Yeltsin: Product-- and Enemy-- of the System Each Attack Enhances His Popularity

March 24, 1991|By SCOTT SHANE

MOSCOW — Moscow.

At the special Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation opening this Thursday, the Communist Party is plotting an attack aimed at unseating the parliament's chairman, Boris N. Yeltsin.

But if history is any guide, the party's blows will rebound mainly against its own reputation, leaving Mr. Yeltsin's popularity enhanced.

For Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin is the phoenix of Russian politics, the indispensable man. He plays the indefatigable, unconquerable Roadrunner to the toothy but hapless Communist Coyote.

He has two qualifications that uniquely prepared him to lead the Soviet opposition in the current transition period: He is a product TC of Soviet totalitarianism, having climbed the careerist ladder to the top of the Communist Party heap. And he is its sworn enemy, having himself experienced the ruthlessness with which the system crushes its opponents.

The resulting politician is a complex, evolving character in the Soviet political drama who is an enigma for many of his compatriots, let alone for foreigners. His craggy, plastic face can turn instantly from fierce scowl to beaming smile to a teasing look of mock-surprise.

An American attuned to the grossly oversimplified Yeltsin image of, say, late 1989 -- demagogue, opportunist, clown, drunk -- may have a hard time adjusting to the possibly idealized Yeltsin image of early 1991 -- statesman, democrat, leader of the anti-totalitarian forces in the Soviet Union.

But if being the thorn in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's side in 1988 meant being a potentially dangerous threat to reform, standing up to Mr. Gorbachev today may mean being a crucial defender of reform.

Mr. Gorbachev, who made Mr. Yeltsin's career and now spends much energy trying to unmake it, last May put his finger on his achievements, though that was not the word he used.

Pleading with the Russian parliament not to elect Mr. Yeltsin its chairman, Mr. Gorbachev pointed out that Mr. Yeltsin's platform speech "did not mention socialism once."

"With one stroke of the pen, so to speak, he wishes to invite us to say farewell to our socialist choice made in 1917," Mr. Gorbachev declared. Mr. Yeltsin's goal, he said, was "to separate Russia from socialism."

Still worse, Mr. Gorbachev said: "If, comrades, you very seriously subject to analysis what he is offering under the banner of restoring the sovereignty of Russia, this is a call for disintegration of the union."

Precisely: Mr. Yeltsin was the first Communist Party leader to admit that Leninist ideology was simply wrong, had not worked and must be junked.

He did it not only publicly, he did it with flair and humor -- declaring in a Houston supermarket, for instance, "Even the Politburo doesn't have such choice."

More recently, Mr. Yeltsin has become the first high-level Soviet leader to admit that holding the Soviet Union together by force is wrong and that it cannot prosper except as a truly voluntary union.

He said it not only publicly, but with drama and courage. When Soviet troops last January seized Lithuanian TV facilities, leaving 14 dead, he immediately flew to Estonia to consult with Baltic leaders, sign a pledge of support for their independence drives and appeal to Russian soldiers not to shoot civilians.

To the Communist hierarchy, this was an unforgivable sin, even worse than his rejection of Soviet ideology. For decades, the Soviet empire had talked internationalism while displaying Russian nationalism: the second-in-command in every republic was a Russian, as were the elite military officers who controlled the country's nuclear might.

Mr. Yeltsin is separating Russian patriotism from Soviet imperialism. He is giving Russians the freedom to be for a sovereign Russia -- and also for, say, a sovereign Estonia.

This drives Mr. Gorbachev crazy precisely because it is the logical continuation of the reforms he started when he came to office in 1985. Paradoxically, Mr. Gorbachev can't forgive Mr. Yeltsin for betraying Soviet totalitarianism even more completely and consistently than he himself has dared, or chosen, to do.

Mr. Yeltsin was born in 1931, just one month before his future mentor and rival. He grew up in a family of ordinary laborers in the cold, hungry, hardscrabble Ural Mountains during Stalin's industrialization.

His subsequent biography reads like that of a thousand Soviet political figures: work in the construction industry in Sverdlovsk, party membership to make advancement possible, an eventual switch to the party bureaucracy, and a climb through the party apparat.

In 1976, at the age of 45, he became party chief in Sverdlovsk region, with near-absolute power in a key industrial territory four times the size of Maryland and with a slightly larger population. He held the job for a decade, earning a reputation as a competent, demanding but by no means iconoclastic party boss.

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