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#25 - JRL 2008-116 - JRL Home
Date: Tue, 3 Jun 2008
From: "David Satter" <satter.david@gmail.com>
Subject: Review of book on Yeltsin prepared for Moscow Times

Attached is a copy of the review of the Tim Colton's Yeltsin biography that was rejected by The Moscow Times.


Yeltsin: A Life
By Timothy J. Colton
Basic Books
XX pages, $XX
By David Satter

David Satter is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His most recent book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale).

For decades, there was one path to success in the Soviet Union: total loyalty. When the Soviet Union entered its death throes, however, the situation changed. Suddenly, opposition was possible and there were great opportunities for careerists who were ready to change sides. No one benefited from these opportunities more than Boris Yeltsin. In a few short years, Yeltsin, who ordered the destruction of the Ipatev mansion where the Tsar and his family were murdered and covered up the leak in a Sverdlovsk biological weapons plant, became a hero of democratic society. By 1991, he had taken power and was in a position to humiliate Gorbachev who had once humiliated him.

In “Yeltsin: A Life,” Timothy J. Colton, a professor of Russian studies at Harvard, tries to assess Yeltsin’s contribution. Colton interviewed key political figures as well as Yeltsin’s family members, classmates and friends. He is the only Western biographer of Yeltsin to have gained access to Yeltsin himself. His account is detailed and contains useful information, particularly about the 1991 coup attempt and Yeltsin’s embrace of the privileges against which he once campaigned. It also contains some unintended humor, for example, his comment that the marriage of Yeltsin’s step granddaughter to aluminum magnate, Oleg Deripaska, gave that branch of the family “financial security.”

Unfortunately, however, Colton does not try to understand Yeltsin’s policies or their impact on the Russian people. For Colton, as for many of the officials who shaped U.S. policy in the 1990s, the story of Russia in the Yeltsin period is the story of Yeltsin’s career.

Colton’s writing is hackneyed. Officials “sniff” or “cluck.” The politburo was the scene of a “brouhaha.” Gorbachev considered that Yeltsin was getting “too big for his britches.” The first reformers were “eager beavers.” He also has a passion for irrelevant facts. The Urals are “among the most ancient mountain ranges in the world.” The T-72 tank that Yeltsin mounted at the height of the August, 1991 coup was built at the Nizhni Tagil wagonworks in Sverdlovsk oblast. Yeltin’s home library had “handmade shelves.” The windows of Yeltsin’s Moscow apartment looked out at a closed Old Believer monastery.

None of this would be critical if it did not reflect a general tendency toward tunnel vision that, unfortunately, pervades the whole work. Colton describes with admiration how, on December 23, 1991, Lev Sukhanov, one of Yeltsin’s aides, pointed to a map of the Russian Federation and toasted Yeltsin with the words, “On this whole territory, there is now no one above you.” As Colton describes it, a radiant Yeltsin replied, “Yes, and for this life has been worth living.”

Millions of Russians soon found that their lives under Yeltsin were not worth living but Colton treats this as unimportant. In his 1996 election campaign, Yeltsin promised to pay Russian workers their salaries. After Yeltsin was elected, wage arrears reached new heights. Colton draws no conclusions from this, writing that “individuals and Russian families made adjustments… as well as they could.” In fact, millions of Russians avoided starvation by growing their own food. Colton mentions Yeltsin’s closest colleagues without including what was most important about them. Oleg Lobov, the secretary of the security council, is referred to without a word about charges that he provided the production designs for the sarin nerve gas that was used in the attack by the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinri Kyo, on the Tokyo metro and Shamil Tarpishchev, Yeltsin’s tennis partner and partner in “rollicking” steambaths is mentioned without referring to his links to organized crime. Pavel Borodin, the head of the Kremlin property administration, is “the best joke teller in the government” but there is almost nothing about the accusations against him of massive corruption.

In his memoirs, Alexander Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s former bodyguard, writes that Yeltsin struck and killed a motorbike passenger in a predawn automobile accident after having spent the night drinking. Colton mentions the report but dismisses it as “unconvincing.” He argues that if the accident had happened, the KGB would have learned about it and Gorbachev would have used the incident against Yeltsin. This flimsy dismissal of the charge, of course, in no way demonstrates that Yeltsin was not involved in such an accident. It merely demonstrates that Colton had no interest in investigating it.

There are many other examples of Colton’s lack of curiosity about his subject. He writes that charges of massive corruption against Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, “lack credence” despite the detailed evidence unearthed by a Swiss investigation into the matter. Similarly he writes that Yeltsin never negotiated over Putin’s decree granting him immunity from prosecution after he left office. His source for this is Yeltsin’s son in law, Valentin Yumashev.

Colton’s most serious misrepresentations, however, concern the two defining events of Yeltsin’s presidency, the suppression of the Russian parliament in 1993 and the Russian apartment bombings that led to the Second Chechen War and the elevation of Putin as president.

In the 1993 events, Colton writes that skirmishes on the street “spun out of control.” In fact, the police mysteriously disappeared opening the way for demonstrators to march on Ostankino where they were massacred by special forces who opened fire with machine guns from entrenched positions. The violence was then used by Yeltsin as an excuse for attacking the deputies holed up in the parliament building. Colton ignores what happened at Ostankino and the possibility that the killings there were a provocation. This is no small omission because the suppression of the Supreme Soviet was the first step in the elimination of pluralism that continues to this day and was begun not by Putin but by Yeltsin.

Most serious of all, however, is Colton’s handling of the Russian apartment bombings. Colton deals with the question of who was responsible by writing, “the FSB blamed the violence on pro-Chechen fanatics.” He fails to add that there is evidence that those responsible for this terrorist act were not Chechens but the FSB. In Ryazan three FSB agents were caught after placing a bomb in the basement of an apartment building. The bomb tested positive for hexogen, the same explosive that was used in the successful bombings. Insofar as the bombings galvanized the population behind a new war in Chechnya that made possible the election of Putin as president and, of course, the decree protecting Yeltsin from criminal prosecution, a biographer cannot avoid them. Colton could have advanced arguments to show that Yeltsin and the FSB were innocent of any wrongdoing. This he did not do. Instead, he chose to pretend that the most critical question surrounding the Yeltsin presidency does not exist.

Westerners are often amazed that 17 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy is deeply distrusted in Russia. A great deal of the credit for this goes to Yeltsin who did not understand that democracy is not possible without the rule of law. Perhaps an equal share of the blame, however, goes to those in the West who, having grown up with the benefits of law, were not willing to insist on it in the case of Russia. Imbued with the habits of Western careerism, their highest goal was the success of Yeltsin’s career, irrespective of the consequences for the Russian people. Colton’s biography of Yeltsin is an example of the degree to which the lessons of the Yeltsin era still have not been learned.