A YEAR or so ago, when I was throwing questions at Boris Yeltsin on his American tour, he already seemed a marked man. The burly Russian defender of democracy was giving Mikhail Gorbachev one more year to achieve a breakthrough or face a revolution from below.
It wasn't as clear then that Boris Yeltsin intended to lead that revolution, but that's just what he's doing now.
Freedom is breaking out all over the Soviet Union while Mikhail Gorbachev tries desperately to get the genie he unleashed back into the bottle. He has organized what should have been the standard totalitarian plebiscite, asking whether the Soviet Union should be preserved. The question is framed to assure a "yes" vote next Sunday, but Boris Yeltsin is rallying the whole country to just say "no." Last week saw the biggest anti-government rally since the Bolshevik Revolution. Half a million people filled the square adjacent to the Kremlin. The wide-angle photo looked as if it could have come off a revolutionary poster.
The outpouring in Moscow was mirrored by crowds all across the country -- 70,000 standing in the sleet in Leningrad, others in Sverdlovsk, Irkutsk, Kazan, Omsk, Yaroslavl, Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk, Smolensk, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok . . . from west to east across 12 time zones. The common theme was clear in a couple of the posters held aloft in Moscow: "Gorbachev is a liar." "Yeltsin is the hope of Russia."
The nomenklatura, the Soviet establishment, is furious yet frustrated. To arrest Boris Yeltsin or condemn him too harshly would only make him more of a hero. One day he's rallying half a million people in Moscow, the next forging an alliance with the coal miners, long the most abused and volatile workers in this workers' paradise that has always been a hell.
Last year, Comrade Yeltsin was warning that, "perestroika is in extreme danger. Somehow it has to be saved." Now Mister Yeltsin, having left the party, denounces perestroika as a fraud and calls for the formation of a democratic opposition. His message may not be Leninist, but his fervor is. So is his drawing power.
"Let's declare war on the leadership of the country," he urges. "The time has come, on the basis of the democratic movement, to create a powerful organized party." Like a Russian Huey Long, he seems to know just what chords to strike: "We were deceived, and now we must open our eyes wide and realize that (the promise of reform) was a lie. We must take our own path, not the perestroika of recent years."
For once Russia may be in the throes of a revolution that is a revolution, and not just the same autocracy under different autocrats.
A year or so ago, Boris Yeltsin seemed a latter-day Alexander Kerensky, doing his futile best to create a fragile democracy in latitudes where such a sight would be as exotic as a palm tree. Sophisticates dismissed him as only a stalking horse for Mikhail Gorbachev -- somebody who could be used to frighten the generals and ideologues into going along with reform. "If I didn't exist," Yeltsin told the American newsmen popping questions at him in a Minneapolis hotel room, "Gorbachev would have to invent me." Now there's no doubt that Boris Yeltsin is a force of his own; he is shaking an empire.
"We do not need a (Soviet) Union in its present form," he says. "We do not need such a center, a huge center, a bureaucratic center. We don't need ministries. We don't need this gigantic bureaucratic machinery that beats us, that has been dictating from above for more than 70 years. We have to rid ourselves of this."
Boris Yeltsin no longer brings to mind the Kerensky doomed to live out his long exile in the library stacks at Stanford. Another figure now comes to mind: Sergei Kirov -- a popular regional boss, a powerful orator and effective organizer who tried to moderate one-man rule and keep channels open between party and people. It was his assassination on Dec. 1, 1934 (arranged or exploited by the one man then ruling) that set off the greatest purge in modern history: The Stalinist show trials. In that atmosphere of violence and fear, it became possible to cow all the opposition and turn the country into one big gulag.
The Soviet referendum scheduled for Sunday represents a pivotal choice between centralized control and free rein, between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, but mainly between the old fear of freedom and the stirring new hope for it. Boris Yeltsin better watch his back.