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Dusko DoderAron's book will serve as the first useful guide to Kremlin politics during most of Yeltsin's tenure in office.
—The Washington Post
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To Survive, to Dare,
For as long as anyone could remember, the two families lived in the two neighbouring villages of the Talitza uezd, or district, about 250 kilometres east of Ekaterinburg: the Yeltsins in Butka and the Starygins in Basmanovo, or Basmanovskoye. In 1926 Nikolay Yeltsin, a son of Butka's pre-eminent blacksmith and a church elder, Ignat, married the eighteen-year-old Klavdia Starygina. They were a good-looking couple: Nikolay, tall, strong, and with a voice famous in the village (he sang in a church choir); and the pretty blue-eyed Klavdia, whose thick, dark-brown braid reached below her waist. She was a master embroiderer and had taught herself to read and write.
In the one-room wooden house, izba, where Ignat Yeltsin and his wife lived with their four sons — Nikolay, Ivan, Dmitriy and Andrian — there was only one bed, for the parents. The sons slept on the floor: on straw mattresses in the summer, and on sheepskin coats (tulups) in the winter. When Nikolay's young bride moved in, the parents vacated the bed for her. In that bed, on 1 February 1931 Klavdia gave birth to their first child, a boy.
To baptize and name the baby, the parents took him to a church in a nearby village. In the fourteenth year of the Bolshevik state, the local priest (the batushka) was allowed to baptize only once a month, so the church was full of parents, relatives and spectators. Waiting their turn, Klavdia and Nikolay watched screaming babies immersed completely into a tub ofholy water, given names and entered into the church record. At the end of the brief ceremony, grateful parents offered the priest a glass of moonshine.
By the time the Yeltsin boy was brought forward to be accepted into the Russian Orthodox Church, the batushka was quite tipsy. Having dropped the infant into the tub, he became absorbed in conversation and forgot to retrieve the new Christian. After a few seconds, Klavdia shrieked, rushed past the priest to the tub and pulled out the child, who was already floating near the bottom. He was still alive. Not the least perturbed, the batushka announced that a boy so strong and victorious in adversity should be named Boris. In old Russian boris meant `warrior'. In the form of boris' (with a soft `s') the word survived as the second person imperative of the verb borot'sia, `to struggle'. Six decades later, Yeltsin's supporters would demonstrate with placards exhorting `Boris, boris'!' `Boris, fight on!'
The story about the choice of name was related to Yeltsin by his mother. Either the priest was even more intoxicated than Klavdia Vasilievna recalled, or Yeltsin endowed the story with useful teleology. Most likely, Russia's first President was named after Prince Boris, a son of the baptizer of Russia, Kievan Prince Vladimir Monomakh. Boris was killed in 1015 by the henchmen of his half-brother, Svyatopolk. A first-generation Christian, Boris refused to fight violence with violence and did not defend himself against the assassins. Along with his brother Gleb, also killed on Svyatopolk's orders, Boris was canonized in 1072, becoming the first Russian saint. Instead of resilience and strength, the priest's choice of a name for the nearly drowned baby boy most likely was informed by the memory of another innocent muchenik (martyr). Boris.
A few weeks later, Butka was swept up in the war the Soviet Union had been waging against its peasants for over a year. Known as `collectivization', the campaign was designed by Stalin to eliminate private farmers — the last obstacle in the way of the complete political and economic subjugation of society by the Soviet socialist state. Although officially directed against the rich farmers, the kulaks (a derogatory term meaning, literally, tight fist), who as `spontaneous, petty-bourgeois regenerators of capitalism' were declared a `class enemy' to be eliminated by exile and starvation, collectivization deprived all the peasants of their land and equipment by forcing them to join the nominally self-governing `collective farms' (kolkhozes) or fully state-owned `soviet farms' (sovkhozes). Ignat Yeltsin, eighty years old and almost blind, was declared a kulak, stripped of all his possessions and, together with his wife, shipped in a box car to a forced-labour settlement in the northernmost corner of the province, near the town of Serov. Along with Boris's grandparents, ten other families from Butka were exiled. Several months later Ignat Yeltsin died.
In the autumn of that year, Yeltsin's mother recalls, the entire harvest collected by the recently `collectivized' Butka peasants was taken away by the state `to the last little grain'. In 1932, Nikolay decided to leave the village for ever and took his family and the youngest of his brothers, Andrian, as far away as he could: to a construction site in the city of Kazan on the Volga, more than 1,100 kilometres from Butka. The brothers worked as carpenters for two years until both were arrested as `de-kulakized kulaks' who had `conducted anti-Soviet propagaganda' and were sentenced to three years in a hard-labour camp.
In 1935 Nikolay's brother Ivan, a blacksmith like his father, failed to deliver to the kolkhoz his grain quota. He was arrested as a `saboteur' and `wrecker' and exiled to Berezniki, a town in the Perm region, 400 kilometres north-west of Sverdlovsk, as Ekaterinburg was by that time called. Berezniki was the site of one of the giants of Stalin's `industrialization', a campaign to make the Soviet Union a major industrial and military power within ten to fifteen years. The Berezniki Potassium-Processing Plant was the `shock' (udarniy) or pre-eminent construction project of the second Five-Year Plan. When he returned from the camp after serving two years, Nikolay took Klavdia and Boris to join his brother in Berezniki.
The Yeltsins were given a room in a barak, an enormously long, one-storey hut made of thin wooden boards. The most common variety of communal lodgings in urban Russia at the time, baraks were a veritable institution that shaped two generations of Russians. As much a fixture of `socialist industrialization' as the gulag, these structures became an indelible part of Soviet popular culture. Like hundreds of thousands of other baraks throughout Russia, Yeltsin's consisted of a long corridor, into which opened twenty rooms — one per family. Behind the barak were a wooden privy and the well from which the tenants drew water for washing and cooking.
Shortly after their arrival in Berezniki, Yeltsin's brother Mikhail was born, in August 1937. The Yeltsins bought a she-goat to secure milk for the children. All five of them — four humans and the goat — `slept together on the floor, pressed close to one another'. The goat was `warm, like a stove', and the boys curled up next to her in the winter, when there was no protection against the piercing cold: the barak was `draughty through and through'. Boris was one year old when the Yeltsins moved into their first barak in Kazan. He was fourteen when they were given the keys to an apartment of their own. Forty years later, he still hated the memory of the barak years.
When Nikolay was promoted to construction supervisor in the late 1930s, the Yeltsins began to have enough to eat. The hunger returned, however, a few years later, in the winter of 1941-2, the first winter of the Great Patriotic War, when the Soviet Union battled against the invading Germans. In Berezniki the workers received 800 grams of bread a day, their dependants 400 grams. There was very little of anything else to eat. Klavdia sewed for the neighbours and occasionally was given bread as payment. The goat helped the Yeltsin children to survive: although `less than a litre a day, the milk was rich in fat'. Still, it was not enough. The ten-year-old Boris would come home from school, sit down in the corner and moan incessantly: `I am hu-u-u-ungry, I am hu-u-u-ungry.' Hearing him broke Klavdia's heart, but there was nothing she could do: there was `not a stale crust in the house'.
By that time, young Boris had plenty of adult responsibilities: carrying water from the well, babysitting for Mikhail (and later for his sister Valentina, born in July 1944), boiling potatoes for dinner, washing dishes, sweeping floors. In the summer, when school was out, Boris and his mother contracted with the nearby collective farms to make hay. They scythed grass off several hectares of meadows and ricked it. There was no pay but they could keep half of the hay. The Yeltsins sold it to the peasants and bought bread.
`And this is how my childhood passed,' Yeltsin wrote fifty years later. `Rather joylees. Sweets or delicacies of any sort — these were out of the question. Only to survive, to survive and to survive.'
Outside the barak room, Boris's universe was the poverty-stricken world of the Soviet `workers' settlement': dirty, hungry and ridden with drunkenness, wife-beating, petty thievery and obscenities. It was a place where `physical strength was the foremost factor in a person's self-affirmation, where there was no room for compassion, and where every physical defect, every handicap was a subject of general derision'. To be left alone, to escape beating or molestation by those who were older, stronger or acted in concert, one had to project a determination to retaliate mercilessly for any insult or physical assault.
In this world, two qualities were indispensable for anyone determined to be a leader among the children, as young Boris certainly appeared to be. One was physical courage: the seemingly casual, nonchalant courtship of danger, injury, mutilation, maiming, even death. The other was the nerve to sustain a constant brinksmanship with the adult world, taunting adult authority in school, on the street, at home.
Boris was invariably to be found among the most active and most resourceful participants in all manner of dangerous fun, much of which he himself designed, staged and led his troops to execute. One such operation nearly cost him life. During the Great Patriotic War, several boys conceived the idea of disassembling a hand grenade to `see what was inside'. Boris volunteered to steal a grenade from an ammunition depot. At night he crawled under the three rows of barbed wire and, when the sentry was on the other side of the building, sawed through the bar on the window. He jumped in, stole two grenades and returned, all the way expecting to be shot in the back. The next day, in the forest, Boris began the disassembling, while the other boys prudently stood a hundred metres away. After a few hammer blows, the fuse detonated. In the hospital, a surgeon removed what was left of the thumb and index finger of Boris's left hand?
In the merciless world of his playmates Boris became urod, kaleka, a `freak', a `cripple'. (Decades later, in public Yeltsin hid his left hand under the table or covered it with his tie.) But the handicap seemed only to spur him to new feats. He was always, for instance, in the front row of the periodic team fights among local youngsters. One of the most popular pastimes in Russian provinces, such fights pit a row of youths from one village or district against fist-fighters from another (hence the name of the contest: stenka-na-stenku, or `wall-on-wall'). In Berezniki in the 1940s, the combat might involve as many as a hundred participants. `There were no deaths, although we fought with a great deal of zest,' recalls Yeltsin. `Still, there were some limits we respected. It was more like a sport but with pretty ruthless rules.' During one of the fights, Boris Yeltsin was struck in the face with a wooden shaft and fell to the ground. Friends carried him home unconscious. The memento of that fight, a broken nose, forever marked Yeltsin's face.
Another of young Yeltsin's favourite pursuits was crossing the nearby river, the Zyryanka, over floating logs. Every spring, the rather inconspicuous Zyryanka swelled with melting snow and was used, as were dozens of rivers in the Urals and Siberia, to transport timber. Usually, the logs floated pretty close to one another and, `if one calculated everything correctly, one had a chance of crossing' by jumping quickly from log to log. The most elaborate calculations were of no use, however, when a treacherous wet log slipped or rolled under the foot. `The next moment you are in the icy water with timber over your head,' Yeltsin recalled. `By the time you manage to squeeze through and breathe in the air, you cannot believe you are still alive.'
In school, meanwhile, Boris was always among the best students — and among the most undisciplined. In the fifth grade, when Boris was eleven years old, he led the class in jumping out of the window (fortunately, the room was on the first floor) and hiding in a storage hut while their unpopular teacher rushed around the building searching for the pupils. Another plot involved studding the teacher's chair with tiny gramophone needles. There followed a scream, the apprehension of the plotters and, of course, the summons for Yeltsin's parents.
At home, Boris's pranks were regularly rewarded by serious beltings. Nikolay Yeltsin was a silent type: upon hearing of a misdemeanour, he would reach for a belt, `without saying a word'. Klavdia would weep, beg for mercy and try to shield her son. She was usually shoved out of the room, and the door locked. `Lie down!' Nikolay would say. Boris would lie on his stomach. `The trousers went down, the shirt up,' and the father struck him methodically. Boris, teeth clenched, would not cry. `This, of course, angered him even more,' Usually the punishment ended when Klavdia rushed into the room, grabbed the belt, pushed the father aside and stood between father and son. `She was my eternal protectress [zashitnitza],' wrote Yeltsin.
At the end of what at the time was the Soviet equivalent of junior high school (semiletka), Boris raised the brinkmanship to a new level, and very nearly precipitated a disaster. During the graduation ceremony, the fourteen-year-old Yeltsin suddenly asked to speak. This was 1945, and the past fifteen years of Stalin's rule had made spontaneous public speaking very rare indeed. Yet Boris was allowed to proceed: perhaps each of the officials responsible for the ceremony assumed that the boy had been coached and cleared by somebody else. He was, after all, an otlichnik, an `A' student, and it was reasonable for the adults to expect yet another expression of gratitude for `our golden childhood' to the `dear' Communist Party and, of course, the `best friend of children', Comrade Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.
Boris, indeed, thanked everyone briefly. He then said that one of the teachers had no right to be-one because she `mentally tortured' her students. She was a nightmarish teacher, he added, who hit children with a heavy ruler, humiliated them and ordered them to look for food scraps for her pig. The ceremony was hastily brought to an end.
The next day, Nikolay Yeltsin was summoned by the school's Principal and told that his son's semiletka diploma had been annulled and, with it, the right to enter secondary school. Boris refused to accept the verdict and went to seek justice from educational and governmental authorities. (It was then that Yeltsin first learned of the existence of the Gorkom, the all-powerful city Party committee.) Eventually, a commission was created to investigate the Yeltsin affair. The offending teacher was suspended, and the boy's certificate was returned. Still, among the grades `5' (`excellent') in all subjects, there was a `2' (`unsatisfactory') for `discipline'.
In secondary school Boris's daring assumed less dangerous and less violent forms — but hardly less strenuous ones. He became the school's sports star, excelling in skiing, gymnastics, track-and-field, boxing, wrestling and the decathlon. He `wanted to embrace everything, to be able to do absolutely everything'.
But most of all Boris loved to play volleyball. `I liked to see the ball obey me, I liked being able to get, by the most unimaginable jump, a hopeless ball.' Because he was without a thumb and index finger on the left hand, he invented an unusual (`non-classic', he called it) way to receive the ball. Every night, he fell asleep with his hand on the volleyball. When he woke up, he began training right away: spinning the ball on a finger and bouncing it off the floor and the wall. In his second year of high school he was drafted into the city's all-star high school team.
Each summer Boris organized backpack expeditions in the taiga, then still a dense, virgin forest of fir trees that surrounded Berezniki. These forays into the wilderness often lasted for weeks. When the contents of the backpacks ran out, the young hikers lived on nuts, berries and mushrooms. In the summer between ninth and tenth grades, the fifteen-year-old Boris led an expedition to discover the source of a local river. The source was found (it turned out to be a sulphuric spring), but the hikers lost their way while returning to the river where they had moored their flat-boat. They were in a young forest, surrounded by swamps, and their usual food was hard to find. Still worse was the absence of fresh water. The boys soaked moss in the swamp, squeezed the water out, using their shirts as filters, and drank the dark brown liquid. By the time they stumbled upon the river and their boat, all of the boys had typhoid fever. One by one, they began to lose consciousness. For a while, Boris steered the boat downstream alone. Then, sensing that he, too, was about to collapse, he tied up the boat under a railway bridge, hoping that there they would be noticed. They were. It was already the end of September and search parties had been looking for them for weeks?
The boys remained in hospital for three months. By the time they were out, half of the school year had passed. Yeltsin's companions decided to start the tenth grade anew the next autumn. Boris, studying day and night on his own, was determined to graduate. When he came to take the secondary-school graduation exams, he was told that he would not be admitted because it was against the rules to graduate without attending classes. As he had three years before, Boris demanded justice from his teachers' bosses: the Ispolkom, the city Soviet's executive committee, and the Gorkom. He won again: he was allowed to take the exams. In the fourteen subjects he received eight 5s and six 4s. The grades on his secondary-school diploma, issued on 1 July 1949, show a greater propensity for natural sciences than for the humanities.
As a teenager, Boris, who had never seen the sea, wanted to be a shipbuilder. He even began reading engineering tomes seeking to understand how to build ships. Towards the end of secondary school, he changed his mind and decided to become a civil engineer. (By that time his father headed a construction site.) Boris passed entrance examinations to the department of civil engineering at the Ural Polytechnic Institute, or UPI, with two 5s and two 4s.
But good grades were not all that was required to enter university in the Soviet Union in 1949, and on 19 August that year Boris Yeltsin filled in his first official questionnaire, a `personal sheet for the registration of cadres'. He stated his place of birth (for some unknown reason putting Basmanovo rather than Butka), his nationality (Russian), his social origin (peasant) and party affiliation (member of the Komsomol). Boris did not have scholarly degrees, or inventions to his name, had not served in the Red Army nor participated in the revolutionary or partisan movements or in the Civil War. But neither had he had `vacillations with respect to the implementation of the Party line', `participated in the oppositions', been abroad or lived on territory temporarily occupied by the Nazis in the last war. All in all, young Boris looked quite reliable. He was admitted to the UPI and the next month moved to a hostel in Sverdlovsk to begin his first university term.
Thus, at the age of eighteen, the life and fate of Boris Yeltsin were touched by one of Russia's most interesting cities: Ekaterinburg/Sverdlovsk, situated on the River Iset in the eastern foothills of the Urals, the mountain range that separates Europe from Asia. It was here on the edge of the West Siberian Plain that Yeltsin was to live for the next thirty-six years, where he started a family and made his career. It is the city without which Yeltsin is impossible to understand. As he confessed when he became Russia's pre-eminent leader, `My heart is in Sverdlovsk.'
Founded in 1723 by Peter the Great, who needed copper for his cannons, Ekaterinburg soon became Russia's principal industrial centre. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its steelmakers and mining engineers were the best in the nation. The town's coat of arms, approved by the Russian Senate in 1783, portrays a mine and a smeltery. In 1745 the Old Believers, who had been exiled for their rejection of Patriarch Nikon's 1654 liturgical reforms, found the first Russian gold in the vicinity of Ekaterinburg.
The wealth of semi-precious stones (especially malachite) discovered in the Ural Mountains brought forth generations of celebrated stonecutters, who had no equals in all of Russia. Their statuettes, chalices and necklaces, made of malachite, rhodonite and jasper, were shipped directly to the tsarist court in St Petersburg. The Russian pavilion at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris contained a map of France made in Ekaterinburg from semi-precious stones and weighing around 500 Kilograms.
Begun as a fort `on the edge of the inhabited Russian land' (its first builders were the soldiers of the Tobolsk Regiment), Ekaterinburg became Russia's `window to Asia', a gateway to Siberia, Russia's equivalent of the American West and the home of Russian pioneers: iconoclasts and exiles. Peasant settlers from Central Russia were attracted to the Urals by the virtual absence of serfdom, larger plots of land and greater economic independence. Two centuries later, assessing the region's peculiar history, the descendants of the Ural pioneers would note that mining and metallurgy `made the people disciplined, respectful of scientific and technological progress, thirsty for knowledge and accustomed to city living'; the daily battle with the stern climate and the taiga instilled them with courage; the mixture of races, languages and religions produced religious and ethnic tolerance; the relatively free life of mines and settlements strengthened the `love of liberty' and the `habit of solving problems themselves'; and the steady inflow of settlers `made the culture of the Urals and the mentality of its citizens open and dynamic.
Among the best educated in Russia (there are sixteen colleges in the city today, including the oldest in Russia, its school of mining engineering), Ekaterinburg's industrialists and merchants became well known for their wealth, curiosity and civic-mindedness. They were indefatigable travellers, collectors of nature's curiosities and connoisseurs of the arts. They founded museums, theatres and libraries. The world-famous ballet impresario Sergey Dyagilev was born in the Ekaterinburg province (in the village of Dyagilevo, the Baikalovo district), 200 kilometres northeast of the city.
Anton Chekhov left a characteristically ageless snapshot of the city's inhabitants. This most delicate of Russian writers was terrified by the sheer size and the raw vitality of Yeltsin's ancestors. `People here instil a visitor with something close to terror,' Chekhov reported from Ekaterinburg to his sister Maria in 1890. `With prominent cheekbones, large foreheads, broad shoulders, small eyes and huge fists ... [they must be] born right inside the foundries and present at their birth is not a midwife but a mechanic.' Chekhov was still more alarmed by the sight of a distant relative who paid him a visit in the hotel: `Gloomy, [his] head nearly touching the ceiling, the huge shoulders. This one, I thought to myself, would kill me for sure.' It turned out, however, that Chekhov's visitor was quite civilized: a deputy to the county council (zemstvo), he edited a local newspaper and managed a mill run by electricity. He told Chekhov that there was no time for boredom and advised him to visit museums and factories.
During the Soviet era, in 1924, the city was renamed Sverdlovsk, after Lenin's comrade-in-arms Yakov Sverdlov (it reverted to its original name in 1991). Sverdlovsk grew rapidly, especially in the 1930s when it became one of the key centres of Stalin's industrialization. Between 1926 and 1939 the urban population of the Sverdlovsk region increased almost three-fold to a million and a half. Over the next twenty years, it doubled again to three million, making the Sverdlovsk province the fourth most urbanized in the Soviet Union, after Moscow, Leningrad and Donetsk.
In the Second World War, like the rest of the Ural region, Sverdlovsk became a home for evacuees from Central Russia: 163,000 from Moscow and Leningrad alone. Moscow State University spent the war in Sverdlovsk. The intellectual potential of the city, unusually high for a Russian province, was further increased by its peculiar status as a place of `soft' exile for those banished as politically unreliable from Central Russia but allowed to live, work and even advance in Sverdlovsk. Twice in peacetime, the stream of newcomers swelled to tens of thousands: in 1934-5, in the aftermath of the murder of Leningrad's Party boss, Sergey Kirov (the so-called `Kirov stream'), and in 1949-50 as part of the campaign against the Jewish `cosmopolitans', mostly from Moscow. These were the cream of Russia's intelligentsia: engineers and mathematicians, artists and lawyers, doctors and actors, writers and musicians. Perhaps the most famous of Stalin's Sverdlovsk exiles was the hero of the battles for Moscow and Stalingrad, the vanquisher of the Nazis, Marshal Konstantin Zhukov. He was sent to Sverdlovsk in 1948 to command the Ural Military District and remained there until Stalin's death in 1953.
Combined with its distance from Moscow (more than 1,600 kilometres), Ekaterinburg's two centuries of solid education, culture and brilliant craftsmanship endowed the local character with dignity, self-confidence, independence and strong, albeit quiet, patriotism. It is hard to find another Russian city whose inhabitants were as free from the inferiority complex vis-à-vis Moscow which Chekhov immortalized in the `To Moscow! To Moscow!' battle cry in Three Sisters. The denizens of Ekaterinburg and its environs are talented but modest and direct; cultured but not pretentious or chatty; dignified and sure of themselves but not arrogant; opinionated but willing to listen and change their views. The nine generations of stonecutters, smelters and jewellers created a local character which combines creativity and grace with tenacity and physical strength.
In the last thirty years of the Soviet regime Sverdlovsk earned a reputation for less than sterling political reliability. In July 1959, for example, throngs greeted Vice President Richard Nixon with what an American reporter described as `uninhibited enthusiasm'. By contrast, three years later, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was given a very different reception. Sverdlovsk folklore cherishes the story of Khrushchev's visit to one of the largest Soviet enterprises, the Ural Heavy Machine Building Plant (known throughout the Soviet Union as the Uralmash), during which he was pelted with rotten tomatoes by workers protesting against the abominable food supply. Sverdlovsk, however, provided Khrushchev with one of the last triumphs of his waning rule: the downing by a Soviet missile of an American high-altitude U-2 spyplane over Sverdlovsk in May 1960.
Ekaterinburg's unique history, demography and industry contributed to the emergence of what might be called the Ural school of the Communist Party leadership. As a rule, the Ural Party bosses were competent, tough, independent; strong, seemingly incorruptible, even austere, and direct. By contrast, the members of the Southern school, which included both Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev, tended to be more pragmatic, flexible in both ends and means, and bent on good living. (In his eighteen years as General Secretary, Brezhnev never visited Sverdlovsk.)
Among the members of the Ural school were the two men who ruled the Sverdlovsk region in the 1960s and 1970s — First Secretaries of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee, Konstantin Nikolaev (1962-71) and Yakov Ryabov (1971-6) — and a former director of the Uralmash, Yeltsin's friend and Mikhail Gorbachev's first Prime Minister, Nikolay Ryzhkov. Like Yeltsin, all three were engineers. Ryabov and Ryzhkov graduated from the UPI.
Like his 5,000 fellow students at the UPI, Boris received free education, a bed in a tiny dormitory with five roommates, and in his first year a niggardly stipend of 290 rubles a month (increased steadily to 790 rubles in his fifth year). This was a very inconsiderable sum at the time when a kilo of meat cost forty rubles, a kilo of butter twenty-five rubles and bread three rubles a loaf. His parents could only contribute another 250 rubles a month. When they ran out of money, Boris and his classmates unloaded railway trucks: the last of the legal resorts for hundreds of thousands of impoverished Soviet students. The extra income was certainly not enough to diversify Boris's wardrobe: throughout his six years in college, he wore the same outfit: a corduroy jacket, trousers of coarse fabric and black tarpaulin boots.
This sartorial deficiency did not prevent young Yeltsin from occupying his accustomed place as ringleader. From his first to his last year in the UPI he was responsible in the Komsomol Committee for organizing sports events for the entire college. (Komsomol was a contraction of Kommunisticheskiy Soyuz Molodezhi, the Communist Union of Youth. By Yeltsin's time membership was routine from the age of fourteen to twenty-eight.) When students decided to ask for more time to prepare for a particularly difficult exam, Yeltsin led the delegation that presented the demand to the professor teaching the course. This professor, Boris Speranskiy, retaliated by giving Yeltsin one of the handful of 4s he received in college. `I should have given him a 5,' Speranskiy admitted thirty-five years later. `He was my favourite student but he disappointed me.' Boris was the `soul' at the weddings of many of his classmates, who, like most Soviet college students, married in their senior years. These occasions, which usually took place in the school cafeteria, made up in enthusiasm, camaraderie and good cheer for the very limited assortment of refreshments and the drabness of attire. Boris arranged the day's innumerable skits, mock odes, costumes, surprise home-made presents, noisy chorus singing, posters and toasts.
He is also reported to have been incessantly on the lookout for practical jokes, be they whipping a chair from under someone he had just invited to sit down, or balancing a pail of water over the door and manipulating it by a string to douse an unsuspecting entrant. Three and a half decades later, responding to a common observation that he smiles rarely, Yeltsin would write that `although deep inside [he was] an optimist', he must have `laughed [himself] out' during his student days.
Never having seen the country outside Berezniki and Sverdlovsk, Boris resolved to see as much of the Soviet Union as he could in one long trip during the summer after his first year at the UPI. With very little money, he planned to stow away and hitchhike the entire journey. He departed Sverdlovsk in a straw hat, tracksuit trousers, a shirt and tennis shoes. His luggage consisted of a tiny imitation-leather suitcase containing an extra shirt. A classmate whom Boris had talked into accompanying him returned home after the first day.
Most of the distance was covered on the roofs and platforms of railway carriages. The schedule was established as follows: travelling by night to famous cities, sightseeing during the day, and sleeping on park benches or in railway terminals until the next suitable train. He was, of course, picked up by police several times and questioned about his destination. His response never varied: he was a poor teenager travelling to his grandmother who lived in whatever city was the closest. When the police demanded the grandmother's address, Boris without hesitation named Lenin Street, which he knew could be found in every Soviet town. He was always released. In this manner he crisscrossed Russia from Leningrad in the north to Batumi in the south and as far to the west as Minsk: twenty cities altogether.
During one unforgettable journey on the roof of a railway carriage, Boris found himself in the company of `criminals' just released from jail. Forced to play cards and stake the clothes on his back, he initially lost all and was stripped to his undershorts. `We will now play for your life,' he was told. `You lose, and we throw you off the roof.' Then his luck turned, and a much relieved Boris gradually won back the trousers, the shoes, even the hat.
He worked for food. In the Ukrainian city of Zaparozhie, the home of one of the largest steel mills in the Soviet Union, Boris ran into a Soviet Army colonel who was to take entrance exams to a military academy in a week's time but was afraid of failing the maths. Would Boris, an `A' student, tutor him? He would, with success guaranteed, but on two conditions: first, the tutor should be given as much food as he could eat; second, they should study twenty hours a day for the entire week. The colonel passed, and, for the first time since he left Sverdlovsk, Boris had put on weight.
When the victorious traveller returned to Sverdlovsk, the soles of his shoes were gone and he continued wearing them `just for show'. The hat, which had developed a hole in the crown, had been discarded along the way. And the tracksuit trousers were `quite transparent in the seat'.
And, of course, there was volleyball. At first, the coaches of the Institute's volleyball team were reluctant to draft Yeltsin because of his mutilated left hand. After they relented, he rapidly became the captain. Soon, Yeltsin remembers, he was playing for the city of Sverdlovsk in the top national league among the twelve best teams in the Soviet Union. They never became champions, he recalls, but were consistently placed sixth or seventh in the country and, most important for Yeltsin, `were taken seriously'. (According to the coach of the UPI volleyball team, Ekaterina Nikolaevna Chernous, however, Yeltsin played for the Institute only, not for the city.) Boris also coached the Institute's women's and men's (second) teams. A college friend recalled that `the girls came to volleyball games especially to "look at Yeltsin"'.
Counting practice, games and coaching, Yeltsin spent no fewer than six hours on the court every day. He studied at night. It was during his six years at the UPI that he acquired the habit of sleeping no more than four hours a night. Twice a year, during the examination sessions, when he had to make up for the weeks on the road with the team, he hardly slept at all. In this tough engineering school, where students sat at least half-a-dozen oral and written exams every six months, his grades were very good: out of a total of fifty-five exams, he was found `excellent' (the highest grade) in forty and `good' in the rest.
During the winter examination session of his third year in 1952, Yeltsin fell sick with quinsy but continued to play and to take exams, striving, as usual, to get only 5s. With a sore throat and high fever Boris went to a volleyball game and fainted. He was taken to the hospital, his heart-rate at 150, and ordered to stay in bed for four months — or risk permanent heart damage.
He ran away from the hospital after a few days — as soon as he could walk (friends arranged an escape during which Boris climbed down a wall on a rope made of several sheets tied together). At his parents' house in Berezniki, Boris began his own programme of physical therapy. Unsteady on his feet, with his heart `pounding', he made his way to the gym. At first, he could do no more than hit the ball a couple of times before collapsing (`the guys would drag me to the bench and I would just lie there'). But Yeltsin persisted and, little by little, he started playing again — at first no longer than a minute, then two, then five. In a month he could stay on the court for an entire game. His recovery confirmed for Boris the veracity of an old Russian proverb, which he had made his motto and which later would define his political style: Klin klinom vyshibayut — literally `To drive out a wedge, hit it with another', but better translated as `Fight adversity with adversity!' or `When attacked, attack!'
Nonetheless, by `UPI Order Number 358' of 27 March 1952 he was `dismissed' from the Institute `because of illness'. Five months later, on 30 August, Boris Yeltsin submitted a written application to the Director of the UPI: `I request that I be admitted to the third year in the Department of Civil Engineering.' Two weeks later, the Director endorsed Boris's application with the words: `Restore to the student body of the Department, with [space in] the hostel.'
After six years in college, instead of the usual five, Yeltsin graduated in June 1955. His diploma project was `A path inside a coal mine and the organization of work for its construction'. He received an `excellent' for it. Indulging his propensity for exaggeration and embellishment -- a problem which a biographer must constantly guard against by checking Yeltsin's words against documents and the testimony of others — Yeltsin claimed for his diploma project a more glamorous topic: `A Television Tower'. `I still do not know how I managed [to write the thesis, Yeltsin recorded]. The amount of mental and physical effort was unimaginable. And I could not count on anyone's help: this was a novel subject, no one knew anything about it. So I had to do everything myself: drafting, calculations — everything from beginning to end.'
It appears that only once in his college days was young Boris Yeltsin uncharacteristically hesitant. The dormitory, which he shared with five male students, was next to a room that housed six young women studying in the same Department of Civil Engineering. Very soon the two sets of roommates became fast friends. Boris, despite the time consumed by his scholarly and athletic feats, is reported to have been `by no means a hermit'. (Once, on a cold autumn night, he jumped into the river with his clothes on to impress a date.) Even forty years later, several of his female classmates distinctly remembered having `noticed' him.
One of the six young women was Naya (short for Anastasia, but soon changed to Naina) Girina from Orenburg, an old Russian city 650 kilometres south-west of Sverdlovsk. For a while Boris and Naya did not pay much attention to one another, dating each other's friends. If they kissed at all during their first year, recalls Yeltsin, it was only `on the cheek'. By the second year, Yeltsin realized that he had `fallen in love, fallen deeply, and there was nothing [he] could do [about it]'. He describes the young Naya as friendly, modest, gentle and kind — the attributes young Boris felt `went very well' with his `rather troublesome character'. One night, as they stood by a pillar on the balcony over the Main Hall of the Institute, Boris confessed his feelings. This time they kissed `for real'.
There was no talk of marriage, however. The job assignment which awaited every Soviet college graduate at the end of his or her studies took Naya to her native Orenburg, while Boris's orders, which he received when he dropped in at the Institute on his way to yet another out-of-town volleyball game, were to stay in Sverdlovsk. They decided to `test [their] love', to see `how strong and how deep it was', and meet exactly a year later on neutral territory, in the city of Kuybyshev on the Volga.
|List of Illustrations||xxi|
|PART I A Man from Sverdlovsk|
|1 To Survive, to Dare, to Succeed!||3|
|2 The Builder||19|
|3 The Pervyi||48|
|PART II The Bellwether|
|4 Perestroika, Mark I||131|
|6 The Year of Truth||277|
|7 America, America||320|
|PART III The Storm|
|8 The Year of Choice||353|
|9 `Rolling Up the Sleeves, Raising the Fists'||407|
|PART IV In Power|
|10 The Revolution||439|
|11 The President vs. the Soviet||494|
|12 The Nadir||554|
|13 Campaign '96: `Choosing Russia's Fate'||579|
|14 The Last Struggle||634|
|Epilogue: In Search of a Historic Yeltsin||687|