April 26, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Konstantin Cheremnykh


Yeltsin ruled long. It could be worse

He died from a natural cause – not quite typically for the Russian tradition, and inheriting a country to a stronger leader, which was also untypical.

During the last year, he was seldom heard of. In January, mass media reported about his personal meeting with Alexander Lukashenko – at the time of most intense pressure upon the Byelorussian leader by Russia's gas monopoly. Days ago, the Russian-Byelorussian gas debate finally ended with a mutually favorable solution.

That means that until the last months of his life, he efficiently played behind the scenes, which was not just untypical but unprecedented.

A popular Soviet-time verse about tsars and general secretaries, whose death was either definitely or supposedly unnaturally, contained a refrain, "And then, the truth of him was finally told to us".

Lots of writings, composed by close allies and bitter enemies, foreign correspondents and security bosses, seem to have told us the whole truth about him: about the way he urinated upon the landing gear in Washington; the way he was unable to get out of the plane in Shannon; the way he stamped his feet on Marshal Pavel Grachev, demanding that he shoot at the Parliament in Moscow.

Still, none of the authors managed to explain why he defeated General Secretary Gorbachev and was helpless before Ukraine's First Secretary Kravchuk; why five years later, the ostensibly powerful Communist Party admitted its defeat in the elections, believing they were falsified – though he was weaker, physically and politically; and what, finally, helped him to survive until 2007 Ц the efficient American cardiac surgery, or the mysterious month-long treatment in China, where he traveled after the long-expected, but still astounding resignation.



I watched Boris Yeltsin closely only once in my life – at a public rally at the Luzhniki stadium, Moscow, in May 1989. At that time, the whole of his security was comprised of two yawning policemen, while his audience, crowding the Sportivnaya metro (underground railroad) station and rapidly flooding the vast sports facility, was immense. At the metro's exit, fresh-printed issues of semi-legal anti-Gorbachev media were sold out with tremendous speed. This press, rich with capital letters and rows of exclamation marks (though ideas were a few, mostly borrowed from newly best-selling dissident books) would produce an odd impression on a reader of today. A flock of activists of the radical Democratic Union Party tried to convince the overwhelming majority that Boris Yeltsin is just one of the partocrats, not more. Their arguments were angrily rejected: the splinter group was too distant from the people, while Boris Yeltsin was a part of it.

Listening to him, the crowd collectively exhaled and inhaled, opened and closed mouths, trying to catch every word of the idol, like the parish of a charismatic church. The word "charisma" entered the culture with Boris Yeltsin; nobody could explain the meaning, but everyone was sure that it determines something what Boris Nikolayevich possesses, while others don't. Probably his conviction of being right. The remark of Politburo member Yegor Ligachev "Boris, you are wrong", just added more electricity to the crowd's energy.

The most common physiognomic type among this crowd was a lady of 45 from a research institute. Leaving "Kueche und Kinder" at home, she would drag her husband to the stadium; in two years, these husbands, bearded, spectacled and wearing jeans, flooded the halls of the all-people-elected democratic Soviets.

The word "Soviet", attributed to an assembly, was not yet thrown overboard: this happened after the Supreme Soviet of Russia, once the "stronghold of the democracy", was destroyed by tank shells on October 4, 1993 morning. Until today, this word is alive in both Russia and Ukraine, where the parliament ("Rada" is the translation of "soviet"; Soviet Ukraine, in Ukrainian, is "Radianska Ukraina") was not dispersed by fire – at least by the day this article was completed.

In 1989, Yeltsin was yet running for Chairman of that very Supreme Soviet, in order to be elected President of the Russian (yet Soviet Socialist) Federation in June 1991, two months before the strange "putsch" of top USSR ministers which turned a final political disaster for Gorbachev and the last and decisive occasion for Yeltsin to overtake real power in Moscow; with the subsequent annihilation of the CPSU, the USSR became a phantom.

The crowd, gathering in Luzhniki, was not urging Yeltsin to become the Tsar; the thinking of the fascinated scientists and engineers was opposite to imperialistic. At that time, Yeltsin-lovers determined themselves as "leftists"; only in six years, Yegor Gaidar, Yeltsin-appointed initiator of what was known as "helpful shock therapy", would unmask himself by founding the Rightist Alliance Party.

For this "leftist" crowd, one more supreme authority was Academician Andrey Sakharov; he was perceived as Yeltsin's spiritual father. This fact was hardly pleasant for Yeltsin himself, as this dependence coerced him to support the "Law of Power", Sakharov's invention to replace the triumphantly abolished Sixth Paragraph of the Soviet Constitution (which identified the CPSU as the leading and steering force of the nation).

The presently forgotten Law of Power equalized the status of autonomy for the Union Republics, Autonomous Republics and even Autonomous Districts of the USSR. Its implementation would transform one sixth of the Earth's land into a great Yugoslavia. Luckily for Boris Yeltsin, the process stopped at the stage of self-determination of autonomies in Azerbaijan, Moldavia and Georgia – the unrecognized republics of today, described in international media as a sophisticated invention of Putin's imperialist design. Yeltsin was lucky. In case Sakharov lived longer, he would eventually have to cast him back into Gorky exile, and make Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod) a "closed city" again. After all, Boris Yeltsin really regarded himself as a Tsar Ц of the whole Russia, not just of Kremlin and the vicinity.

In 1991, Sakharov was not there, but Yeltsin's social base existed and expanded. Its real center and symbol was not Kremlin and not the Supreme Soviet, but rather the place where I was watching him: the stadium of Luzhniki. The sports facility, transforming with the onset of the glorious democratic reforms into the largest flea market of Moscow, became the birthplace of a new class, commonly named "chelnoki" – "shuttle traders", moving back and forth across the borders with huge sacks of wholesale hokey-pokey, barahlo: after the late Soviet collapse of socialist distribution, consumers wildly rushed upon cheap imports; a backpack of lipsticks for 1 ruble a pair would provide a 300% income in a few days.

Curiously, the new class did not encounter any resistance from the ideologically firm democrats; on the contrary, the former "technological intelligentsia" was eagerly changing its low-paid or unpaid jobs in research institutions for easy bread and butter of shuttle trade. Quite naturally, the huge flea market consequently fell under the management of the class of sports veterans, openly calling themselves "gangsters"; this was also acceptable, as the imposed exaction still allowed to gain profit; the least bothering was the feeling of enrichment for expense of other classes, not speaking of the nation; for the conscience of a shuttle trader, statehood, by definition, was a boring obstacle.

This was exactly the social base which was strongly on Yeltsin's side in 1993; the "newly leftist" oppositionaries from the defamed Supreme Soviet, on the contrary, were mostly comprised from ideologically firm democrats. In the later succession of the Supreme Soviet, the State Duma, this uncomfortable "new leftism" was efficiently prevented by means of a generous salary.

Thus, what I watched at the May rally at Luzhniki was predominantly the future bright new class, which understood the prosperity, promised by Boris Yeltsin, exactly as the freedom of not waiting for hours at the dull cashier desk of the boring institution to get 120 rubles per month, but instead to gain a sweet happy opportunity of rustling with cash, and even, preferably, of green color. As a matter of fact, this opportunity was gained by them largely in the last year of Gorbachev's rule. But the boring General Secretary was turning to and fro, muttering and hesitating, while the new idol, the former top party boss of Sverdlovsk Region, was vivid, resolute, and irradiated confidence in his own and the audience's future.

By 1991, the temptation of easy enrichment, penetrating from the mass of junior scientists into the working class, law enforcement, the Army and the Navy, overwhelmed the society.

This society could be conquered in a brace of shakes. That is what Yeltsin did.

The Luzhniki community was devoted to him; devotion was proportional to flea market freedom. This fact played a bad trick with the flock of the too dogmatic leftists-turned-rightists: when they proposed to use the famous stadium, after the 1993 bloodshed, for the same purpose as the National stadium in Santiago de Chile was used by General Augusto Pinochet, the very soul of the flea market categorically resisted.

This devotion made Yeltsin and Luzhniki as inseparable as Lenin and the Party. We say Lenin, we mean the Party. We say Yeltsin, we mean Luzhniki. All the social phenomena have emerged from there, along with promising careers; the recent assassination of Luzhniki's former co-owner in Kiev is only one a piece of evidence. The fame of new Russia as the mafia state also emerged from here – though for Yeltsin, it was hardly a trouble. He knew better than any other official of his time that shadowy economy is similarly powerful in the West, the society he sincerely adored, and that this power is triumphantly increasing in the era of the large-scale international epidemic of thievery, commonly known as globalization.

We are going to overcome this epidemic in our land, leaving the Luzhniki era in our past. This era, as well as other shameful chapters of history, is not going to vanish away; it will teach lessons to our posterity.



The society of year 1989 was not a bit convinced with the article in Pravda, colorfully describing Boris Yeltsin's tour across the United States, with alcohol abuse and efforts of heavily flirt with George H.R.Bush's administration. When Pravda's editor-in-chief was fired, the Luzhniki society interpreted it as a triumph of justice – though actually, it was most certainly an effect of pressure upon Mikhail Gorbachev from the masters of the consumer paradise which he toured without his permission.

The earthly paradise of the United States, whose masters were wondering how to more conveniently shape the USSR and Gorbachev's succession, was at that time referred to as THERE – with a finger turned upwards. That was typical for the Luzhniki thinking Ц as well as for the provincial power clan which Yeltsin was coming from.

The view that Gorbachev's ambiguity might cause incalculable effects, was obviously popular already in 1987, when a new American named Alexander Yanov published a book warning of the menace of new fascism" in the USSR, ensuing from a supposed alliance between the "conservative wing" of the Party and the Russian Orthodox Church. Two years later, a flock of apparatchiks from Sverdlovsk, representing the local branch of the same Party's "progressive wing", traveled to Washington and Houston.

The choice of the region was somehow substantiated, though sympathy is an irrational matter. A former activist of the Independent Union of Miners, mastered with direct involvement of AFL-CIO apparatchiks, later told me this secret. The background of the Sverdlovsk-Houston axis was better understood in the mining region of Donbass (Eastern Ukraine), where my friend originated from, than in Moscow.

This secret was embedded in the long-time rivalry of two most industrially advanced territories of the USSR – Ukraine and the Urals. The former used to enjoy the status of a "full-fledged" Soviet Socialist Republic, while the latter was not more than one of the regions of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. This inequality, reflected in the clan brawl for state contracts, was the kern of the region's ambitions, and relevant clan temptations.

From the once provincial Texas, with its traditional envy to both Eastern and Western coasts, this problem was seen not just keenly but very personally. The best disciples of Academician Sakharov, desperately trying to use their humanitarian fame in an effort to promote Professor Yury Afanasiev to the leading post in the bright new Russia, encountered polite but firm neglect in embassies and think tanks of THERE.

The Houston-originating US leadership did not trust to a refined intellectual who would be a proper choice for Czechoslovakia. This type was even more double-ended than Gorbachev; it was too obvious than in a couple of days, he may be locked in his toilet by one or another team of generals, with the further prospect of a menacing anarchy across the whole of the one sixth of the Earth's land, stuffed with yet invisible storages of nukes and all. With Yeltsin, things seemed much easier: his personal authority and ambition, useful for the decisive day of overtake, as well as his similarly obvious naivety, made clear where exactly he will proceed and where he will stumble.

He stumbled, definitely, upon Ukraine; according to witness reports, nobody ever saw Boris Yeltsin in such a drunken condition as at the November meeting in Belovezhye, where he initiated the dissolution of the USSR and the buildup of its loose version, the Community of Independent States. He physically stumbled and fell nine times along a short path from the cottage to the river, after an hours-long debate with Ukraine's president, ex-first Communist Party Secretary Leonid M. Kravchuk. The earth, elevating and kicking him in his face, was hammering in his brain that he will never manage to rule over Ukraine.

...Today, a Spanish paper labels him a grave-digger, while Swiss observers judge on behalf of Russia that its population will never forgive Yeltsin – as he legitimized the disintegration which Gorbachev only predetermined.

Still, the Russians are forgiving him. There’ve been worse Tsars whom the Russian people forgave; there is a folk saying, hardly interpretable into European languages: "If we survive, we'll keep alive"; there is, today, also a feeling that Russia is not only alive but rising; there is a vague but popular understanding – especially when one looks at Ukraine Ц that after all, things could have been much worse.

Ironically, Ukraine's President initiated his risky power game exactly because he was looking back at Boris Yeltsin. The leader of Belarus, a person of another human material, also follows Yeltsin's example in his own way, relying, in worst cases, on support from his sports community.



It is easy to make judgments about him now, days after he deceased, eleven years after he underwent cardiac surgery after an incredibly hard re-election – and fifteen years after the first rumor about his looming demise.

I heard this rumor in spring 1992 in Moscow. My collocutor cunningly smiled, and used a lot of perfect medical terms. He was convincing me that Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was suffering from terrible pain, caused by an inoperable brain tumor; that in a couple of months, he would pass, a subsequent chaos of a hungry unrest ensuing across the country.

As I went out into the gentle spring, I nearly tumbled down. The pavement was covered with melting ice, water running down the street along with kilograms of litter. In spring 1992, the capital city of Russia was not concerned of its appearance and maintenance: it was too busy. Thousands of people, at every corner of the central streets, were energetically trading. Vendors, beggars, and former sportsmen, each in the function of their own, were equally overwhelmed with the process – weeks after President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree, suspending all restrictions for trade, and thus laying a clever and efficient buffer under the government's shock therapy policy.

I realized that my collocutor was lying; that the president is the best condition of mind; that the disarray among the ambitious liberal democrats is not going to bother anybody but themselves; that one decree may be more politically efficient than a dozen of larger and smaller ephemeral would-be parties; that no unrest is going to happen, while the really dominating classes have got enough to borrow, to sell and to steal.

On October 1, 1993, when my friends, referring to another "highly reliable source", told me that Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin has just fallen with a brain stroke, losing ability to speak, I just laughed. In three days, when tank shells broke the walls of the former stronghold of parliamentary democracy, they admitted their miscalculation.

Three years later, a team of pretty experienced MPs of a new, high-salary generation, visited the President's office, trying to convince Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin that in his state of health, it is too risky to run for the next term, and therefore, he should yield power to Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. Yeltsin listened very attentively, taking pills and touching his heart. Days later, he would perform a speedy rock'n'roll amidst a crowd of teenagers before TV cameras.

He embarrassed not only the ambitious intrigue makers, whose belief in his weakness turned their own disgrace. He embarrassed also top functionaries from THERE – who, in some cases, viewed him too helpless, and in other cases, on the contrary, too stubborn, and therefore tried to push their "consulting" advice through public and media.

For the first time, I read that "Yeltsin should be replaced with a younger and more energetic reformist" in a review of foreign press in February 1992. So, it did not look quite accidental that weeks later, a bunch of hopefuls, beating in their breast with a patriotic rhetoric, was already sharing the desired Kremlin posts.

Weeks before the first war in Chechnya, another bunch of heavily patriotic functionaries followed him to the exhibition of a famously conservative, though a pretty well-to-do painter Ilya Glazunov. The maitre pointed at a huge canvas, depicting a hapless Russia in the hands of beak-nosed monsters with David's stars on their suits, and addressed the leader of my country: "Shall be give away the Sacred Rus into the hands of our enemies?!"

He said, "No". Could he physically say "Yes"?

Days later, I switched on the radio and heard the familiar voice of professed anti-fascist journalist Yevgenia Albats, telling me that Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin is a strong anti-Semite. This time, I realized without any explanations that the idea of replacing him for a more convenient figure has again ripened THERE. Each time it did ripen, the team of the exclusively privileged and excessively pervasive journalists from Vladimir Gusinsky's "Independent Television", NTV, patronized jointly by the Russian Jewish Council and by ex-Deputy KGB Chairman Philipp Bobkov, would start explaining, with emphasis on most offensive terms, that the head of the state is physically, morally, and intellectually incapable.

One can just imagine the relief in the old man's face on the summer day of year 2000 when Vladimir Gusinsky was forced to escape to Spain, leaving the arch-independent channel in the possession of a reshuffled Gazprom. Only in order to see this picture, it would make sense for Yeltsin to select a successor preferred by him, and not THERE (the last rumor, spread as late as on December 10, 1999, said that the successor would be "definitely" Alexander Voloshin, the subsequently discharged director of Kremlin Staff).

"Still, Boris Yeltsin was not a democrat", confesses Baltimore Sun. Thank you sirs; we'll definitely consider your viewpoint.



In the middle of October 1993, I came to visit my mother-in-law in the remotest area of Nizhny Novgorod Region. Tank shells were still buzzing in my ears. The "vox populi" patiently listened to my emotional witness report, before saying, "These MPs have blabbed too much".

I was disarmed. I found out that a close glance and a distant view is different optics; that the intuition of the heartland, in some way, recognizes the inherent weakness of pathetic words of the Many, and prefers a brutal but determining action of the Only.

I did not argue, though dozens of faces, maimed with despair and pain, were still there before my eyes, as well as the feeling of a gun barrel pressed to my back. I realized that what I had seen was only the visible foreground.

A year later, speaking to former Supreme Soviet's "centrist" factionists, busy constructing a new party, I got surprised with the sweetness with which they pronounced the word "regional" – as well as their proposal to create a parliament in every region of Russia. Back in summer 1993, these persons, along with several key governors, were involved in what was then advertised as the "zero option".

This "zero option" suggested that both the "incapable" President and the "incapable" parliament cease their tenure, the next election of both branches of power scheduled (by whom?) in three months. During those three months (why not more?), the whole Russia would remain headless – or, rather, at the disposal of regional barons, democratically elected by each of their "peoples".

Finally, I decided to find out more about the background of a subtle bald-headed guy who flirted with the oppositional MPs, and then raced to the power-thirsty regional barons, urging both to replace the "incapable" chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, by a protégé of his own and a strong proponent of the "zero option". The subtle person, beating in his small chest with perfect patriotic rhetoric, appeared to have originated from the once famous Inter-Regional Group of Deputies of USSR's Supreme Soviet of 1989. More precisely, from the circle of Andrey Sakharov's widow Yelena Bonner, whose formula of "a divisible Russia" was strongly advertised by Yury Afanasiev in 1991.

At that moment, I realized that the definitions of "rightist" and "leftist" don't describe the ways of a person and especially a politician well enough. In both cases, one should add another parameter of views: "the nation matters", or "the nation does not matter".

At that moment, my mind got focused on some general considerations of politics and its back side: on the power of temptation which prompts one option to a big person and another option to a bunch of subtle persons; on the role of historical fortuity at the time when my country was at a distance of one step from disruption; on the role of a person, and a personal solution at such a moment; on two particular persons – Boris Yeltsin, the President, and Vladimir Voronin, Deputy Chair of the Supreme Soviet, who met on October 1 morning to say "no" to one another Ц leaving the "zero option" lobby behind the doors. It was the very day when a false, but a very convenient rumor Ц for somebody THERE Ц was convincing the Muscovites that Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin has lost his power of speech and action.

I won't proceed with conclusions on this episode, as well as others where his actions meant much, including the two Chechen wars with different temptations behind each. Final judgments on compromises, paid with blood, belong to the History, is in the possession of the divine authority, and not to the society – even in case this society has already almost cured itself from the subtle, thievish and hasty temptation of flea market bread and butter. Still, I believe that some of the pages of the early 1993 history will be written, and very soon Ц at least, I am informed that probably the most decent and least biased of the Russian historians has started this job.

Regrettably, Boris Yeltsin will never read his book – as well as a decent biography of himself. After all, before this biography is accomplished, we need a fair autobiography, truthfully portraying the era of temptation, refracted in ourselves.

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