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It’s hard not to love Boris Yeltsin. According to mythology, he is the father of Russian democracy. Today he is retired and his handpicked KGB successor — Vladimir Putin — carries the democratic torch, overseeing the restoration of the Soviet national anthem and the modernization of Russia’s war machine.
People should ask themselves how this can be? How could Boris Yeltsin, a supposed democrat, appoint a KGB functionary as his successor?
The inconsistency only exists if you believe the Yeltsin myth.
The image of Yeltsin projected in his autobiographical books is that of a man with a big heart, a man who sought peace and democracy, a man of courage, conviction and honesty. If we are to trust this self-portrait, Yeltsin is the Russian version of Abraham Lincoln. Raised on the frontier: he split logs, swam icy rivers and opposed the petty tyranny of local bureaucrats.
But there are curious asides throughout Yeltsin’s memoirs. The most obvious examples are found when he discusses religion. Boris attempts, in a sly half-hearted way, to pose as a Christian. (Putin has also tried to do this by wearing a cross.) But Christianity for this life-long Bolshevik is a psychological impossibility. Even the way he writes of his own baptism is equivocal. According to Yeltsin, the village priest was drunk and almost drowned baby Boris during the ceremony.
Churches were dangerous for young Boris. During World War II his village church was converted into an ammunition dump, surrounded by layers of barbed wire. One night Boris climbed under the wire and broke into the church, stealing a grenade. Yeltsin took this unholy relic and attempted to crack it open with a hammer — blowing a couple fingers off his hand in the process.
You can see what happy memories the church holds for the father of Russian democracy.
Every clever autobiography (and Yeltsin’s ghost writers are clever) cannot resist a few winks and nods to those who share in its mischief. Because hidden Soviet structures remain at work in Russia, winks and nods are needed as signals to the wise and the faithful. The art of strategic deception itself, practiced on a grand scale, requires that analysis and story-telling should always take place on two levels.
One of Yeltsin’s predecessors, Josef Stalin, explained this technique in a 1950 essay entitled “Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.” Stalin noted that the struggle for socialism means that words often have two meanings. They have a socialist meaning and a bourgeois meaning. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat, said Stalin, “contribute their own specific words and expressions to language, and at times understand one and the same words and expressions differently.”
Yeltsin’s autobiographical works are good fun because they are filled with two-sided allusions, metaphors and hidden allegories. In fact, his books are masterpieces of Russian subtlety.
Take the story of baby Tanya.
Yeltsin’s wife was sick and he had to bring baby Tanya to grandma’s house. But that meant a 30-hour train ride — with no mommy — for a baby who was still breast-feeding. Things went smoothly for the first part of the trip. But at night the baby grew hungry and began to cry. What was Boris to do? First he wrapped a piece of bread in a rag for the baby to suck on. But that lasted five minutes and baby Tanya began to wail. “Everyone in the car woke up,” wrote Yeltsin, “I was shaking as if I had a fever.”
Yeltsin was desperate. He wetted his finger with water and offered it to the baby. That didn’t work. Finally, Yeltsin opened his shirt and let the baby touch her lips to his own chest. Like magic, the baby stopped crying. According to Yeltsin, “The women on the train laughed almost until they cried, ‘See, he fooled her,’ they said.”
And here is a very Soviet story, a story of deception. Always the Russian baby feels dissatisfied and starved. Always, the Kremlin offers a dry teat in response. And Boris Yeltsin was the ultimate dry teat. The autobiographical passage quoted above might be rewritten to read: “The men in the Kremlin laughed almost until they cried, ‘See, he fooled them,’ they said.”
Here is an allegory of Kremlin statecraft in the form of a nursery story. Or rather, in the form — more humorously — of a nursing story. And now, at bookstores everywhere, you can read the last volume of Yeltsin’s autobiographical trilogy under the title “Midnight Diaries.” It is the story of a very wise fool who learns that America is dangerous, capitalism is a swindle and a KGB lieutenant colonel is the answer.
With his “liberal Bolshevik” comrades, good-hearted Boris embarks on a capitalist adventure. “The communist idea is in people’s heads,” he says. One false step and they will hang us from lampposts! But nevertheless, our hero must try to bring capitalism to Russia — even if he is crucified in the process.
And how does he do that?
“Even a few years ago the political stage of the new Russia was empty,” explains Yeltsin. As every producer of good theater knows, you need sets, you need a script and you need actors. “Thus I created an entire cast of political actors for Russia,” writes Yeltsin, perhaps with a wink. “Gaidar, Chernomyrdin, Kiriyenko, Primakov, Stepashin, Chubais, and others came onto the political stage. …”
These “actors” had their exits and their entrances, funny lines and not-so-funny lines. But always, the Kremlin soap opera was full of humorous inversions. For example, Yeltsin was frequently sick. The insomnia, the worry and the vodka was too much for his health. So he was always disappearing into hospitals, having heart attacks and operations. Foreign observers noted his growing frailty. But one day there was a summit in Helsinki. The president of the United States and the president of Russia were scheduled to meet. And what did the world see?
Yeltsin was suddenly healthy and Bill Clinton was unable to walk.
“At one point,” winks Yeltsin, “I wheeled Clinton in his wheelchair a little.” It was a symbolic occasion, says Yeltsin: “It wasn’t a healthy America that was pushing a sick Russia around in a wheelchair; instead, Russia was helping (i.e., pushing) the United States.”
Readers should not be carried away by Yeltsin’s humorous asides and metaphors. His autobiography is deceptive and even fictional. Perhaps the most obvious and glaring fiction, which gives the game away, concerns Clinton’s presidency and the Monica Lewinsky affair. Crediting Clinton with America’s economic prosperity, Yeltsin writes, “One would expect that Clinton would be a national hero.” After all, says Yeltsin, Clinton has “fulfilled practically all the tasks that his predecessors had left unfinished.”
The failure of America to appreciate Clinton, says Yeltsin, is due to a Republican conspiracy. According to Yeltsin, in late 1996 Russian intelligence uncovered a Republican plan to bring Clinton down. This plan was based on Clinton’s “predilection for beautiful young women.” According to Yeltsin, “Clinton’s enemies planned to plant a young provocateur in his entourage who would spark a major scandal capable of ruining the president’s reputation.”
This claim, of course, is ridiculous. Lewinsky was anything but a plant. As the chief investigative counsel for the Clinton impeachment, David Schippers, has said: the Republicans had to be pushed very hard to go after Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal. And while Clinton survived, some leading Republicans did not.
When reading the memoirs of Boris Yeltsin, when seeing how he lies about Clinton and Lewinsky, Americans need to pause for a moment. Could it be that Yeltsin is lying about other things as well? Could these lies have a strategic purpose?
Machiavelli once said that deceivers will always find dupes. This is because people believe in outward appearances. They are fooled by words and seldom take account of deeds. We have to remember that political memoirs are always suspect, and the political memoirs of former Politburo candidates — like Boris Yeltsin — are full of clever poison.