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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.

1.

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 the urgent need to appear very much on television or in the papers, he began to behave very much like a tsar. His great achievements behind him, Yeltsin became more and more isolated and withdrawn from public life, more dependent on a very few aides. Those same aides came to refer to him, alternately, as “The Boss” and “Tsar Boris.” Yeltsin was meant to overhear these epithets as tribute and enjoy them.

But even while Yeltsin had been bestowed with the title of a Romanov, he acted rather more like the captain of the Bensonhurst Democratic Party clubhouse. From Korzhakov’s memoirs, one gets the sense that by 1994 or so running the country ran a distant second to the more serious business of recreation: boozy swims in the Black Sea, boozy deer shoots in Zavidovo, and tennis—lots and lots of tennis. It is, as Mel Brooks says, good to be the king. At times, Yeltsin could even be a cruel king. At one point he hired a press secretary named Vyacheslav Kostikov, whom he came to despise and treat with pitiless disdain. (Korzhakov takes vengeance on Kostikov by mocking his “blue,” or gay, staffers and their “homosexual Orgies.”) Once, on a trip to Krasnoyarsk, Yeltsin and his advisers took a river cruise and, just for the hell of it, Yeltsin, well-lubricated by this time, shouted, “Kostikov overboard!” Three members of the entourage promptly hoisted the press secretary over the rail and tossed him into the frigid river water, where he almost froze to death. Thus baptized, Kostikov was soon reassigned to be ambassador to the Holy See.

According to Korzhakov Yeltsin loves a good time. He is, it appears, a musically minded tsar. He is fond of traditional Russian drinking songs, though he is only good for a line or two of “Kalinka-malinka.” He is more of an instrumentalist. “Yeltsin’s sense of rhythm was good and he was a good player on the spoons,” Korzhakov writes. “Even on official trips, he would demand, ‘Bring spoons!’ Yeltsin was born in the village of Butka where playing spoons must have been prestigious.” Yeltsin’s favorite trick was to play knick-knack-paddy-whack with his spoons on the head of Yuri Zagainov, the chief of the President’s administrative department. “At first the boss would beat on his leg, as is normally done, and then he beat loudly on the head of his subordinate. The latter did not dare to take offense and smiled affectedly. The audience burst out laughing.” On one occasion, Yeltsin took aside the president of one of the former Soviet states, Askar Akayev of Kyrgistan, and played the spoons on his head. As Korzhakov writes, “He could torture one to death with this musical instrument.”

Yeltsin’s international prestige drooped in the mid-1990s after the assault on the Russian parliament and the war in Chechnya. He became increasingly depressed. There was less spoon-playing, more drinking. He talked about resigning. He was constantly telling his chief of staff, Viktor Ilyushin, to stop bringing him “all that shit,” meaning his paperwork. He came to resent the imprecations of the precious few intellectuals in the street and in the press who were protesting the carnage in Chechnya. Yeltsin had started out his Moscow career as a reformer surrounded by intellectuals—he courted Sakharov intensely, he brought young academics into the Kremlin—but that was all in the past. He referred to one of his more liberal advisers, Sergei Filatov, as “a man who looks as if he has two flies fucking in his mouth.” Even losing at doubles in tennis would send Yeltsin into a funk, and so his faithful bodyguard, Korzhakov, always made sure that the President was paired with a professional.

For ten years, Korzhakov could not have been more loyal to Yeltsin. When Yeltsin was fired from the Politburo in 1987, Korzhakov stayed with him and even drove him around town in his own car, a tuna can-size Neva. He was with Yeltsin on top of the tank when they faced down the coup in August 1991 and he was with him when they faced a dozen crises thereafter. Like mafia blood brothers they sliced open their arms and mixed together their vital bodily fluids—not once, but twice. We do not need to take Korzhakov’s word for this; Yeltsin, in his own memoirs, praises Korzhakov as he does no other aide. He admits that during one depressed moment—a stormy confrontation with the parliament—he almost committed suicide-by-sauna; it was Korzhakov who came to the rescue, tearing open the door and pulling Yeltsin out before he was parboiled.

It was Korzhakov who came to the rescue when Yeltsin was mysteriously thrown into a river outside Moscow and was dragged to a guardhouse, where he sat waiting, and weeping, on the cold floor. Korzhakov stripped the president to his underwear, wrapped him in a blanket, fed him sips of moonshine, and then rubbed the warming booze all over the presidential corpus. “It worked beautifully.”

It was Korzhakov who organized the construction of a luxury apartment building for Yeltsin and his favorite aides on the southwestern edge of Moscow. Yeltsin had long since jettisoned his populist “campaign against privileges” and fallen deeply in love with the perquisites of power. “He also didn’t want to have to run into Gorbachev in the elevator,” Korzhakov explains.

When a subordinate came running from the presidential office yelling, “What should I do? Boris Nikolayevich gave me a hundred-dollar bill and told me to go fetch a bottle,” it was Korzhakov who calmly cracked open his secret supply of watered-down vodka supplied especially for this purpose by the Department of the Interior. (“To give him no vodka at all was, alas, not an option.”) When Yeltsin, bombed on beer, spilled coffee all over himself in the car on the way to see Helmut Kohl in Berlin, it was Korzhakov who helped him into the extra suit on hand for just such occasions. Poor Korzhakov. “Even after he got strict doctor’s orders not to drink,” he writes, “Naina continued to give her husband cognac. Yeltsin always knew how to get around my ban. If he really needed a drink, he would invite in one of his most trusted friends for ‘an audience.”’

Korzhakov has two obsessions in his memoir. The first is to portray Yeltsin’s deterioration. The second is furniture—couches in particular. There is more furniture in From Dawn to Dusk than there is in the Ethan Allen catalog. Korzhakov remembers the first sofa his family ever had—he was five years old—and in his life each new piece of furniture becomes a measure of his increasing status. His rise in the secret services really began in 1978, “the year we bought an Arab bed.” He takes the measure of Yeltsin’s former defense minister, Pavel Grachev, noting that he once “bought a truly gigantic sofa for his new apartment. It could not be brought in through the door and so soldiers had to bring it in by ropes through the balcony.”

When Korzhakov goes with Yeltsin to Helmut Kohl’s house, he notes sadly, “To be honest I expected to see expensive furniture. But there was no real luxury.” At Camp David “the modesty and plainness of the main residence flung me into a depression.” And even the White House is insufficiently furnished and far too cramped: “It was too old and, according to Russian standards, too small for the President.” The only time Korzhakov seems truly impressed with his charge’s antagonist, Mikhail Gorbachev, is when he takes note of his well-equipped bathroom (“a bath, a toilet, a bidet…”) and his unimaginably plush French couches. “Not to be believed,” Korzhakov remarks.

Korzhakov’s intimacy with the furniture of power and the man with the biggest couches of all came to an end in June 1996, when Yeltsin fired him in the midst of his reelection campaign. This was inevitable. Yeltsin’s management style has always been to pit one adviser against the other, jettisoning them all over time. (Which is partly why he ended up so close to his bodyguard in the first place.) Korzhakov, who had been encouraging Yeltsin to postpone the elections, was at war with the barons of private business who were bankrolling the campaign and hoping to keep their man in power. These same businessmen thought that Korzhakov held a preposterously powerful position, and that he was influencing Yeltsin to jettison his most reformist advisers. They also believed he was hurting the campaign with his ignorance of retail politics.

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