Boris Yeltsin, RIP The Rise and Fall of the Drunken Czar

Boris Yeltsin's finest moment came in August 1991, when he stood on a tank in Moscow and opposed the hardline leaders of a coup against Gorbachev. But the former Russian president, who died Monday, ended his period in power in disgrace.
Von Jörg R. Mettke

Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday at the age of 76, was in many ways a paradoxical figure. His professional specialization was construction, but his biggest passion was tearing things down. During his rise through the ranks of the party and government apparatus, he showed a penchant for playing the common man who fights against privilege, yet he savored the Kremlin's pomp and circumstance as if it had been his God-given right.

He was an avowed enemy of corruption and nepotism, and yet a giant network of clans and cliques, possessing piles of -- often ill-gotten -- cash, grew in the shadow of his throne. He hated the shadowy men of the KGB, and yet he groomed its most pliable agent, Vladimir Putin, to be his successor.

Boris Yeltsin, who personified the contradictions in Russia's political meandering between reform and restoration in the late 20th century, is no more. The first president of post-communist Russia died Monday in Moscow of sudden heart failure after a long period of disgrace and decline.

Destined for a different path

The "boy from the Urals" -- as his long-time confidante Viktor Ilyushin used to call him -- came from a downtrodden family. The young Yeltsin, who had almost drowned in the baptismal font while being christened by a drunk priest, seemed predestined for a certain path in life: He would leave school at a young age and go to work in the same factory as his father, where at best he might make a modest career for himself. The boy, who lost two fingers of his left hand when a grenade he was playing with exploded, and who later traveled around the country by train, apparently never dreamt he would one day mix with presidents, chancellors and queens.

Cartoonists later had a tendency to depict him as the perfect human embodiment of the Russian bear. But no one who managed to get to know Boris Yeltsin intimately ever laughed about him. It was precisely because of his inherent contradictions -- he was simultaneously half the puppet of the bureaucracy and half its bitter enemy -- that he was perhaps the most human leader of the Kremlin since the seat of government was moved there from St. Petersburg in 1918.

The political magma of the country was constantly simmering during his term in office. Yeltsin loved action and passion. Nothing was ever at rest, no one had his life in order, everything was in flux. Everyone was, or at least pretended to be, willing to learn. America, Germany and even Poland were places where one could get an outside perspective on one's own national character.

Back to the bad old days

Meanwhile, seven years after Yeltsin's departure from office, all of that has either stagnated or been lost altogether. Concepts of friend and foe are back in place and in authoritarian hands. Russians simply need a strongman, argue some observers in the country -- typically the same people who are keen to get their own hands on power. Those who listen too much to other countries' opinions are increasingly being suspected -- just like in the bad old days -- of being traitors.

The most recent case of historical revisionism being perpetrated by the Moscow ruling class is that Russia was robbed, plundered and enslaved by foreign countries, with the help of the Yeltsin clan. Their favorite quote is from Henry Kissinger, who once complained that, "Throughout Boris Yeltsin's period in office, Western leaders acted as if they were a party to Russian internal politics." Those politics are extremely rigid once again and cast from a single mold -- thanks to Putin, who Kissinger occasionally advises and for whom he has "great respect."

'Boris, You're Right'

During the last century, Russia experienced two painful periods of re-birth with much stagnation in between. One followed the October Revolution in 1917. The other, which ultimately came to be associated with the name Yeltsin, was the last decade between the hardliner coup against Gorbachev in 1991 and the start of Putin's reign in 2000.

Transitional figures, allowed to rise to the pinnacle of power by the political class during times of radical change, rarely achieve lasting popularity. When Boris Yeltsin resigned on Moscow's Red Square on New Year's Eve in 1999 and walked out into the snowy winter night, his approval rating had plunged to only 2 percent of eligible voters in Russia. And gradually, very gradually, as Russia's aging president discovered from his heavily guarded home near Moscow, his almost exhausted political capital managed to accrue a little interest.

Shortly before his 75th birthday, which he celebrated at the Kremlin with 200 invited guests, only 17 percent of Russians surveyed believed that the Yeltsin decade was characterized by more good than bad points. Josef Stalin, the "Father of the Nations," continues to receive far better approval ratings than the "democrat" Yeltsin, who was somewhat derisively referred to as "Grandfather" during his tenure on Red Square.

No true democrat

He was not a true democrat, nor did he ever become one. And yet he was someone who knew how to play this role brilliantly in a uniquely Russian fashion, as long as he was still waiting in the wings and constantly sparring with other ambitious climbers. He was truly a man of the people, and the people expressed their enthusiasm for him by wearing coaster-sized buttons that read: "Boris, You're Right."

He earned the sympathy of the public in his ideological dispute with Yegor Ligachev, the powerful and orthodox overseer of ideology in former President Mikhail Gorbachev's Politburo of the 1980s. Ligachev, a party bureaucrat who was Yeltsin's senior by 11 years and had been brought to Moscow from rural Siberia by Gorbachev's predecessor Yuri Andropov, warned against allowing perestroika to get out of hand at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1986. According to Ligachev, perestroika, with its double strategy of simultaneously digging deep into the past while aiming high for the future, was increasingly running the risk of losing popular support. And "without broad support," Ligachev warned, "one can never be successful."

Yeltsin, the party secretary in the Soviet capital at the time, offered a different populist concept, emphasizing uncompromising efforts to keep reforms moving forward. His motto was: "Eyes shut and keep going." Before going to work in the morning, he would have his driver take him to the suburbs, where he would squeeze into overflowing subway trains, stand in angry lines of shoppers and publicly complain about the privileges of party officials. "We must eliminate these perks," he told his fellow comrades, before adding -- to keep a back door open -- "where they are not justified."

On the Side of the People

The 1986 party congress -- the first since Lenin where there was heated debate -- was Yeltsin's great opportunity, his shining moment. Through his speeches, he immediately gained the nationwide reputation as a courageous non-conformist, a charismatic advocate of ordinary citizens and an honest man.

Yeltsin managed to hold on to this reputation, much as it was damaged later on by his political about-turns and inconsistent character, throughout his career -- or the cliché of his career -- until his death. He will probably continue to keep it for a long time to come.

At the same time, Yeltsin's coming-out at the party congress revealed another central character trait of the then 55-year-old who was still the people's representative at the time: He was never loyal or appreciative to anyone, especially not his political mentors. As far as he was concerned, loyalty only came from below. This character trait, together with his unconditional drive to attain power and his keen sense of the extent of the usefulness of fellow party members, completed Yeltsin's basic qualifications as a budding autocrat.

As the USSR neared the end of its existence, Yeltsin sensed that he could be Gorbachev's successor. And while Gorbachev, abandoned by his closest supporters, was making the saddest appearance of his life at the end of the August 1991 coup, his adversary was already acting out his own "no pasarán" fantasy on a tank near the Moscow River. A short time later he paraded Gorby in front of the public and knocked his former benefactor out of the race -- forever and long before he would become politically useless.

The upstart from the provinces

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ligachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow in 1985 and he became part of the inner circle of Communist reformers. He profited more than almost anyone else from the game of political musical chairs which Gorbachev had set in motion: In only three years, between 1986 and 1989, more than 86 percent of secretaries at all party levels were replaced. Before then, Yeltsin had served for 10 long years as the head of the regional directorate of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg). There he ordered the demolition of the Ipatiev House, where the family of the last Russian czar had been murdered in June 1918, and otherwise routinely managed the myth of the developing socialist society.

Now the upstart from the provinces had to prove his worth in self-important Moscow. His first position was as secretary of the Central Committee for Construction. He was named secretary of the Central Committee only three months later, and after another five months he became first secretary of Moscow's Communist Party -- one of the most influential positions in the party hierarchy. But he didn't stay in the job for long. Gorbachev accused Yeltsin of disloyalty at the 27th party congress in 1986.

Other party members accused the gauche construction engineer from the Urals of portraying himself, at their expense, as a social advocate and foe of the privileged classes. The KGB began keeping a closer eye on Yeltsin, and his life became more stressful in Moscow's political jungle. Despite his heart condition, Yeltsin began drinking more than was good for him and taking all kinds of medications.

Moving Babushkas to Tears

The rumors of excesses and blunders increased. The police claimed to have pulled him, intoxicated, out of the Moscow River carrying a bouquet of flowers, after he had fallen off a bridge. Yeltsin himself later referred to the incident as an attack.

Two years after being summoned to Moscow, the farmer's son from the village of Butka threw in the towel. After being accused of "political immaturity" and "grave deficiencies of leadership," he submitted his resignation to the Moscow party leadership. A short time later, he also lost the position of Politburo candidate and was downgraded to the job of deputy chairman of the state construction committee.

He had fallen so quickly and so far that babushkas in the markets were moved to tears over his tragic fate: Boris Yeltsin had become one of those who had been humiliated and insulted by the state, the kind of man the people are fond of hailing as a hero -- seldom during their actual lifetimes, of course.

Once again, it was one of Gorbachev's great achievements that kept Yeltsin alive politically and allowed him to gradually rehabilitate himself, namely the upgraded and increasingly confident parliament -- which Czar Boris would later shut down, together with its building on the Moscow River, when he no longer had any use for it. But first Moscow voters sent him to the Supreme Soviet, where he criticized the Communist Party's monopoly and the extent of Gorbachev's power -- which would soon appear modest compared to Yeltsin's baroque style of leadership.

In a move designed to attract public attention, Yeltsin left the Communist Party during its 28th party congress in 1990. One year later the Russians elected him president of the Russian Republic. It was a position that was already significant during the days of the Soviet Union, and it became hugely important after the USSR's dissolution, which Yeltsin managed with verve after Gorbachev's power was severely damaged by the August 1991 coup.

For one historic moment it seemed like everything would go right for the popular hero, the defender of Russian reforms who posed defiantly on a tank, and that he would be forgiven for everything: the burial of the Soviet Union, which he soon presided over with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, the banishment of high-ranking officials from the sacrosanct Central Committee, the encouragement of regional sovereignty ambitions, the treatment of parliament and the ill-fated war in Chechnya.

The Slow Decline

But economics, of which he understood nothing, robbed Yeltsin of his magic. Uncontrolled inflation, the privatization of national wealth using all conceivable criminal methods, a goldrush fever that enabled a handful to become oligarchs and billionaires while allowing millions to sink into poverty, but most of all, increasingly drastic accusations that the president had become nothing but a puppet of a greedy network of family and political cliques, ultimately caused the bubble to burst.

At the end of his career, Yeltsin had become an emperor wearing no clothes. The population cracked jokes about his escapades. In one incident, he allowed an aide to fall overboard during a boat ride on the Volga River, while in another he tried his drunken hand at conducting an orchestra in Germany. But nobody seemed to really mind his behavior, perhaps because the great Russian soul needs a lot of space.

Losing the communist plot

Yeltsin was no longer in control of the situation. The intelligence agencies, whose loyalty could only be secured through fear, promoted indiscretions: alcohol abuse, oversleeping and missing state visits, slip-ups during summit meetings, failure to attend to state business for weeks at a time. By the time Yeltsin had a serious heart operation, he was no longer a czar to be proud of. Indeed, he had become someone who tolerated inefficiency and, in doing so, jeopardized the entire structure that supported him.

The proponents of authoritarianism, with their influential cells in the army and the security apparatus, had infiltrated the government bureaucracy, especially the Kremlin administration, up to its highest levels. It was time for a power shift and for the "Putin Project," which abruptly and, apparently with mutual consent, ended the career of the first Russian representative of a new class of politician who does little or nothing and claims responsibility for events that would have happened anyway.

Until his death, Yeltsin never revealed the reasons for the silent coup that was barely concealed by his resignation. He even remained silent when various minorities began to notice more and more clearly that one Yeltsin-era civil liberty after another was being choked in the oppressive atmosphere of the new patriotism that had been imposed upon them.

Right up until the end, friends urged him to openly declare that he was opposed to this restoration of the authoritarian state and make his increasing disgust with it clear. But their efforts were in vain.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan