Boris Yeltsin was a man for the unforgettable surprise. His fame rested on the panache and fortitude he showed in August 1991 when plotters attempted a coup d'état against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. They reckoned without Yeltsin, then head of the Russian Soviet Republic. Clambering on top of a tank outside the Russian White House, he defied those who wanted to return Russia to its communist traditions. Their coup might have succeeded if they had put him under preventive arrest. Instead, Yeltsin emerged as the master of the political situation. Gorbachev came back from detention in Crimea to find that his personal authority had drained away. By the end of the year the U.S.S.R. had been abolished and Yeltsin was ruling an independent Russia.
He quickly ushered in the market economy and privatized state enterprises. Encountering opposition, he governed by decree. When this failed to cow his adversaries, he ordered the army to shell the Supreme Soviet and arrest its leaders. A new constitution was introduced, but politics never became tranquil. Russia was swept into a maelstrom of fevered public disputes and wild capitalism.
Most Russians, however, stayed poor and felt disoriented, and Yeltsin's popularity dipped. His drunkenness harmed his cause. There was public disquiet about his frequent, lengthy absences from his office. His health caused further concern; if his cardiac condition had been public knowledge he would never have won the 1996 election. Nor would he have triumphed without getting the business oligarchs to bankroll his campaign. In return, they got their hands on oil, gas, nickel and aluminum, and grew even richer. Democracy had been one of his slogans before he came to power, and he continued to celebrate it in principle. But the sleazy reality of Kremlin affairs brought democratic ideals into disrepute long before he resigned in favor of Vladimir Putin in 1999.
In Yeltsin: A Life, Timothy J. Colton has written a fine biography of Russia's first postcommunist President. He has done his homework, going to the Urals, for example, to talk to individuals who knew Yeltsin in his poverty-stricken childhood. One finding: a grandfather of Yeltsin's was persecuted as a rich peasant when Stalin imposed agricultural collectivization. Colton also spoke to acquaintances from Yeltsin's period as Communist Party boss in Sverdlovsk. He justifiably concludes that Yeltsin was already a rambunctious politician before Gorbachev promoted him to head the Moscow City Party in 1985. Yeltsin was like a bull in a china shop in the Soviet capital. As Colton points out, Gorbachev had ignored warnings that his protégé would smash all the crockery as both of them pursued reform. Plenty of Yeltsin's victims volunteered their testimony for the book. Their unanimous verdict is that he deserved the sacking he endured in 1987 at Gorbachev's hands.
Yet Gorbachev still needed him in the background to frighten the communist conservatives. This gave Yeltsin the chance to develop policies hostile to the entire communist order. How Gorbachev must have regretted rejecting advice to make him Soviet ambassador to a faraway place like Mongolia.
For Colton, Yeltsin was a man with a matchless capacity to reinvent himself, and an almost superhuman resilience that enabled him to see off his enemies. He felt uncomfortable with any fixed ideological position, relying instead on intuition. Critics put it about that he lacked intellectual inquisitiveness; in fact, he made a constant effort to refresh his thinking and was no ignoramus. He particularly liked Chekhov's short stories. When not bingeing on vodka, he was a bit of a puritan in social relations. He abhorred unpunctuality: his favorite gift to anyone was a wristwatch. Aides who made lewd comments quickly lost their posts.
Colton's account sticks closely to the biographical mode and largely avoids big, historical controversies. Sometimes, perhaps, he underplays the man's animal exuberance. Yeltsin, after all, played the spoons on the heads of his ministers hardly the behavior of an average statesman. But Colton's research is thorough and his chronicle lively and measured. It's fitting, too, that Yeltsin has sprung his last surprise by finding a biographer to rank him, justifiably, among the politicians with the greatest impact on the 20th century.
Robert Service is professor of Russian history at Oxford University, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Comrades. Communism: A World History