“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.
Crowds of clean, well-dressed Americans rushed to catch a glimpse of the clean, handsome, tan Gorbachev, with his snow-white smile. Someone even suggested he run for president of the United States, and if that weren’t possible, then for governor of Florida. And meanwhile, in Moscow there were demonstrations in support of Yeltsin, and my God, what crowds these were—I once happened to be in the maelstrom of one such crowd in the spring of 1990, and was transfixed with pity and horror. These were not the usual fake demonstrators with paper flowers and dressed-up children, pretending to be in a state of happiness, not the ones that Yeltsin was once afraid to be late for, as he wandered across the snowy Siberian plains. No, these were real people, in all their poverty, misery, and raggedness. They were unshaven, with ashen faces, bad teeth, dressed in shabby clothes. The democratic intelligentsia had never, in its memory, seen or heard anything like this, the genuine voice of the people. And for the first time, with mixed feelings of excitement and alarm, we saw that “the people,” in whose name so much is done, had emerged as a real political power. “Yeltsin! Yeltsin!” the crowd shouted. One woman, spinning in ecstasy on her own axis, howled: “Yel-tsiiiiin! He eats like usssss! He drinks, like usssss! He’s just like ussss!”
Whether Francis Fukuyama likes it or not, history—at least in Russia—hasn’t stopped. As long as the central myths are alive, the ones that form the backbone of a given culture, history continues—and repeats itself. The myth of a people’s tsar, ataman, defender, protector, was played out once again at that time in the squares, streets, and eventually, by a narrow margin, in the Parliament, when Yeltsin was elected speaker, and in the country when he was elected president in June 1991.
Yeltsin rode a wave of popular love to the crest of Russia. But what was Russia at the time? One of the republics, no more. Remember how they gathered in Novo-Ogaryovo, watching like schoolboys to see whose car would be first in line! How that must have irked President Yeltsin, so much so that he decided to recount the silly episode in his book. Further on, he writes, significantly: “Perhaps from the outside, such a collection of ‘presidents’ who in fact had no real power, appeared somewhat ridiculous.” This is the whole point. He wasn’t fighting for Russia—he had the country in his pocket—he was fighting for real power. And in order to obtain this power, he had to take Gorbachev’s place. Become president of the USSR. But he knew that it wouldn’t work. All those toy “presidents” of other republics—actually first Party secretaries—nipping at his heels and scenting prey wouldn’t let him. They finally had the prospect of unlimited rule at home. They wouldn’t have to account to “Moscow,” to crawl on their bellies, to send tithes: rugs, diamonds, cognac, money, porcelain vases of human height with portraits of the Great Russian Boss (who, regardless of his hair and eye color always ended up with Central Asian features and dark, dark eyes). Yeltsin would have to share with his fellow bandits, especially since this would allow him to seem a great democrat, and pronounce those sweet words: sovereignty, independence, equal rights.
In February 1991 Yeltsin was dying to speak on television and Gorbachev wouldn’t let him. (Now, in his book, Yeltsin justifies himself: “Each day, the television broadcasters were scaring the public with the specter of the Soviet Union’s collapse and civil war. The position of the Russian republic leadership was portrayed as purely destructive and negative…. That was why I was feeling an enormous need to explain myself, to tell the people that reform of the USSR did not yet mean its collapse.”) The tension grew. Many people understood that the conflict between these two strong personalities did in fact threaten the country with collapse—and with unforeseeable consequences. Friends, colleagues, and democrats tried to convince Yeltsin to make peace with Gorby, not to inflame an already overheated atmosphere. Naive creatures! They had not been humiliated before the eyes of the entire country. They hadn’t sat for hours in the silence, staring at a silent telephone. They hadn’t fallen from such dizzying heights as he. When he finally got to speak on television, Yeltsin went for broke: “That was when I got an idea. You’re afraid of Yeltsin? Well, then, you’ll get that very Yeltsin you fear!” He publicly proposed that Gorbachev resign, and proposed dismantling the central government and giving the republics their freedom.
This attack made an extremely unfavorable impression on many. Yeltsin knew this. But it was already too late to stop him: he wanted blood. And he understood that the beautiful word “freedom” intoxicated people and enhanced whoever pronounced it. He didn’t feel like thinking about what would follow this “freedom”: collapse, poverty, the explosion of nationalistic hostilities, a sea of blood, civil wars, millions of refugees. This would all take place outside the borders of Russia anyway, in the “republics.” And all those Armenians-Azerbaijanis-Georgians-Abk hazians-Ossetians-Chechens-Pamirans-Tajiks and such—well, they aren’t Russian, are they? Let those fresh-baked president/Party secretaries deal with them. They aren’t Václav Havels and he knows this, but what does he care? For Russia the most important thing is tranquillity. That’s how Yeltsin ends his book, with the hypocritical sentence: “The chief goal of this restless president is Russia’s tranquillity.”
The August 1991 coup was truly a gift for Yeltsin. He was the popular hero who defended the White House, Russia, and democracy. “Papa, you have defended democracy!” his daughter said to him. How pleasant this sounded. That’s right, my child! Let’s not forget to write this down in the book. The coup plotters were cowards and behaved stupidly; Gorbachev, as always, was evasive and managed to weasel his way out of things. His role in the coup is not clear even now. But what is clear is that he lost power and Yeltsin did what he wanted. He pushed Gorbachev aside, quickly dismantled the country with the Belovezhsky Woods deal,1 cast off responsibility for all the complex and tortuous conflicts beyond the borders of the Russian Republic, and ascended to the throne. Yeltsin equated Russia with himself, and, for him, to “seize” a comfortable office meant, as we have seen, to “seize” Russia. The limited mind of Sverdlovsk Party boss Yeltsin was incapable of understanding the priorities, needs, meaning, responsibility, and history of the Russian state. What about the historically outrageous concession of the Crimea and the Russian South to Gauleiter Kravchuk? And the Black Sea fleet, which Russia is buying from itself? And the twenty-five million Russians, living in their own country and waking up one morning to find themselves unwelcome “foreigners”? And the so-called “foreigners” waking up in Russia as God knows what? The Berlin Wall collapsed, but Yeltsin erected dozens of new walls in his own country.
Everything was done with such haste that the terms of Russian citizenship weren’t thought through, which gave nationalists everywhere the opportunity to divide people by blood, by ethnicity, to declare yesterday’s neighbors foreigners, to institute ethnic purges, and to attack “aliens.” The explosion of nationalistic feelings among ethnic Russians now locked in the other former Soviet republics and the strengthening of Zhirinovsky’s position are direct and natural consequences of the way this division was carried out. After all, it’s one thing to defend Russian citizens, and quite another to defend ethnic Russians.2 (Truth be told, neither enjoys any defense.) For this reason, the American administration’s recent pronouncements to the effect that, in view of the growth of nationalism in Russia it is necessary to support Yeltsin, sound to my mind like the mumblings of a sleepwalker.
God did not grant this volleyball player a statesmanlike mind. His little passions are utterly human, grandfatherly, domestic. Thus, he complains that he isn’t as free now as he used to be: he flies in a helicopter and sees a pretty stream below. Oy, let’s land and sit awhile, the President begs. You can’t, Boris Nikolayevich, what about the nuclear button? You are responsible for it now…, his guards say, shaking their heads. He decided to choose himself a vice-president, so he thought for a while and he thought some more and came up with someone: Rutskoi. A handsome face, mustaches, the women like him, and he’ll sit quietly and keep to himself. But after a while Rutskoi starts permitting himself to make comments: “He would come into my office, give me a horrified look, and say: ‘B.N. where did you get those shoes? You shouldn’t be wearing shoes like that; you’re the president!”‘ It started with shoes. Then the vice-president went on to criticize his suits, then it snowballed and got worse and worse, until in the end he had to send the tanks after Rutskoi, who was sitting in the White House, and send him off to prison. (Gogol did a good job of describing such conflicts long ago in “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich.”) Of course, the reasons for this enmity must have been, and were, deeper, but Yeltsin doesn’t write about them in his book. He does, however, write about Rutskoi’s criticism of his shoes and suits.
Was it possible to avoid the collapse of the country, without amputating living flesh? Many people think not. Yeltsin’s answer to this question is: YES!
There were various ways to achieve this [i.e., the preservation of the Soviet Union]. We could fight for elections for the president of the USSR throughout all the republics. We could declare the Russian parliament the legal heir of the dissolved Soviet legislature. We could persuade Gorbachev to make me acting president, and so on. That path was barred to me. Psychologically, I could not take Gorbachev’s place. Just as he could not take mine.
One is truly flabbergasted by such self-satisfied blindness. Not a shadow of a thought about the country, its people. Only Me and Him. Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Who will beat whom?
If the Russian empire was fated to fall apart by itself—and the fall of an empire is always a painful and complex process—so be it. The lines of collapse would perhaps have formed more naturally, the border conflicts, perhaps, would have been less harsh, had it happened differently. One would like to think that it might have been possible to avoid several wars altogether. Even if this is a naive hope, many people shared it. Including some deputies in the Parliament. And the arbitrary actions of the newly elected “president” in the Belovezhsky Woods split the fledgling Russian state and set the Parliament and the President at odds.
There’s no denying it: the Russian Parliament was horrible in many respects. Capricious, unintelligent, hysterical, corrupt, ignorant, belligerent—for that matter, the flesh of the flesh of its people, which it was called on to represent. When Yeltsin decided to implement economic reforms, the Parliament opposed and obstructed him whenever it could. This was a very difficult period for the President: all of his concessions caused the Parliament to foam at the mouth and demand even greater concessions. And here Yeltsin’s inadequacy and ineptitude in governing became obvious. Continue reforms or not? Hand his ministers over to be torn apart by the Parliament or not? If so, who and how many? (He handed them over.) Why these ministers and not others? Is it possible to continue reforms if you destroy the reform team? He doesn’t explain any of this. He himself didn’t know what he wanted (other than peace, respect, volleyball, tennis, comfortable offices, the bathhouse, and that “everything be all right”).
Having rushed to “seize” Russia, he didn’t know what to do with it. He started disappearing at critical moments, avoiding important meetings and trips, he didn’t answer the telephone, even when Clinton called him twice. He used to think that power was simply pleasurable. It’s no accident that melancholy thoughts of peace, repose, and a pension filter through the text of his book, reaching their apogee in this envious paragraph which is not, however, in the American edition of the book:
In America there’s a good tradition. When a president steps down, the Congress make a decision—to build the former president a house any place he wants. And he is allowed to keep the presidential library.
Not only does Yeltsin reveal his rosy ignorance of American “traditions” but he clearly sees Western presidents as being rather like tsars, only temporary. (I wonder whether, somewhere in the depths of Yeltsin’s subconscious, he is remembering the last house of the last Russian tsar, given to Nikolai II by the Bolsheviks, which Yeltsin himself had blown up on orders from Moscow.) In any event, I rather think that if an American president willfully decided to get rid of California, Nevada, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, the two Virginias, both Carolinas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, the grateful American people wouldn’t build him anything more than a hut in Alaska, at best, and wouldn’t give him any sled dogs, either.
Yeltsin’s final battle with the Parliament is the largest and murkiest part of his “autobiography.” Everything having to do with it is lies and innuendoes. Yeltsin seems to suppose that if he writes a lot of words, they will somehow arrange themselves into an acceptable explanation. But this doesn’t happen. In the center, once again, is Yeltsin himself. He thinks. He thinks again. A decision begins to take shape in his thick head. He’s sick and tired, damn it, of these people’s stubbornness. He thinks again. He “considers it premature” to do something. Then he has a brainstorm: do this. The motives of his political actions are not clarified or explained to the reader, they rustle somewhere in the murk of his sluggish and possibly vodka-soaked brain. You can hear the thudding pulse of his wounded provincial ego. And every night, seized by insomnia, he paces the room and thinks—O, irony!—about Gorbachev. About Gorbachev’s wife. He compares her to his wife. His wife is better, of course. The main thing is that Gorbachev, they say, had to answer to Raisa, that he spilled his guts to her and thus relieved the stress of office, sought (and received) support, and therefore—ha-ha—he was a henpecked husband! The insomniac Yeltsin is pleased with this thought. He isn’t like this, oh no. His wife has only to peep, “Borya…,” and he sharply reprimands her: “Leave me alone!” So there!
We are, of course, happy and interested to know that Yeltsin’s wife obeys him, thank you. But the problem is that his former friends, the democrats, don’t obey Yeltsin. The Parliament doesn’t obey. The government, the Central Bank, the vicepresident don’t obey him. And, most importantly, the army doesn’t obey him. But why, why? Could it really be (O horror!) that he isn’t right?
No, he’s always right. He knows this for sure. He decided this. Why? Because he’s the president, that’s why! And he “would like to believe…that the majority of Russians realize…the only definite guarantor of calm is the president himself.” And no one is going to tell him what shoes to wear!
October 1993. Yeltsin orders Parliament to dissolve: he is sick of it, honestly. Some of the deputies, of course, don’t want to. The White House is transformed into a weapons depot. According to reports Yeltsin receives, it’s been seized by armed groups. Yeltsin surrounds the building with unarmed militia, apparently counting on the militia to fight off murderers with smiles and olive branches, but the armed mob breaks out of control, and here they are, killing policemen, attacking the television station, seizing the mayor’s office. Where is the army? Get the army over here! The army is digging potatoes, the President is told—it would be inexpedient to take them out of the fields. The head of the armed forces, Pavel Grachev, assures him: Yes, it’s coming, the army is coming. It’s very close, just wait. The head of GAI calls and says: It’s not true, there’s no one here, the troops have stopped on the edge of Moscow and don’t want to go any further.
Frankly, this sounds like a mutiny.
Everyone witnessed the bloodletting on the streets of Moscow that followed the dangerous, week-long standoff. Moscow, as the newspapers wrote, “lost its virginity”: nothing like this had happened in the capital since 1918. We still don’t know what really happened, how powerless Yeltsin really was during this time, why the rebelling army finally came to his aid after all, what concessions the military bargained for while holding the population hostage. And Yeltsin’s “autobiography” clarifies nothing. Rumors still circulate, but they are beyond the borders of this book.
A few weeks ago PBS showed a film about Russia. It was titled imaginatively, of course, The Struggle for Russia. (No relation to Yeltsin’s book.) In it, Yeltsin’s former press secretary, Pavel Voshchanov, speaks with bitter irony about the fact that, in his view, when Yeltsin looks in the mirror these days, he sees Gorbachev. In mirror image, Yeltsin’s development and fate reflect Gorbachev’s: the love of the populace, disappointment, the attempt to hold on to power, spilt blood, oblivion. As if in a frightening fairy tale, he has turned into the person with whom he struggled to the death.
And, in the Russian tradition, I feel sorry for the loser. For Russia.
—Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
June 23, 1994
The nature preserve in Belarus where Yeltsin, Kravchuk of the Ukraine, and Shushkevich of Belarus signed an accord on cooperation that in fact spelled the end of the USSR [translator’s note]. ↩
The words are, respectively, rossiiskie grazhdane and russkie. The Russian language has two words that translate as “Russian” in English, but rossiiskii means “pertaining to Russia” or “on the territory of Russia,” while russkii means ethnically Russian or Russian-language. This distinction is important and is carefully maintained by Russian politicians, since Russia is a multi-ethnic country; it is, however, frequently lost in Western discussion of the Russian political scene [translator’s note]. ↩