Is Big Boris Good Enough? : BORIS YELTSIN: From Bolshevik to Democrat, By John Morrison (E.P. Dutton: $20; 303 pp.)

Plekhanov is deputy director of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada in Moscow.

My mother compares him to an icebreaker. "He towers over them all, and keeps going forward, bold, steadfast, unperturbed, breaking all those mountains of ice." She prays for his health.

This is typical of the average Russian's attitude toward Boris Yeltsin. In the eyes of a vast majority of the vast country spanning 11 time zones across the Eurasian land mass, that country now has a good leader. They cite his strength, a crucial quality Russians have always sought in their leaders, particularly a strength used to advance the people's cause--justice, freedom, democracy. They cite his guts to attack the powers that be, and face them down even when they seem to have him up against the wall. They cite his brains, which have helped him outsmart his powerful enemies and put together something unique in the centuries of Russia's grim history--a democratic government (if we can keep it). And they cite his good heart, which is evident. This is no Stalin.

Last but not least, they support him because he happens to be the first head of the Russian state who has ever been chosen by the people in a fair and free election.

That is why it is so hard to explain to the Russians why Boris Yeltsin has received such a bum rap from Western politicians, journalists and scholars. In fact, the bum rap continues, albeit on a smaller scale, even after the failed August coup, a coup which might well have succeeded had there been no Yeltsin to organize and lead the resistance. Since Yeltsin's unexpected comeback to big-time Soviet politics in 1988-89 as a radical critic of Gorbachev's policies, he has been pictured in the West as a populist, demagogue, extremist, crude, authoritarian, more brawn than brain, a constant pain in Gorbachev's neck. (Interestingly enough, all these stereotypes were widely used by Yeltsin's opponents in the Soviet bureaucracy during elections and other political battles of the past three years).

This perception gap, while somewhat natural given the complexity of recent Soviet developments in general and of the Yeltsin phenomenon in particular, is not good either for the West or for Russia. John Morrison's book helps narrow it considerably.

Morrison, who served in Moscow as a Reuters correspondent in the early 1980s and recently had a chance to research Soviet affairs in a less hurried manner at Harvard, has produced both a very informative and readable biography and an incisive analysis of the tangled and tumultuous events in the Soviet Union since 1985.

Each of the 21 chapters is titled after one or another famous Russian book of the last two centuries--Gogol's "Dead Souls," Tolstoy's "War and Peace," Chekhov's "Dacha Dwellers" . . . Not readily obvious, this subtle mark of the author's sophistication about things Russian (wow, he has even read, or at least heard of, Vera Ranov's "Fellow Travelers"!) reflects his work's basic premise: The Yeltsin phenomenon and, for that matter, the Gorbachev phenomenon too, can best be understood in the context of Russia's history and traditions.

"Like Ronald Reagan," Morrison writes, Yeltsin "has an ability to make Russians feel good about themselves and an instinct for the reactions of people in the street. But unlike Reagan, his skill as a communicator owes nothing to television and everything to his own instinct for the feelings of the crowd. Yeltsin is never happier than when he is in the thick of the melee, pressing the flesh with reckless abandon and showmanship, amid a chorus of 'Yeltsin, Yeltsin,' from the Russian crowd. In his internal struggle between the old way and the new, they see their own."

That is exactly the point about Big Boris. He personifies his nation, its internal struggle and its transformation in an almost eerie way. And I suspect that the deepest reason for Western distrust of Yeltsin is the old fear of a Russia unbound, akin to the fear of a bear that has broken loose.

The fear is not entirely groundless. There has been the Russia of Ivan the Terrible, of the Siberian jails and labor camps, of the huge oppressive state which has regarded citizens as its slaves, and of the citizens who are used to behaving like slaves, the Russia of military grandeur achieved at the cost of civilian squalor.

But there has also been another Russia, made of people with faith--in God or in the Communist ideals or in simple justice. The Russia that has taken certain truths seriously, which helps explain not only the great literature and the great music but also the great number of rebellions and uprisings against the state that would trample upon faith and justice.

State and nation have rarely been at real peace in Russian history. After the monarchy collapsed and the empire broke up in 1917, communism emerged as a new social contract, one that would satisfy both the need for a strong state and the demand for justice. But since Stalin's death in 1953, the quest for a better system has gone on inside the seemingly secure totalitarian monolith. The Cold War prevented many in the West from noticing this change and from realizing that a democratic alternative to Russian communism could come only from within Russian communism.

Out of that deeply contradictory communist heritage come both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, as well as almost all other leaders of perestroika, as well as the great dissidents like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn. Stalin used to call the true believers in communism honest fools, but it was they who had the last word on Stalin, not he on them.

Most Soviet reformers and dissidents started out with faith in the original promise of communism, and they tried to force the system to live up to that promise. As Morrison notes, Yeltsin even now comes across as a 1917-type Bolshevik, looking great atop that tank. Indeed, his archetype is easily recognizable in all those old Soviet movies about civil war, World War II and endless peacetime sacrifices for noble goals--a textbook good communist, a man of the people ready to die for the people.

Millions grew up in the Soviet Union admiring such people as heroes and getting heartbroken over the observation that the heroes rarely survived, as if being too good for this world. But to those on the other side of the Iron Curtain, all those Russian Communists were too bad for this world, objects of fear and revulsion.

Yeltsin's great strength comes from the fact that, having been rejected by the system for taking it to task all too sternly on the people's behalf, he started looking for a new social contract outside of the confines of communism--and found it in a fusion of democracy, Russian patriotism, faith and justice. Having witnessed the strong response to that fusion from the Russian multitudes, one has to admit that Yeltsin has served as a catalyst for what Morrison aptly calls "a process of constructing a new Russian identity."

At the walls of the Russian White House during the August putsch, I saw a large, hand-made placard which appealed to St. Mary, Russia's most venerated saint: "Mother of God, help us defeat the junta and have legally elected presidents." Old Russia merged with new to save freedom and defeat the old state. The lightning speed with which the state collapsed attests to the awesome power of that combination.

On Oct. 28, Yeltsin unveiled his plan for Russia's revival. His margin of error is terribly narrow: The country is in a big mess, many of its citizens frustrated and fearful of their economic and social prospects. Yeltsin is offering them a vision and practical policy proposals. They are based on the ideas of democracy, free enterprise, social justice, self-reliance. He admits that implementing this plan amounts to a tougher challenge even than defeating the August coup. Will he be up to it?

"For such outsize characters," writes Morrison, "both success and failure occur on a large scale. Such characters have little room for qualified success or mitigated failure. Yeltsin would probably not be content to be judged in these terms."

Fair enough, but whatever history's judgment of Yeltsin or Yeltsin's judgment of his own place in history, there is something much larger at stake here. His failure would deal a heavy blow to prospects for democracy in Russia. And we should all be able to recognize by now that big events in those 11 time zones between the Gulf of Finland and the Bering Strait have a considerable impact on the course of world history. So when my mother prays for Yeltsin, she actually prays for us all, Russians and everybody else.

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