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.
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:
There were times when I would drive home, my bodyguard would open the door, and I didn’t have the strength to get out of the car. I would sit for five or ten minutes gathering my senses, as my wife stood on the porch looking anxiously at me. I was so worn out, I lacked even the strength to raise my hand.
Despite Yeltsin’s tendency to use a meat-axe approach in his Moscow job, Gorbachev, by all reports, approved. It was inside the Kremlin, inside Communist party politics at the highest level, where Yeltsin failed him. In Against the Grain he describes the comic decorum expected of the Politburo. No one dared disagree with Gorbachev. “Here, on the summit of Olympus, the caste system was scrupulously observed.” Even during lunch breaks at the Thursday Politburo meetings, members and alternate members sat at the table in strict order of seniority.
Yeltsin says he felt more and more like an ousider among Gorbachev’s “yes-men” and began baiting them. He also argued with Ligachev, questioning the privileges that are the perquisites of every apparatchik. Privately, he even scorned the Gorbachev family’s own taste for good suits, jewelry, dachas, and houses with underground refrigerators.
Soon Yeltsin’s bumptious violations of Politburo courtesy began to wear on Gorbachev. The dress rehearsal for Yeltsin’s break came in the early summer of 1987 when the Politburo was preparing Gorbachev’s speech commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Revolution. That speech would break open the study of history in the Soviet Union and lead quickly to the rehabilitation of Bukharin, Rykov, and thousands of other victims of the purges. At a closed meeting, Gorbachev circulated the draft to his Politburo members. Around the table they went, all of them having little or nothing to add. Until Yeltsin.
When my turn came, I firmly made about twenty separate comments, each of which was serious and substantive…. Then something unexpected happened. Gorbachev, unable to restrain himself, broke off the session and stormed out of the room. For about thirty minutes the entire membership of the Politburo and the Central Committee secretaries sat there in silence, not knowing what to do. When Gorbachev reappeared, he started a tirade aimed at me personally that had nothing to do with the substance of my comments. He was letting fly all the thoughts, complaints, and resentments that had been building up inside him over recent months…. There can be no doubt that at that moment Gorbachev simply hated me.
Later that summer, Yeltsin wrote Gorbachev a letter complaining about Ligachev’s “crude” work style and the “insincere” unanimity within the Politburo. “I am an awkward person, and I know it,” Yeltsin wrote Gorbachev, and then asked permission to resign from all his top-level posts. Gorbachev returned from vacation and told Yeltsin they would discuss the letter, but not yet.
But Yeltsin could not wait. A few weeks later at the October plenum, he took the entire Central Committee by surprise. At the meeting, Gorbachev essentially rehearsed his Revolution Day speech. After the applause was over, Ligachev asked if there were any comments: normally a sign to adjourn. Yeltsin asked to speak. In the months to come, the rumors in Moscow were that Yeltsin had attacked Raisa Gorbachev’s spending habits and her influence on her husband. Not true. But what Yeltsin did say was sharp enough:
There has been a noticeable increase in what I can only call adulation of the general secretary by certain full members of the Politburo. I consider this to be not permissible, particularly now when we are introducing properly democratic forms of relations among one another, truly comradely relationships. This tendency to adulation is absolutely unacceptable. To criticize to people’s faces—yes, that is necessary—but not to develop a taste for adulation, which can become the norm again, can become a “cult of personality.”
(Yeltsin says in Against the Grain that his speech included this final phrase—a direct comparison to the Stalin era. But when the Central Committee finally published the transcript of the meeting in February 1989 in the journal Izvestia of the Central Committee, the reference was missing.)
Yeltsin sat down, and the deluge began. Ligachev was first, defending his honor to great applause. Then came a Central Committee chorus to sing the praises of the injured Ligachev and to heap insult after insult on Yeltsin. Missing Yeltsin’s point about the dry rot of unanimity—or better, ignoring it—they all rushed to praise the tireless wisdom of the general secretary, his openness, his valor. Yeltsin was blamed for rising crime rates, for lack of food on the shelves, for bad manners, most of all. Everyone had his turn: Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, the KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov, academic Georgi Arbatov, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, even Yakovlev. Gorbachev needled Yeltsin for his “conceit,” “political immaturity,” and “irresponsibility.” And after a long speech of virtually endless denunciation—the style of which could only have been learned in the cradle of the Party institutes and archives—Gorbachev recommended that Yeltsin be declared “mistaken” and that the Moscow Communist Party Committee take up the question of “freeing” him from his post.
Yeltsin was devastated, still reeling days later. “I stood on top of Lenin’s tomb as a privileged spectator of the Revolution Day parade on November 7, certain that I was standing there for the last time.” Two days later, he was hospitalized for a “physical breakdown.”
Suddenly on the morning of November 11, the telephone rang on my special Kremlin line, plugged into telephone exchange number 1. It was Gorbachev, and he spoke as if he were calling me not in the hospital but at my dacha. In a calm voice he said: “You must come and see me for a short while, Boris Nikolayevich. After that, perhaps we will go attend the plenum of the Moscow City Committee together.” I said I couldn’t come because I was in bed and the doctors wouldn’t let me up. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerfully. “The doctors will help get you up….” However much Gorbachev may have disliked me, to act like that was inhuman and immoral.
In that condition, Yeltsin was propped up before the Moscow Party organization on November 13, 1987. The drubbing was worse than it had been in the Central Committee. When it was over, Yeltsin writes, “I was only nominally alive. Politically, I didn’t exist. Politically I was a corpse…. All that was left where my heart had been was a burned-out cinder.”
Although the Central Committee plenum remained a secret, Moskovskaya Pravda printed the transcript of the Moscow City Committee meeting. The capital was in a rage. Yeltsin was an underground martyr. An actress performing in a hit play about the cleaning of the Augean stables, The Seventh Feat of Hercules, stepped center stage, abandoned her script, and accused the audience of sitting by idly as a new Hercules, come to purify the city, had been disgraced and persecuted. There were demonstrations at Moscow State University. Small independent political groups such as the Club for Social Initiatives petitioned the government for more facts on the case. Club members reported they were followed around town by men in small cars.
Yeltsin disappeared for a while. On May Day, 1988, I saw him on Red Square. Even now, he is still a member of the Central Committee, and that day he stood among the same men who had railed against him. When the parade was over, I caught up with him. People were aching to shake his hand, to tell him to “get healthy and come back.” He said he was feeling better, laughed off a question about Gorbachev and Ligachev, and, as best a huge man can, disappeared into the crowd. He gave no warning of what was to come less than two months later.
Later in 1988 Yeltsin tried, but failed, to win a delegate’s spot to the nineteenth Party Conference from Moscow or Sverdlovsk. But through some quiet maneuvering in the provinces, he managed to win a spot in the Karelian delegation. It was time to make his move, but he had little support within the Party ranks. At the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses, he says, “I felt like an elephant in a zoo. Some of my old acquaintances averted their eyes in a cowardly fashion, in case they might be infected by this leper.” The Karelian delegation sat in the rear of the balcony, and for a few days everyone forgot about Yeltsin.
Gorbachev and the conference presidium ignored his written requests to speak. The conference was so filled with unprecedented reports on the dismal condition of the Soviet economy, health care system, environment, and political life, that Yeltsin was almost overlooked in the excitement.
But on the fifth and final day of the conference, Yeltsin turned to another delegate and said, “Comrades, there is only one thing left for me to do. I must take the rostrum by storm.” He lumbered downstairs and strode down the long center aisle toward the stage, “looking Gorbachev right in the eye.” He flashed his deputy’s red card at Gorbachev and said, “I demand to be allowed to speak.” Gorbachev told him to take a seat in the first row and wait. Finally, after whispered consultations with Ligachev, Gorbachev called Yeltsin to the podium.
I remember watching the drama on television at home in Moscow with some Soviet friends who were preparing to leave for the United States the next day. They could not believe what they were hearing. Yeltsin began slowly, but then he began to pry open the fissures in the Party he had made at the October plenum, suggesting that members of the Politburo responsible for the “state” of the country and the Party be fired. My friends smiled, incredulous. Yeltsin went on about the need for “openness in the Party” and the senior Party officials who are guilty of corruption, bribery, and padding their salaries.
Then, after a pause, Yeltsin said he wanted to raise a “ticklish” question—his behavior in October 1987. Suddenly, the hall was “agitated,” as the transcripts have it. Gorbachev broke in. “Speak on, Boris Nikolayevich. They want you to have your say. I think we should stop treating the Yeltsin case as a secret.”
And so Yeltsin, looking dazed by the task ahead, jutted his jaw and continued, evoking in speech if not in manner nothing less than the return of Nikolai Bukharin and other old Bolsheviks who had been shot in the purges and restored to Party ranks under Gorbachev.
Comrade delegates! Rehabilitation fifty years after a person’s death has now become the rule, and this has a healthy effect on society. But I am asking for my political rehabilitation while I am still alive.
My friends suddenly had the expressions of children at their first birthday party.
Ligachev, for his part, had no choice. He had to speak. To Yeltsin’s barrel-chested, hangdog heavyweight, Ligachev came across on television as a street-tough middleweight. He was furious, accusing Yeltsin of sitting mute at Politburo meetings. Ligachev even astonished the hall by trying to claim credit for a key role in pushing through Gorbachev’s nomination as Soviet leader in March 1985. The conservatives in the hall cheered him. But this was a televised revolution, and Ligachev was losing the war. By the time Ligachev started defending the Party apparat and one of the most conservative speeches during the conference—a stemwinder by the hack novelist Yuri Bondarev comparing Gorbachev’s reforms to an airplane with no known runway—the Party monolith had collapsed.
Yeltsin never did win his rehabilitation within the Party. He did better than that. He destroyed the illusion of Party unity, and then in March 1989, he won popular rehabilitation, crushing the Party’s candidate in the Moscow citywide race for the Congress of Peoples Deputies.
But many of those same legislators fear Yeltsin. They worry that political revenge is often his greatest priority, that his emphasis on privileges is a way of avoiding the much harder questions of how to create a working economy from a rusted husk. They even worry that Yeltsin’s taste for sheer popularity is such that he could even find a way to make a rise in Russian nationalist sentiment his own. For now radicals such as Popov and Afanasyev and Stankevich watch Yeltsin warily, wondering if he will choose the road of the demagogue.
But most of the Yeltsin history is closed. His legacy is the collapse of Communist party unity, and the evidence is everywhere: the rise of the progressive Democratic Platform faction within the party; the official end to the Party’s constitutional guarantee on power; the formation of the Social Democrats, the Radicals, the Christian Democrats, the Greens, and a score of other parties that either borrow from the West or look back to the anti-tsarist parties of the early part of the century. Even Gorbachev is distancing himself from the Communist party. In his inaugural speech as president in March he did not even mention Marx or Lenin.
In July, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and thousands of other Communist party members will gather at the Kremlin for the twenty-eighth Party Congress, an event that Afanasyev predicts will be the “funeral congress.” The question is not if the Party will split, but when. “The old Party as we knew it is finished,” Afanasyev says. An offended kingfish from the Urals helped make it happen.
May 17, 1990