NO sight in the Russian capital evokes the powerful continuity of history in this vast land more than the Kremlin. From behind its crenelated brick walls, czars and Communist Party general secretaries have ruled, aloof and cloaked from the Russian people.
Into this fortress has come Boris Yeltsin, a brash populist from beyond the Ural Mountains who has made a career of his disarming directness and his impulse to smash through walls. From within the ranks of the Communist Party he assailed privilege and arrogance, for which he was ultimately ousted from the leadership, only to stage a remarkable comeback as the first elected leader of Russia.
But ever since the silver-haired Siberian settled into the Kremlin, he has sunk slowly behind its formidable walls, disappearing from view. He, too, has become a distant ruler, traveling in convoys of limousines, appearing in public more and more infrequently.
Yeltsin's recently published memoir of his still-unfinished years in power, entitled in the English edition ``The Struggle for Russia,'' bears painful testimony to this reality. The book is imbued with a sense of isolation, tinged with the saddened awareness that the vast popularity he once enjoyed has disappeared under the rising tide of Russian troubles from inflation to crime.
``The main problem with being president is the constant sense that you are inside a glass bowl for everyone to see, or in a kind of barometric chamber with an artificial atmosphere where you must stay all the time,'' Yeltsin writes. ``Someone is always trying to take you by the arm, to suggest something, to make things comfortable, more comfortable, and still more comfortable. A kind of psychological numbness sets in....''
This book, a successor to a similar 1990 memoir of his struggle within the Communist Party, ``Against the Grain,'' is a worthy attempt to restore his image as an honest and straightforward man of the provinces. It is a very frank account of everything from his family relations to his opinion of key aides and personalities in Russian political life.
Yeltsin's main aim is to explain his behavior at certain momentous and controversial moments of the past three years: the attempted hard-line Communist coup in August 1991; the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991; the launching of radical market reforms in early 1992; and the political struggles that led to Yeltsin's ordering tanks to shell the parliament building on Oct. 4, 1993.
As a reporter who witnessed all these events, I find Yeltsin's account does not fundamentally change our understanding of what happened, but it is rich in details, revealing inner processes reporters usually had to guess at.
The first third of the book takes us through the collapse of the Soviet Union. This period marks the conclusion of the bitter rivalry between Yeltsin and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, one that grew as the Soviet leader fell increasingly under the sway of Communist Party hard-liners.
Yeltsin presents the decision to dissolve the Soviet Union, made in early December in the Belovezhsky forest with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine, as inevitable. ``Perhaps I did not completely fathom the prospects opening up before me,'' he writes about that moment, ``but I felt in my heart that such major decisions had to be taken easily.''
Once he stood alone in the Kremlin, the burdens of Yeltsin's political role and his decisions began to visibly, even physically, wear him down. He writes of insomnia, of bouts of depression that followed his cavalry charges at opponents, and of being assailed by self-doubts.
In launching ``shock therapy,'' the program of radical market reforms that began in January 1992 when state control over most prices was ended, Yeltsin freely admits he relied less on his own judgment than on his trust in two men - his close aide Gennady Burbulis and the brash, confident young economist Yegor Gaidar. Only three months into this mammoth undertaking, Yeltsin was having second thoughts.
Faced with a political revolt in parliament, he began to back off by April - a pattern of advances and retreats on the path of reform that was repeated over and over. By December 1992, Burbulis and Gaidar were gone, sacrificed for the unrealized hope of political peace. Their place was taken by now-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a longtime associate of Yeltsin's in the ranks of the Communist Party.
Ultimately these concessions could not calm the Russian parliament, which was increasingly under the sway of Communists and militant Russian nationalists. Yeltsin admits to a series of mistakes in his dealings with them, most importantly his failure to use the post-coup momentum to call new elections and pass a new constitution. But his portrayal of the parliament as ceaselessly obstructionist ignores key moments: The same body gave Yeltsin its backing, electing him parliament chairman in May 1990 and voting him vast emergency powers in December 1991 after he had been elected president that summer.
But if this book has any single purpose, it is to defend the decision to dissolve parliament and use force to dislodge it from the Russian White House. Here Yeltsin says for the first time that what he did was ``unlawful.'' But he also portrays his opponents as men bent on a violent seizure of power for extremist ends, in which the use of force was unfortunate but necessary.
This book presents a behind-the-scenes account of the two days -
October 3-4 - that the world watched on television. There is rich material here, including detailed descriptions of how all the players reacted and acted, how the KGB balked and the Army hesitated, and how key aides stood.
In the end, the book is self-serving, but it inspires sympathy for Yeltsin's leadership, however flawed, of Russia's political revolution.