Popular Yeltsin triumphs over party, his own flaws

June 16, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

SVERDLOVSK, U.S.S.R. — Attractive Moscow woman, height 165 centimeters, higher musical education, never married, constantly improving herself in every way, is seeking man up to 33 years old with goal of starting family. Those not sharing the political views of Yeltsin need not apply.

-- personal ad in Vechernyaya

Moskva, Moscow's evening paper,

May 15, 1991

SVERDLOVSK, U.S.S.R. -- Alya I. Tanachova, an engineer at the huge Uralmash machine plant here, remembers vividly the day in the late 1970s when she first saw Boris N. Yeltsin, then the local Communist Party boss.

Plant workers had turned out for a "subbotnik," a Soviet tradition in which workers volunteered their Saturday (subbota) for a good cause -- or else. They had been ordered to remove dirt piles, plant bushes and tidy up around the factory's newly built Palace of Culture.

"Boris Nikolayevich showed up in work clothes and worked the whole shift with us, shoveling dirt," Mrs. Tanachova, 56, said. "At one point the [Uralmash] general director's car pulled up and he got out, dressed in a suit and tie, to tell everybody 'Good job,' you know. And all of a sudden he spotted Yeltsin -- taller than all the rest, you couldn't miss him.

"He was embarrassed. He didn't know what to do. . . . He nervously shook Yeltsin's hand, got in his car and drove away," she said, laughing at the discomfiture of her boss.

"They say Yeltsin's a populist. Well, he was a populist back then, too. He went everywhere and talked to everybody," said Mrs. Tanachova.

Since that subbotnik, Mr. Yeltsin has made a career of embarrassing bosses, not least among them Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

On a few occasions, he has embarrassed himself and his supporters.

But through the mini-scandals, careless promises, tactical swivels, triumphal campaigns and bold political confrontations, his standing with the Russian people has remained unshakable.

And now Russian voters have elected Mr. Yeltsin, 60, the first president of Russia.

He was the first Politburo defector, the first top Soviet politician to admit the emperor had no clothes. He was the first high-level Communist to challenge the party and the KGB, drawing relentless propaganda attacks, KGB harassment and even death threats. He was the first to quit the party.

Last winter, he stood as the bulwark of reform when Mr. Gorbachev badly faltered. His dramatic intervention may have prevented military coups in the Baltic republics in January. His delicate exploitation of the coal miners' strike helped halt a slide into reaction and force Mr. Gorbachev back to a reformist path.

Physically, Mr. Yeltsin looks like a Russian leader. The height and bulk of this one-time volleyball coach, an avid tennis player, suits the stupendous size of the country. His voice fills any hall. His face is a photographer's dream; he plays the eyebrows, under the shock of white hair, like a musical instrument.

His victory was decisive -- 60 percent -- even though he has been chairman of the Russian parliament during a year of worsening economic chaos. He overcame competition from five diverse opponents and a furious smear campaign in the still-dominant Communist Party press.

In this city where he is known best, the vote for Mr. Yeltsin was overwhelming -- 85 percent.

In Sverdlovsk, for a decade of the now despised "period of stagnation," he was an ideologically correct Communist Party leader, an audible voice in the chorus singing the praises of the dottering Leonid I. Brezhnev. Surprisingly, perhaps, in a 1989 interview Mr. Yeltsin called those 10 years "the best years of my life."

It was Mr. Yeltsin who carried out the Politburo's secret order to raze the Sverdlovsk house where Czar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. It was Mr. Yeltsin who built for the party hierarchy the glittering marble high-rise that towers over crowded barracks where some workers still live.

But he was also a hands-on manager who made a point of riding trolley buses, digging potatoes on collective farms, shaking hands on the factory floor -- all at a time when elections were uncontested.

He was one of the first party officials in the country to appear regularly on local television to answer viewers' gripes and questions.

"One very bad year, '80 or '81, there was terrible rain," remembered Valery A. Bogdanov, a Uralmash official. "He went on TV and pleaded, really pleaded with people to help save the harvest. That was something new -- we were used to commands; we weren't used to appeals. People listened."

Whatever may happen now, Mr. Yeltsin already is a Russian leader of historic stature. He has a democratic legitimacy without precedent for a Russian or Soviet politician. He will travel in triumph to Washington this week to meet President Bush, to say "I told you so" to the West that once wrote him off as a demagogue.

But are all the doubts about Mr. Yeltsin gone? Are all the accusations against him groundless?

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