‘Yeltsin would have displayed himself in 1937, he would have certainly shot half of the Moscow party organisation to kill’

Leonid Radzikhovsky on how Russia’s future first president returned to power 30 years ago

‘Yeltsin would have displayed himself in 1937, he would have certainly shot half of the Moscow party organisation to kill’
Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky

Boris Yeltsin returned to power 30 years ago, in late May 1990. The ex-party functionary was the leader of democratic forces since 1988, and two years later he chaired the parliament of yet Soviet Russia. Yeltsin’s factor is considered one of the key for the Perestroika period, which, in turn, “turned” 35 years this spring and Realnoe Vremya’s series of interviews is dedicated to. Famous opinion journalist Leonid Radzikhovsky talks about Yeltsin as party apparatchik, politician and person.

“Not intelligence decides everything in politics

Mr Radzikhovsky, wasn’t the transition of nominal communist Boris Yeltsin to the opposition of the Soviet management and Mikhail Gorbachyov an accident or was a coincidence of circumstances? Because Yeltsin didn’t have such plans in 1987, he was a member of the Central Committee, while some time later he became the leader of Soviet opposition. Did the publicity and democratisation play a role or is it rumours about daring rioter Yeltsin that made him the main hope of Soviet people?

It is an interesting question. I would formulate it even this way: “What if hadn’t Yeltsin existed, would there have been all this story the country dived into since 1988?” Yeltsin, without doubt, was a person in his place and played a decisive role both in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the revolution in 1991, and in many other things. Why was his role decisive?

Not intelligence decides everything in politics. Politicians’ decisions, as a rule, are very simple, but one should know how to achieve them, and in this respect, a will and charisma, the ability to say “yes” and “no” decide everything first of all. Only Yeltsin had such qualities in the democratic camp.

Why did only he have them? It is also a separate and interesting question. Perhaps, these qualities were linked with his party duties. Let’s remember that most party secretaries were stupid functionaries, and they also had a will, because you can’t become a boss without it. But they didn’t have charisma, energy, the ability of independent movement, this is why they left their posts peacefully, without noise and dust. Another thing dominated among Yeltsin’s supporters in the democratic environment like Popov, Afanasyev, Sakharov — reflection, good education, some intelligence, but they had neither a will, nor drive, charisma like party functionaries. And if not Yeltsin, who would have chaired all this team? Nobody suited the role of the leader there, unlike the Bolsheviks in 1917. There was simply nobody, emptiness.

Yes, he had charisma, but in what circle? In the circle of the intelligentsia, foreign countries, but foreign countries will probably help us but it will do nothing for us. Gavriil Popov? What could he do? He was a plain chatterbox. Afanasyev? Yes, he is a historian, a sincere and reflecting person, but was he able to organise something, chair something and lead somebody? Gdlyan? Yes, people were well aware of his talents for unravelling real and self-imaginary thieves, but this almost meant nothing for the people.

During visit to Tatarstan, 1994

“If Yeltsin had been said in 1986 he would dissolve the Soviet Union and chair the liberal and bourgeois movement, he would have simply laughed”

The year 1985. According to a recommendation of a member of the Political Bureau Yegor Ligachyov who was responsible for HR, Yeltsin was transferred to the capital and appointed the secretary of the CC in construction first and then the Moscow party leader. What do Yeltsin’s constant conflicts with colleagues in Moscow’s urban committee, his harshness, inflexibility mean? He was a hidden and avid supporter, zealot of changes launched by Gorbachyov or is it just the peculiarities of the character?

Yeltsin wasn’t any zealot of the Perestroika, and strictly speaking, he didn’t have any ideology after he left the CPSU. Yeltsin was a person with a huge will to power and, as I already said, with energy and charisma. What was he famous for as the party secretary in the Urals? He organised the biggest building of the regional committee in all the USSR in Sverdlovsk. While it wasn’t easy, because people did know how to build regional committees.

When he was transferred to Moscow, of course, he became the first Perestroika supporter — his speeches were full of slogans “More Socialism!”, “More Democracy”, so he repeated what Pravda wrote, but a centimetre ahead. And if Yeltsin had been said in 1986 he would dissolve the CPSU, collapse the Soviet Union and chair the liberal and bourgeois movement, he would have simply laughed: “Are you crazy?”

In 1987 when Yeltsin was fired as Mocscow’s party leader, Gavriil Popov wrote an article about him in Moscow News where he called him Trotskyist: this word was still derogatory. It goes without saying that his attitude to Trotskyism was like his attitude to homosexuality, but Popov used this senseless curse that Yeltsin crossed the party’s line and strived for power (though same Trotsky didn’t strive for power, the curse “Trotskyist” was popular in the USSR). While it was considered a crime to strive for power in the USSR. Though if a politician doesn’t strive for power, he resembles a lover who doesn’t want to sleep with a woman. Even now, in 21st-century Russia, it is considered for some unknown reason that a politician must be a eunuch who just sits, pops his eyes out and looks at his lord and, of course, doesn’t strive for power.

During visit to Tatarstan, 1994

Does it turn out that in the CPSU Yeltsin was an opportunist, though he strived for power?

No, Yeltsin wasn’t an opportunist. Some Molchalin is an opportunist who kowtows to the superiors. Of course, Yeltsin could kowtow, but the higher he climbed, the more the feeling of his meaning increased. However, an opportunist is a person without an ideology, and then it is true, Yeltsin didn’t have an ideology, he had no ideology at all!

Sometimes we get to hear that grandfather Yeltsin was bad and made one mistake — he appointed Putin, and if the grandfather were alive... Rubbish! If the grandfather were alive, he would have been very content about Putin and the Putin policy.

Though as people, Yeltsin and Putin are different people, but they are similar people politically: they don’t have any ideology. But Putin and Yeltsin are good populists: they know who to listen to the people, though unrealised but wishes of this people. Also, Yeltsin with Putin are very ardent fighters for power, moreover, the power they love very much.

“He simply rotted there until Gorbachyov made him the second tsarist gift — unfortunately for himself”

Yeltsin’s rise began, in fact, with his fall — with a speech at a plenary session of the Central Committee in 1987 where he expressed his discontent about the performance of some CC secretaries, while society soon created a myth about the leader who began to harshly speak about the state of the people. What was it? Was it the next case of manifestation of Yeltsin’s conflicting character? Wasn’t he going to fight for power at the plenary session that was dedicated to the next jubilee of the October Revolution?

It is still a mysterious story for me. Yeltsin’s speech was his fatal mistake that turned out an unheard triumph. Why was it a fatal mistake? Yeltsin quarrelled with Gorgachyov, Ligachyov submitted a letter of resignation. This hadn’t happened in the party since 1928 when Bukharin handed in a letter of resignation. But Bukharin didn’t resign for personal motives: he didn’t like Stalin’s policy, the destruction of the New Economic Policy and so on. While Yeltsin resigned neither for ideological nor personal reasons. He had very developed intuition. He felt that the times changed, that the CPSU was shaking. And what was absolutely impossible before him just several years earlier (under Brezhnev he had to “eat” such humiliation, that squabbles with Ligachyov were for him just a chocolate cake, and Yeltsin “ate” humiliation because the party was a monolith, and submitting a letter of resignation under Mr Brezhnev meant civil suicide) became possible in 1988.

And Yeltsin’s this act became a trampoline in 1988 — a person fell from the bridge but bumped not into a stone but fell onto the trampoline, jumped so high that he couldn’t even imagine before.

The system was already rocking, there weren’t leaders except for Yeltsin to fight it, while the people felt the firm bone and heavy anger like Vysotsky sang, and the Ural giant with big bureaucratic experience with charisma of a boss turned out popular among the people.

If you remember, the slogan of the famous rebel in Kroonstad in 1921 was “For Soviets without Communists!”. This slogan described the circle and rolled to the country in the same way in the middle of 1990: Yeltsin, who was already a former communist, turned out for Soviets without communists.

On the one hand, everything could have been different. Yeltsin’s obviously had a suicidal mania — together with the huge will of power and huge desire to live. By the way, his alcoholism is also a manifestation of suicidal tendencies. But, on the other hand, the system was already collapsing. It began to collapse with the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that knocked Gorbachyov out because he didn’t manage to be either with Armenia or Azerbaijan. When the country’s leader can do nothing but just stupidly smiles, it is a collapse of the state. Then it was the Baltic states, Georgia — the ends were falling off.

At Sabantuy in Kazan, 1996

Can we anyway think that the myth about Yeltsin as rioter against the unfairness of the system played a bigger role than intuition? Because if not the myth, Yeltsin would probably have kept working in this system with a new position from Gorbachyov — vice chairman of the State Committee for Construction in the Soviet Union.

Gorbachyov really thought he was quits with Yeltsin. But having given him even an insignificant post, he saved Yeltsin: as Gorbachyov destroyed the previous system of power, he worked for Yeltsin. This is why the people created a myth about Yeltsin who had nothing to do with reality.

I remember an apocryphal text of Yeltsin’s speech at the CC plenary session wandering in Moscow. According to the most stupid Soviet tradition, this speech wasn’t published, of course. If it had been published, this would have landed a terrible blow on Yeltsin because it was a senseless speech, a set of incoherent phrases that had nothing but mumbling. But the apocryphal text wandering in Moscow was a sum of people’s expectations of that Perestroika, the sum of the discontent, complaints about Gorbachyov, and all this was beautifully interpreted and put into Yeltsin’s mouth who neither said nor thought anything similar. Many read this “speech” — I remember two old female cloakroom workers handed them over to each other thievishly in the Lenin Library. I familiarised with it there, in fact. Yeltsin allegedly asked a question in the text: “Why should a 70-year-old pensioner feed with cards? Could Mr Ligachyov explain this to me?”

All this quickly reached Yeltsin, and his further work was quite simple: he had to approach to this text, “keep up with” the text in reality. Yeltsin understood that the people said to him: “Do what you say”, and he began to do it.

Gorbachyov already did all the work for Yeltsin — not Yeltsin but Gorbachyov gave way, not Yeltsin destroyed the system but the system destroyed itself. Yeltsin’s actions from 1987 to 1990 are Gorbachyov’s actions. The nomenclature of the CPSU lost a position after position, and democrats occupied these positions, so to speak, and Yeltsin was connected with these actions like Lenin was with the February Revolution, about which he learnt in Zurich but didn’t believe. And Yeltsin was the same, he saw the CPSU giving up one position, then another, while he didn’t enter there. But Yeltsin was chosen at the 19th party conference where Gorbachyov announced the intention to change the management system and hold alternative elections to the parliament of the country for the first time in the USSR, which was to be the supreme body of power of the country. And Yeltsin gave a speech there that had an opaque reflection of that speech at the plenary session the people attributed him to — nothing interesting and sensational. But the people attributed huge meanings to this speech because there was popular love for Yeltsin.

Another thing began in 1990. Here Yeltsin already began to fight for power, which was his favourite game, and he became not the object but subject of politics having taken the initiative.

It didn’t even come to Yeltsin’s mind in 1989 he would be the chairman of the Supreme Council of Russia. He was elected the people’s deputy of the USSR with a triumph but gave a babbled and weak speech at the Congress of People’s Deputies. Former weightlifter Yury Vlasov, Sakharov, Popov, Sobchak gave powerful speeches then, and compared to them, Yeltsin simply got lost and didn’t know what he should do.

During visit to Tatarstan, 1994

Then, in 1989, he was appointed as chairman of the Supreme Council’s Committee for Construction, and he simply rotten there until Gorbachyov made him the second tsarist gift — unfortunately for himself and fortunately for Yeltsin. It was decided to hold elections of the Congress of People’s Deputies of Russia, and it was a catastrophe for Gorbachyov. Having announced alternative elections of the USSR people’s deputies, Gorbachyov broke the right foot, but this seemed little to him, he was carried away and decided to break his vertebra. Yeltsin understood what was going on, joined the fight and began to fight. He already began a real political fight in 1990, not just was on the crest of the wave. Yeltsin precisely fought for the right to become the chairman of the Supreme Council of the RSFSR, there were three rounds, and Yeltsin won.

One could fight in different ways, in different situations, in different places. When Yeltsin chaired Moscow, he also fought. I wouldn’t say he did something beneficial for Moscow (perhaps besides the City Day and food fairs). The fight against the Moscow party apparatus was the main thing he dealt with: he changed secretaries of regional committees three times. What did his fight with Ligachyov begin with? Ligachyov chaired the organising department of the CC, and dismissed secretaries of regional committees rushed to Ligachyov to complain. And he was furious: “Boris, what are you doing? It isn’t 1937!” While there were cases when people killed themselves because of Yeltsin’s actions. If Yeltsin had been sent to 1937, he would have displayed himself. He would have certainly shot half of the Moscow party organisation to kill unless he was shot himself.

In a word, all our life is a fight, and Yeltsin was ready to fight and contend. He didn’t understand what to fight for, but it was his environmental, his nature, his role.

And if we go back to 1990, we will see that Gorbachyov’s competition of stupidities went on, and Yeltsin’s task as chairman of the Supreme Council was one — to collapse the Soviet Union, CPSU, KGB, to collapse everything Yeltsin, the previous executive party functionary, strengthened and built throughout his previous life as much as he could.

By Sergey Kochnev. Photo: Mikhail Kozlovsky