The Magazine

Boris the Good

Unfortunately, not great.

Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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A Life

by Timothy J. Colton

Basic, 640 pp., $35

It was hard not to admire Boris Yeltsin when he first emerged as a primal force in Moscow. After all, he demonstrated tremendous political acumen and courage. He ostentatiously quit the Communist party before the Soviet system collapsed, and he stood up to the hardliners who tried to topple Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, jumping on a tank to talk the army into turning against the would-be putschists. He then orchestrated the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving him in charge of the new Russia and his archrival Gorbachev out of a job. He also vowed to turn Russia into a democratic state, with a free market economy and a newly empowered citizenry.

When Yeltsin died on April 23, 2007, Western leaders looked back nostalgically at his era and his efforts to end Cold War tensions. I happened to be visiting President George H.W. Bush in Houston the next day, just as he was preparing to board a presidential plane that would take him and Bill Clinton to Yeltsin's funeral.

"There was one thing Clinton and I agreed on: We both liked Yeltsin," he said. But it's no accident that the Yeltsin era--and particularly, the initial optimism of that period--feels like ancient history now. In today's Russia the 1990s are dismissed as the wild years, which set the stage for Vladimir Putin's reversion to strong-arm rule that has eliminated almost all checks and balances, steadily strangled political freedoms, and allowed an oil-rich, cash-flush elite to throw its weight around again at home and abroad.

This latest biography of the father of the new Russia feels like a product of earlier times, when the Yeltsin glow was still there and Putin's shadow was barely visible. In Yeltsin: A Life, Harvard professor Timothy J. Colton chronicles, often in painstaking detail, his political twists and turns, the multiple health crises that accompanied his latter years in power, and his endless hiring and firing of key people as he tried to keep one step ahead of the shifting alliances around him.

What's sorely lacking, however, is the bigger picture that has been emerging with a bit of historical distance, and the kind of critical thinking about an innately attractive leader with a surfeit of glaringly visible failings. Colton is too much of an admirer of his subject and of his early, admittedly impressive, career to fill that void. He has produced a well-researched book with many interesting details drawn from his interviews with Yeltsin, his family, and a variety of other key players, but one that feels oddly incomplete.

Colton concedes that Yeltsin was "enigmatic and flawed," but insists he was a hero nonetheless. "As a democratizer, he is in the company of Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Vaclav Havel," he writes.

The Gorbachev-Yeltsin comparisons and contrasts are a subject unto themselves, and South Africa presents a very different model. But when it comes to the most revealing comparisons, with Walesa and Havel, the results clearly contradict Colton: Poland and the Czech Republic have emerged as stable democracies; Russia is once again pursuing its own path, where all that is left of democratic practices are the formal trappings, like the sham election of Dmitry Medvedev in March, and none of the substance.

Yeltsin does deserve full credit for his role as, in Colton's words, "the dragon slayer who sallied forth from the belly of the beast." A loyal Communist party apparatchik for most of his career, he was perceptive enough to recognize that Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika couldn't save the Soviet system, and then to launch his bold initiatives that would hasten its demise. Aside from developing a new relationship with Washington, Yeltsin won the sympathy of some of Russia's neighbors, who were still smarting from Soviet subjugation.

His most stunning gesture: admitting historical truths--most notably, Soviet responsibility for the murder of thousands of Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in 1940. His predecessors had blamed the Germans, but in 1992, Yeltsin dispatched an envoy to Warsaw with the original Kremlin order for those executions. At home, Yeltsin also encouraged efforts to break with the country's history of lies, and he appeared genuinely shocked by successive new revelations, such as Lenin's orders to execute 25,000 Russian Orthodox priests during the civil war.

But soon Yeltsin's domestic constituents were far more preoccupied with the impact of his economic program, which at first offered far more shock than therapy. His abrupt price liberalization led to astronomical inflation (2,520 percent in 1992), the loss of the life savings of millions, and a steady decline in national output.