. James Boswell, Life of Johnson, World's Classic series, ed. R. W.
Chapman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 118.
140. Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the English Poets, London: Everyman's
Library, 1983, p. 272.
141. Ibid., p. 313
142. Ibid., p. 269
143. Ibid., p. 276
144. Ibid., pp. 275-6
145. Marina Shakina, 'El'tsin. Chlovek, kotoriy umeet delat' vybor' (Yeltsin.
A man who can make choices), Novoye Vremya, 40, 1994, pp. 11, 13.
146. Ibid., p. 13
147. Yuriy Fedorov, in Shevtsova, op. cit., p. 53.
148. Gaidar, 'U menia net sindroma belobiletnika', p. 13
149. Aleksandr Yakovlev, 'Ne tol'ko kodovskoy bur'yan. . . ' (Not only
witches' weeds . . .), Novoye Vremya, 27, 1993, p. 31.
150. Osip Mandel'shtam, 'Dekabrist' (Decembrist), in Osip Mandel'shtam,
Sobranie sochineniy v chetyryokh tomakh (Collected works in four volumes), ed.
G.P. Struve and B.A. Filippov, Moscow: Terra, 1991, vol. I, p. 66, translated
by Leon Aron.
151. Robert Graves, 'To Juan at the Winter Solstice', in Robert Graves:
Collected Poems, 1975, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 137.
152. Dion Chrysostom, Speech 20, as quoted in W. H. D. Rouse's introduction to
Great Diaologues of Plato, New York: Mentor Books, 1959, p. 7.
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