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eltsin:  A Revolutionary Life Epilogue: In Search of a Historic Yeltsin by Leon Aron

Leon Aron is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Excerpted with permission St. Martin's Press , New York; pp. 733-738.
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.

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 critics.

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 detail.140

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' of equality?*

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 time'.146

* 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 state.

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 win).

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 succeeded.

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 call peredyshka.

* 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, melancholy beauty:

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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