Against the Grain: An Autobiography
by Boris Yeltsin, translated by Michael Glenny
Summit Books, 263 pp., $19.95
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 …