BOOKS

Renegade Communist

Boris Yeltsin takes aim at Soviet leaders

VICTOR DWYER May 21 1990
BOOKS

Renegade Communist

Boris Yeltsin takes aim at Soviet leaders

VICTOR DWYER May 21 1990

Renegade Communist

BOOKS

Boris Yeltsin takes aim at Soviet leaders

GAINST THE GRAIN iy Boris Yeltsin ranslated by Michael Glenny Siimmit, 263 pages, $26.95)

Boris Yeltsin’s story is an ideal example of the volatility of Soviet politics. Little more than a year ago, Yeltsin, a leading progressive in the Soviet govïnment, appeared to have been almost sisnced by his political enemies—expelled from he'Politburo and demoted to a junior post. But IOW, in the aftermath of his landslide election o the newly created Congress of People’s deputies in March, 1989, and his subsequent ¡lection to the elite Presidium of the Supreme loviet, he has produced a lively, revealing ¡utobiography. In Against the Grain, Yeltsin, i9r, unabashedly promotes his own virtues vhile taking on all contenders. The book is a ascinating account of his impressive climb to he heights of the Soviet government, his )recipitous fall from grace—and his political •ebirth last year in the country’s first free décrions in more than 70 years.

Born in 1931 to a construction worker and a seamstress living in the central Russian village )TButko, Yeltsin paints a bleak picture of his /outh. He describes it as “a fairly joyless time” luring which his family “had only one aim in ife—to survive.” In school, he combined hard work with a cheeky nonconformity that presaged his later political career. At his primaryschool commencement, Yeltsin made an imaromptu speech denouncing the authoritarian labits of one his teachers. He graduated with :op marks in every area except “discipline,” for which his final report read “unsatisfactory.” Still, Yeltsin’s rebellious nature was generally balanced by his admiration for order—at least when he was the one in charge. After graduating from the Urals Polytechnic Institute in 1955 with a degree in engineering, he was offered a job as a foreman at a pipe-making company in Tbilisi, near the Turkish border. But he chose to first work as an apprentice in basic trades. When he finally accepted the job as foreman, one of his first decrees, he writes, was to cut the wages of one group of workers by more than 50 per cent. That eye for efficiency did not go unnoticed by party officials, and during the next 20 years he enjoyed a succession of important, lucrative promotions. In 1976, then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev appointed Yeltsin to the position of first secretary of the Communist party in the northwest province of Sverdlovsk. Nine years later, Mikhail Gorbachev invited him to join the Politburo.

As he chronicles his rise, Yeltsin contrasts the general inefficiencies in the Soviet econo-

my with his personal success as a bureaucrat, setting the stage for his broader thesis that it is specific individuals, as much as the Soviet system, who are to blame for the current shambles of the Soviet economy. Chief among Yeltsin’s targets are Gorbachev and his inner circle, from which Yeltsin was officially expelled in early 1988. No sooner had he joined

the Politburo in April, 1985—the same month that Gorbachev announced his program of perestroika (restructuring)—than he began to tangle both with the leader and with top-ranking conservative ideologue Yegor Ligachev. Yeltsin’s accounts of their “regular skirmishes” over subjects ranging from bureaucratic perks to a national drive against alcoholism are intriguing, if necessarily one-sided.

Yeltsin’s expulsion from the Politburo followed a detailed and critical speech that he delivered against Gorbachev in late 1987. And feeling the sting of the president’s anger first-

hand seems to have sharpened Yeltsin’s appreciation for the subtleties of the leader’s political cunning. Although he portrays Gorbachev as a man determined to be “in control, constantly and permanently,” he is also able to recognize that it was that same crafty determination that secured Gorbachev’s early success in selling the idea of perestroika—which, on the whole, Yeltsin claims to support. In Gorbachev’s master plan, Yeltsin speculates, “There is the conservative Ligachev, who plays the villain; there is Yeltsin, the madcap radical; and the wise, omniscient hero is Gorbachev himself.”

Despite his own carefully crafted image as an outspoken proponent of full-blown liberalization, Yeltsin appears more forgiving of Gorbachev in the book’s closing chapters. When it comes to setting out his own proposals, Yeltsin’s differences with the leader are suddenly centred more on the pace, rather than on the character, of change in the Soviet Union. Yeltsin ultimately lines up behind Gorbachev when he rejects both a shift to a pure market economy and a multiparty political system.

Instead, he focuses on the need to eliminate graft, decentralize power and find incorruptible recruits for the KGB—while leaving intact a system that, overall, has served Yeltsin well. Such equivocating dampens the fire that ignites the better part of Yeltsin’s book, even as it leaves a memorable portrait of a man who has carved his own niche in the Soviet political system by learning when to cut with—and when to cut against—the grain.

VICTOR DWYER