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Biography, Russian-Style : BORIS YELTSIN: A Political Biography By Vladimir Solovoyov and Elena Klepikova , Translated by David Gurevich , (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $24.95; 302 pp.)

March 22, 1992|Martin Walker | Walker is now the U.S. bureau chief, and was for four years the Moscow correspondent, of Britain's The Guardian, and the author of "The Waking Giant : Gorbachev and Perestroika" (Pantheon Books)

Just six months before the Moscow coup, when Boris Yeltsin called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to resign, the man who was to inherit the Kremlin was asked what he would do if Gorbachev and his wife suddenly turned up on his doorstep.

"First, I'll ask them in. Well, the women would go into the kitchen, they have their own stuff to talk about," Yeltsin began. "As for us, I'd tell him, 'For three years, I've been asking, begging you to let the forces on the left prop you up. Then we would have not let the right-wingers develop into such a menace, and they are the ones now muscling you out. . . . I am not claiming your job, nor am I offering myself as an alternative. But I'll stand firm on this: Let Russia breathe freely, give us autonomy.' "

That brief burst of entirely characteristic Yeltsin chatter carries three illuminating subtexts: He was thinking in terms of breaking up the Soviet empire long before the collapse of the Moscow coup made it practicable. He perceived Gorbachev as an essentially tactical factor, the symbolic prize for which the left and right in an emergent two-party system were vying. And Yeltsin's view of women and their role is old-fashioned, and very Russian.

Now that we all inhabit the global village, read one another's opinion polls and can eat the same fast-food, we are coming to assume that the Russians are just like us, only poorer. This is a worrying delusion, which this entertaining, perceptive and deeply subjective study of Boris Yeltsin will help to dispel. Any reader brought up on the classic forms of Western biography will find this an infuriating and bafflingly alien book. It is as Russian as borscht and vodka.

The chronology darts dizzily back and forth through the last 60 years. Extremely long quotations from speeches and press conferences are interspersed with chatty and personal asides, and brought into sharp focus by suddenly acute quotations from anonymous Russian observers. "Yeltsin has three souls, a nomenklatura one, a populist one, and a reformist one," is one such morsel tossed into the pot. The book is shot through with strained metaphors that have Yeltsin portrayed sometimes as Don Quixote, sometimes as Moses, sometimes as Pompey to Gorbachev's Julius Caesar, and sometimes as a character from Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" condemned to duel with his friend:

"Verse and prose, ice and flame:

We are not so different from one another."

This is no detached, objective account, but an engaged and engaging Slavic dialogue with both reader and the book's subject. The text was submitted to Yeltsin before publication. "We agreed to delete two absolutely reliable stories that had to do with Yeltsin's worries about his fatherly duties," the authors inform us. "We already suspected we had gone too far in our reportorial doggedness."

Really? The authors blithely tell us they were too busy in Moscow to make the research trip to Sverdlovsk, the city where Yeltsin had built his political and administrative career. Nor is it easy to imagine a Western biographer writing: "We had to deal with complex ethical issues. For example, should we mention his illness, which he took pains to deny, or at least camouflage?"

In the Russian way, semi-relevant quotations from the Russian classics dapple the text. "Happy is he who visited the world at its vital moments," say the authors, citing the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, of their own long-delayed return to their homeland. Solovoyov and Klepikova left in 1977, after bravely trying to run an independent news agency in Brezhnev's old Soviet Union. Bullied and blackmailed by the KGB, the targets of what they feared was an assassination attempt, they emigrated to the West. In exile, they produced some penetrating books on the secret history of Soviet power, conspiracy theories that would make Oliver Stone's jaw gape in awe. Their study of Yuri Andropov's police coup to seize power from the Brezhnevites, "A Secret Passage Into the Kremlin," reads like a thriller, but Soviet officials who endlessly borrowed my own tattered copy insisted it was almost all true.

Their new biography of Yeltsin combines this breathless kind of now-it-can-be-told drama with their own happy return to the tumult of perestroika's collapse and Yeltsin's rise. They have produced what is probably the definitive version of that mystifying episode in 1989 when Yeltsin was discovered by the police, sopping wet and with a bunch of flowers drooping from his hand, in the exclusive dacha region outside Moscow. Yeltsin was not the victim of an assassination attempt while trying to visit a mistress, as conventional rumor had it, but had gate-crashed Gorbachev's birthday party, got into a fight, and had been evicted and tossed into the river by Gorbachev's bodyguards.

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