In This Review

The Struggle for Russia
The Struggle for Russia
By Boris Yeltsin
Times Books, 1994, 316 pp.

Yeltsin gives us a surprisingly informative and revealing look into his world, from the dramatic, failed coup d'etat of August 1991 to the considerably more violent confrontation with the Russian parliament in October 1993. Unlike the uninteresting, transparently self-serving pabulum sitting leaders often publish, including Gorbachev's account of the same August 1991 events, Yeltsin adds greatly to our knowledge of these years, particularly his personal calculations, his relations with a host of key players, and his insider's insight into the events themselves.

The book deals primarily with four subjects: the August putsch; Yeltsin's decision to embrace Yegor Gaidar and his radical reforms; the deepening conflict with parliament, its speaker, and his own vice president; and the decision to suspend parliament and its bloody sequel. In his version of what happened in August 1991, no fundamentally new information comes out, for this is by now well-told history. However, the additional detail is interesting, and his analysis of the putschists and the reason their plot failed is shrewd. The book's real value derives from his account of the choices he made after Russian independence: his selection of Gaidar to head the economic reform effort, the politics that began to swirl around these choices, and the behind-the-scenes action in the growing presidential-parliamentary crisis.

He does not admit in so many words that he mishandled the October confrontation with parliament, but the outcome clearly troubles his conscience. He writes that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a historic mishap, but he lays blame for the collapse on the shoulders of those who schemed so foolishly in August. In doing so, he offers useful material on his negotiations with Gorbachev and other leaders in the spring and summer of 1991.

However, not only does Yeltsin shed light on important developments in Russia's first two years of independence, the style of the book and the arguments it contains reveal a good deal about the man himself. His lapses, none of them particularly cynical; his self-perspective, at points self-justifying and at others sharply self-critical; his judgment of others, generous toward foes, frank toward friends -- all reinforce the impression of an earthy, stoic, physically strong, but rather emotionally fragile person.