Works of Lenin hid Yeltsin's bottles

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BORIS YELTSIN may have hoped to go down in history as a great reformer but future generations are likely to remember him as a hero with tragic flaws.

Certainly that is how he is depicted by the authors of a new Russian book which is entitled The Lonely Tsar in the Kremlin.

Although - health and Duma intrigues permitting - Mr Yeltsin has another year of his presidency left to serve, many are beginning to speak of the "end of the Yeltsin era".

Thus, Alexander Cherniak and Viktor Andryanov felt confident to begin committing him to history in their three-volume book, published under the auspices of the newspaper Pravda.

The first volume, covering the period from 1985, when Mr Yeltsin moved from Sverdlovsk to Moscow, to 1992, when he began his free-market reforms, came out in time for the May Day holiday.

Readers hungry for more will have to wait for the second volume, covering Mr Yeltsin's middle period, when he launched the disastrous war against Chechnya, and the final tome, describing the physically weakened but still sometimes charismatic politician of today.

"In Russia we are used to blaming rulers, be they tsars or party leaders, when they are no longer living," say the authors in their introduction to the first volume.

"Then our children and grandchildren look at us with genuine surprise and say: `Where we you when Stalin put innocent people up against the wall and Beria wiped them out in labour camps?' "

Mr Cherniak, an historian, and Mr Andryanov, a journalist, are determined not to make this mistake.

And, to give the flawed hero his due, he, together with his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, have made it possible for critical history to be written in a Kremlin leader's lifetime.

The book draws heavily on the recollections of Mr Yeltsin, who has published his own memoirs.

Sometimes the former provincial Communist Party boss gives things away about himself without, perhaps, realising it. For example, going back to 1985 and describing his first day at his new job in Moscow, a relatively modest party position in charge of construction, he expresses astonishment that Mr Gorbachev has not rung him already on the special Kremlin phone. Mr Yeltsin exudes frustrated enthusiasm; the reader sees he has an inflated opinion of himself. In addition, however, a range of people who worked with Mr Yeltsin, from his ex-bodyguard to his economic whizz-kids, are allowed to pass judgement on him.

Mikhail Poltoranin, his former press and information minister, praises the openness of Mr Yeltsin when, as party chief in Moscow from 1986, he was fighting against the privileges of the Communist elite.

Intriguingly, Mr Poltoranin adds that when Mr Yeltsin went on to become Russian president, he first offered him the job of prime minister.

The spin-doctor was touched by this show of friendship but alarmed at Mr Yeltsin's lack of judgement, and advised him to appoint an economist instead.

The job, of course, went in 1992 to Yegor Gaidar, who speaks in the book of Mr Yeltsin's "difficult, contradictory character".

Alexander Korzhakov, his loyal bodyguard who became an enemy when ousted, is more damning, accusing the Kremlin leader of being authoritarian and of "enjoying humiliating his subordinates".

There is also evidence of Mr Yeltsin's drinking, going back to the 1980s, from a Pravda journalist who saw him taking a bottle from behind a row of books by Lenin.

The Lonely Tsar in the Kremlin is illustrated with documents, including a copy of the decree Mr Yeltsin issued on 19 August 1991 promising support to police and troops who chose to defy the hardline coup against Mr Gorbachev. The signature, even then, was wobbly but there was nothing shaky about Mr Yeltsin's famous leap on to the tank outside the White House, from where he led the resistance.

It was, in retrospect, the finest hour of a man who is, with all his faults and virtues, a character of worthy of Shakespeare.