Few leaders have made as indelible a mark upon the history of their country as Boris Yeltsin. He left, though, a complex legacy, first as the maverick iconoclast standing up to the monolithic power of the Communist Party, and then as Russia’s first democratically elected president. By the time he resigned as president in 1999, the image of Yeltsin was no longer that of the hero standing tall and defiant on a tank, inspiring his people to resist the August Coup; now it was that of a doddering drunk with a damaged heart, who had sold Russia out and was a mere puppet in the hands of “the Family,” the allegedly corrupt coterie of officials, oligarchs and relatives working behind the scenes.
As Timothy J. Colton argues in his new biography, Yeltsin: A Life, Yeltsin did more than any other leader to point Russia toward democracy. The accusations of corruption and drunkenness were often exaggerated and, in Colton’s view, have unduly tarnished Yeltsin’s accomplishments. In response, the author, a renowned political scientist and specialist in Russian studies, has produced an authoritative, impeccably researched and richly contextualized study of Yeltsin. He explores the factors that shaped Yeltsin and turned Yeltsin into a political maverick, and evaluates his strengths and weaknesses as the architect of the new Russian democracy. Colton defends Yeltsin’s legacy as a reformer, and seeks to distance him from the policies of his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin.
First and foremost, this is a political biography. In the case of Yeltsin it could hardly be otherwise, for this was a man who lived and breathed politics. Chapter divisions primarily reflect the contours of his evolving career, from the construction industry in Sverdlovsk to the Communist Party apparatus and then as head of the Russian state. The first three chapters cover the formative years and provide useful insight into the roots of Yeltsin’s later metamorphosis into an anti-Communist, populist-style leader. Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin came from rural stock, but his peasant forebears were fiercely independent, entrepreneurial types for whom collectivization was a catastrophe. The conditions of his boyhood, marked by extreme poverty and his father’s three-year stint in forced labor camps, made him a fighter and a survivor. Colton sees Yeltsin developing during his school years patterns of behavior and attitudes that would resurface throughout his life. Yeltsin was a risk-taker who liked to push the envelope and test himself as well as those around him. He was smart and pragmatic rather than intellectual or ideological, and entered the party only when it served his political goals. By the time Gorbachev launched perestroika, Yeltsin was an eager ally. His years as a regional party boss left him frustrated with the Soviet command economy and its bureaucracy, chronic shortages and low productivity.
Yeltsin, though, had little patience with Gorbachev’s gradualism, and what should have been a natural partnership soon turned sour. Colton reveals the top-level wranglings that led to Yeltsin’s ouster from the Politburo when he began speaking out against what he saw as the snail’s pace of reform. The author recounts for the reader the verbal lashings administered to Yeltsin by fellow party leaders in the fall of 1987 as they lambasted him for impertinence, negativity and an authoritarian style. Colton sees this as a critical turning point. Gorbachev chose to sacrifice Yeltsin rather than retain him as an ally, thereby creating what became a permanent breach between them.
What then unfolds is a remarkable tale of political resurrection. Colton shows how Yeltsin became the true “comeback kid,” who reinvented himself in the new political environment created by Gorbachev. He quickly mastered electoral politics, casting himself as a champion of the people against the party apparatus. He forged a path to power through election as chairman of the newly formed Russian legislature, a position he adeptly transformed in 1991 to that of a democratically elected president. His heroic role in the aborted August Coup and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union enabled him to present himself as the de facto successor to Gorbachev.
The remaining chapters, which comprise over half of the volume, present an in-depth analysis of Yeltsin’s eight-year presidency—including the economic reforms; the Chechen war; the political challenges, particularly during the critical years of 1993 and 1996, when Yeltsin battled first a recalcitrant parliament and then a strong Communist Party challenger for the presidency; and his own personal demons of drink, lethargy and ill health.
This biography represents years of research. In addition to combing archives, newspapers, television and memoirs, Colton conducted interviews with over 150 people, including several with Yeltsin himself. He makes ample use of Yeltsin’s published memoirs, but he also submits these to critical review and points out intriguing inaccuracies and omissions. Colton is a masterful political historian; he weaves the story of Yeltsin’s life into the fabric of Soviet and Russian history, at every stage offering insightful descriptions of the time, the place and the people. His deep understanding of Soviet and Russian politics informs his thorough analysis of Yeltsin’s career. The detailed narrative, however, at times becomes ponderous and a casual reader may get bogged down in somewhat tedious recounting of names and cabinet reshufflings. The book is also less than objective, in that the author makes no bones about his determination to defend Yeltsin’s record. Colton lays bare the weaknesses and flawed decisions, but downplays their consequences. For Colton, Yeltsin is a hero because he brought an end to Soviet Communism, and prevented its resurgence in 1996. Yet, more time should be spent considering the impact of Yeltsin bombing his own parliament or the controversial “loans for shares” arrangement through which Yeltsin financed his 1996 re-election campaign.
Colton’s portrait is nonetheless substantive and compelling. Yeltsin did want a better future for Russia, one that provided individual freedom of thought and action; if he floundered in this, it was not entirely his fault, for he was up against centuries-old patterns of bureaucratism and authoritarianism. No matter how fundamentally he may have rejected Communism, he was nonetheless its product, and even he could not break entirely from its methods and mindset. Only time will tell whether Yeltsin will stand as the father of Russian democracy, or of a reconfigured, more modernized Russian autocracy. What is certain, though, is that he changed history by stepping forward when he did, by being the right man at the right time to respond to newly emerging social forces. Now we must watch and see what his heirs do with the foundation he laid and with his own complicated legacy.