A life of Yeltsin: The record speaks

March 19, 2000|By Will Englund | By Will Englund,sun foreign staff

"Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life," by Leon Aron. St. Martin's Press. 908 pages. $35.

Leon Aron suspects that history will be kind to Russia's first president, and this biography might be thought of as his attempt to steal a march on history. The Boris Yeltsin we read about here is a hero, a builder, the guarantor of Russian democracy -- Aron concludes his densely quote-filled book comparing Yeltsin, favorably, to de Gaulle and Lincoln.

It has, in fact, been a while since anyone outside the Kremlin had anything so nice to say about the big snarling construction boss from Sverdlovsk whose epic rise and fall and rise again coincided in a very direct way with the demise of Communism and the Soviet Union. Maybe it's time: In his best years Yeltsin had as sure a touch as anyone on the Russian political scene, he fostered a whole new era of free speech and tolerance for dissent, and he was never really the drunken buffoon of caricature. From the perspective of the Putin administration, he may start to look better and better.

Yeltsin's many critics will seethe, but other readers of this book will understand why, for instance, the Russian public turned against Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and will wince at the things Gorbachev did to Yeltsin before Yeltsin had his chance to exact revenge.

They'll see the context in which Yeltsin brought tanks to bear against his own parliament in 1993, and though they may grasp that it was the wrong move, they'll understand how it was arrived at. Baltimoreans will especially appreciate the lengthy discussion of Yeltsin's visit to Johns Hopkins University in 1989, when he may or may not have consumed a bottle and a half of Jack Daniel's -- but Pravda nevertheless had to apologize for saying he did.

And yet 900 pages is a lot of Boris Yeltsin. Aron, a Russian emigre now at the American Enterprise Institute, spent seven years researching his life. What he has produced has immense usefulness for anyone interested in a detailed chronology of Yeltsin's years, but its weaknesses loom almost as large.

There are, firstly, few if any revelations. Aron relies heavily on newspaper articles, and what we get is Yeltsin on the record. The second problem grows out of the first: Until 1991 Boris Yeltsin led a fascinating life, and even the well-known incidents make good grist for a biography -- starting with the drunken priest who nearly drowned him at his christening. But as president he withdrew more and more from public view and his life became considerably less dramatic.

The story of Yeltsin becomes mixed up with the story of Russian government policy and intrigue -- but that's not the story that Aron wants to tell. He dutifully takes note of the corruption and of the [first] war in Chechnya, but offers little insight into how his hero could have let this all happen.

We're left knowing where Yeltsin was and what he said throughout his presidency -- and what his opponents said about him -- but what we want to know, about what was really going on, goes largely unreported.

Will Englund has been a Moscow correspondent for The Sun for seven of the past nine years. He has also reported from the Balkans, in 1999, and from India on a project that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1998.

Pub Date: 03/19/00

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