How Russia Is Ruled

Boris Yel’tsin: Ot Rassveta do Zakata (Boris Yeltsin: From Dawn to Dusk)

by Aleksandr Korzhakov
Moscow: Interbook Publishers, 477 pp.

If we have learned anything from the strange and epic story of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin these past ten years it is that no tsar is hero to his bodyguard. Or not for long, anyway. We know this because, in the new tradition of Russian politics, the bodyguard in question has written a marvelously venomous memoir that seems truthful in spirit, if not in every fact.

Aleksandr Korzhakov was working in the Ninth Directorate of the KGB when he was assigned in 1986 to guard a new Politburo member named Yeltsin who had just come to Moscow from the Urals. Korzhakov had no doubt of his abilities. He is a prideful man, proud of his training and physical capacities. He informs us that among his many skills as a guard is his ability to work an entire day without leave to visit a bathroom. Nor does Korzhakov betray any awe or illusions in the face of Communist Party satraps and big shots, the “ideal men” who traipse along the red and green runner carpets of the Kremlin halls. He recalls an earlier employment in which he was assigned to one Central Committeeman who took him along on his constitutionals. On one such walk, Korzhakov tells us gravely, his charge “began breaking wind loudly. I felt so uncomfortable that I was ready to fall through the ground, though the ‘ideal’ man felt perfectly at ease.”

And so it was that Korzhakov was well prepared for Boris Yeltsin, a provincial chieftain from Sverdlovsk equipped with the high-handed manners of a “genuine Communist Party despot.” Yeltsin, whose background was in construction, behaved himself rather like a king, though one with an especially keen knowledge of joists, foundations, and reinforced concrete. Yeltsin had spent his career building things. (As it happens, his most famous job was a demolition. He leveled the Ipatiev House, where the Romanov family spent its last days; the Kremlin had not wanted the house to become a shrine for monarchist pilgrims.) Yeltsin was gruff, energetic, impulsive. Like all Soviet leaders, he told his interviewers that he read classical and contemporary literature. One doubts it very much. In the mid-1980s he was not, as Gorbachev was, intellectually curious; he never allowed himself, as Gorbachev did, to be bewildered by his surroundings, by the absurdity of Soviet political life, until perestroika was well underway. That all came later. Yeltsin ran a tight ship in Sverdlovsk and was promoted to Moscow Party chief because of it. He was a traditionalist, even at home. When Yeltsin returned to his apartment every evening, his wife, Naina, and his daughters ran to the door to greet him; they took his shoes off for him and treated him as he had been treated all day by the ministers and subministers of the Party.

As Yeltsin’s powers increased, as he moved, in the course of a decade, from Politburo member to folk hero to imperial wrecker to Russian president, as his health declined and he no longer felt …

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