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THE BOLSHEVIK WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD : Boris Yeltsin Staved Off the Coup and Toppled the Communists. But Is He a True Democrat or a New Kind of Demagogue?

October 06, 1991|JOHN MORRISON | John Morrison, currently an editor for Reuters in London, covered the Soviet Union between 1978 and 1983 and was a fellow of the Russian Research Center at Harvard this year. This article is adapted from his book, "Boris Yeltsin: From Bolshevik to Democrat," published this month by Dutton.

More troubling to some was his attempt to halt the headlong flight to total independence by other republics, by warning them that Russia might insist on revising borders if they refused to join even a watered-down union. In this febrile atmosphere, Yeltsin quickly had to dispatch emissaries to Kiev to mend fences with the Ukrainian leadership, which was warning of a return to a "czarist empire" by Yeltsin and the Russians.

The collapse of the last European multinational empire is probably unstoppable, though it may be prolonged through some kind of unstable transitional period. Whatever the final outcome, Yeltsin's role as leader of Russia, by far the biggest of the republics, will be dominant. In trying to preserve some kind of economic community and security alliance from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev and Yeltsin are acting as partners. But Gorbachev, as president of a state that is fast decomposing, will likely reign rather than rule. Like a weak czar in old Muscovy, he will still receive foreign ambassadors, but he will be the hostage of an oligarchy of republican leaders, led by Yeltsin, acting like the head of a clan of boyars or noblemen. In fact, the Yeltsin agenda in foreign policy--independence for the Baltics, military withdrawal from Cuba, a cutoff in aid for Afghanistan, deep cuts in defense spending--is already emerging.

Yeltsin has amassed this immense power and personal prestige after a unique political trajectory, a vastly different one from that of Gorbachev. Yeltsin's rise, fall and stunning rebirth began in poverty in the Urals, where his first passion was volleyball, not politics. A construction engineer and a latecomer as a Communist Party official, he rose on the strength of his personal flair. Summoned to Moscow in 1985, soon after Gorbachev became party leader, he resigned two years later in a spectacular row. Campaigning in a political wilderness from which none had ever returned, he won a smashing victory in 1989 in the Soviet Union's first-ever free legislative elections. A year later, he narrowly won election as chairman of the Russian parliament, in the teeth of opposition from Gorbachev. Soon afterward, he dramatically quit the Communist Party altogether, concluding that it could not be reformed. In June, after a year of extraordinary ups and downs, he won a landslide victory as Russia's first freely elected president, going on to save both Gorbachev and the fledgling democracy.

Opinions are divided on where Yeltsin, now that he effectively is in charge, will take Russia. Is he a democrat at all or just a demagogue? Will he install gallows in the streets, as a former prime minister once predicted? Will he lead Russia into a happy future of Western multiparty democracy and market-driven prosperity? Or will he head it backward into Great Russian chauvinism and czarist autocracy? Now that he has emerged victorious after a career as a rebel, how will he use his power?

FOR A MAN WHO HAS BEEN AT THE LEADING EDGE OF political change in the Soviet Union, there is something rather old-fashioned about Boris Yeltsin. Standing next to Gorbachev, who is just one month younger, Yeltsin looks like an old-school party apparatchik, accustomed to getting his way by thumping the table. He exudes an overwhelming impression of brawn rather than brain. This is what Gorbachev meant when in March he called Yeltsin a "neo-Bolshevik"--a calculated insult.

Vladimir Bukovsky, who was jailed repeatedly for his dissident views, is now a Yeltsin supporter. But his first glimpse of Yeltsin on television astonished him: "I could not believe my eyes. For looking straight into the camera was a typical Bolshevik, a Bolshevik straight out of central casting. Stubborn, overbearing, self-assured, honest, irresistible, a human engine without brakes--he must have jumped from an armored car just a few minutes ago. We have all seen such faces in old photographs, except that they were usually dressed in leather jackets, they usually dangled a huge Mauser from their belts, and they were usually executed by Stalin. Where did they find this man?"

Bukovsky's description captures perfectly the impression Yeltsin sometimes gives of having been preserved like a coelacanth, a fossil from an earlier, more heroic age of history. In fact, Yeltsin was born in 1931, about the time of the first Five-Year Plan, when Stalin proclaimed, "There are no fortresses the Bolsheviks cannot storm," and his shock workers built dams and factories with their bare hands.

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