Bold to the Last

I have always had confidence in the surprising wisdom of the Russian people," said Boris Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999, as he announced to the nation that he was stepping down after more than eight years as Russias first president. However, as Presidential Marathon (Prezidentsky Marafon) the third and presumably last volume of Yeltsins memoirs, covering the period since 1996 makes abundantly clear, it was precisely his lack of confidence in the Russian people that formed the essential paradox of his years in power: How do you bring about democratic and market reforms in a country where the people really want neither?

Since October 1993, when Yeltsin sent in tanks to quell a rebellious parliament, he knew that the majority of the nation did not support him. His task from then on was to somehow foist his reforms upon the country and hope that reform itself would change the peoples mentality sufficiently to generate popular support. In "Prezidentsky Marafon," which is now available in English under the title "Midnight Diaries," Yeltsin sees himself personally as the only safeguard against a complete collapse of the "quiet revolution" of 1991: "Many times, both before and since 1996, I raised with my closest advisers the question of resigning early. And repeatedly I was convinced that there is no alternative. It is impossible to leave while there is a danger that the democratic process, the reform process, might be halted and the country thrown back into the past."

However, Yeltsin was enough of a democrat to understand that his reforms would never really take root if he did not at least maintain the facade of popular rule and democratic processes. He had to tolerate a hostile parliament and hold scheduled elections while simultaneously manipulating the political arena in such a way that it would not be possible for the people to really express its will and bring an end to reform.

The most startling part of "Prezidentsky Marafon" is Yeltsins depiction of events surrounding the 1996 campaign. Russia never knew how close Yeltsin came to "postponing" that vote. He had even drawn up the necessary papers for suspending the election for at least two years. Many members of his inner circle had endorsed the move. As Yeltsin describes it, his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and Anatoly Chubais changed his mind. Although Yeltsin offers few details of what happened during that meeting, one can surmise that Chubais argued that, despite Yeltsins low popularity rating, everyone in the country who opposed the return of the Communists would eventually have to come around and support him. A cynical reader could even hypothesize between the lines that Chubais made the argument that a radical decision could still be made after the elections if necessary to prevent a Communist takeover.

Unable to muster positive support, Yeltsin had to be satisfied with merely mobilizing the opponents of his opponents. "My campaign staff met with all the influential groups in society," he writes. "Do you want to survive? Help us out. Do you want to continue running your bank? Help us out. Do you want freedom of speech and private television? Help us out. Do you want creative freedom, freedom from censorship and freedom from red ideology in culture? Help us out."

Much has been written about this election, but hearing it straight from Yeltsins mouth is chilling. "Obviously, the mass media played an enormous role. Journalists understood that if they dont want the return of Communist censorship, they must work on the team. [NTV executive and campaign media adviser] Igor Malashenko created a strict vertical of command in [the campaigns] work with television and journalists."

Yeltsins book says little about how this system worked, but he does describe the famous meeting with Alexander Lebed that took place in 1996 just five days before the second round of voting and two days after Yeltsins second heart attack. It occurred at Yeltsins dacha, where a makeshift hospital room had been created in the very room where he collapsed. As Lebed waited, that hospital room was deftly transformed into an office. The television journalists covering the event themselves rearranged the furniture, moved the piano and hid the hospital equipment. Against doctors orders, Yeltsin managed to stand for a moment as Lebed entered the room.

Such a campaign cannot be construed as the work of a man who is convinced of "the surprising wisdom of the Russian people." Although not inclined to introspection, Yeltsin pauses to consider the propriety of hiding his incapacity from the public, before returning to the same conclusion: "I am convinced to this day that handing victory to Zyuganov or postponing the elections would have been far worse."

Immediately after the 1996 vote, Yeltsin told his staff: "In 2000, someone who will continue the countrys democratic reforms, who will not return to the past, to totalitarianism, who will guarantee Russias forward progress toward a civilized society must become president of Russia." However, he chooses to do this not by building popular support, but by the expedient of presenting the nation with a fait accompli.

Throughout his second term, Yeltsin dedicated all his limited energy to preventing anyone who did not bear his seal of approval from jockeying into a position from which to win the election. As late as the spring of 1999, Yeltsin did not know whom he wanted his successor to be: The main goal of the preceding years had been merely to keep the stage empty, ready to welcome the knight in shining armor.

At times Yeltsin reveals more of his undemocratic side than he intends. He recalls a state visit he made to Spain in 1994 saying, "I remember looking at the king and thinking: No, there is a reason why humanity doesnt want to give up the institution of monarchy." Recalling the first time he discussed the presidency with Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin uses the quintessential image of tsar. "I was not merely offering him a promotion. I wanted to hand him the crown of Monomakh."

Despite its focus on high politics, "Prezidentsky Marafon" offers glimpses of a more human Yeltsin than his earlier books did. He hints that his harsh attitude toward Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom he did not meet once during his eight years in power, has softened now that Yeltsin himself has joined the ranks of former leaders. Merely hearing Patriarch Alexy II describe the governments nonpayment of pensions as a "sin" was enough to prompt Yeltsin to dismiss his longtime Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in 1998.

Boris Yeltsin is arguably the greatest tragic figure of modern times. With this book, he has staked his entire legacy on his successor. For a man who lived his political life by means of one shocking, unexpected gesture after another, this is Yeltsins last bold move.

"Prezidentsky Marafon," by Boris Yeltsin. 428 pages. AST Publishing, Moscow. About 250 to 300 rubles. Published in the United States as "Midnight Diaries." Public Affairs. $26.

Robert Coalson is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.