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Timothy Colton, Yeltsin, a Life.

Timothy Colton, Yeltsin, a Life. 616 pp. New York: Basic Books, 2008. ISBN-13 9780465012718. $35.00.

Timothy Colton's biography begins with an apology--Yeltsin's to the Russian people during his televised valedictory of 31 December 1999. It ends on a somewhat diffident note--a description of an unofficial competition to design a commemorative monument to Russia's first post-Soviet president, who died in April 2007. In between, the reader is treated to illuminating discussions of the goals Yeltsin set himself, his sources of inspiration, comparisons to other leaders both living and deceased, detailed accounts of political and emotional ups and downs, and apologetics. "My net assessment of Yeltsin," Colton writes in the introduction, "is as a hero in history--enigmatic and flawed, to be sure, yet worthy of out respect and sympathy" (9). For those of "us" who followed Yeltsin's career mostly from a distance, the tone and balance of the biography may seem appropriate, its "textured scrutiny" (9) less adulatory and considerably shorter than Leon Aron's breathless effort of 2000. (1) But for millions of Russians who personally experienced his "antirevolutionary revolution," no apology could suffice.

Colton, a professor of government and Russian Studies at Harvard and the author of a lengthy history of Moscow as well as several books on the post-Soviet Russian state, rescues Yeltsin from the obloquy largely provoked by his last bumbling years in office. He devotes considerable attention to Yeltsin's forebears and early life, having traveled to Sverdlovsk oblast, where he poked around the settlements in which Yeltsin grew up, interviewed his relatives, and discovered among other things that ail four of his grandparents had been subjected to dekulakization and internal exile under Stalin. Yeltsin's father, too, ran afoul of the authorities and spent two years in a labor camp before rejoining the family. But Mikhail Gorbachev--almost exactly the saine age--hailed from similarly unpropitious circumstances. The revenge of kulak descendants doesn't get us very far as an explanation for the end of the USSR. What strikes Colton as most significant about Yeltsin's youth are what he calls the "personal scripts" or imaginary futures for himself that Boris was already formulating during World War II and its immediate aftermath. References to them recur--as do invocations of the samostoiatel 'nost" that lay at their core--because, in Colton's view, the scripts remained a constant force, determining Yeltsin's actions throughout his lire.

Like many Soviet leaders, Yeltsin received training as an engineer. Rising within the construction industry, he entered the Party at age 30 (ten years after Gorbachev). In his memoirs, which Colton cites extensively but hot uncritically, Yeltsin claimed he joined because he believed in the ideals of social justice the Party espoused, but in an interview with the author in 2002 he spoke about his decision in terms of wanting to advance his career. (2) Whatever the motivation, party work consumed an increasing amount of his time, especially after his elevation to the Sverdlovsk regional party committee in 1968. Promotions to secretary and first secretary followed in 1975 and 1976. Yeltsin served as party prefect for the next eight years, until Gorbachev's Politburo called him to Moscow, initially to head the Central Committee's construction department and then as first secretary ofthe Moscow city party committee. Up to this point, he had worked through three personal scripts-survival, duty, and success--and had a distinguished though hardly brilliant career. But trying to run Moscow in the face of the political and cultural ferment brought about by Gorbachev would test his powers to the utmost. Operating on four hours of sleep a night, sacking uncooperative and underperforming underlings, and tilting against "mastodons" like Egor Ligachev (who ironically had tapped him for promotion from Sverdlovsk), Yeltsin affected a gruffness that appealed to a public hungering for action from above. He also increasingly offered a contrast to Gorbachev's long-windedness and inclination to vacillate.

For nearly a year they sparred, until Yeltsin had had enough. In September 1987, he wrote an angry letter to Gorbachev offering to resign from his party appointments. (3) The following month, at a plenum ofthe Central Committee, he launched a verbal fusillade against the timidity of Gorbachev's version of perestroika and the sycophancy that had crept back into the Politburo. The speech--published two years later in the Central Committee's journal--was not his best. (4) On this and most other details Colton and Aron are in agreement. But whereas Colton compares the rebellious act to Khrushchev's Secret Speech of 1956 denouncing the deceased Stalin, and even less usefully to the mutinous acts of the 17th- and 18th-century Cossacks Stenka Razin and Emel'ian Pugachev, Aron more insightfully notes that timing was all. Had it occurred a year earlier, Yeltsin's political career would have been over; a year later, "the nimbus ofthe martyr would have lost that inimitable, spellbinding shine which would lighten Yeltsin's path for the next three and a half years." (5)

At the time, he appeared to have committed political suicide. Indeed, the "morbid" (148) episode two weeks after the October plenum in which he slashed his rib cage and stomach with scissors suggests that Yeltsin may bave had ideas offending it all. But the growing independence and boldness ofthe media, combined with worsening material conditions throughout the country, brought him back from the political netherworld. He never looked back. As the Communist Party imploded and the Soviet republics began to hive off from the union, Yeltsin's appetite for change expanded. In conformity with his scripts, the will to rebel and the will to survive now coincided perfectly. He caught the emerging current of liberal democratic optimism and rode it to the White House, the just-built headquarters of the newly "sovereign" Russian republic's Supreme Soviet, of which he was elected chairman in June 1990. His platform, echoing the theme of self-reliance, stressed decentralization, democracy, and marketization. A year later, he easily beat five other candidates in the popular election for president.

To the end, though, he kept his options open. He signed, along with other Soviet republic presidents, Gorbachev's "Nine Plus One" agreement of April 1991. In July he privately advised Gorbachev to appoint Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev as the next Soviet prime minister. Gorbachev accepted the proposal, but the ill-conceived coup of 19-21 August intervened. Colton--relying on the considerable quantity of published accounts, videotape, Internet sources, and his own interviews with Yeltsin and other principals--gives a gripping account ofthe event, in some ways the late 20th-century version of the botched Kornilov putsch of August 1917. Yeltsin, the populist democrat, represented the antithesis of the hapless coup-plotters; Gorbachev was hung out to dry. (6)

Leon Aron, in search of a historic Yeltsin, likened him to Lincoln and de Gaulle. Colton puts him in the company of more recent "democratizers" such as Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel. The analogies are imperfect, but like his South African and Czech counterparts, Yeltsin proved a major disappointment in power. In outmaneuvering Gorbachev he had exhibited adaptability, "feline" intuitiveness, a capacity for extemporization, and other qualities extolled by Colton; now a darker side emerged, that of the unprincipled opportunist regurgitated by an atrophying system he was destined to bury. "With a bang, the door had shut on Yeltsin's populism," Colton writes after detailing the creature comforts the new president inherited from his predecessors in the Kremlin (215). It was not simply fondness for the perquisites of power that drove Yeltsin, yet how the alcohol flowed.

Colton identifies three "wells of inspiration" (323) that Yeltsin drew upon to govern the state: a sense of historical mission; Russia's monarchic heritage; and his own experience as a provincial party boss. Judging from the evidence here, the second may have been the deepest. In private, Yeltsin spoke as if he were a tsar, occasionally referring to himself as Boris I. Colton actually writes approvingly of his "tsarist self-regard" (403), which supposedly inoculated him against envy of the vast wealth accumulated by a few of Russia's entrepreneurs (the "oligarchs"). The well of his experience as an apparatchik seems to have been poisoned. He repeatedly rejected as too Politburo-like institutional systematization, sharing of information, coordination of policy, and other attributes of depersonalized government. Ministers came and went with alarming frequency, some because they challenged the tsar, others because they embarrassed him. As for his sense of mission, Yeltsin's road to democracy proved no less bumpy than other metaphorical roads down which previous leaders had dragged the Russian people. There was much talk of democratization but many public institutions atrophied due to lack of support from the top. As one of the more pungent aphorisms from the days of perestroika had it, "democratization [demakratizatsiia] is to democracy [demokratiia] as sewage treatment [kanalizatsiia] is to canals [kanaly]." When impeached by the Supreme Soviet in October 1993, Yeltsin ordered the bombing of its headquarters--the very same building where he had made his heroic stand in August 1991. When it appeared all but certain he would lose the presidential election in 1996, he seriously considered postponing it for two years and dismissing the recalcitrant Duma, before falling back on a vast campaign war chest to which Russia's richest entrepreneurs contributed generously, the distribution of "gifts" to the public, a decree that promised to end the military draft by 2000, and slick TV ads courtesy of a U.S. public-relations firm.

Colton is all too understanding of these foibles. Extenuating circumstances--skullduggery on the part of his political opponents, Chechen irresponsibility, the economic shrinkage throughout the former communist world, and the disruption to supply networks and trade flows within the former Soviet republics--get some ofthe blame, but more often the argument is of the "it could have been worse" kind. "Thanks to him, the barrier to re-monopolization [of political power] is high, and tens of millions of others are lucky that it is" (454). "He could have attacked democratic freedoms in the name of protecting the state, but elected not to" (292). "[T]hose who tar him with neo-Bolshevism give him not a granule of thanks" (357) for not postponing the 1996 election. He gets a pat on the head for himself giving one to young reformers charged with undoing the damage earlier reforms had caused.

In forming these assessments, Colton interviewed a large number of people (he refers to "about 150 ... principals"), many of whom either had been political enemies or had fallen out of favor for personal reasons. But his sources never extend below the level of the political elites. Russia's huddled masses figure only as objects of electoral blandishments or as putty in someone else's hands. To address the effects of policy--what living under Tsar Boris was like--requires a broader view. Colton notes the precipitous decline of manufacturing output, the withholding of wages and other dolorous effects of Yeltsin's "shock therapy" of price deregulation, slashing of the state budget, and privatization of state property. But the pain is barely registered. He cites Yeltsin's (opportunistic) expression of sympathy for the insurgent labor movement that had taken shape in 1989, but not the fact that by 1998 coalminers were occupying makeshift huts and banging their helmets in front of the White House to chants of "Yeltsin must go!" (7) "Individuals and Russian families made adjustments on their own, as well as they could" (385), Colton writes. Under the circumstances, the statement seems callous.

To be fair (to both Colton and Yeltsin), easing Russians' pain was not very high on the West's agenda. "From 1993 to 1999," Colton notes, "American aid would come to $2.50 annually per Russian man, woman, and child," about as much as 1 percent of the U.S. defense budget in 1996 (268). The International Monetary Fund did its bit by extending loans but in relatively small tranches and then only if the Russian state met the lender's budgetary strictures. NATO's inexorable expansion eastward while the Russian military literally went begging added to the sense of national humiliation. But perhaps the biggest role the West played was ideological. When in 1991 a BBC journalist asked Yeltsin about his model for Russia, he replied rather evasively that he "would take the best from each system" (218). It soon became apparent that neo-liberal economics--codified in 1989 as the Washington Consensus--would rule the roost. This indeed is why Russia's transition was similar to that of South Africa and other countries in the 1980s and 1990s. Couched in terms of throwing off the lassitude induced by an oppressive state and making room for entrepreneurship to flourish, neoliberalism proved particularly seductive to the Russian leadership.

With the exception of a small number of "new Russians" who made out like bandits (and more often than not were involved in some form of illegal activity), Yeltsin's pursuit of the neo-liberal agenda impoverished the country and also impoverished the meaning of the term democracy he regularly invoked. Meanwhile, suddenly deprived of their raison d'etre, Western Sovietologists formed their own consensus that the USSR had been unreformable after ail, and moved on. Among the few dissenters was Stephen F. Cohen, who, as Colton put it, "argues that Gorbachev had shown Soviet communism to be reformable and that piecemeal adaptation of the old system, statist and respectful of Russian custom, was preferable to throwing caution to the winds" (230). (8) To this Colton archly replies: "[r]eforming the system from within, as Gorbachev meant to do, was a respectable choice. Heading for the exits was a cleaner and better one" (232).

Clean or dirty, Colton gives Yeltsin's tenure in office a sympathetic reading right down to his "poignant" apology at the end of the millennium. He did after ail slay the communist dragon--not once but several times--and if a lot of people died in the process, well, at least Boris showed contrition. Nearly a decade later, Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin's last prime minister and designated successor as president, has become prime minister again. In the interim, the country prospered economically, but according to Cokon went "backward" politically. This, too, is the conventional view among Western analysts, but I wonder how many Russians pine for the days of "freedom" under Yeltsin.

Dept. of History

301 Morrill Hall

Michigan State University

East Lansing, MI 48824 USA

(1) Leon Aron, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (New York: St. Martin's, 2000).

(2) Yeltsin's memoirs were published as follows: Ispoved" ha zadanuiu temu (Moscow: PIK, 1990); Zapiski prezidenta (Moscow: Ogonek, 1994); and Prezidentskii marafon (Moscow: AST, 2000). For a concise and incisive analysis of them, see Ilya Vinkovetsky's review in Kritika 6, 1 (2005): 247-50.

(3) The letter appears as the third document in an invaluable collection devoted to the conflict between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. See M. K. Gorshkov and L. N. Dobrokhotov, eds., Gorbachev--El'tsin: 1500 dnei politicheskogo protivostoianiia (Moscow: Terra, 1992), 17-19.

(4) Ibid., 23-25; Izvestiia TsKKPSS, no. 2 (1989): 239-41.

(5) Aron, Feltsin, 224.

(6) See also Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 285-305.

(7) For this trajectory, see Vadim Borisov, Zabastovki v ugol'noi promyshlennosti: Analiz shakhterskogo dvizheniia za 1989-99 gg. (Moscow: Institut sravnitel'nykh issledovanii trudovykh otnoshenii, 2001); and L. N. Lopatin, ed., Rabochee dvizhenie Kuzbassa v vospominaniiakh ego uchastnikov i ochevidtsev (1989-1998 gg.) (Moscow: Institut mirovoi ekonomiki i mezhdunarodnykh omoshenii Rossiiskoi akademii nauk, 1998).

(8) Strangely, Colton ignores the more extensive analysis of Archie Brown. See Brown, Seven Years That Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), especially 277-330.
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Author:Siegelbaum, Lewis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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