Mother Russia's Guiding Hand

Despite his demeanor, Boris Yeltsin's reign as Russian president was characterized more by magnanimity of spirit.
Despite his demeanor, Boris Yeltsin's reign as Russian president was characterized more by magnanimity of spirit. (1998 Photo By Mikhail Metzel -- Associated Press)
By Peter Osnos
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was what Russians would call a muzhik, a brawny, thick-necked man with a gnarled hand from a boy-hood prank involving grenades. He had a thatch of white hair, a drinker's puffiness around the nose and a barrel chest. To an American, he looked like former House speaker Tip O'Neill. But his eyes rarely smiled the way Tip's did. At his best, he seemed dashing and fearless, as he did standing on a tank in 1991 confronting a last-ditch communist coup attempt. Over time Yeltsin's demeanor -- oafishly dancing at a public rally, manic shifts in his entourage, prolonged periods of gloomy withdrawal -- left the aura of a leader in disarray, presiding over a country closer to chaos than democracy.

But in this week of his death from heart failure at 76, it seems fair to reflect on Yeltsin's signal achievement, guiding Russia out of the implosion of the Soviet empire and toward a new, never clearly defined, social, economic and political order. Compared with the collapse of other imperial regimes, Yeltsin managed Russia's with a minimum of bloodshed, revenge and mayhem. For all his bumptious and menacing manner, Yeltsin's reign was actually characterized more by magnanimity of spirit, which made the Russia of the 1990s an open arena for the best of incipient democracy and the worst of greed and self-dealing.

As a correspondent for the Washington Post in Moscow in the 1970s, it never occurred to me that I would get a very personal look at a Russian political leader, an invitation to a raucous Kremlin banquet or a quiet Sunday afternoon at the dacha. But I eventually got to know him when I secured the English-language rights to a volume of Yeltsin's diaries that were published in 1995 as "The Struggle for Russia," and again, in 2000, when after turning over the presidency of Russia to Vladimir Putin, he published what we called "Midnight Diaries," in which he grappled, inside the boundaries of his willingness to be candid, with issues such as his drinking and depression.

The banquet in a magnificent Kremlin hall was beyond amazing. Yeltsin had invited all his foreign publishers to dinner. His friend the British literary agent Andrew Nurnberg arranged for another of his clients, the chef at the posh London restaurant Le Gavroche, to prepare the menu, flying in the food and wine and taking over the Kremlin kitchen.

That usurpation did not go down well with the Kremlin chefs who demanded the right to match the foreigners, course for course, with accompanying spirits. The result was a boozy bacchanal and entertainment provided by a chanteuse in a mini-dress and fringed ankle boots supported, as I recall, by an accordionist. Yeltsin danced with his beloved wife, Naina, and was surrounded by family, his retainers of that time and a completely goggle-eyed group of publishers.

There was a particularly chilling moment when Yeltsin ordered his then minister of defense, Pavel Grachev, to make a toast. "Pasha," he motioned with his thumb, "stand up." He rose and made an excruciatingly servile toast. What Grachev didn't know, but those of who had read the book did, was that Yeltsin had portrayed him as timid under pressure at the time of the coup. Yeltsin was clearly taunting Grachev, who was fired after the book came out, as so many other apparatchiks of that period were. The constantly shifting cast of Yeltsin's years in power made it difficult to take any of his officials very seriously. But at the center of it all, Yeltsin managed to hold tight to his own authority.

In his final years in office, the prevailing view was that Yeltsin was mostly ga-ga, and it is true that he spent much of his time at the dacha in the Gorky-9 area, outside Moscow. My sense of Yeltsin was somewhat different. I imagined him playing Russia like a complex musical instrument, turning up and down the keys of the various factions to keep them in some form of harmony, even if the overall effect was dissonant. At times, after the ruble meltdown in the summer of 1998, the whole enterprise seemed on the edge of failure. And yet, that never happened. In fact, on the eve of the millennium, Yeltsin startled Russians with his selection of the little-known Putin as his successor and his own resignation. Putin's tough tenure at the helm is in many ways the opposite of Yeltsin's but there is no doubt that Boris Yeltsin chose the man to lead Russia after him.

A few weeks after he left office in 2000, I visited Yeltsin at the dacha to talk about his new book and asked him why Putin had made the cut. Of all the wannabes that surrounded him, Yeltsin said, Putin seemed to have the self-confidence and steeliness to take Russia to the next round. There was a lot of talk about a deal in which Putin guaranteed Yeltsin that neither he nor his family and closest associates would ever face corruption charges, but if Yeltsin had stolen millions, he certainly didn't live that way. The dacha was a state-supplied villa, with his grandchildren's boots neatly lined up by the front door and a stack of videos on a front hall table. When Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and her now husband, Valentin Yumashev, came to New York to work with us on the book, they stayed in a modest East Side hotel, and when they were done, rushed to JFK by cab, not the town car favored by even low-level jet setters. None of this struck me as signs of oligopoly.

I last saw Yeltsin when we launched the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair that fall. He looked doddering and all the commentary suggested he was barely functional. Yet, his toast at the dinner was charming, with nods to the people in the room, including me. Was he a drunk? His family said that he had stopped drinking years ago because of his heart condition and that the liquids in his glass were always placebos. There is no doubt that, in his prime, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin had a yen, and a weakness, for alcohol. But the image of a sodden incompetent doesn't hold up to the record. He did more to save Russia from catastrophic turmoil than he has gotten credit for. And the word from his close friends is that after he went to Germany shortly after he left office for a heart operation and a change of medication, his spirits and manner improved greatly.

Russia is still a very vexed place, but my sense is that Boris Yeltsin, for all his flaws, genuinely meant well for his homeland and its people and left it in many ways better than he found it.

Peter Osnos was Moscow correspondent of The Washington Post from 1974-77. He is founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs books.

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