BOOK REVIEW / Fateful days glimpsed on the coffee table: The view from the Kremlin - Boris Yeltsin: HarperCollins, pounds 18

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHAT is Boris Yeltsin doing forsaking Russia's multiple crises to write a book? You may well ask. The dustjacket suggests one answer: a deep-toned Karsh portrait shows Yeltsin dark-suited, white-shirted, silver-haired and televisually sincere, the very model of an established national leader and statesman. With globally co-ordinated publication, The View from the Kremlin is a prestige project; one for the world's coffee tables as well as the historical record.

The Russian leader's meditative cover pose seems intended to suggest also that we will encounter Yeltsin as philosopher. But the text confirms that Yeltsin, notwithstanding his many strengths, is no thinker. He is a doer, an often instinctive one at that. And his book is the authorised account of a dramatic period of Russian

history by one of its chief players. It should command attention for that alone.

Unfortunately, it fails to clear up many questions to which he alone must know the answer. Almost the only new information concerns the 1993 currency change and the reluctance of the Russian army to intervene after the parliamentary rebellion in October that year. There was ample evidence of the army's hesitation at the time, but now we have Yeltsin's account of how he had personally to plead with the high command before his orders were acted upon.

Some vintage Yeltsin shines through. He offers endearing remarks about his 'mistakes', including his decision to walk out of parliament, so precipitating the October rebellion. 'I made the wrong decision,' he writes, 'I had no idea at the time of the

consequences of the move.' When was the last time you heard anational leader admit so candidly that he should have acted differently?

There are, too, occasional hints of the gut instinct that makes Yeltsin so sure-footed. He notes that during the August 1991 coup there was a plan for him to escape to the nearby American embassy. He decided against it: 'If people learnt that I was hiding in the American embassy . . . they would see it as virtual emigration. . . . People in our country don't like it when foreigners take too active a hand in our affairs.' How right he is, and was.

At the same time, his account has curious gaps. I doubt that Yeltsin has come clean about exactly what happened in the early morning of 19 August, the first day of the coup. Where he was, who he was with, and why, has never been satisfactorily explained, and is not here. He neglects to mention the West's early diplomatic support for him, noting telephone calls from abroad, including from John Major, but not the fact that many Western ambassadors had earlier massed at the Russian parliament building. Yeltsin speaks only of a Russian cabinet meeting there. He also fails to mention how he humiliated Gorbachev in front of the Russian parliament. Perhaps he finds this much-criticised move too painful a memory. But it is history.

The publisher, too, has committed a few sins of omission. There is no index (instead, a few attention-grabbing KGB documents), and nowhere - except en passant in the text - is there any acknowledgement that this book is in effect the second volume of Yeltsin's autobiography. The first, Against the Grain, was published by another publisher in 1990, and offers rather more original material than the sequel.

Against the Grain was also superbly translated by the late Michael Glenny. Translators often complain that they are not given due acknowledgement. With The View from the Kremlin, it may be kinder not to name names. This is a generally wooden, overliteral and underwrought effort, and it does the work of so eminent a subject a grave disservice.