An inside look at Yeltsin's Russia

August 14, 1994|By Scott Shane

One Saturday in May 1993, Viktor Barannikov, the Russian minister of security, pleaded with his boss, Boris Yeltsin, to stop by his dacha to discuss an "extremely urgent" matter.

When Mr. Yeltsin reluctantly agreed, he found that the visit had been arranged merely so that Mr. Barannikov could introduce the Russian president to an emigre businessman named Boris Birshtein, whose company, Seabeco, was seeking deals in Russia.

Two months later, a commission probing government corruption found documents that explained the minister's importunity. Mr. Barannikov's wife, along with the wife of his deputy, had been flown to Switzerland by Seabeco and treated to a three-day weekend. The pair spent $350,000 on fur coats, jewelry, perfume and other trifles, returning to Moscow with 20 suitcases of loot.

Mr. Yeltsin summarily dismissed Mr. Barannikov. In September, when Mr. Yeltsin dissolved the rebellious parliament, it was Mr. Barannikov who turned up as the rebels' choice for minister of security.

This tale of how a foreign tycoon got his hooks into the first minister of security of post-communist Russia -- heir to the immense domestic police power of the Soviet KGB -- is one of the tastier morsels Mr. Yeltsin serves up in this curious, introspective memoir.

"The Struggle for Russia" is a surprisingly candid book -- far more revealing, for example, than the pseudo-memoirs produced by Mr. Yeltsin's patron and rival, Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Yeltsin's knack for establishing intimacy with an audience, which fueled his stunning rise to popularity in the late 1980s, carries over to his journal writing. While no revelation rates headlines, the book does offer inside glimpses of the political earthquakes that have regularly rattled Russia since Mr. Yeltsin became its first elected president in June 1991.

We learn, for instance, that before heading to the Crimea for his fateful vacation of August 1991, Mr. Gorbachev told Mr. Yeltsin he planned to dismiss KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov. The conversation, it emerged, was recorded by the KGB. It seems likely that it prompted the three men to launch the coup a few weeks later.

Mr. Yeltsin reveals that a contingency plan had been worked out during the August coup for him to flee the Russian White House for the sanctuary of the U.S. Embassy a few hundred feet away. Indeed, during one of the middle-of-the-night false alarms when it was believed troops were about to attack, Mr. Yeltsin's aides awoke him, dressed him in a bullet-proof vest and bundled him into a limousine, ready to head for the American refuge.

"When the engine turned over, I woke up completely, saying 'Where're we going?' My first reaction while still half-asleep was: that's it. The storming has begun," he recounts. "When I realized where we were headed, I categorically refused to leave the White House. From the perspective of security, the plan to go to the U.S. Embassy was 100 percent correct. But from the point of view of politics, it was a 100 percent failure. . . . If people learned I was hiding in the American Embassy, their reaction would be unequivocal: they would see it as virtual emigration, though in miniature."

In a breast-beating account of the confrontation between president and parliament that led to the shelling of that same White House last October, Mr. Yeltsin details the hesitation of the military and security forces over his orders to stop the mob that had attacked the television broadcasting center at Ostankino and other key buildings.

The troops' reluctance to turn their guns against fellow citizens, which had saved Mr. Yeltsin during the August coup, now put his regime in grave danger. The book paints an ambiguous portrait of Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, noting that he had joined in the planning for the Aug. 19 coup 13 days earlier, and that his assurances that government forces had Moscow under firm control last October proved many hours premature.

One is left with the impression that if the October rebels had been a more sober-minded crew, rather than a collection of wackos who might have sprung from the pages of Soldier of Fortune, the military might not have come to Mr. Yeltsin's rescue.

Apart from the light it sheds on important events, "The Struggle for Russia" offers humorous and striking glimpses of its putative author. (Valentin Yumashev, a Moscow journalist who helped Mr. Yeltsin with his first autobiography in 1990, translated as "Against the Grain," ghosted this one as well.)

We read that a desperate Mr. Yeltsin once quieted his screaming infant daughter aboard a train by putting her mouth to his own breast. We learn that he, like thousands of other Soviet people in the glasnost era, dug out and read the case Stalin's NKVD had concocted against his father.

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