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Book Review: “Midnight Diaries” by Boris Yeltsin

Reviewied by Michael Specter

By the last days of the last millennium, there was very little left that Boris Yeltsin could do to astonish the people of Russia. He had embraced more than a half-dozen prime ministers and scores of senior aides during his decade of power — only to toss them one by one from the Kremlin bell tower. In 1991, when he stood on the top of a tank to stare down a coup, his impulsiveness was heroic. Two years later, when he shelled a mutinous parliament into submission, it still seemed understandable.

Things got more complicated after that: Yeltsin waged a long war in Chechnya that brought honor to no one and death to tens of thousands. His health was so bad, and he was absent at so many critical moments — including at the height of his 1996 presidential campaign against his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov — that his aides were caught doctoring an old video to present to the press as new.

By the end of his tenure, Yeltsin's speeches, once stirring, no longer meant a thing. He frequently confused major countries and in one much-noticed address he referred to Japan as a nuclear power. When he warned Bill Clinton, in 1998, that American aggression against Iraq could start a world war, State Department officials actually laughed at a comment that once would have frozen them, and half the world, in fear.

Yet, last December, addled by illness, deeply unpopular and six months short of retirement, Yeltsin had one big card left, and, as he writes in ''Midnight Diaries,'' the third volume of his autobiography, he was determined to play it. He called his chief of staff and informed him that his annual New Year's speech to the nation, which had already been taped, would have to be shot again on Dec. 31. He didn't tell anyone, not even his wife. Yeltsin's resignation came as a genuine shock, and he says in this book that he did it because ''the new century must begin with a new political era.''

An honorable gesture and possibly even a true statement. Yeltsin also writes, however, that ''it was important not to have any slip-ups or leaks.'' And he leaves no doubt about what would have happened if his surprise had been ruined. ''If the news got out there wouldn't be a resignation,'' Yeltsin writes. If he couldn't go out his way, the new era would simply have to wait.

That is about as candid as Yeltsin gets in ''Midnight Diaries,'' which focuses most specifically on the last few years of his presidency. The earlier volumes, not unlike the young Yeltsin, were vigorous, salty and forthcoming. This one is none of that. Rather, it is a flat and ultimately sad book, written by a man who played an essential, if contradictory, role in the history of the last century.

Yeltsin has always been maddeningly hard to cram into a box: a despot, a drunk, a megalomaniac. Yes. A liberator, a reformer and a visionary. That too. There were astonishing acts of bravery, but also of alcohol-induced buffoonery (such as the ceremony to mark the Russian military withdrawal from Berlin in 1994, when he grabbed a baton and conducted the band).

In this book, Yeltsin says accusations about his drinking were overblown, but he acknowledges that alcohol was ''the only means'' at his disposal to get rid of stress quickly. ''I remember that the weight would lift after a few shot glasses. And in that state of lightness I felt as if I could conduct an orchestra.''

Still, Yeltsin cannot be dismissed. He is the only Russian leader to run for re-election (an election his most conservative advisers urged him to cancel). We take it for granted, but we shouldn't, that Yeltsin retired without a gun in sight. He never turned his back on the free press, and while scholars will debate for decades over his stewardship of the ruinous post-Soviet economy, he believed in market capitalism, and in a freely convertible currency. That's more than we can say for the guys who came before him. A few rich people benefited obscenely; but so did tens of thousands of hard-working young Russians.

Overcoming Communism, peaceful relations with the West, freedom of worship and movement — Yeltsin's legacy should be assured. It is not, however, because what the president stitched together one day he ripped to shreds the next. He might have used this memoir to make a reasoned case for some of his more controversial actions. But there is no reason in ''Midnight Diaries.'' Time and again, Yeltsin shows how his pettiness got the best of him. He has at least a few bad words for nearly every servant who ever toiled in his government. Anatoly B. Chubais, the man most Russians associated with the most painful economic reforms, was controversial in everything he did and too brash in much of it; but he was searingly loyal to his chief. The boss decided ''he was using the new rules of the game as a political club,'' though, and fired him. (Actually, he fired him twice.)

When it was convenient — and it usually was — Yeltsin relied heavily on the murky and problematic banker-industrialist Boris A. Berezovsky. He was one of the president's most powerful allies. Until, that is, he wasn't. ''I never liked Boris Berezovsky, and I still don't like him,'' Yeltsin writes of his longtime associate today. ''I don't like him because of his arrogant tone, his scandalous reputation and because people believe that he has special influence on the Kremlin.'' Those are reasonable objections. One wonders, though, why Yeltsin kept appointing him to the most senior posts in Russia while permitting him to retain control of a giant empire of companies that included the nation's biggest television station and Aeroflot, its national airline.

Yeltsin spent much of his time in office, and spends most of the pages of this book, playing with his power. ''Midnight Diaries'' reads like a sort of Russian retelling of ''The Princess and the Pea.'' It is a book about a good czar named Boris and his desperate attempt to find somebody who could qualify to carry his heavy mantle into the future.

As Yeltsin's longest-serving prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin was the president's most reliable ally. ''All these years he had stood behind me as an exceptionally decent, conscientious and devoted person,'' Yeltsin writes. Still, he had to go. ''Probably at some earlier point, I had not given him the opportunity to blossom as an independent politician. But it was too late to regret it now.'' Yeltsin is far more vicious about Aleksandr I. Lebed, the blustery general who negotiated the end of the first Chechen war and who helped ensure Yeltsin's re-election by joining forces with him in the 1996 runoff against Zyuganov — a fact Yeltsin never mentions. Lebed was simply ''like a little kid, he would stop at nothing,'' Yeltsin says. It is true that Lebed was an immature politician. But it also can be argued that he saved Yeltsin's presidency. About Lebed's critical role in ending the carnage in Chechnya, Yeltsin has nothing to say. But that isn't surprising because he had nothing to say at the time either.

It's fair to argue that the Chechen leaders never truly wanted peace; they certainly didn't know what to do with it when they got it. But Yeltsin's justification of the war is disingenuous. He refers to two years of official savagery as ''military struggles against terrorists, not a war against a people.'' He presents his version of the domino theory — that if Chechnya went, then the Caucasus would go and then on to Siberia and before you know it Russia would be Yugoslavia.

To describe other world leaders, Yeltsin simply assembles cliches. After he resigned, he invited the heads of most of the former Soviet states to his home for a meal of Siberian dumplings. He describes Islam Karimov, the president of the repressive government of Uzbekistan, as ''a subtle man in the Oriental tradition.'' The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, was also there. He said nothing, though, because he possessed ''a modern sensibility with an Oriental caution.'' Emomali Rakhmonov, the leader of Tajikistan, was seated not far away. And, Yeltsin tells us, despite the violence that governs the country Rakhmonov manages to maintain ''his Oriental charm.''

In the end, only Vladimir V. Putin had the will and the resolve Yeltsin sought in a successor. Putin's victory in March was due largely to support for the newest war in Chechnya and the people's desire to see order restored to their government. A former K.G.B. colonel, Putin certainly is orderly. His first year has been consumed with more war on the Chechens, flagrant attacks on the news media and the relentless pursuit of his enemies. For many Russians, Putin has already accomplished the impossible: he has made them miss Boris Yeltsin.

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