Yeltsin: A Life

Yeltsin: A Life

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by Timothy J. Colton

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Even after his death in April 2007, Boris Yeltsin remains the most controversial figure in recent Russian history. Although Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the decline of the Communist party and the withdrawal of Soviet control over eastern Europe, it was Yeltsin-Russia’s first elected president-who buried the Soviet Union itself. Upon taking office, Yeltsin


Even after his death in April 2007, Boris Yeltsin remains the most controversial figure in recent Russian history. Although Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the decline of the Communist party and the withdrawal of Soviet control over eastern Europe, it was Yeltsin-Russia’s first elected president-who buried the Soviet Union itself. Upon taking office, Yeltsin quickly embarked on a sweeping makeover of newly democratic Russia, beginning with a program of excruciatingly painful market reforms that earned him wide acclaim in the West and deep recrimination from many Russian citizens. In this, the first biography of Yeltsin’s entire life, Soviet scholar Timothy Colton traces Yeltsin’s development from a peasant boy in the Urals to a Communist party apparatchik, and then ultimately to a nemesis of the Soviet order. Based on unprecedented interviews with Yeltsin himself as well as scores of other Soviet officials, journalists, and businessmen, Colton explains how and why Yeltsin broke with single-party rule and launched his drive to replace it with democracy. Yeltsin’s colossal attempt to bring democracy to Russia remains one of the great, unfinished stories of our time. As anti-Western policies and rhetoric resurface in Putin’s increasingly bellicose Russia, Yeltsin offers essential insights into the past, present, and future of this vast and troubled nation.

Editorial Reviews

Bill Keller
Mr. Colton is not the first to undertake Yeltsin's redemption. Leon Aron's Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life took up the case for Yeltsin in 2000, as his presidency was petering out, and his popularity was at a low ebb. But Mr. Colton has used the extra time to excellent effect. He has mined declassified Kremlin transcripts; fact-checked many memoirs; conducted extensive interviews with participants, including Yeltsin, shortly before his death last year; and synthesized a story that anyone curious about contemporary Russia will find illuminating. And though this is densely researched scholarship, Mr. Colton writes a fluid narrative that only occasionally wanders into the briar patch of academic-speak.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

When President Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) left office in 1999, he was unpopular in Russia and viewed as a buffoon by some internationally, but it would be a mistake to underestimate his influence on contemporary Russia, Colton, director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, argues in this balanced yet sympathetic portrayal. Unpretentious, patriotic and with a strong work ethic, says Colton, the provincial young man, whose father had spent time in the gulag, rose up the Soviet bureaucratic ladder. But apparently, in 1989, on a trip to the U.S., Yeltsin saw the benefits of capitalism and foresaw the pending Soviet collapse; Yeltsin's popularity among ordinary Russians served him well when he made his famous 1991 tank speech during the anti-Gorbachev coup. Colton agrees with most pundits that overwork and poor lifestyle habits eventually caught up with Yeltsin, forcing him to leave office in 1999; he named Vladimir Putin his successor. While praising Yeltsin's ability to keep Russia together and sow the seeds for later economic success, Colton criticizes his failure to establish constitutional safeguards that might have prevented Russia's recent turn toward authoritarianism. Colton's book offers a finely detailed portrait of a key international leader. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

In spite of his tremendous importance in the transformation of the former Soviet Union, few biographies in English trace the rise and fall of Boris Yeltsin. Colton (government & Russian studies, Harvard; Soldiers and the Soviet State) remedies that situation somewhat with this detailed study informed extensively by Russian-language primary documents and an interview with Yeltsin in person. Covered are Yeltsin's origins in the downtrodden kulak peasantry; his rise through the intricate networks of Soviet bureaucracy from provincial posts to leadership in Moscow; the political machinations behind his role in the upheavals that brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union; and his eventual decline and death. The wealth of detail will either fascinate or daunt general readers depending on their level of interest in tracing byzantine maneuverings. Although Yeltsin the human being emerges sometimes in the foreground, this is chiefly a book about politics and political processes. It will be of lasting importance to serious readers and is highly recommended for academic as well as large public libraries.
—Barbara Walden

Kirkus Reviews
Study of the career of the bibulous Russian president, who, for all his antics, turns out to have been reasonably good at his job. So suggests Colton (Government and Russian Studies/Harvard Univ.), who considers Yeltsin's life in parallel with that of sometime ally but mostly rival Mikhail Gorbachev. Both were outsiders from the provinces, both from families that had troubles with the communist regime. In Yeltsin's case, his kulak grandparents and parents were forced from their property and sent to Siberia, where young Boris grew up as a rebel with a talent for lifting hand grenades from the local arsenal. He settled down as a teenager, notable on the Siberian frontier for not using alcohol or tobacco, gambling or swearing. Yeltsin entered the government ranks as a construction overseer and planner, known for his efficiency in building apartments for the workers (with one complex in Sverdlovsk going up in only five days and thus establishing his fame). As he rose in power, his responsibilities came to include forestry and paper milling, important sectors in the regional economy. He also emerged as a bookish sort, amassing a library of 6,000 volumes of serious literature, some of it, apparently, concerning the economics of free marketers in the West. With the perestroika and glasnost of the 1980s and '90s, Yeltsin became ever more of a champion of a sort of moderated free-enterprise system, and when he came to the presidency he put several schemes for devolution in place. Though his tenure from 1991 to 1999 was marked by plenty of controversies-and though he seems to have brokered the rise of Vladimir Putin, the current and none-too-democratic Russian president-Yeltsin earns good marks inColton's account for his demonopolizing market reforms, political judgment that "repeatedly showed itself to be superior to that of his adversaries" and his certainty that "people power, as channeled in competitive elections, would trump administrative power and build legitimacy."A solid and sympathetic portrait of a leader misunderstood and underestimated in the West.

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Basic Books
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.63(d)
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What People are saying about this

William Taubman
"Colorful and charismatic, grave-digger of the Soviet Union yet unable to set the successor regime he founded on a stable course, Boris Yeltsin is the perfect subject of Timothy Colton's fine biography. Based on exhaustive research including interviews with Yeltsin, his family, and other Soviet and post-Soviet officials, balanced and judicious in its judgments, combining spirited story-telling with scholarly depth, Yeltsin is a wonderful achievement."--(William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science at Amherst College and author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era)
Jack F. Matlock
"Timothy Colton's fascinating, thoroughly researched biography captures the contradictions in the life of the mercurial Russian president, yet gives Boris Yeltsin his due as an event-shaping statesman. While Yeltsin's activities provided abundant material for the caricatures that dominated much journalism of the period, Professor Colton has probed beneath the sensational to give a rounded, balanced picture of the man who changed Russian history. For those who wish to understand what happened to Russia in the 1990s, there could be no better guide."--(Jack F. Matlock, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, 1987-1991, and author of Autopsy on an Empire and Reagan and Gorbachev)
James MacGregor Burns
"A knowledgeable and compelling account of an almost forgotten leader at a historic turning point in world history, and a must-read for serious students of the Soviet collapse."--(James MacGregor Burns, author of Leadership and Running Alone: Presidential Leadership from JFK to Bush II)
Strobe Talbott
"One of the transformative figures of the late 20th century has gotten the biography he deserves-a great story, brilliantly told, about a man as complex and consequential as the era in which he rose to the Kremlin and lowered the hammer-and-sickle forever. A monumental work of meticulous scholarship, fresh insight, astute judgment, and narrative skill, Tim Colton's biography is a masterpiece."--(Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institute and author of The Great Experiment)

Meet the Author

Timothy J. Colton is Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies and Director of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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Yeltsin: A Life 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
jrmlsc More than 1 year ago
Author has done a great job researching Yeltsin but has destroyed it with his writing style. He seems to want to impress the reader with his long, convoluted sentences, and he then embellishes his otherwise interesting content with words chosen to test the most sophisiticated vocabulary.