Boris the First

The Struggle for Russia

by Boris N. Yeltsin, translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Times Books/Belka Publishing Company, 316 pp., $25.00
Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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