Killing communism

<strong>Yeltsin: a Life</strong>

Timothy J Colton <em>Basic Books, 616pp, £20.99</em>

To anyone who watched Russia through the tumultuous 1980s and 1990s, the amnesia that cloaks this period today is hard to comprehend. Doubly so is the extent to which its most in fluential and colourful individual also seems to have been forgotten. Despite the brief resurgence of interest that followed his sudden death last year, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin is rarely mentioned in discussions about Russia today. When he is, it is more often as a transitional figure, spanning a latter-day "time of troubles" between Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin, than as the Russian leader who stood on a tank and slew Soviet communism.

In this substantial biography, Professor Timothy Colton sets out to put Yeltsin back where he belongs: as a - even the - key political actor in late 20th-century Russia. To Colton, Yeltsin is a national leader and statesman of rare acumen and character who deserves a place right up there in the pantheon of great Russians. History, I have little doubt, will prove him right.

There is much to admire in this account of Yeltsin. The story of his chequered early years in the Urals soon after de-kulakisation sets the wider context for his later career. He writes with insight on Yeltsin's relations with communism and the Communist Party (not the same thing), suggesting that he was never really a believer, but no cynical careerist, either. Already a senior manager, he recognised that, to get anything done, he had to work through the party. By the late 1980s, however, he saw with equal clarity that the party was a brake on change. He demonstratively resigned at the 28th party congress in 1990.

This generally sympathetic account of Yeltsin's life brings out two aspects that are rarely stressed enough. The first is the counterpoint between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. It was a vicious god who deposited them on the same earth at the same time. Their relations were star-crossed from their first encounter. The tough peasant boy-turned-construction engineer from the harsh industrial heartland got under the skin of the smooth-talking career communist from the balmy south in a way no one else did. Yeltsin's popular touch, the boldness of his gambles, his ability to seize the moment, left Gorbachev perplexed and - as his country crumbled beneath him - at a loss as to what to do. He came to understand what Yeltsin had known instinctively. He neither understood nor appreciated it at the time.

Colton also emphasises Yeltsin's view of himself first and foremost as a Russian, who had Russia's interests at heart. It is sometimes argued that Yeltsin played the "Russia card" against Gorbachev simply as a way of satisfying his lust for power. You can certainly posit, and Colton comes close to doing so, that the decisions Yeltsin made precipitated the break-up of the Soviet Union. Yet to suggest that Yeltsin destroyed the USSR in order to wrest power from Gorbachev imputes to him a malevolent and highly personal motive. Colton rejects this, presenting him rather as an awakened patriot and conscious leader of the rising power. It was another way in which Yeltsin was in tune with the times - and Gorbachev, to his chagrin, was not.

In its lucid narrative, exhaustiveness and ample use of primary sources, this history gives Yeltsin his due and surely sets the standard by which future biographies of Russia's first elected president will be judged. These merits, however, sometimes become a drawback. The wealth of detail can obscure the naturally theatrical epi sodes. Yeltsin was a huge figure, commanding, appealing, vivid and mercurial. Yet even though eyewitnesses and transcripts of his utterances are cited liberally, the real sense of tension and high drama that marked the last months of the Soviet Union and first years of post-Soviet Russian statehood does not always come across. Nor does the intense loyalty and love that many Russians felt for him - a response that was replaced, as the 1990s drew to a close, with shame and, in some circles, contempt.

These conflicting emotions persist in Russia today, as Colton recognises, but he sees as much conflict and contradiction in Yeltsin's character as in the contemporary response to him. And he theorises - as perhaps a Harvard professor must - about whether Yeltsin was an eventful, event-forming or event-shaping man. I am not sure, in the grand sweep of history, that this really matters, or even that, deep down, Yeltsin was so contradictory. In his lifetime Russians did not see contradictions; they saw an innate simplicity and shrewdness that made him just like them, but infinitely larger. That human angle is probably as true an epitaph as the image of the revolutionary hero on the tank.

Mary Dejevsky writes for the Independent. In 1991 she was the paper's Moscow correspondent

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, High-street robbery