Struggling with a stagnating economy and plummeting popularity, Boris Yeltsin said in a recently published memoir that he found “the weight would lift after a few shot glasses.” Presumably, those glasses were generously sized, given some of Mr. Yeltsin’s more baffling behavior while in office. Despite Mr. Yeltsin’s admitted penchant for alcohol, though, the former Russian president manages to ascribe coherent, if somewhat Byzantine, explanations for some of his more bewildering decisions.
In “Midnight Diaries,” Mr. Yeltsin is most revealing when discussing his anointed successor, Vladimir Putin. Immediately after Mr. Putin was appointed acting president on Dec. 31, he guaranteed Mr. Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. Mr. Yeltsin maintains in his book that he didn’t trade the presidency for any such promise. Yet in describing what he most admired in Russia’s current president, Mr. Yeltsin makes clear he chose Mr. Putin to protect him and his inner circle.
When St. Petersburg’s former mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was under criminal investigation in 1998, Mr. Putin made arrangements that allowed him to escape the country and prosecution. Mr. Putin launched this rescue of Mr. Sobchak without Mr. Yeltsin’s knowledge, but when he learned what Mr. Putin had managed, Mr. Yeltsin said he felt a “profound sense of respect and gratitude toward him.” Mr. Putin’s willingness to flout a legitimate legal inquiry of a government official obviously impressed Mr. Yeltsin and would come to serve him quite well. When looking for a successor Mr. Yeltsin mused, “Who will realistically stand behind me? Then I understood Putin.” Indeed.
Mr. Yeltsin also goes on to recount why he arranged such a dizzying procession of prime ministers towards the end of his tenure. His explanation could have been easily ripped from a Cold War thriller. He appointed Sergei V. Stepashin, Mr. Yeltsin explains, as a decoy prime minister for three months to prevent Yevgeny M. Primakov, the outgoing prime minister, from launching a campaign against him. This scheming was necessary because Mr. Primakov wasn’t fond of Mr. Putin.
This may well be true, but Mr. Yeltsin fails to recognize Mr. Putin’s systematic attack on press freedoms and his efforts to centralize federal authority. In addition, he fails to confront the carnage in Chechnya and the growing complexity of his country’s military mission there.
Rather pathetically, the former president seemed to be searching for affirmation in his memoir. He said he spotted tears in the eyes of his security chiefs and ministers as they watched the speech he gave before stepping down. And Mr. Yeltsin does sum up his main accomplishments with refreshing humility. “I have something to be proud about as president,” he recently told the Russian weekly Argumenty I Fakty. “The most important thing is that we preserved Russia as a country and a state and the Russian people as a nation.”
Certainly, Mr. Yeltsin did manage that, in part by waging a brutal, merciless war against the people of Chechnya. As he settles his personal accounts with history, perhaps he can find solace in that thought. But he can no longer relieve the burden of his reflections with that instant, liquid medication he used to take. On doctor’s orders, Mr. Yeltsin is limiting himself to one glass of wine a day.