The true story of this half-charming man

<i>Midnight Diaries </i>by Boris Yeltsin (Weidenfeld &amp; Nicolson, &pound;20)
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He is a rogue. He is a stranger to self-doubt. In many respects, he is a tyrant. Yet it is easy to find yourself half-charmed by Boris Yeltsin. His faults are so unashamed; like a wilful but entertaining child, he seems to defy you to regard him as a monster.

He is a rogue. He is a stranger to self-doubt. In many respects, he is a tyrant. Yet it is easy to find yourself half-charmed by Boris Yeltsin. His faults are so unashamed; like a wilful but entertaining child, he seems to defy you to regard him as a monster.

From the first page of Midnight Diaries, Yeltsin's third volume of memoirs, he revels in his self-described "capriciousness". As he notes, after surprising everybody one more time (by suddenly refusing to pre-record his New Year's address, because he secretly planned to resign): "Thank God my staff had grown used to my nature, to my impromptu remarks and surprises. They were no longer truly fazed by anything."

Rumbustious is the best summary of Yeltsin's style - in life, and in this book. He feels he has left a job well done. Even when he admits mistakes, it is a case of je ne regrette rien. Difficult situations are described with gusto. Thus, his government's failure to gather enough tax revenues to keep the state going in 1998 was "simply repulsive". The crisis included "an amazing paradox", whereby an educated government made "the most uneducated, ill-considered" decisions. So it continues, page after page.

Midnight Diaries contains almost comic understatement. Yeltsin notes: "At times I made statements that appeared completely unjustified. It was difficult for my press secretaries to explain their meaning." (One pictures his ex-press secretaries nodding in furious agreement.) Yeltsin likes to emphasise his frankness and his errors. Of an ill-advised plan to cancel elections in 1995, aborted after pressure from his daughter and one adviser, he says: "To this day, I am grateful... I, who possessed enormous power and strength, became ashamed before those who believed in me."

Sometimes, he dodges difficult questions. When referring to the suffering of Chechen civilians, he asks: "Should the Russian army bear responsibility for these woes?" "Yes" would be the honest, short answer. Yeltsin denies it all, and speaks only of the need "to ignore the excessive, unfair criticism". He does not explain why it is unfair to criticise a government that slaughters civilians.

Other taboos are addressed. He discusses his well-documented love of alcohol, saying that he "couldn't bear to put up with drunks" (oh?) but concluded that alcohol was "the only means quickly to get rid of stress". Referring to an (in)famous occasion when he danced drunkenly with a conductor's baton in Berlin, he explains: "I can begin to feel my skin crawl as I think of that alarm, tension, and immeasurable weight of stress that pressed down upon me in those days... I remember that the weight would lift after a few shot glasses. And in that state of lightness I felt as if I could conduct an orchestra."

Midnight Diaries contains truly extraordinary stories, like Yeltsin's claim that a secret memo from Russian intelligence warned in 1996 that "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." Yeltsin did not pass the warning on, sure that "Clinton, with his firm grasp of reality and staff of brilliant aides, would be able to figure out the cunning plot."

Such moments of alleged clairvoyance apart, most of the book smells remarkably real. In the end, it is a question of take-me-or-leave-me Boris. He feels as though he has run a super-marathon. "I honestly went the distance... If you think you can do it better, just try." On balance, Russia is probably lucky to have had him as its leader. There are many reasons for pessimism; Russia has not yet reached stability. But it could all have been much, much worse.

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