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The Communist Party Cut-Up

Against the Grain: An Autobiography

by Boris Yeltsin, translated by Michael Glenny
Summit Books, 263 pp., $19.95

1.

At times, Boris Yeltsin can seem the Huey and Earl Long of Soviet politics, a theatrical populist.Relying on a politics of resentment, Yeltsin has won an angry public’s affection. For him no statement, no amount of bombast, is beyond belief or tolerance. In interviews he will suggest with a burlesque arch of the brow that the KGB may yet kill him with a high-frequency ray gun that will stun his heart. “A few seconds and it’s all over.”

After Soviet television aired his buffoonish performance at Johns Hopkins University last spring, Yeltsin said that not only did the authorities show the film to make a fool of him—no doubt about that—but that the KGB had also “used an old CIA trick,” slowing down the tape “by micro-seconds” to make his voice seem even more slurred than it was. Recently, he claimed that while he was walking late at night across a bridge in the Moscow suburb of Nikolini Gori, sinister “hooligans” threw a bag over his head and pitched him into the river. I visited the bridge. The span was so high and the water so shallow that Yeltsin surely would have suffered worse than getting his suit wet had he been tossed. On it goes.

Yeltsin is correct in at least one respect. The Kremlin leaders, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, despise him. They have formed commissions to investigate him and ordered wild stories in the state-run press to disgrace him. And they did their best to prevent his return to politics after he was fired from the leadership at the end of 1987 for making his well-publicized attack on his conservative rival, Yegor Ligachev, at the closed Party plenum. For Gorbachev’s teetering Communist party, Yeltsin is an intolerable dissident.

Such is his vital importance. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts, the history of Soviet politics will show, it was Boris Yeltsin—vain, comic, clever, crude—who accelerated the most critical step in political reform: the end of the Communist party monolith. From the moment Yeltsin attacked Ligachev at the plenum on October 21, 1987, and rumors of the confrontation became the talk of Moscow, the façade of unanimity and invincibility, the hermetic code of Party discipline and loyalty, began to crumble. It is not to underestimate either Gorbachev’s own intentions or the pressure applied by the radical, intellectual opposition to say that it was this semisecret event, followed by the nationally televised confrontation between Yeltsin and Ligachev at the nineteenth Communist party conference eight months later, that quickened the birth of a real and open politics in the Party and beyond.

While Andrei Sakharov, the economist Gavriil Popov, the historian Yuri Afanasyev, and such younger legislators as Arkady Murashev, Ilya Zaslavski, and Sergei Stankevich formed a core of political outsiders proposing a radical democratic opposition to Gorbachev, Yeltsin became the classic populist. Failing to win back his position or good name within the Party, Yeltsin, the disgraced former Politburo member, took his campaign for revenge and rehabilitation to the public. His barrel-chested fury, his awkward candor, had an almost narcotic appeal for a people who saw the Party that ruled them for seven decades as an ominous secret. To any reporter or crowd that would listen, Yeltsin insulted Gorbachev’s “timidity and half-measures” and Ligachev’s “dark motives.” He spoke of the Party hacks and their limousines and marble bathrooms, their country houses, private planes, and swimming pools. And a poor and angry people loved it: he was elected by some five million votes when he ran as an independent candidate for the People’s Congress last year.

Eventually, Yeltsin’s politics of resentment became at least as powerful a force in public life as the hunger for democratic ideals. In elections in cities throughout Russia and the Ukraine this winter, Party leaders were toppled more for their feudal insistence on personal privilege than for their errant political principles. In Volgograd, the Party first secretary was thrown out of office after the people discovered he had procured a prestigious apartment for his daughter. In Chernigov, the Party boss lost his job when, after his car crashed, people on the street found fresh meat and other delicacies in the trunk. And in Leningrad, the former Party leader and Politburo member, Yuri Solovyev, lost his Party membership when local journalists reported that he had used shady connections to buy a Mercedes for the price of a Lada.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Gorbachev, who brought glasnost to bear on the press and the study of Soviet history, would have eventually aimed it at the Party itself. But after two and a half years of rule, he would not, or could not, make that move. Formed by a life-time in the Party apparatus, Gorbachev could not easily reject that stylized culture’s intolerance—a tendency that often defined Leninism and was made bloody religion by Stalin.

Instead, it was Yeltsin who succeeded where Nikolai Bukharin and dozens of other Party dissidents through the decades could not. Stalin’s savage intolerance of internal Party factions and debate resulted in Bukharin’s forced confession in the 1937–1938 purge trials and his execution by a firing squad. By comparison, the drama played out between Yeltsin and Gorbachev was almost a slapstick parody of the old Bolshevik tragedy. For his troubles, Yeltsin was disgraced within the Party but became a legend among the public. He was elected to the Soviet legislature last year, winning 89 percent of the vote. This year he may yet become the president of the Russian republic.

2.

Yeltsin’s autobiography, Against the Grain, has a bluff, savvy tone reminiscent of Khrushchev’s memoirs. Yeltsin’s book is largely a narrative of revenge. He is a splendid gossip, bringing to the task the petty ruthlessness of a lifelong apparatchik and the fearlessness of the insulted and the injured. The main targets are Gorbachev, Ligachev, and every other member of the leadership except the Politburo’s house radical, Alexander Yakovlev. The result is questionable history but highly entertaining. It’s only a shame that Khrushchev, in his time, never had the opportunity to travel the globe on a book tour and tell Good Morning America what a shit Leonid Brezhnev was.

Even aside from the ad hominem attacks, it is, at least for now, inconceivable that Gorbachev could write a book as personal as Against the Grain. His own past is a rich one for self-examination. He grew up the son of farmers in the aftermath of collectivization in southern Russia. His first girlfriend, Yulia Karagodina, talks of young “Misha’s” powerful ambition, his escapades as a student actor with a fake mustache, his discipline, his drive to make it to Moscow. And a college roommate at Moscow State University, Rudolf Koltchanov, tells of Gorbachev’s ambivalent reaction to Stalin’s death. “We were all Stalinists then,” Koltchanov said. But Gorbachev’s glasnost rarely turns inward. He maintains the Party demeanor of a self-satisfied selflessness. His idea of a personal interview so far has been to say he likes taking a walk in the woods now and then, but there really isn’t much time.

Yeltsin bares himself, a gesture that seems half personal necessity, half political strategy. Even despite his need to glorify every good grade or deed, his naked yearning for the reader to at once admire, fear, and feel sorry for him, Yeltsin paints a useful portrait of provincial life and backwoods Communist party politics in Brezhnev’s “era of stagnation.” Childhood for Yeltsin was a “joyless” time spent in one room of a communal clapboard hut in the Urals:

The hut had a central corridor and twenty small rooms, naturally without any modern conveniences; there was only an outdoor toilet and water drawn from a well. We were given a few sticks of furniture, and we bought a goat to supply us with milk. My brother and my sister, the youngest, had already been born by then. The six of us, including the goat, slept on the floor, huddled together.

Yeltsin wants to make it plain he is all man, a bad boy, a tireless volleyball player, a heroic camper, a fanatical worker. In a meeting with him a year ago, I found the question he appreciated most was when I asked him how he lost the thumb and forefinger on his left hand. Off he went into a reverie about what a “hooligan” he had been in school, how he had blown his hand apart when he found a stash of grenades and tried to “take them apart” with a hammer; how (in an incident that sounds like a precursor to his surprise attack on Ligachev at the October 1987 plenum) he spoiled his school graduation ceremonies by grabbing the microphone on stage and pronouncing the homeroom teacher incompetent.

Educated in construction and engineering, Yeltsin entered Party politics at the workplace, from a job for the state building agency. Even now, advancement on collective farms and factories requires Party membership, and the young man from Sverdlovsk wanted to get ahead. Yeltsin apparently had the right combination of industry and obsequiousness to succeed in the Party. But he will not even indulge the mildest of contemporary mea culpas: that he was as obedient as everyone else. He wants the reader to believe he was above Party hypocrisy from the very start. He recalls the oral exam at the local Party committee that he needed to pass before gaining membership:

[The examiner] asked me on what page of which volume of Das Kapital Marx refers to commodity-money relationships. Assuming that he had never read Marx closely and had, of course, no idea of either the volume or page number in question, and that he didn’t even know what commodity-money relationships were, I immediately answered, half-jokingly, “Volume Two, page 387.” What’s more I said it quickly, without pausing for thought. To which he replied with a sage expression, “Well done, you know your Marx well.” After it all, I was accepted as a party member.

Yeltsin climbed the ladder of local and regional party politics, eventually winning appointment to the empyrean of the leadership, the Central Committee. He never mentions, of course, that he, like Gorbachev, sang lovingly of the Brezhnev wisdom at various Party plenums and congresses. And, naturally, he always had to be begged to take the various jobs in question. When Gorbachev in April 1985 called on him to become the Moscow Party chief and a candidate member of the Politburo, Yeltsin tells us he first refused. And only because of the code of Party discipline was he “obligated to accept the proposal.” At the highest level of Party politics, Gorbachev was Yeltsin’s patron—a fact that makes their eventual split an opera of personal, as well as political, relations.

Yeltsin’s two years as the Moscow Party chief remain legendary in this city. He fired dozens of city apparatchiks. He rode the buses and trains and dropped in on factories during the night shifts to see why nothing was being produced. He appeared at grocery stores to find out why shipments of veal never made it to the shelves but rather went straight off the truck to the black market. He rebuilt the old Arbat street and made it into a decent pedestrian mall where artists showed their paintings and buskers sang Vysotsky and recited Mandelstam. He cracked down on the exploitation of “limitchiki,” the day workers from the suburbs who worked for slave wages in hopes of one day getting permission to live in Moscow. And, of course, our hero never slept:

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