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Jack Matlock on Boris Yeltsin--NYTimes 4/24/07

Mr. Yeltsin, of course, had a reputation as a heavy drinker, but I never
saw him drunk. He seemed more like a man who liked to drink than one who
had to. He was also notorious for periods of illness; every few months
he would disappear from the public for a week or two, only to reappear,
seemingly as fit as ever. I recall attending a wedding reception for one
of his associates just a few weeks after he was reported to have had
serious back surgery — he came to the party in high spirits and danced
with every woman present. The flip side of his sometimes comical nature
was a resiliency that was remarkable even for a politician.

April 24, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor


 Boris Yeltsin, the Early Years

By JACK F. MATLOCK Jr.

I MET Boris Yeltsin shortly after I arrived in Moscow as the United
States ambassador in April 1987. He was then the head of the Communist
Party organization in Moscow, and while he would become a household name
around the world within five years, at the time few outside the Soviet
Union had heard of him.

Now, as we consider him in death, two very different pictures are
emerging: in one he is the embodiment of the most important democratic
revolution of the last half-century, and in the other he is a bumbling
president who presided over Russia’s turbulent, still incomplete
transition out of the Soviet era. But I think that to truly understand
the man — and the events he set in motion — it helps to look back to
that period just before he burst onto the global political scene.

Back then, Mr. Yeltsin would sometimes take the subway to work instead
of his chauffeur-driven limousine, and he would show up from time to
time at factories and stores to chat with the workers. If the shelves
were bare in a shop (as they often were), he would barge into the
storeroom, and if he found that the manager was hoarding articles to
sell on the black market, he would fire the man on the spot. He quickly
became a public legend as a politician of the people who was serious
about changing things at the personal level.

Then in November 1987, he was suddenly expelled from the Communist Party
leadership after complaining that reforms were not moving fast enough.
His opponents’ mistake, however, was to allow him to remain in Moscow in
a politically unimportant position, where he plotted his return from the
wilderness.

Having found him to be one of the most objective observers of Soviet
policy, I continued to call on him after his fall; occasionally my wife
and I would have him and his wife, Raina, for a private dinner. This
paid great dividends: after he catapulted to national prominence by
gaining a seat (with nearly 90 percent of the vote in a Moscow district)
in the new Congress of People’s Deputies in the elections of 1989, he
remembered that I had paid attention to him when others had dropped him,
and I always had ready access thereafter.

Mr. Yeltsin, of course, had a reputation as a heavy drinker, but I never
saw him drunk. He seemed more like a man who liked to drink than one who
had to. He was also notorious for periods of illness; every few months
he would disappear from the public for a week or two, only to reappear,
seemingly as fit as ever. I recall attending a wedding reception for one
of his associates just a few weeks after he was reported to have had
serious back surgery — he came to the party in high spirits and danced
with every woman present. The flip side of his sometimes comical nature
was a resiliency that was remarkable even for a politician.

He also had a keen sense of the political value of theatrical gestures —
something most of his Communist colleagues lacked. Famously, he
announced his resignation from the Communist Party in July 1990 not by
calling a press conference but by demonstratively walking out of a party
conference in full view of the television cameras.

Yet this decision may have been harder for him than it looked. Just days
before he did it, I asked him over dinner whether rumors that he was
going to leave the party were true. He said he was considering it, but
had not decided. Raina then leaned over and explained to me that such a
decision was hard for someone from outside the Communist system to
understand: “When your whole life is bound up in an organization, it is
very hard to break the tie.”

Mr. Yeltsin was often impulsive, and later in his presidency this led to
the many gaffes and errant decisions his obituaries will catalog. But in
those early days, his instincts were usually correct and, fortunately,
led him to give vigorous support to most American policies.

For example, in January 1991, on the evening of a bloody attack by
Soviet forces on the television tower in Vilnius, Lithuania, we both
attended a theatrical performance in Moscow that had been organized to
support the independence movements in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
When he saw my wife and me, he had his security guard move over and
invited us to sit beside him so we could chat. Soon most eyes in the
audience seemed to be on us rather than on the performance on the stage.

What we said was of little importance — the symbolism was what he
needed: he was increasingly leading the opposition to Mikhail Gorbachev
and wanted to show that he had an easy relationship with the American
ambassador. Though I could hardly have refused his invitation to join
him, I, too, had a political motive, since the United States was trying
to deter a crackdown on the Baltic independence movements.

The next morning, Mr. Yeltsin, acting as chairman of the Russian
Republic’s Supreme Soviet (he had not yet been elected president),
instructed Russian soldiers in the Soviet Army to refuse orders to act
against the Baltic independence movements. This was an illegal order, of
course, since he had no authority over the army — strictly speaking, he
could have been accused of treason — but it showed where his heart was.

Boris Yeltsin left his mark on history in many ways, not all of them
what he would have wished for. But he was much more than the colorful,
erratic drunk of popular legend. Even when he was inspecting storerooms,
he was preparing, perhaps, for his starring role in the creation of a
Russia independent of the Soviet Union. I only wish his successors would
be as firm as he was in respecting the independence of the countries
that were once a part of the Soviet empire.

Jack F. Matlock Jr., a professor of international and public affairs at
Columbia, was the United States ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987
to 1991.



Copyright 2007
<http://www.nytimes.com/ref/membercenter/help/copyright.html> The New
York Times Company <http://www.nytco.com/>
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