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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tip of the Iceberg

The first thing I did when I got my hands on Leon Aron's Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life was to take up a magnifying glass and try to find my own face in the picture on the back of the jacket, showing Manezh Square and taken, I would guess, at about 11 a.m. on August 19, 1991, the first day of the coup. Then I remembered that, at about that time, I was a few tanks away, behind the photographer's back, getting my jeans soiled with diesel oil along with a crowd of excited, flag-waving kids and stolid, sullen gentlemen sitting on armor and doing their best to obscure the crews' field of vision with various parts of their anatomy, the air thick with some of the choicest Russian I'm ever likely to hear.

I mention this merely to indicate what an effort it is for a close observer, and sometimes participant, in the events covered in the book (if only as a foot soldier of democracy) to concentrate on the work itself rather than on its subject, Boris Yeltsin. It's especially hard at a time when the book's hero has just made as spectacular, one might say epic, an exit from history as his entry once was, and all the world seems to be busy evaluating his character, his doings, his successes and failures and generally his place in history.

Let me say right out that these evaluators might do very well to read Aron's study. It's a Good Book. It is erudite, intelligent, professional, painstaking, splendidly researched, lucid, elegantly written, with frequent bursts of inspired, tasteful narrative that will please the most exacting connoisseur of style. Dr. Aron is that rarest of animals, a 100 percent bilingual and bicultural brilliant writer, and his work is blessedly free from the errors and banalities of various explorers of the recesses of Lenin's tomb. In my particular case, it proved unputdownable, although I am aware that not all readers will be so carried away by this account of events - simply because they will not be reliving those events as they read.

Now for the panning part. The book purports to be a "Life," but even a superficial perusal of the volume will show that it is nothing of the sort. It is rather a political history of Russia from the 1970s to August 1998, with particular reference to events that molded, or were molded by, Boris Yeltsin. As such, it is deficient in at least two respects. As a political history, it is full of lacunae, with events and personalities somehow connected with Yeltsin drifting into the narrative without much motivation or background, springing, to use a Russian phrase, "like little devils out of a snuff-box." As a politician's "Life," it lists heavily toward the official picture, with touches of hagiography here and there, concentrating on the visible one-tenth of the iceberg of Yeltsin's personality.

After this quick one to the solar plexus, I must stress that Aron's political history of Russia in the last few decades - what there is of it - is excellent. If at times his narrative appears to consist entirely of quotations, they are invariably quotations of the best sort, from the shrewdest and most knowledgeable authors. His own analysis, with a minimum of quotes, is often nothing short of masterly, as in the positively scintillating epilogue, where he assesses the results of the last (or rather latest) Russian revolution and Yeltsin's role in it.

To take a random example: Aron makes a shrewd statement that the 1996 presidential campaign, one of the most critical stages in Yeltsin's career and Russia's recent history, was "the closest the country ever came to a public trial of Russian communism." In this, he goes straight to the heart of the matter, i.e. the real choices the country faced in 1996, and annihilates the claim that Yeltsin's victory was "bought" by the Russian "oligarchs" with the help of Western electoral technologies: "Where Western scholars and journalists were concerned, the acceptance and dissemination of this fabrication reeks of condescension, if not indeed of Russophobia and racism," as it "depicts millions of Russian men and women as unthinking cattle." There's more in this vein - scathing, you might say.

On a more universal scale, Aron lists, among Yeltsin's major achievements, his decisive contribution to eradicating Russia's patrimonialism, imperialism and militarism, with all of these achievements described in glowing terms. This "natural-historical process," as Marxists would call it, is all very well in the context of millennia, but its price in terms of human suffering here and now is terrible and should be visible even in the cold light of the historical microscope.

As far as the swift collapse of the Soviet empire is concerned, Aron deviates from the compassionate or "native" point of view: It was an Absolute Good only in terms of Western security. Internally, any dweller of the post-Soviet space, except for the "elites," will bear witness that the lives of an absolute majority of the former Soviet people deteriorated, often unbearably, as one big empire split not into thriving democracies but into a dozen or so nasty empirelets, many of them degenerating into sheer tribalism and feudalism, not to mention bloodshed, rampant crime, universal corruption and abject poverty. These happenings in and outside Russia ought at least to have been mentioned, in the interest of balance.

On the same issue of the disintegration of the Soviet empire in 1991, the view has been expressed that at the time Yeltsin and the part of the Russian elite he represented faced the choice of keeping the bigger, historical Russia together for a while longer, until a more civilized climate prevailed, or immediately grabbing power at the expense of the collapse of the empire. It was primarily Yeltsin who made the fatal choice - entirely predictable, given his inordinate craving for power. This internal motivation does not stand out clearly enough in Aron's book, as the author prefers to take on trust what Yeltsin himself says on the subject in his "Zapiski," profusely quoted by the biographer.

Here we come to those submerged nine-tenths of the personality iceberg, which, unfortunately, have remained out of sight. True, Aron offers quite a few intelligent and even witty insights into Yeltsin's character and thought processes, particularly in the epilogue - for example, comments on Yeltsin's mode of decision-making "by lonely and imperceptibly slow accretion, absorption and digestion of information and events" - but they do not seem to follow from the body of the text, which is mostly taken up by accounts of speeches at various meetings, congresses, rallies, TV opportunities, etc.

To be honest, I sometimes got the impression that Dr. Aron was simply scared of taking the Siberian bear by the ears, preferring instead circumlocution and Plutarch-like comparisons, with, among others, Peter the Great, Nikita Khrushchev, Thomas Jefferson, Charles de Gaulle (at some length), and even the poet Richard Savage. I'd venture to say that getting acquainted with the published revelations of former Vice Prime Minister and close adviser Mikhail Poltoranin and greater attention to the Yeltsin/Gorbachev rivalry might offer more earthy insights into the motivation of some of Yeltsin's actions or inaction than these learned comparisons.

More significantly, though, there's this matter of the unwritten covenant concluded between Yeltsin and the people at the time when he stood up for the downtrodden folk seeking "social justice" in a face-off with the Partocracy - and the rupture of that bond after Yeltsin amassed more power and privileges than any General Secretary before him ever had. This transformation of one archetypal figure, Ilya Muromets, defender of the people, into another, a peasant tsar sinking ever lower through layers of corruption, is not traced clearly enough in Aron's book. There are too many "suddenlys" in the later chapters, and each of them must have a hidden cause in the main character's case history. Unfortunately, they have remained hidden.

A greater emphasis on Yeltsin the man might have saved Aron the embarrassment of having written Chapter 14, "The Last Struggle," which sounds like a funeral dirge for the book's hero. Yet this was the same hero who would, after a year of ruthless experimentation, find the man around whom the country could unite, for better or worse, and win the hardest battle of his life: conquering his own lust for power.

"Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life," by Leon Aron. 896 pages. St. Martin's Press. $35.

Sergei Roy is a writer and journalist based in Moscow.