Photo by Shepard Sherbell
Artillery Row

Another Boris and me

Boris Yeltsin’s path to the end of the Soviet Union, and the dawn of a new Russia that led, unerringly, to the despotic power we see today

Not often you accompany a politician across the most hallowed ground in his country, TV camera rolling, extending an arm around him, seeing as you’re worried he might not make it across the road. Because even though it’s lunchtime, you know he’s worse for the wear, his favourite poison being vodka, or whisky, I know not. Either way, he is groggy at best.

Boris Yeltsin was an addict, of the bottle for sure, but also of the thirst for power

But yes, that was one Boris Yeltsin storming out of the Kremlin across Red Square at the 28th Congress of the Soviet Communist party in July 1990, shouting, rather than telling me, that he was resigning from the Party, and setting off on his own, forming his own unique brand. A path, lest we forget, that signalled the end of the Soviet Union, and the dawn of a new Russia that led, unerringly, to the despotic power we see today, three decades on, under his hand-picked successor, one Vladimir Putin.

“I will have nothing more to do with the izgoye (rogues) in that building,” Yeltsin said, giving me one of his trademark scowls, his face somehow blending disdain and weariness, as he cast his eye back to the Kremlin. “Khvatit, znachit khvatit!” At that point I was grateful for our translator, a graduate of the KGB academy and an admirer of Yeltsin, explaining loudly: “Enough! Enough is enough!” 

I’d seen enough of Boris to know what came next. Even in his late 50s as he was back then, you could diagnose the man’s chronic ill health. After pausing for breath, he launched into one of his tirades, on the many failures of the Soviet system. “When you have a crisis like ours, it’s so important to think the unorthodox,” he said, his features relaxing into a warm smile. “You must have your own thoughts, not be told what to think.” He stopped. “Ponimayete?” 

Did I understand? Well, not every word but certainly the central thrust of the man’s argument-cum-obsession. Because yes, Boris Yeltsin was an addict, of the bottle for sure, but also of the thirst for power. The power to take the lives of people into his hands and change the equation that had seen him emerge from a childhood of dire poverty in the Ural mountains, the bleak frontier between Europe and Asia. Think starvation, as he once told me, into a life of freedom and possibilities. Vozmozhnost, the word he used. Opportunity, potential, a chance.

At that point, that lunchtime in Red Square, with a crowd of onlookers gathering in rapt admiration and wonderment of the semi-mythical figure Yelstin had become, his bodyguard declared an end to our walk-and-talk TV cameo. As a Moscow correspondent, you didn’t mess with one Alexander Korzhakov, former KGB General, so much more than a bodyguard: think adviser, confidant, spin doctor on steroids. In Britain, we have wondered aloud about the power of an Alistair Campbell, over Tony Blair, or a Dominic Cummings over the latter-day Boris, but forget it. General Korzhakov had the Russian intelligence services at his command, not to mention the Red Army if need be, probably. Campbell and Cummings were child soldiers compared to that fellow. 

Udachi,” I said to Yelstin as Korzhakov brushed my arm away off his boss, and ushered him to his Zil limousine, arguably the last time Yeltsin had that ultimate symbol of Politburo privilege, given his resignation that day. “Good luck, Boris Nikolayevich.” He laughed, his face creased by the pleasure of having had his say on a day when he was making history.

For once, Yeltsin sat silent, as he sifted through the hand-written pleas for help

From the moment I sat down with Yeltsin months before, at his office one chilly Friday evening, I concluded the fellow had his heart in the right place, as my grandmother was apt to say. Where his head was, that was always another matter. We’d seen him pitch up at the office that night, to be greeted by dozens of ordinary Russians who had waited hours for the chance to see him. He had that priceless variable for a politician charisma, yes, but also the trust of those who believed he would listen. “And then do the right thing,” said one middle-aged truck driver who had travelled from Tyumen, the oil capital of Siberia, to get a word with Boris.

When General Korzhakov told us to join Yeltsin in his office, I found him strangely subdued, carefully reading letters from his enormous mailbag. A mother seeking surgery for a child. A pensioner reporting hunger. A party apparatchik warning that time was running out for the Communist system. For once, Yeltsin sat silent, keeping his thoughts to himself, as he sifted through the hand-written pleas for help.

When the camera turned on, he reverted to norm, seizing control of the medium and message with a bravura that made him such a star to his own people. “Let’s not talk about Communism. Communism was just an idea, like pie in the sky,” he told me. “Let’s talk about opportunity.” That word vozmozhnost again. Giving people that chance, that freedom, the capacity to exploit their own potential. Was it an act? Or was he for real? And could Alexander Korzhakov keep him sober enough to lead?

In the summer of 1991, we found out. A coup against Mikhail Gorbachev had Yeltsin atop a tank in Moscow, defying the hardliners, mobilising the street, and saving Gorbachev, a leader he clearly despised as a man of many words, but little action. Watching him that August, I saw a tactician at work. By the end of that year, Gorbachev was finished and Yeltsin inherited the Presidency of the new mother Russia: Boris, the “good Tzar” so many people craved. 

From there, it was all downhill. The champion of opportunity became the architect of demolition. Using shock therapy, he tried to transform Russia’s socialist economy into free-market capitalism. He privatised huge state assets. Having seen the oil and gas fields of Siberia, and the diamond mines of Yakutia, I knew what wealth that represented. Opportunity indeed, but for the few, not the many. He scrapped price controls, the lifeline for so many Russians I’d met. He let the ruble float, ever downwards of course. In the process the lives of ordinary people imploded, the oligarchs emerged as the big winners, and the man himself, drunk and depressed, became a symbol of the very corruption he promised to eradicate. 

When Alexander Korzhakov walked away from him, Yeltsin’s extraordinary game was up. He had the wisdom to apologise for his many failings, and resign, his legacy being the KGB prodigy Vladimir Putin and the kind of ruthless dictatorship Yeltsin once stood against. Some legacy.

Tales abounded of Boris’s madcap moments, everything from trying to drown himself in the Moscow river, to leaving security guards half-naked during a visit to Washington and Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s. White House correspondents like me (as I then was) heard he was found close to Pennsylvania Avenue looking for a drink and a pizza. As with the other Boris, his appetite knew no bounds. However, warts and all, Yeltsin had a heart; he wore it proudly on his sleeve and just about everywhere else. “To thine own self be true”: the immortal bard could have been writing about the Boris I knew.

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