#35 - JRL 2009-162- JRL Home
From: Peter Reddaway (PBReddaway@cs.com)
Date: Fri, 28 Aug 2009
Subject: Review of Timothy Colton, “Yeltsin: A Life”
Review of Timothy Colton, “Yeltsin: A Life” (Basic Books, 2008)
Peter Reddaway[1]

Let me consider first the main focus and the proportions of Yeltsin: A Life, Timothy Colton’s lengthy and in some respects heavily researched book. Regarding its focus, the author writes: “I initially intended to restrict myself to a portrait of Yeltsin’s leadership of Russia as its elected president, and to treat everything before it as preface.” But later he felt the need to know “what molded the man and his instincts,” and concluded: “My overarching aim, in this ‘history made personal’, is to submit Boris Yeltsin and his career to a textured scrutiny that does justice to their many-sided humanity.”

A reading of the book makes me think that an alternative title might have been Boris Yeltsin: The Psychology of a Paradoxical Leader. It’s in that sort of frame that I think the book is most successful, having benefited from the access that Colton had to Yeltsin and some of his family members. The author is not a professional psychologist, and nor am I. But his thorough, commonsensical discussion of the wide-ranging evidence on Yeltsin’s psychology, and of the views of others on the topic, is both nuanced and enlightening. I like, for example, his analysis of the leader whose natural boldness usually pays off, but who is constantly dissatisfied with himself. I also like his discussion of Yeltsin’s instinctive distancing of himself from all friends and allies - with the one exception, until 1996, of his blood-brother and chief silovik Aleksandr Korzhakov - so that his freedom of action towards them should not be inhibited.

However, the author’s recurring focus on the psychological dimensions of actions and events exacts a price. First, the straight “portrait of President Yeltsin’s leadership of Russia” that Colton originally planned to write has to share the limelight with the specifically psychological dimension of Yeltsin’s life. And second, the portrait of him as president has to wait until half-way through the book to come onto the stage at all.

This is because the first half is taken up by the author’s account of Yeltsin’s childhood and youth, his career in Sverdlovsk, and his first years in Moscow. These are the same topics that, without the strong psychological dimension, occupy no less that two-thirds of Leon Aron’s biography of Yeltsin, published in 2001.

Thus, we now have two substantial biographies of Yeltsin, neither of which devotes more than half its pages to Yeltsin’s eight years as the leader of independent Russia.

Faced with the challenge of combining his two slightly different focuses - Yeltsin’s psychology and analysis of how he actually ruled Russia - the author opts for an approach that is partly chronological and partly thematic. Indeed, one of the eight chapters he devotes to Yeltsin’s presidency is entirely thematic. Titled “Boris Agonistes”, it analyzes Yeltsin’s personality and psychology in systematic, thought-provoking ways. Overall, the eight chapters sometimes read like essays. They provide only limited opportunities for a sustained and cohesive political analysis to develop. The problem is both the dual focus and the lack of enough space in which to analyze the exceptionally complex issues of the Yeltsin presidency.

Colton handles the dilemma by condensing complicated episodes into inevitably simplified summaries. Sometimes these show Yeltsin in a better light than, in my view, is justified, just as the author holds that some of Glinski’s and my judgments in our book The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy show Yeltsin in an overly negative light.

Colton also does a remarkable thing. He devotes less than a tenth of his book to the last three of the president’s eight years in office, the period 1997-1999. This was when the vices of the Yeltsin system became most visible. For example, the oligarchs whom he’d created could often dictate to the government the policies that favored their interests. The strong and the ruthless flourished, while the social safety net continued to fray and the weak went to the wall. Years of high-level corruption and pillaging of the state treasury eventually led to a major government bond default and the loss by the rouble of three quarters of its value. Yeltsin only just survived a sustained attempt by the Duma to impeach him. He also proved unable to choose a prime minister with whom he could coexist, replacing successive incumbents four times in a year and a half. As the security services began to assert themselves politically, three of the four new premiers he selected were “siloviki” with pedigrees in these services ­ first Primakov, then Stepashin, and then Putin. At the same time, while he failed to provide coherent leadership, partly by not adequately delegating his authority during his periods of illness, a dramatic split fractured the elite and vicious political warfare broke out.

Very little of all this is more than superficially researched in the short space that Colton allots to the crucial last three years of Yeltsin’s rule. Even less does he consider the implications of these developments in regard to the wisdom or otherwise of the president’s overall political and economic strategy, as worked out in 1991-94.

In the book’s conclusions, Colton applies five tests to measure whether or not Yeltsin was an exceptional, event-shaping leader. He considers that Yeltsin passes these tests by, in general terms, 1) being unorthodox and able to address key issues in a fresh way, 2) having good political judgment, 3) being able to tap into new sources of political power, and 4) being decisive and authoritative enough to handle difficult situations and emergencies.

In these regards some of the author’s favorable assessments of Yeltsin rest on a firm foundation. Yeltsin did allow Russians to enjoy their new basic rights, such as freedom of movement, belief, and association. He permitted the final disintegration of most media censorship (although this began to creep back into state-controlled television in his last few years). He legalized private commerce and the privatization of people’s dwellings for little or no payment. He approved the development of a mostly sensible (in principle) system of asymmetrical federalism. And he pursued a largely non-confrontational foreign policy, including towards other formerly Soviet republics.

All this said, though, the author concludes that Yeltsin only partly meets the fifth test, which is whether he created political and economic systems with deep enough roots to last into the future. Colton considers that since 1999 Russia’s market economy has lasted and prospered, but in politics Russia has gone into reverse. He’s also convinced, without producing evidence, that not long after 1999 Yeltsin regretted his choice of Putin as his successor.

To pursue further the question of whether Yeltsin was an exceptional leader, let me review a few of the cases in which I see the author’s usually brief analyses as being to a greater or lesser degree off the mark. This will give a fuller idea of why I find his overall evaluation of Yeltsin to be overly favorable. I’ll present my examples chronologically.

The climax of the long struggle of 1992-1993 between the executive and legislative branches occurred from September 21 to October 4, 1993. Like a few other Western scholars, I was an eye-witness to parts of this. The complex, country-wide, and in many cases still murky events of those two weeks are briskly summarized by the author in all of two pages. Yeltsin’s decree of September 21 outlawing the legislature and proclaiming emergency presidential rule (in effect - dictatorship) is described as being “of debatable legality.” At the same time, Yeltsin is accurately quoted by Colton as admitting openly that he violated the law. This discrepancy is not explained.

Also omitted is any mention of the promise that Yeltsin made when introducing the decree. In this he vowed that he would submit himself two years early for re-election as president, i.e., in 1994. It was a major concession designed to mitigate the inevitably fierce backlash provoked by his decree. When the author does mention the promise a little later, he comments like this: “For stability’s sake, Yeltsin made one more adjustment. On November 6, he rescinded a slap-dash pledge he made in September.”

Why the pledge was “slap-dash” and why Yeltsin’s breaking of it was merely “an adjustment” is not clarified.

An episode in which Yeltsin’s political judgment was­for both Colton and me - clearly wrong, occurred in March 1996. At this time, Yeltsin feared that he was too unpopular to be re-electable as president in June. So he decided to embrace Korzhakov’s starkly authoritarian plan to shut down the Duma, outlaw the Communist Party, rule by decree, and postpone the election until 1998. On March 17 and 18, he harshly rejected the urgent pleas to back down from such a politically and physically dangerous course, that were made by key ministers, aides, and others in memos and in personal meetings with him. When he eventually did back down, the most powerful of many considerations was probably the repeated warnings by MVD minister Kulikov that some of his police troops could easily mutiny, if ordered to use force, e.g. to suppress demonstrations of protest. In other words, Yeltsin eventually saw that he had no choice.

The author sums it up like this: “Blessedly for Russia and for his reputation, he had come to his senses­for which those who tar him with neo-Bolshevism give him not a granule of thanks.” However, why he should be thanked for making a seriously wrong judgment, sticking to it aggressively in the face of warnings from advisors that it was a recipe for multiple disasters, and only giving in when he saw that it was simply not viable, Colton does not make clear.

Three months later, Yeltsin had just won the first round of the election with 36% of the vote, when a well-known event took place. Two of his campaign aides were arrested carrying half a million dollars in cash out of the White House. Probably because Colton condenses his account of this episode into half a paragraph, he doesn’t actually make the key point, namely that this was government money that was going to be used­in direct violation of the law­by the campaign of candidate Yeltsin in the run-up to the second round of voting.

Let me turn now to Yeltsin’s abilities as a reformist leader. Here the author presents a convincing picture of the president’s combination of bold innovation regarding reforms with a distressing lack of concern about propagating them vigorously around the country. The result was that they gained little positive support.

Regarding his capacity to lead his team and the government bureaucracy, the author has some insightful criticisms to make. But he doesn’t pull them together enough into a broad conclusion. First, on the core issue of corruption, which he treats rather abstractly, he points out that Yeltsin issued regular decrees about combating it. However, he almost never fired anyone for it, and he never had any senior figure actually prosecuted for it. As Colton implies, this was tantamount to giving corruption a green light. Thus when Yavlinsky urged him to become serious about corruption in return for Yabloko’s political support, Yeltsin said limply, as the author reports: “So what can I do about it? This is Russia, after all.”

Second, on another key issue - the division of power - Yeltsin told Colton in an interview that it was right and proper for the executive branch to represent all of Russia’s political factions, just as the legislature did. In commenting, the author writes that the functions of Yeltsin’s system of checks and balances were: “to sub for a stunted civil society, shield the sovereign from state dysfunction, and facilitate divide and rule in the innards of the government.”

Although these points are on the mark, they don’t lead Colton to what in my view is the logical conclusion. This is that, along with the rapid growth of corruption, the lack of any real division of power, i.e., of effective checks on the executive branch, corroded the Russian state and made it, by the end of the 1990s, dangerously weak. This is what gave Putin’s subsequent program of “strengthening the state” its popularity.

Yeltsin’s facilitation of undivided power and rampant corruption is, more than anything else, what makes it hard for me to see him as an outstanding leader. If a chief executive has one fundamental duty, it is, presumably, to keep the basic functions of the state in good repair: national security, public order, tax collection, and preserving the value of the currency. This duty, as Colton sometimes implies but doesn’t say, Yeltsin clearly failed to carry out. This failure would seem to invalidate Colton’s conclusion that, overall, Yeltsin passes the tests and should be considered an exceptional leader.

A final factor that weighs against this conclusion is the laissez-faire attitude that, from soon after he came into office, permeated Yeltsin’s thinking about social justice and social mobility. The turning-point came when he adopted the top-down deregulatory policies for economic reform that the IMF and the World Bank had been advocating, sometimes known as market bolshevism. Now the indignant, anti-elitist, and populist Yeltsin who ran Moscow in the late 1980s turned into a determined upholder of the status quo in Soviet-era class relations. As he writes in his memoirs: “I saw continuity (Yeltsin’s emphasis) between the society of the Khrushchev-Brezhnev period and the new Russia. It did not enter into my plans to smash and bust up everything as the Bolsheviks did.” (Colton, p. 249) This artificial polarization of the available choices is convenient for the author, but demagogic.

Regarding the circumstances of Yeltsin’s choice of Putin to succeed him, let me make a point about sources that is also relevant to some other parts of the book. On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin suddenly resigned the presidency, Putin became acting president, and, a few hours later, Putin issued a decree granting former Russian presidents certain immunities from prosecution. Here the author states bluntly: “Yeltsin never negotiated over immunity or any aspect of the Putin decree.” His source is one of his interviews with Yeltsin’s son-in-law Valentin Yumashev, who is not of course a disinterested party. Nonetheless, it’s quite possible that Yumashev’s statement was literally true, but also deliberately misleading. There are, after all, many ways in which negotiations can be conducted indirectly, through third, fourth or fifth parties, and not only in Russia. Colton’s certitude needs, I think, to be viewed in that light.

The possible unreliability of this type of source also arises in regard to the claim that in the mid-1990s the emerging oligarch Boris Berezovsky gave a present of two cars to Yeltsin’s daughter Tanya. On the basis of his separate interviews with the two individuals allegedly involved, the author writes dismissively: “The claim was claptrap and was controverted by both of them.”

Here, let us ask first how likely these two individuals were to admit to a disreputable action? Second, the same claim, and others like it that show the two individuals in a poor light, have been published in, for example, Korzhakov’s memoirs and a variety of other Russian publications. Third, neither of the two has sued any of these publications. And fourth, this is significant, because many powerful Russians have sued for libel in such cases, and have often won.

To conclude, Timothy Colton has written a book with outstanding merits on the psychological side. However, as indicated above, I have some serious differences of interpretation with him on the political side.

On a separate aspect of the book, I should add that I much enjoyed the author’s deployment in it of a wide and sometimes unusual vocabulary. Most professors, myself included, are too conservative and tight-laced in their use of language. It was a pleasure to read words like rubicund, sequent, equipoise, and bricolage.

(This review was delivered orally at the AAASS annual convention in Philadelphia in November 2008, on a panel called “Boris Yeltsin as Leader”, chaired by Colton and also including George Breslauer and Stephen White. The review as presented here has a few additions.)

[1] Emeritus professor of political science, George Washington University

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