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. This episode explains both the successes and the failures of Yeltsin’s erratic career as Russian president. The key to his decision-making style has been a reliance on his own intuition and the promptings of his outsize ego. Traumatised by his humiliation at the hands of his peers in 1987, Yeltsin has been determined never again to repeat that experience. Both in opposition and in power he has steered a solo course, unwilling or unable to subordinate himself to the rules of any political group-even one under his own leadership. Only in 1989-90, as a member of the so-called Interregional Group in Gorbachev’s Congress of People’s Deputies, was he briefly and uneasily a member of a wider team. From the time of his election as chairman of the Russian parliament in 1990, followed by his election as president in 1991, he kept his distance from all political alliances to which he might be held accountable. Distrusted by the political elite, Yeltsin initially appealed over their heads to the disenfranchised Russian masses who ensured his rise to power; but once inside the Kremlin he relied more and more on a narrow circle of cronies, advisers and subordinates. Yeltsin’s solo style gave him unprecedented tactical freedom in his struggle with Gorbachev in 1990-91. In late 1991 the Soviet Union was sliding towards disintegration. Russians queued for hours outside shops with empty shelves amid rumours of impending social collapse. The state teetered on the edge of bankruptcy as Gorbachev vainly tried to glue back together his shattered empire. Yeltsin gave him token support, but was biding his time. When Ukraine voted for independence in early December, Yeltsin suddenly changed tack. Before Gorbachev had time to respond, he had met the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus and agreed to abolish both Gorbachev’s country and his job. As during the August coup, Yeltsin took a characteristic solo gamble and won. Yeltsin’s throw-of-the-dice style flies in the face of the unwritten norms of Russian politics; these have been forged by centuries of experience in communes and depend heavily on consensus-building within groups. We may think that autocracy is the Russian norm, but it is really oligarchy-the “collective leadership” favoured by the communists. In a conservative society, Yeltsin has stood out by his readiness to gamble. Who else would have chosen the unknown Yegor Gaidar to scrap price controls and kick-start Russia’s economic reforms at the end of 1991? Yeltsin admitted in his 1994 memoirs, The View from the Kremlin, that he relied above all on his ego and self-image as a “wilful, determined, strong politician.” But he also confessed he was easily influenced by the opinions of people he respected. Sometimes his ideas were changed completely by “a word said in passing or a line in a newspaper article.” Ideas and ideologies are secondary for Yeltsin who, unlike his communist rival Gennady Zyuganov, is ill at ease with abstract concepts. This is not to say that Yeltsin’s rebellion against the system was opportunistic-just that it was more felt than thought. In his memoirs, Yeltsin records a moment in late 1989 in a Moscow banya (steam bathhouse) when he was surrounded by a crowd of naked Russian men armed with birch twigs, all egging him on to keep up his rebellion against the leadership. “That moment in the banya was when I changed my world view, when I realised that I was a communist by Soviet tradition, by inertia, by education, but not by conviction,” he wrote, adding wistfully that he wondered what the men in the banya would think of him now. The record of the last five years shows that the ego-driven Yeltsin style of leadership has profound weaknesses as well as strengths. The flash of inspiration which led Yeltsin to choose Gaidar also led to the disastrous off-the-cuff choice of Alexander Rutskoi as his vice-president in 1991. As he himself confesses, he can be easily influenced by the last person to speak to him. All too often loyal officials have been hastily sacked on the basis of one-sided information. The Yeltsin intuition-so close to the popular mood in the years of opposition-has proved sadly inadequate in the isolation of the Kremlin. The easily bruised Yeltsin ego led to the departure of the most talented of his early advisers, such as Gennady Burbulis and Sergei Shakhrai, and their replacement by more pliant Soviet-style bureaucrats who have restricted access to him. Liberal critics of Yeltsin believe that his commitment to democracy was never more than skin-deep. They accuse him of compromising in 1991 with the old Soviet nomenklatura-stabbing Russian democrats in the back as soon as he had no further need of them. In their view, Yeltsin was never able to rise above his roots as an “obkom first secretary,” a provincial party baron of the Brezhnev era. This is an over-simplification; the point about Yeltsin is the internal struggle between old and new, mirroring the wider battle in Russia. The pivotal moment was 1991. Yeltsin-reversing Gorbachev’s priorities-opted for radical economic reform, but deliberately relegated political reform. After the banning of the Communist party-effectively the executive branch of government-Russia badly needed a new constitution, a new parliament and most of all a new political movement to articulate the desire for change. But Yeltsin feared reform would turn into revolution; instead he opted for a “historic compromise” under which the members of the old Soviet nomenklatura kept their jobs. The overwhelmingly communist Russian parliament and Congress of People’s Deputies retained supreme power. It must be said in Yeltsin’s defence that Russia’s rag-tag-and-bobtail democrats were in no condition to take the reins of power in late 1991. They, too, were victims of the astonishing acceleration of the Soviet collapse which followed the failure of the coup. Yeltsin probably had no choice but to co-operate with the mistrustful state bureaucracy. But within a few months of 1992, Yeltsin’s political honeymoon was over. Gaidar’s radical economic policies, unaccompanied by political reforms, fell victim of the Russian Congress and the military-industrial complex. The now truncated Russia, an uneasy hybrid of empire and nation-state, lacked legitimacy. The abolition of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States was a bravura piece of political improvisation-but it was the work of one man and his close advisers. Few Russians understood why it happened, and Yeltsin proved unable to give them a convincing explanation. Yeltsin found himself at war with his own parliament and vice-president; he neither had a cohesive movement to back him nor a clear political strategy. He found himself on the defensive and was forced to abandon Gaidar after a year. Yeltsin partially regained the initiative in a referendum on his reforms in April 1993, but his belated attempts to push through constitutional changes and elections for a new parliament met with ever stiffer resistance in the elite and indifference at the grass roots. In September 1993, Yeltsin attempted another throw of the dice by suspending the constitution and dissolving parliament. But this time the magic failed to work. His gamble-leaked to his opponents in advance-succeeded only at a heavy price in bloodshed. While in 1991 Yeltsin had climbed on a tank to rally popular support in the street, in October 1993 he was forced to beg his military commanders to suppress an armed rebellion in the centre of Moscow -led by Alexander Rutskoi and the parliamentary leadership-which might otherwise have succeeded. The Russian people were shocked, but unlike in 1991, they played no part in the outcome of the crisis. In December, Yeltsin finally got approval in a referendum for a new presidential constitution and elections for a new parliament. But he again failed to capitalise on his victory-leaving reformers who had taken risks to support him to campaign alone. Yeltsin’s constitution, which resembles that of France, is not as authoritarian as his critics claim. It incorporates concepts such as the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, private landownership and protection of human rights. But many of its provisions have remained pious declarations. Human rights advocate Sergei Kovalyov compares it to the old Soviet constitution, described to him once by a cynical KGB investigator as being written “just for the negroes.” The problem is not so much with the new state institutions themselves but with the way they were imposed from above; as so often in Russian history, they were not created in response to pressure from civil society. Russia still lacks the elements of a real civil society, such as powerful political parties. This is the age-old problem identified by pre-1917 historians such as Vassily Klyuchevsky and Pavel Milyukov: the weakness of society and the excessive power of the hypertrophied state. The persistence of this imbalance was masked by the near collapse of the state into impotence in 1989-91; but it has now re-emerged as the state has recovered its traditional powers after the Smuta (time of troubles). The new official ideology has little in common with western democratic liberal values and everything to do with the tradition of derzhavnost (statehood) shared by the communist and nationalist opposition and by Yeltsin’s new conservative team. Yeltsin provided another demonstration of the return to this state-worshipping tradition when he trod in the footsteps of Stalin and other Soviet leaders on 9th May this year to address a Victory Day military parade from the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square. For the man identified with the destruction of the old Soviet symbols to return to the mausoleum where the mummified Lenin still lies unburied, to address his soldiers as “comrades” and to embrace his opponents’ red flag, can only be read as part of the dismal failure to provide Russians with a convincing alternative to the totalitarian past. Yeltsin’s refusal to put himself at the head of a reformist party after the 1991 coup, at the time when his popularity was at its peak, has had far-reaching consequences for Russian democracy and civil society. His decision-ostensibly taken to allow him to remain a president for all Russians-was directly responsible for the defeat of the divided reformist camp in the 1993 and 1995 parliamentary elections. Yeltsin and his advisers did not grasp that the political logic of their French-style constitution required the creation of a solid presidential majority in parliament. The failure of a pro-reform party to take root has created a vacuum which has been filled by the resurgent communists-by far the best organised political force in Russia. Without a majority in the Duma, Yeltsin has had to rely on the support of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s extreme nationalists, one of the few parties to support the Chechen war. Instead of government based on publicly proclaimed parties, Russia is governed by a series of ad hoc coalitions between shadowy clans, economic lobbies, and representatives of different sosloviya (estates of the realm) such as the military and the collective farmers. Yeltsin’s own presidential administration has swollen to duplicate the government’s work, playing the guiding role of the old Communist party central committee apparat. Real power has tended to flow to extra-constitutional bodies such as the unaccountable security council. With no clear distinction between professional civil servants and political appointees and no ruling party as a source of new cadres, the Russian bureaucracy has followed its own instincts for patronage, self-preservation and self-enrichment. As time has passed, Yeltsin has become the prisoner of the system he created. Russia’s bureaucrats, particularly in the security ministries, have learned to manipulate him by controlling his access to information. Deprived-by choice-of any peer group of fellow politicians to give him an alternative view, Yeltsin’s solo style has left him supremely dependent on his subordinates (even the sharpest political intuition depends on a constant flow of information). Even in his heyday, Yeltsin had a Reaganesque disdain for the details of policy; but he prided himself on his appetite for work and his ability to hear different points of view. In those days, he enjoyed playing the part of the bumbling Russian peasant-the bold but intellectually challenged folk hero Ilya Muromets. It was a convenient camouflage for a fine political brain. But the shakiness of more recent public performances suggests that this role is becoming reality. Yeltsin is now 65, well beyond the average life expectancy of the Russian male; he suffered two bouts of heart trouble in 1995, the second of which took him out of circulation for two months. Yeltsin’s memoirs show him to be the classic “type-A” over-achiever-a hard-driving perfectionist who thrives on pressure and stress. Such personalities do not adapt well to waning powers. At a Kremlin news conference in 1993, I was struck by the way Yeltsin had been given cue cards-like Reagan-but still got muddled between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan when answering a question. At his G7 summit in April this year, Yeltsin was unable to recall his own list of nuclear safety proposals without referring to cue cards, and misunderstood a question about deployment of nuclear weapons to refer to nuclear waste disposal. Whether this decline is due to prolonged alcohol abuse or just old age, it reinforces the impression of a man who is becoming, like Leonid Brezhnev, the instrument of subordinates who shield him from reality and bearers of bad news. Nowhere has the heavy price Yeltsin has paid for his style of government been more evident than in the war in Chechnya, which he himself has recognised as the biggest blunder of his presidency. Yeltsin has found himself repeatedly misled by the chiefs of his own army and security services, much as Gorbachev was during the crisis in the Baltic states in 1990-91. But the comparison is not in Yeltsin’s favour. Gorbachev’s bungled crackdown in the Baltics in early 1991 cost perhaps a couple of dozen lives, while tens of thousands of civilians have died in Chechnya-many of them ethnic Russians killed by their own government’s bombs and shells. Like an armoured column trapped in an ambush on a mountain road, Yeltsin and his team now find it impossible to advance or retreat. Despite the unpopularity of the war in Russia, Yeltsin knows that to give in to the Chechen rebels’ demand for a complete withdrawal of Russian troops would be seen as a military defeat. In political terms, the war has driven an irrevocable breach between Yeltsin and most of the liberal reformers who helped him to power-further isolating him from alternative views. Russia’s media have mostly been sharply critical of the Chechen adventure, but their lack of influence has merely illustrated the weakness of Russia’s civil society against the resurgent state. After five years of reform, Yeltsin has neither a successor nor a coherent political movement to provide continuity into the post-Yeltsin era-which cannot be too far away, whatever happens in Russia’s polling stations this summer. Russia’s failure to build proper political institutions threatens the remarkable achievements of Yeltsin’s impetuous reign. It may be that the tide of change in Russia has already begun to ebb-ushering in a more conservative period, even a return to a more collegial form of leadership. Bolshevism is gone, but it is too soon to say what will replace it.