Without fully knowing what that little Kim Jong-Un gets up to when he rattles around his palace after dark, our man Boris Yeltsin may well have been the last world leader to sit at a desk with a live nuclear briefcase wondering whether to stick or twist. We all make decisions. We make decisions every day. Socks or no socks, Latte or Frappuccino, smile at the boss or tell the truth; yet no decision is up there with mulling the pros and cons of firing a nuclear warhead on the United States of America, a country that spends more on its military than pretty much everyone else in the world put together. Yet how did Boris Yeltsin get to that sweaty state, sitting at a desk with a row of generals quietly muttering he man up?
Boris Yeltsin was born in a fairly remote place in Russia. Russia is a massive country and so does a good line in remote villages. Butka, in the Talitsky District was one such village. The Yeltsin family soon upped sticks and moved though, after the state, as was their way back in the 1930s, confiscated the entire harvest from all of the peasants in Bukta. It was an act that did sit well with Boris’ father and so he moved the family to Kazan, and found work on a construction site. Kazan lies at the confluence of the mighty Volga and Kazanka Rivers and would later, much later in fact, host the 2014 World Fencing Championship. “On guard!”. Mmm, anyway, Kazanka is also due to host the World Cup in 2018, if the lawyers fail to nail the corruption charges on the grubby FIFA high command, so good news for the residents of Kazanka. Not that Boris Yeltsin a resident anymore. He died in 2007, but more on that later.
As a student, Yeltsin was fond of sports. He liked to ski, play volleyball, box and wrestle. One day, with no shopping mall to loiter in, he and some friends broke into a Red Army supply depot and pinched a couple of grenades and, in a lesson to all naughty boys, blew the finger and thumb off his left hand trying to disassemble them. Perhaps a lesson for us all. Still, it didn’t stop the young Yeltsin graduating from the Ural Polytechnic Institute with a degree in construction. He wrote a detailed paper on the ‘Construction of a mine shaft’ which would have provided no end of small talk later on in life. A career in construction clearly beckoned and by 1975, having joined the Communist party – much like every other resident who didn’t fancy time in the gulag – he had risen to the post of Secretary of the regional committee in charge of industrial development for Sverdlovsk.
It was during his time in Sverdlovsk that Yeltsin first rubbed shoulders with the Soviet power structure and caught the eye of HQ. For various achievements including toeing the line, not rocking the boat and keeping the head down, he was awarded the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest medal. Shortly afterwards the velvet curtain was drawn back and he was welcomed into the Central Committee of the Communist Party. With Mikhail Gorbachev running hot on a ticket of domestic reform in an attempt to revive a ragged Soviet economy, Yeltsin got the call to become effectively mayor of Moscow. The Politburo, the highest policy making government authority in the land, duly followed with Gorbachev packing his team with young, energetic doers. Aside from the heady cocktail of power and access to the typing pool, a perk of a seat at the big table, was a country house or dacha. It was all a long way from Bukta.
Yeltsin took to politics like a pro, firing and reshuffling his staff regularly, and scored points with the downtrodden Muscovites by skewering corrupt officials. He set himself up as a man of the people, taking public transport to work, and pushed a hard, reformist angle. Yet, the shark pool of politics would soon turn red. Yeltsin fell out with Gorbachev, challenging his slow pace of reform, locking horns with authority in a manner not seen since the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s efforts back in the 1920s. That Trotsky was later assassinated didn’t seems to put the big man off. Power took no prisoners. Very soon though, Yeltsin was fired.
Yet like all great politicians he bounced back, a reputation as a rebel fuelling his popularity amongst the unwashed. It was at this point that the Soviet power structure got all a bit messy but suffice to say Yeltsin roared back lambasting the ‘dictatorship of the centre’. Inevitably there was a coup. Government members opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms decided to take matters into their own hands. However, Yeltsin, atop a turret of a tank in Moscow, denounced the coup to wild, popular acclaim. The winds changed. The military were quick to think that whilst they had guns, they had backed the wrong horse and quickly defected. The coup was crushed and Gorbachev was back in. Yeltsin was hailed as a hero.
The coup though, was the end of Gorbachev’s political career and effectively marked the start of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was on the up, taking control of government ministries, and strutting about like a poodle at Crufts. He banned all Communist party activity on Russian soil. Along with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus, he then announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States in its place. Cue some photos of awkward looking men in suits. Gorbachev knew the game was up. He resigned and the Soviet Union was no more.
Yeltsin then set about building a massive bonfire of anything and everything to do with socialism. Capitalism was what he wanted, problems are what he got. GDP fell 50% and hyperinflation wiped out many nest eggs. Tens of millions of Russians were sunk into poverty. Yeltsin’s efforts were described as “economic genocide”. It all got a bit sticky after that in the face of widespread social unrest. Violence flourished, so too corruption. It got so bad, at one point Yeltsin even ordered tanks to bomb his own parliament building. Yeltsin pushed through the privatisation of state enterprises to win the support for his political reforms. Scurrilous and savvy businessmen, then hoovered up the freebies through a variety of shady means, and so the age of the oligarch was born, a coterie of ruthless financiers gifted Russia’s enormous natural wealth on a gilt edged plate. Russia’s privatisation of state assets went down as arguably one of the greatest heists in living history. The support of the oligarchs though, was enough for Yeltsin to win a second term in office which, as you might imagine, was not without a frequent squall. In 1999 he fired his entire cabinet; for the fourth time. And cue the rise of one Vladimir Putin.
Plagued by ill health and rumours of his taste for a mini-bar, Yeltsin would resign in December 1999. His approval rating when he left office was just 2%, which might make Tony Blair feel a bit better about life as he wanders his garden dead heading roses. Yeltsin kept a low profile after exiting public life and died from heart failure, as you might imagine after all that stress, in April 2007.
“We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. Freedom is like that. It’s like air. When you have it, you don’t notice it.” BY mulling life on the patio.
….and on leaving office:
“I want to ask for your forgiveness, that many of our dreams didn’t come true. That what seemed to us to be simple turned out painfully difficult. I ask forgiveness for the fact that I didn’t justify some of the hopes of those people who believed that with one stroke, one burst, one sign we could jump from the grey, stagnant, totalitarian past to a bright, rich, civilized future. I myself believed this. One burst was not enough… but I want you to know – I’ve never said this, today it’s important for me to tell you: the pain of every one of you, I feel in myself, in my heart… in saying farewell, I want to say to every one of you: be happy. You deserve happiness. You deserve happiness, and peace.”
Tough business politics.