Study of the career of the bibulous Russian president, who, for all his antics, turns out to have been reasonably good at his job.
So suggests Colton (Government and Russian Studies/Harvard Univ.), who considers Yeltsin’s life in parallel with that of sometime ally but mostly rival Mikhail Gorbachev. Both were outsiders from the provinces, both from families that had troubles with the communist regime. In Yeltsin’s case, his kulak grandparents and parents were forced from their property and sent to Siberia, where young Boris grew up as a rebel with a talent for lifting hand grenades from the local arsenal. He settled down as a teenager, notable on the Siberian frontier for not using alcohol or tobacco, gambling or swearing. Yeltsin entered the government ranks as a construction overseer and planner, known for his efficiency in building apartments for the workers (with one complex in Sverdlovsk going up in only five days and thus establishing his fame). As he rose in power, his responsibilities came to include forestry and paper milling, important sectors in the regional economy. He also emerged as a bookish sort, amassing a library of 6,000 volumes of serious literature, some of it, apparently, concerning the economics of free marketers in the West. With the perestroika and glasnost of the 1980s and ’90s, Yeltsin became ever more of a champion of a sort of moderated free-enterprise system, and when he came to the presidency he put several schemes for devolution in place. Though his tenure from 1991 to 1999 was marked by plenty of controversies—and though he seems to have brokered the rise of Vladimir Putin, the current and none-too-democratic Russian president—Yeltsin earns good marks in Colton’s account for his demonopolizing market reforms, political judgment that “repeatedly showed itself to be superior to that of his adversaries” and his certainty that “people power, as channeled in competitive elections, would trump administrative power and build legitimacy.”
A solid and sympathetic portrait of a leader misunderstood and underestimated in the West.