Boris Yeltsin: The Man Atop the Tank

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Russians will remember Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76, for overseeing the economic reforms that reduced many of them to penury and for the geopolitical surrender that — briefly — rendered an erstwhile superpower irrelevant to global events. They will remember his thuggish treatment of political enemies and the brutal folly of his war in Chechnya; and they will remember the whiff of corruption over his inner circle and his bargain-basement sale of the Russian state's most lucrative economic assets to a cabal of oligarchs in exchange for their funding of his reelection in 1996. Indeed, it is in the context of the failings of the Yeltsin years that the authoritarian nationalist orientation of his successor, President Vladimir Putin, is best understood.

But in the U.S., Boris Yeltsin will be more fondly remembered, as the man who turned the menacing Russian bear of Cold War fear-mongering into a warm and cuddly creature, supine, pitiable and willing to perform in exchange for scraps. And for one glorious moment in the hot summer of 1991, when he stood atop a tank in front of the Russian White House and faced down a coup.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Yeltsin's decision, that day, to defy an attempt by old-line Communist Party officials to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev came at a moment as crucial as any in Russia's long and violent history. The leaders had failed to gain control of the White House, the Russian Federation's parliamentary building and the main rallying point for pro-democracy Muscovites. When army tanks rolled up to the building on the morning of Aug. 19, Yeltsin, then the recently elected President of Russia, seized the moment. He strode outside, leapt atop an armored vehicle and delivered a speech in the fiery tradition of the old Bolsheviks whose communist heritage he was at that moment dismantling. "Soldiers, officers, generals," he boomed. "The clouds of terror and dictatorship are gathering over the whole country. They must not be allowed to bring eternal night."

Some of the soldiers, already doubtful of the coup's legality and loath to open fire on unarmed fellow citizens, trained their guns away from the building and joined in its defense. The coup collapsed, and within a year the Soviet Union was no more. That freed more than a dozen countries to chart their own future, offered the hope of democracy to the 150 million people of Russia, and eliminated the Cold War threat of nuclear holocaust. As Yeltsin put it in his 1994 book Struggle for Russia, "I believe that history will record the twentieth century essentially ended Aug. 19 through 21, 1991."

But that was the high point in Yeltsin's career, and much of what followed in the interceding years will define his legacy in Russia: economic chaos, the first war in Chechnya, episodes of alcoholic boorishness, worsening health and plummeting popularity, even as his country's global status declined precipitously. Even the White House legislature itself became a symbol of another kind two years after Yeltsin's tank-top speech, when troops acting on his orders shelled the building, turning its upper half into a charred hulk, while putting down a rebellion by legislators against his reforms. And the following year he ordered his troops into Chechnya in what became a disastrous and bloody war to suppress that country's drive for independence.

> After successfully beating off the Communist challenge in the 1996 election, he presided over a series of financial and economic crises and eventually, in 1999, installed former KGB officer Vladimir Putin as his anointed heir. (Putin inaugurated his own term by launching a second brutal war in Chechnya to reverse the concessions Yeltsin had made to end the first one.) He passed quickly from the political scene into relative obscurity as Putin launched an aggressive nationalist drive to reverse Russia's decline by reemphasizing a central role for the state in economic affairs and establishing a harsh, authoritarian regime that brooked little opposition.

Yeltsin's whole life seemed to be preparation for the kind of impulsive courage that was required to put him atop the tank that day in 1991. At the very moment of his 1931 baptism in the remote Ural Mountains village of Butko, some 900 miles east of Moscow, a tippling priest carelessly dropped him in a baptismal font and was too inebriated to pull him out. His parents had to rescue him. "It means," the priest murmured, "that he is a good, tough lad." That was a necessity for survival in western Siberia during that era of Soviet history. Yeltsin recalled that during the bitterly cold winters he and his family in their communal hut used a goat to keep warm. "The six of us slept together around her on the floor," he wrote. Another of his early memories was the arrest of his father and uncle on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation" during a wave of Stalinist terror in 1934. The experience — the men spent three years in the Gulag — seemed not to dampen a rebellious streak that showed early in his life. Yeltsin recounted several occasions on which he was disciplined in school for fighting or for organizing pranks, once persuading all the students in his classroom to climb out a window and run away from a teacher they disliked. Another time, he and a fellow student broke into an army storage area and stole a hand grenade. It exploded while he attempted to disassemble it, resulting in the loss of the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.

Despite his father's imprisonment and Yeltsin's own record of rebelliousness, the youth proved bright enough to earn an engineering degree, join the Communist Party and launch a career as an industrial apparatchik. After a stint as head of an engineering plant in Ekaterinburg — then called Sverdlovsk — he moved into full-time party work in 1968 and became head of the regional party organization by 1976. His record as a tough and effective administrator attracted the attention of Gorbachev, who in 1985 invited him to Moscow, where Yeltsin was promoted to head of the city's party organization. It was a fateful decision for Yeltsin, for Gorbachev — and for Moscow.

Within days of taking office, Yeltsin began shaking the complacency of the city's entrenched party élite. He spurned the usual perquisites of public office — the country dacha, the ZIL limousine, the special shops and the insularity of working behind a telephone-covered desk. He and his wife, Naina, lived in an apartment near the center of town, from which he drove to work or, frequently, took a bus or the subway — to the shock and delight of citizens accustomed to seeing nothing of party big shots but the gray curtains of their speeding ZILs. His popularity increased when he began breezing into food and clothing stores, scolding clerks for rudeness and managers for incompetence. And he became an absolute idol when he carried his campaign into the privileged office of the party apparatchiks. He dismissed two-thirds of the city's 33 district party secretaries and berated officials for wearing imported watches, suits and shoes. When, in a meeting, one of them asked truculently where he bought his own shoes, a furious Yeltsin yanked off a well-worn oxford, held it in the air and shouted: "In Sverdlovsk, locally made at the Ural Shoe Factory for 23 rubles. I recommend them — they will last you a five-year plan."

But if his campaign thrilled a long-suffering public, it enraged the party privilegentsia. Yeltsin biographers Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova quote a transcript of a meeting of party propaganda functionaries who berated his "Napoleonic ambitions." "Khrushchev tried to send us up the river too," one was quoted as saying. "How far did he get?"

For the first two years Yeltsin got quite far indeed. With Gorbachev's backing, he rose to the (nonvoting) rank of candidate membership in the ruling-party Politburo in 1986, but when he tried to apply his reformist zeal to the top echelons he ran into serious trouble. The climax came in October 1987 with a speech to a closed meeting of the 300-member Central Committee that cost him his party positions and started him on the road that led to the 1991 White House confrontation. While no official text of the speech was published at the time, presumably because the Politburo was nervous about revealing such frank criticism from one of its own members, various versions circulated in samizdat as well as the Western press. According to one report Yeltsin had voiced widely held popular grievances about ordinary Russians' standard of living. "Comrades," he began, "I find it hard to explain to a worker why, in the 70th year of the dictatorship of the proletariat, he still has to stand in line for sausage that has more starch than meat in it."

He proceeded to excoriate the plump party leaders and condemn "our tables groaning with sturgeon and caviar" bought at special stores closed to ordinary citizens. He ended by asking to be relieved of his duties, a favor the Party eventually granted by firing him from the Politburo early in 1988. To Yeltsin, it seemed to be the end of his career. "Perhaps the hardest period of my whole life was after my expulsion from the Politburo," he later wrote. "Gorbachev didn't send me into Siberian exile or to some far-flung foreign country; he put me in charge of construction projects."

Although the episode did not, as it turned out, end his career, it marked the beginning of rumors about his drinking problem that dogged him to his final days. Propaganda officials were instructed at the time to hint that Yeltsin had been dismissed for delivering a drunken diatribe — an accusation that may have been true, judging by subsequent lapses in his public behavior. The CIA reported during the 1990s that Yeltsin was an alcoholic, subject to occasional binges that kept him out of action for days at a time and led to sudden cancellations of meetings with key foreign visitors. Certainly, the challenges Yeltsin encountered in his presidency would have been enough to drive him to drink. He had to struggle back into political power without the help of the party that, though verging on collapse, still wielded considerable power until the failed 1991 coup attempt. In typical truculent fashion, he ran for parliament in Moscow instead of his old Sverdlovsk home base, taking on the party establishment directly, and winning a seat in 1989. With that as a political base, he fought successful campaigns for the chairmanship in 1990 of the Russian Supreme Soviet, the former parliament, and then the newly created presidency in June 1991. Once in office as Russia's first freely elected President, he faced the overpowering task of more or less instantly bringing democracy and capitalism to a country that had never truly known the former and had practically forgotten the latter.

What he created, instead, was a system sometimes called nomenklatura capitalism, in which ex-party apparatchiks emerged as the new capitalists. The vast majority of newly privatized businesses were run and owned by the same coterie of managers who were in place before market reforms began, and by the late 1990s the commanding heights of the economy were owned by a small group of oligarchs, many of whom had parlayed their close ties his Kremlin into vast economic empires. His tenure coincided with a precipitous decline in Russia' s GNP and in the living standards of the majority of its citizens — unlike Putin, who has been blessed by rising world oil and natural gas prices, Yeltsin ruled in an era when Russian exports did little to raise the country's strained currency reserves.

Yeltsin oversaw the diminution of the Russian empire created by the czars and the Communists to the point that he ruled over less than half the territory governed by Peter the Great. And that imperial contraction was achieved largely without bloodshed. Yeltsin's era, then, marked the end of the Cold War and the very idea of Moscow as a strategic threat to the West. But the Russia he created proved vulnerable to a reversion to authoritarian nationalism and a cooler relationship with the West. In the end, Yeltsin will be better remembered for that dramatic moment when he jumped on the tank to stop others from taking power through a coup rather than for what he achieved once in power himself.