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Yeltsin's Legacy

YELTSIN A Revolutionary Life By Leon Aron; St. Martin's Press: 934 pp., $35

May 14, 2000|JACK F. MATLOCK JR. | Jack F. Matlock Jr. is the author of "Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union."

"There is nothing more difficult to plan or more uncertain of success or more dangerous to carry out than an attempt to introduce new institutions," Niccolo Machiavelli advised his prince in the early 16th century. Boris Yeltsin seems to have understood the difficulty, because he wrote shortly after becoming president of Russia that "[n]ot a single reform effort in Russia has ever been completed." Fortunately, this did not prevent him from trying to build a new Russia from the debris of the collapsed communist empire. It should not be surprising that his success was less than complete.

Nevertheless, Russia's difficult transition has surprised many observers. Acting as if the Russian Federation began its independent history in 1991 with a well-functioning economy and society, many journalists and scholars have tended to heap all the blame for Russia's problems on the former president and the persons he placed in power. These critics forget (if they ever understood) that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the country was on the brink of famine. Its currency was worthless as a repository of value. Control of the command economy had collapsed. None of the institutions essential to a market economy existed, and Russia's Communist-dominated legislature was against creating them.

Furthermore, more than seven decades of totalitarian control had atomized society. The country had been run as a giant criminal enterprise, with the Communist Party controlling all institutions from behind the scenes. Laws were enforced only when it was in the interest of the party. Courts decided cases not on their merits but on the basis of "telephone law"--the unofficial but binding diktat of Communist Party officials. At least a quarter of the gross national product was consumed by a voracious military-industrial complex.

To survive, Russia required not just reform but a complete revolution in the way the economy and government worked, in the structure of society and in public attitudes and habits. There was no way to carry out these revolutions in sequence; they had to occur simultaneously because progress in one was normally a precondition for progress in others.

No conceivable political leadership could have managed a successful transformation in months, or even in a few years. Some of the changes inevitably would have taken more than a single generation to complete. Yet those who condemn Yeltsin's leadership seem to assume that a miracle was possible and that anything short of a miracle evidence of political failure.

Leon Aron takes on such feckless critics in his detailed but readable biography and offers a defense of the former Russian president more powerful than Yeltsin himself has managed to articulate. "Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life" is, furthermore, not just a biography. A century ago the book might have been entitled "The Life and Times of Boris Yeltsin," because it deals as much with the times in which Yeltsin lived as it does with the man himself. But understanding the context in which Yeltsin rose to power and the circumstances under which he exercised it is essential if we are to place in perspective the achievements and failures of the first president of the Russian Federation.

Perspective is the critical element. Yeltsin's shortcomings are numerous and have been so well publicized that they obscure his achievements. His recurrent bouts with illness, his lack of attention to detail, his ill-considered comments (often retracted), his habit of dismissing top officials without apparent preparation or justification, his occasional abuse of alcohol, his alleged tolerance of corruption in his official family--the list could be extended--have dominated the news from Russia in the daily press and on radio and television. These are not trivial faults, but they involve matters that are far from decisive for Russia's future. The real question is whether Yeltsin managed to set Russia on a course that can lead to a free, democratic and eventually prosperous society or whether he squandered the opportunity to do so.

In Aron's words, "If . . . a Russia peaceful, free, open to the world and gradually growing richer begins to take root and solidify," Yeltsin can be placed in an "exclusive club" of those "who took over great countries on the very brink of a national catastrophe, held them together, repaired and restored them, and, in the process changed them fundamentally for the better."


Aron's narrative ends a few months before Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation at the end of 1999. Nevertheless, everything that has happened since his book was written is consistent with the judgments offered in the biography. Despite widespread speculation throughout Yeltsin's tenure that he would subvert the electoral process and never relinquish power voluntarily, he left office in a manner consistent with the constitution and made clear that his successor would have to win an election.

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