Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Born and raised in Moscow, he entered the United States at the age of twenty-three as a political refugee. After receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia University, Aron published numerous scholarly and journalistic articles about Russian affairs and was a frequent commentator for radio and television news programs. Although specialists will disagree with many of Aron’s interpretations, no one can question his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject of the book.
Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life is an interesting and impressive work based on exhaustive research. Although somewhat thin in regard to Yeltsin’s personal life, the book is filled with details about all aspects of Yeltsin’s political career. Scholars will be happy to find more than one hundred pages of documented notes and sixty pages of bibliography, with an emphasis on sources in the Russian language. In addition to printed materials, Aron gathers much of his information from interviews with politicians, journalists, and other individuals associated with the events of the book. For the benefit of readers not familiar with Russian terms, Aron provides a very helpful glossary.
Aron interprets Yeltsin and his policies in a much more favorable light than do most Western journalists and historians. Yeltsin emerges as a “man of the people” who met the challenge of presiding over a revolutionary transformation from a police state to an open and tolerant society. In a summary of his achievements, Aron writes: “He made irreversible the collapse of Soviet totalitarian communism, dissolved the Russian empire, ended state ownership of the economy—and held together and rebuilt his country while it coped with new reality and losses.” While acknowledging mistakes and a few character flaws, Aron always gives the Russian leader the benefit of every doubt.
The book went to press about a year before Yeltsin took an early retirement on December 31, 1999. Thus, the work cannot consider Yeltsin’s apology for the failures of his economic policies or his selection of Vladimir Putin as a successor. Similarly, the book was written before a number of revelations about possible bribes involving Yeltsin and his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko. In addition, Aron’s book does not analyze the resumption of bitter fighting in Chechnya in 1999.
The first forty-seven pages of the book explore Yeltsin’s life before he became a Communist official in 1975. His childhood was basically a struggle for survival, a common experience of Russian children during the period. He probably resented many Stalinist policies. His grandfather perished as an opponent of collectivization, and his father served three years in a labor camp on charges of anti-Soviet agitation. Yeltsin was a good student, but he was also a rebel and a risk-taker. As an example, Aron explains how he blew off two fingers while playing with a live grenade. After completing an engineering degree at the Urals Polytechnic Institute, he worked on large construction projects in Sverdlovsk and the Urals. Often working fifteen hours a day, he acquired a reputation for emphasizing efficiency and as an authoritarian supervisor who was quick to punish subordinates.
When Yeltsin applied for membership in the Communist Party, according to Aron, his major motive was to advance his career. Although he had to pass a test on Marxist-Leninist principles, he apparently had no strong ideological convictions at the time. In 1976, he was appointed first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee. Although something of a populist, Yeltsin gave no indications of liberalism during this period. Like others in the party’s apparatus, he delivered “shameless encomiums” to Leonid Brezhnev, and he did not hesitate to obey orders to destroy the historical Ipatyev house, where the family of Nicholas II had been murdered.
In 1985, Yeltsin’s career began to change directions after the new Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, appointed him first secretary of the Moscow Party Committee. Aron observes that the party “needed someone, fast, who could take over and thoroughly clean up the city.” Yeltsin was quickly elevated to membership in the Politburo, where he enthusiastically supported Gorbachev’s reformist policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). By 1987, Yeltsin was sharply criticizing the Soviet leadership for its refusal to institute reforms more rapidly. Irritated, Gorbachev removed him from the Politburo and the Moscow City Committee. Although humiliated, Yeltsin was allowed to stay in Moscow in a lesser position. Aron suggests that Gorbachev wanted to use...
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