A too early appraisal of Russia's first president

YELTSIN: A REVOLUTIONARY LIFE By Leon Aron St. Martin's Press 908 pp., $35

With the resignation of Boris Yeltsin not even three months old, scholars are already arguing over the place he will hold in history as post-Soviet Russia's first president.

Was he a hero who led Russia from its totalitarian past? Or did he squander a one-time chance to build new institutions? Were his Western reforms obstructed by Communist hardliners or his own character - attraction to crises, inability to compromise with opponents?

The consensus emerging so far is that Yeltsin must shoulder much of the blame for the shortcomings of his nine-year reign. He was at his best as a rebellious destroyer of the old order. But once in power, he lacked the vision to save Russia from power abuse and corruption.

Into the debate has leapt Leon Aron, a respected Russia watcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, who bills his biography as "definitive." But despite impressive research, the book sadly borders on hagiography.

While admitting that Yeltsin is "a study in contradiction," Aron underestimates how far the president went to retain power. The author is too forgiving, concluding that Yeltsin "secured a modicum of legitimacy, acceptance and stability for a regime that undertook one of history's most extensive and most rapid economic modernizations."

Aron is best in the full swing of his narrative. With a cinemagraphic eye, he charts Yeltsin's humble beginnings in a hut, his challenge to the Soviet system, and his later isolation in the Kremlin. The author vividly captures Yeltsin's instinctual flair for symbolism - defying coup plotters atop a tank and storming parliament to unseat his enemies.

But Aron's admiration clouds his judgement. He goes so far as to liken Yeltsin to Czar Alexander I, because the former freed serfs and unravelled 400 years of imperial expansion. Like many Westerners, Aron pardons Yeltsin's shortcomings simply because he was accommodating to capitalism and NATO.

For example, while lauding Yeltsin's introduction of trial by jury and free speech, the biographer underplays how much groundwork was laid by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Aron skirts around the damaging side of privatizations, which enriched a tiny elite while most Russians grew poorer. He extols the creation of a middle class, neglecting to mention its demise in the 1998-99 financial crisis. The writer praises Yeltsin for a functioning parliament and judiciary, without detailing the sweeping presidential powers in Yeltsin's Constitution.

Most galling is when Aron commends Yeltsin for responsibly ending the 1994-96 Chechen war in response to negative public opinion. But what about this current second campaign, which Yeltsin cynically began in electoral self-interest?

A truer picture might have emerged with more first-hand material. There is a curious lack of access to Yeltsin and his intimates for a biography purporting to be conclusive.

Another failing is the rushed summing up. Aron is most authoritative writing about Yeltsin's early heroic years. The disastrous last two - when the oft-drunk president rarely left his sickbed, inexplicably fired three prime ministers, and became obsessed with his own security - read like a hurried postscript.

Aron rightly notes that Yeltsin resisted making nationalism a plank of unity. But, perhaps because the book was published too early, it does not explore the rise of nationalism over the past year, which was the direct result of Yeltsin's erratic governing.

Yeltsin's most lasting legacy may be his final act - resigning early to spite his enemies and installing as successor the hawkish Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin has in his brief tenure as acting president eroded Yeltsin's strongest achievement - civil liberties. Authoritarianism, in the form of Putin, may well be the gift to Russia Yeltsin leaves behind.

* Judith Matloff is the Monitor's Moscow correspondent.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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