Capturing Deeds and Demons of Man Who Defied Mikhail Gorbachev

By Beichman, Arnold | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

Capturing Deeds and Demons of Man Who Defied Mikhail Gorbachev


Beichman, Arnold, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Sidney Hook's book, "The Hero in History," suggested two categories of heroes - the eventful man and the event-making man. The Dutch boy who poked his finger into a leak in the dike was brave; he fits the "eventful" category because anybody could have done it. The "event-making" man is somebody like Napoleon, Oliver Cromwell, V.I. Lenin, men who by force of personality, will and intelligence changed the course of history. If Lenin had been run over by a St. Petersburg streetcar there could not have been the kind of 1917 Revolution he created because he was irreplaceable.

Is Boris Yeltsin "eventful" or "event-making"? With that question I began my reading of Sidney Aron's superb biography, "Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life."

I rarely start by reading the last chapter first. In this case, I made an exception because I was eager to learn the author's assessment of Mr. Yeltsin's leadership and how he might fit Mr. Hook's hero categories. Leon Aron, Moscow-born 46 years ago, currently director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is one of the most knowledgeable students of his native land. And it shows: for scholars, a 63-page bibliography, 93 pages of footnotes, glossary, chronology; for informed readers, an agreeably written book.

But Mr. Aron's ambitious biography raises troubling questions: Is the author being overly optimistic about Russia, a country still without a true rule of law? Is he too adulatory about Mr. Yeltsin?

About Mr. Yeltsin's courage in defying Mikhail Gorbachev at the height of the Communist leader's power, there is no question. When Mr. Yeltsin began to muscle in on Mr. Gorbachev's territory, he did it with skill and daring despite not only the hostility of Mr. Gorbachev, the Party machine and the KGB but also the hostility of Mr. Gorbachev's ally, the Bush administration, which mistrusted Mr. Yeltsin and which, in its stubborn ignorance, was deeply committed to Mr. Gorbachev. One of the most amusing chapters is the description of Mr. Yeltsin's first visit in September 1989 to the White House during the Bush occupancy.

Mr. Aron's verdict about Mr. Yeltsin, who ended Russian imperialism, perhaps only for the time being, is not over-exaggerated: "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."

To which I would add another Yeltsin achievement: For the first time in 73 years, a Russian leader could predict his successor because there was for the first time in the history of Russia a competitive election for chief of state. …

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