The Struggle for Russia
“When I was chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet I got into a very stupid accident in the center of town….That particular morning traffic was very heavy—eight lanes—so there wasn’t even a lane or a slot for us. A GAI [state traffic police] officer halted traffic but since we were without our escort car, not all the drivers ahead of us noted immediately that the officer had raised his stick, a sign for them to stop. We should have braked and waited for everyone else to stop. But the driver looked at me, and I automatically gave him a hand signal to go forward. He stepped on the gas and we passed a large van heading toward where there seemed to be a clearing ahead. Suddenly there was a terrible crash! And then a ferocious pain in my head.”
This episode from Boris Yeltsin’s new memoirs is a good illustration of what power means in Russia. The chauffeur, instead of doing his job, turns to his boss for instructions, and the boss automatically waves his hand—onward!—never doubting his supreme rightness.
It was thus—with a wave of the hand—that Yeltsin demolished a huge country in December 1991, for, as he himself now informs us, “I felt in my heart that such major decisions had to be taken easily.” Two years later, the frightful consequences of this demolition led him, the legally elected president, to order tanks to fire on the legally elected Parliament in the center of Moscow. Why did this happen? According to Yeltsin, it’s quite simple: because “I was undergoing an agonizing process of decision making, and that is why our vehicle of state did not roll along the highway in a straight line, but knocked down telephone poles and ran into a ditch.”
Somehow, there are far too many automotive metaphors in this hastily written autobiography. An automobile often equals power in Russia and often power actually depends on cars. On the eve of one November 7 in the 1970s, when Yeltsin was still Party boss in Sverdlovsk, his chauffeur drove off a country road and got stuck in a ditch. But Yeltsin was scheduled to appear on the platform at ten o’clock the next morning to wave to the masses who would be demonstrating their joy at the anniversary of the October Revolution. And “if I, the chief city official, did not appear at the November 7 celebration, the main national holiday, if I was not seen on the dais viewing the parade, it would be a catastrophe. This simply couldn’t happen. People would think that either I had died or had been removed from office.”
In order to remain in power, Yeltsin walked all night, crossing plowed fields and stumbling in the snow in 15-degree weather, repeating to himself: “The main thing [is] never to sit down, then you don’t get tired…just never sit down.” By morning he’d come to a village where the entire population, simple people without aspirations to power, were “dead drunk. No matter what door we knocked on, the residents were passed out cold.” Yeltsin managed to get to the tribune on time: he made a phone call and sent for a helicopter. The authorities were saved.
A car is also a symbol of power, sometimes in the most vulgar way. At a meeting of the leaders of the Soviet republics, “they would usually try to put my car (the limousine of the president of Russia) first in line at the entrance. But one evening my automobile ended up at the end of the line of government limousines. My security people sprang forward in alarm, made an incredible U-turn, digging up the Novo-Ogaryovo lawn in the process, and finally put the car back at the head of the line—Russia first!”
Woe to him who forgets his place and tries to grab more than his rank allows. “I began to notice that features in Burbulis’s character [Yeltsin’s closest adviser] which previously had seemed incidental to me were in fact related to his whole system of behavior and relationships with other people. Burbulis was the first of the new Russian nomenklatura who came to power after the August coup to order a government limousine [a ZIL] for himself…. I think he experienced a special thrill when the escort car raced ahead of his ZIL, its lights blinking and siren screeching.”
Cars make such an impression that on the road to power one has to use cunning tactics to win simple hearts and minds. “When I was a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, I had turned down the perks of a chauffeured car and a dacha. I also rejected the special hospitals and registered at my neighborhood clinic.” Yes, at that time he traveled demonstratively around Moscow on a trolley—a popular mode of transport. And what do you think? It helped! A successful election—and here he is, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Russia. Now we can start over again and take back the car, the dacha, and the other privileges and, in Yeltsin’s words, fight for them.
Sukhanov [an aide] said in amazement, “Look Boris Nikolayevich, what an office we’ve seized!” I have seen many an office in my life but I got a pleasant tingle from the soft modern sheen, all the shininess and comfort. “Well, what next?” I thought. “After all, we haven’t just seized the office. We’ve seized an entire Russia.”
Precisely! So what next? Instead of The Struggle for Russia, Yeltsin’s book could rightly have been called less pretentiously and more frankly, The Struggle for Power. In Russian, to be fair, it’s titled with a certain false modesty: Notes of the President. The President. How that word must caress the ear of all those Party secretaries who for years were omnipotent bosses on their own turf—in republics, oblasts, cities—but metamorphosed into humble, trembling lackeys in Moscow, in the Kremlin, where the Big Boss sat. How they clung to their positions, keeping a keen watch: Is anyone intriguing against them? Is anyone undermining them? How anxiously they kept score: Has anyone got a car above his position? A dacha above his rank? The Party’s power was great, but fragile. One call from Moscow—“Get rid of him!”—and you’d be gone.
But who can get rid of a president? Who would dare to wave his hand and dismiss the people’s chosen man? The people elected the President, the people, the people! You’re against the people? Beat him up!
A president can be gotten rid of only by destroying his country, his house, his people. Yeltsin understood this. And he acted accordingly. His whole book is a confused, inconsistent, incoherent, evasive, but ultimately understandable and even partly truthful story about how he, Yeltsin, rose up against Gorbachev, did battle with him, vanquished him, ravaged his kingdom, and deprived him of EVERYTHING.
And became Gorbachev himself. And lost.
It began with an insult, a grievous male insult. In late 1987, after criticizing Gorbachev’s policies at a plenary session of the central committee, Yeltsin fell into disfavor and tumbled from the summit he had attained with such difficulty. (As you may remember: “The main thing was never to sit down,…just never sit down.”) He was already the first secretary of Moscow, a candidate member of the Politburo—there was almost nowhere higher to go—and in February 1988 he was brought down to the pitiful post of first deputy chairman of the State Construction Trust. One might think: you’re a construction man by profession, and you love Russia so much—build something useful and calm down. But this is the logic of ordinary people. Yeltsin, by his own account, would spend hours in his new office watching the Kremlin telephone. Would it ring? “A feeling of dead silence and emptiness surrounded me. I will never forget those moments of anticipation…few people know what torture it is to sit in the dread silence of an office, in a complete vacuum, subconsciously waiting for something. For this telephone with the state seal to ring. Or not. As I whiled away the long hours in the Gosstroi office, I finally figured out my relations with Gorbachev…. I have never intended to fight with him personally…but why hide it—the motivations for many of my actions were imbedded in our conflict….”
That he “never intended to fight with him personally” isn’t true, of course. Anyone in his place would have been mortally offended: in the late 1980s Gorbachev subjected Yeltsin to public humiliation. On television, which had only recently been allowed to broadcast intimate political events previously hidden from human eyes, the program showed the whole astonished country how Yeltsin—that big, handsome, worthy man, who boldly spoke his mind and was immediately punished for it—tried not to lower his head, while Party swine, big and small alike, mocked him, shouted, and literally made faces at him as he left the hall. The herd trampled someone who was already down. Everyone could see—close up, on the television screen—the fake sympathy and poorly hidden triumph on Gorbachev’s face.
The world of the Party was a world of wolves. We have never sympathized with the wounded blood-suckers from the upper echelons—their traumas are part of their job description. But even a boss has human features, he is also a living creature, he, too, hurts. When the fallen Yeltsin walked down the aisle—into hell, down into the depths, as he thought—his every step transformed him into a human being for the viewer. The foul Party scales fell from him, he shed his tail, horns, and hooves, and humiliated human virtue began to shine through his features. In the eyes of many, he exited that revolting kangaroo court as someone purified, beloved.
Russians—I remind readers for the umpteenth time—are not Europeans and especially not Americans. Whoever fails to take this into account will always miscalculate, and then wonder in amazement where he went wrong. Americans love the winners. In Russia we love the losers. In America those who have a successful career, make money, or attain a high position are respected. In Russia, we respect those who have been beaten and robbed, who crawl on all fours, their faces streaked with blood. And there are reasons for this. Russian people came to love Yeltsin because they saw themselves in him: downtrodden, flogged, unjustly punished and cheated. It’s in people’s blood, in the popular memory: you come to the master with a request, crumpling your cap in your hands, shifting from one foot to the other, and he, in a bad mood since morning, orders the servants to kick you off the porch and set the dogs on you. Sooner or later what do you do? You torch the master’s house and the kennel into the bargain—and the greenhouse, and the stable, and the granary. Then you share the loot with your brother bandits. And the divvying up can’t be done without a few knocked-out teeth and blackened eyes, of course.