A contradiction, like the Russia he ruled

Yeltsin: Recklessness and courage helped him yank his country out of communism, but he squandered the goodwill on which he relied.

January 01, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Boris N. Yeltsin embodied qualities as Russia's president that his countrymen like to think of as their own. He could be reckless, hard-headed, unpredictable. He was unquestionably courageous. He relied on his cronies.

Playing many roles, Yeltsin wrenched his country out of communism and led it into the jungle of the free market. He was an instigator, but also an agent of larger forces sweeping not just Russia but the world. He was a destroyer who appeared at a time when there was much that needed destroying; he held onto power long after the time for rebuilding had begun.

He was a rough-hewn opportunist from the provinces who nevertheless had the imagination to believe that his country would break clear of Soviet communism. He wasn't a thinker, but it was out of genuine disgust that this one-time member of the Soviet Politburo turned against the Communist Party.

He learned he could draw unfathomable strength from popular support at times of crisis -- support that was to serve him well at the supreme moment, when he faced down a hard-line coup in August 1991 and emerged as the hero of a new Russia.

Yet out of arrogance or carelessness or lethargy or just bad advice, he squandered the goodwill. Or, perhaps, having come so far from such a deeply Soviet background, he could go no farther, could never achieve the transformation into a democratic champion that so many expected of him.

"He is contradictory as Russia is contradictory," said Andrei Piontkovsky of the Center for Strategic Studies. "He proved to be the right man at the right time. But he over-lived that time, and he became the wrong man."

Twice elected to Russia's highest office, he presided over the upwelling of disaffection and cynicism that mark Russia today. He fought his parliament with tanks, proved unable to stem the vast criminal enterprises that infect every aspect of Russian life, ignored public opinion when it didn't suit him and began two wars in Chechnya.

Humble beginnings

From a brawling, poverty-stricken boyhood in the Ural Mountains, Yeltsin grew up to become a construction manager and, at the relatively late age of 30, a member of the Communist Party. He ascended almost to the pinnacles of Soviet power, was ruined and rose again to take command of the Kremlin. He was energetic and accessible, yet for most of his life he had no interest in the finer arts of political deal-making.

"Whether I was chairing a meeting, running my office or delivering a report -- everything that one did was expressed in terms of pressure, threats and coercion," he wrote later, describing his tenure as first party secretary for the Sverdlovsk region.

When, in 1985, an ambitious party careerist from Stavropol named Mikhail S. Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to the capital, Muscovites delighted in him. He rode the buses. He uprooted corruption and railed against party privileges. Wrapped in a towel, he absorbed public opinion while holding court in a city "banya," or bath.

"His main advantage is his great charisma," Pavel Belenko, who years later worked as an image-maker for Yeltsin, told Rossiskaya Gazeta. "When he talks unprepared, at ease, emotionally, he gives a very good impression. He can really charge people up."

Yeltsin became one of the strongest proponents for Gorbachev's campaign of glasnost and perestroika, or openness and rebuilding, in an attempt to revive the Soviet economy. But in his roughshod way he created enemies throughout the party, and finally Gorbachev decided to drop him. In October 1987, Yeltsin was drummed out of the party leadership in a timeworn Soviet ritual that promised there would be no return to prominence, no second chance.

Yeltsin was hospitalized three weeks later with what was apparently his first bout of serious heart trouble. Even after his recovery, he was mired in despair. Yet that despair eventually transformed into a bitter anger and a resolve to fight back. He grew to detest the people who had ruined him -- especially Gorbachev -- and, more important, he grew to detest the system they upheld.

"Even now, when so much time has passed, a rusty nail is still lodged in my heart and I have not pulled it out," he wrote in his autobiography. "It protrudes and bleeds."

In 1989, Yeltsin began his unprecedented comeback. He maneuvered his way onto the list of parliamentary candidates despite the obstacles placed in his way by the party and won easily.

A year later he was elected chairman of the Russian parliament, even though Gorbachev had appealed to its members to reject him. He was on his way to becoming the most popular man in Russia. (In the fall of 1989, when he made a famous visit to the Johns Hopkins University and stayed up most of the night before a speech with a bottle of Jack Daniel's, Russians were outraged -- not that he might have had too much to drink but that Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, tried to vilify him for it.)

Finding common ground

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