The defining moment of Boris Yeltsin's career was his humiliation by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. In pursuit of revenge, Yeltsin broke up the Soviet Union. But he has remained a loner, unwilling to build a reform party and now, like Leonid Brezhnev, protected from reality by his cronies. John Morrison, a biographer of Yeltsin, assesses his five years in officeby John Morrison / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Back in august 1991, as Boris Yeltsin was clambering on to a tank outside the Moscow White House to proclaim resistance to a coup attempt by hardliners, I was putting the finishing touches to my biography of Russia’s first president. Yeltsin, elected two months earlier, was the hero of the hour, resisting the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in the name of democracy. Four months later, he had displaced Gorbachev in the Kremlin and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Russians were sharply divided over whether Yeltsin was more autocrat than democrat.
As I handed over my manuscript, I was exhilarated by the knowledge that my early bet on Yeltsin as the rising man of Russian politics had been justified-but I also felt exposed. How would my tentative judgements on the man match up with reality once he moved from opposition into office?
“No politician is fully tested until he has not only fought for power in opposition but captured power and used it,” I wrote on the book’s final page. “For a rebel, the real examination begins when the long passage through the political wilderness is over and there is no one left to rebel against.” Five years on, it is time to fill out a report card on Tsar Boris: what has he done to Russia since 1991? Was it what he set out to do? Is he the same man as he was in 1991?
If there was a pivotal moment in Yeltsin’s career before 1991, it was his political disgrace at the end of 1987-an episode whose long lasting psychological scars have had a crucial influence on how he has governed Russia. Towards the end of 1987 Yeltsin, a rough-edged former construction boss from the Urals, was increasingly unhappy in his job as city party chief in Moscow, where his bulldozing style won him few friends. Within the politburo, of which he was an alternate member, the knives were out. Yeltsin, pre-empting his critics, announced to the politburo that he was resigning. He had misjudged the brutal instincts of the machine. The record of the meeting shows a man pitilessly abused and humiliated, held up to ridicule by Gorbachev until he begged for mercy. Yeltsin suffered a physical and mental breakdown and was rushed to hospital, only to be dragged from his bed a few days later by Gorbachev to be humiliated a second time at a meeting of the Moscow city party. It took him months to recover from the trauma, but his ill-timed rebellion paved the way for his passage through the wilderness and his rise to power.