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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1931

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.

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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 the “firebreathing radical” to encourage conservatives to accept moderate reforms.

With the dramatic revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Aron argues that the combination of economic, political, and nationalistic crises in Russia pushed Yeltsin to accelerate his “political drift.” By this time, he had gone far beyond Gorbachev’s “new thinking” and had become an avowed “social democrat” advocating a multi-party system, private ownership of the means of production, a transfer of power from the Communist Party to the parliament, a recognition of sovereignty for the Soviet republics, and a new constitution guaranteeing the primacy of law and individual freedoms. Marxist-Leninists were terrified by such ideas. Gorbachev accused Yeltsin of rejecting “democratic socialism” and of advocating a break-up of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s reforms, however, made it possible for Yeltsin to turn to Russian voters, where his program enjoyed a great deal of popular appeal, especially among young people. On June 12, 1991, in Russia’s first democratic presidential election, Yeltsin captured 57 percent of the vote in a contest with four other candidates.

Most historians and journalists of the West agree with Aron’s favorable portrayal of how Yeltsin opposed the attempted coup of August, 1991. When the hard-line Communists tried to seize power, they made the mistake of not putting the Russian president in custody. Yeltsin denounced them as “outlaws” and declared himself to be commander-in-chief of Soviet armed forces on Russian soil. With his instinct for the dramatic, he stood atop a Soviet tank to read an appeal to the Russian people. Thousands of Russians came to his support. “By instinct, courage and luck,” writes Aron, “Yeltsin again found himself at the centre of the popular revolt against the totalitarian state, and gave it, as he had since 1989, focus and expression.” The failure of the coup hastened the demise of the Soviet Union, which was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States on December 31, 1991. With Gorbachev’s resignation, Yeltsin became head of state over the second most powerful country in the world.

Aron has no doubt but that Russia “changed fundamentally for the better” during the Yeltsin presidency. As far as political institutions are concerned, there is much to be said in favor of Aron’s point of view. The constitution of 1993 provided for multiparty elections and guaranteed most of the individual freedoms found in the U.S. Bill of Rights, among them a system of separation of powers, including judicial review. Aron also stresses Yeltsin’s rejection of traditional Russian imperialism, his opposition to anti-Semitism, and his consistent support for the independence of the Baltic provinces and other nations outside the Russian Federation. In looking at these revolutionary changes, Aron excessively minimizes the role of Gorbachev’sglasnost, although he does acknowledge that it was “begun by Gorbachev and consolidated by Yeltsin.”

In the economic realm, Aron does not deny that the Russian people experienced a worsening of conditions under Yeltsin’s watch, but he expresses hope that the long-term consequences of Yeltsin’s policies will be positive. Economists disagree about the reasons why these policies did not work very well. Those of a left-wing leaning blame Yeltsin’s early attempt to institute free-market principles in a rapid “shock therapy,” following the capitalistic theories of Egor Gaidar. They argue that the rapid end to price controls and the privatization program resulted in hyperinflation and wiped out much of the country’s savings. Given the heritage of the Soviet welfare state, most Russians were not prepared to see one-third of the population relegated below the poverty level while a minority became fabulously wealthy. By late 1992, Yeltsin reverted to deficit financing and many Soviet-age regulations under the leadership of Viktor Chernomyrdin. Proponents of the free-market model criticize Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin for not continuing Gadar’s policies, and they insist that such policies have succeeded in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Regardless of which view is correct, Yeltsin cannot avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of his decisions as president.

Aron classifies Yeltsin as an “authoritarian democrat,” and he argues that Yeltsin’s willingness to stretch his legal powers was in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Charles de Gaulle. Like these two leaders, Yeltsin sometimes went beyond the formal limits of his constitutional authority, as when he dissolved the parliament during the crisis of 1993. Aron argues, nevertheless, that he never “crossed the line” to become a dictator, and that he always yielded to the decisions of the constitutional court. In defending Yeltsin’s actions during the 1993 conflict with the parliament, Aron is no doubt correct in observing that his opponents were the first to resort to violence and that their triumph would have diminished the prospects for constitutional democracy. Yeltsin, however, appeared to be looking for a fight when he accused his opponents of conducting an “armed fascist-communist mutiny,” and he was excessively quick to order the bombardment and attack on the Russian White House, resulting in at least sixty deaths.

Aron does not try to defend Russia’s conduct in the war against the breakaway province of Chechnya, and he even admits that Yeltsin prosecuted the war “incompetently, with appalling brutality, and in complete disregard of his country’s public opinion.” Perhaps 100,000 people died from the relentless bombing attacks, and hundreds of thousands of civilians became refugees. Although it is important to recognize that Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin’s behavior in the conflict appeared reminiscent of Russia’s imperial past. If Yeltsin was wise to agree to most of the Chechen demands in the peace treaty of 1997, he should have sought a compromise while his position was stronger. Clearly Aron engages in wishful thinking when he praises the peace treaty for resolving the issue of Chechen sovereignty.

Aron often refers to the recurring health problems of the Russian president. It is very difficult to keep up with the times that he was incapacitated and hospitalized because of cardiovascular problems of one kind or another, often accompanied by bouts of serious depression. Also, Aron admits that by 1994 Yeltsin’s drinking was becoming “embarrassing” and was interfering with his work. Given the perilous state of Yeltsin’s health when the election of 1996 occurred, it is likely that his place in history would shine brighter if he had declined to run for a second term. If he had retired at that time, perhaps the Russian government would have benefited from a healthier and more sober president.

Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life provides a great deal of information and insight into one of the most significant developments of the end of the twentieth century: the termination of the Soviet Union and the birth of a democratic, capitalistic Russia. Indeed, some readers will find the book more detailed than they would like, especially the portions dealing with Yeltsin’s middle years in Sverdlovsk. Nonetheless, it is not only a book that can be read from beginning to end but also a book that is a useful reference tool for looking up specific topics relating to contemporary Russian history.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1076.

Library Journal 125 (February 15, 2000): 173.

The Nation 270 (March 27, 2000): 25.

The New York Times, December 22, 1999, p. A27.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 19, 2000): 4.

Publishers Weekly 247 (March 6, 2000): 93.

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