Harvard Professor Timothy Colton, the author of a bestselling biography of Boris Yeltsin, explains how the perception of Russian political leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Boris Yeltsin impacts the image of Russia in the West.

Demonizing Putin iconizing Yeltsin? Photo: Reuters

Timothy Colton, an acclaimed Harvard professor and a prominent expert on Russian politics, visited Moscow to present the Russian version of his book about the country’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Life.

In this exclusive interview with Russia Direct, he explains why the West and Russia view Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin in such different ways. In addition, Colton analyzes how opposition leader Alexey Navalny is both similar and different from Yeltsin and whether or not he can repeat Yeltsin’s political success.

Russia Direct: What is the “Yeltsin phenomenon,” from your point of view? Why do you call him a "paradoxical hero"?

Timothy Colton: There is a chapter about the Yeltsin phenomenon. And it’s about his emergence as a national political figure in the late 1980s. He seemed to be a fairly standard Soviet official (or chinovnik) who suddenly behaved so differently. He came to be recognized first of all here in Moscow but, eventually, in many parts of the Soviet Union, as a member of the establishment but also as somebody who thinks rather differently and might have a different program to the one that [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev had. That was I meant with “Yeltsin’s phenomenon.”

It was remarkable because until the late 1980s – the only way you could become a national political figure was becoming a member of the top Soviet leadership. And everybody worked in the shadow of the General Secretary.

For me, Yeltsin was generally a person of paradox and contradictions. It doesn’t mean that everything that he did was completely contradictory. One aspect of this is maybe people who knew Yeltsin found that it was very difficult to get close to him, very difficult to find out what he was really thinking. So, he was paradoxical in the sense of being rather enigmatic.

The biggest paradox is how it could possible to be that somebody who seemed to be a fully formed product of the whole system which he was – he was a member of the party, a member of the party apparatus, a member of the leadership of the party, he’d been an engineer, he seemed like almost a new Soviet man – and he was the one who turned out to break with the past.

Gorbachev also had his roots deep in the Soviet period they were the same age exactly. But Gorbachev wanted to save the system, not to destroy it. Initially, that’s what Yeltsin wanted to it as well, he wanted reforms, but when they didn’t succeed, he then decided eventually to abandon the system completely. And this was very puzzling to me and seems to be very paradoxical.

Harvard Professor Timothy Colton talks on Yeltsin, Navalny and Putin. Video by Pavel Inzhelevsky

RD: Some biographers are inclined to idealize the person whom they write about. Did you overcome this inclination in yourself when you wrote about Yeltsin? How did you do it?

T.C.: There is quite a large literature about writing a biography and it always makes some point that when you write a biography you should maintain your objectivity. And it’s hard to do so, because you devote so many hours and years of work to this one particular subject. There are, of course, biographies of figures who are seen in entirely negative terms. So, for example, if you are a biographer of Hitler – then presumably you would not [idealize him]. Somebody writing a biography of Stalin may probably be of the same position. Yeltsin’s case was harder case because he was charismatic, he was colorful, and he provided lots of entertainment if you think in that way.

And he was widely seen as somebody who led the country in a necessary direction, and Western observers like me thought that it was that Russia had to do so. The temptation [to idealize him] was there.

On the other hand, by the time I met Yeltsin and started working on the project, his reputation was pretty negative, certainly in Russia. There was widespread resentment about the changes he had made and the fact that he had not fully delivered on all his promises. In the West, at least, Yeltsin had developed a fairly negative image in many corners partly because of his behavior with alcohol.

Russia's first President Boris Yeltsin. Photo: Getty Images / Photobank

RD: Initially, what goals did you pursue while writing the book? What audience Russian or American does it target primarily?   

T.C.: As for audience, the book was initially written for American readers. And the target audience of the book is broader than the academic audience. The typical reader that we were targeting is a well-educated professional who is interested in international affairs and was curious about Yeltsin, curious about leaders basically. I didn’t write primarily with the Russian audience in mind but we were certainly hopeful in the very beginning that there would be a Russian edition, so I am glad that worked out.

RD:  How did the communication with Russia's first president, his relatives and opponents impact you?

T.C.: It allowed me to get one layer deeper into the process than it would be possible otherwise. With important historical figures like Yeltsin, the leader of a large country like Russia, there are usually a series of books written about them. And it may be the case that the best book about Yeltsin or about any other Russian leader is going to be written many years after his death, when passions are eased, when the full archives of records are available.

But before that, in the very beginning, there are usually essay-type books that are written very quickly on the basis of the headlines, and a kind of assessment of the current moment and when the writer doesn’t normally have access to the leader because, for one thing, he may still be in power. There were several books about Yeltsin in the period of the early 1990s in English and then, later in the decade. They were good in terms of what was possible to do at that time.

Then, once he had retired, it became possible to have access to him and also to other members of the Russian political class who knew him relatively well. I also interviewed people who remembered him in his early life. So, you pick up a deeper understanding of emotions involved from the capacity of the people to understand the situation around him. I am not sure anything dramatically surprised me in terms of how people thought about him, but nonetheless, it confirmed the impressions I have.

There were certain details about Yeltsin’s early life that were not known until this project, in particular, the history of his family in Sverdlovsk and the treatment of Yeltsin’s family during collectivization, the exile of his grandparents to the North. It was known that his father had been arrested in 1944 in Kazan and was sentenced to three years in the gulag for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. And this is an example of facts that you get only by talking to people. The archives are much more accessible to Russian researchers and foreign researchers than they were before.

RD: Russia marked the 20th anniversary of the failed coup this year. From your point of view, how did Yeltsin show himself during these events? What aspects of his personality can we see? 

T.C.: It was a turning point for him. It was a crisis that shocked him personally. If you look carefully at photographs at Yeltsin, you’ll see that he really starts to age after 1993 [because of] the burden of office. By the end of that year, he has responsibility for everything and it becomes more and more clear he has been having difficulty in delivering on his promises. The main result of that crisis was to put more responsibilities on his shoulders, which was probably healthy for him as well as healthy for Russia. As for the crisis itself, he used force; he used force in Chechnya a year later. He was willing to do that. …Yet he didn’t abuse the power.   

Russia's first President Boris Yeltsin (center) addresses a meeting as he stands on a tank outside the former Council of Ministers building on August 19, 1991. Source: Reuters

RD: The West is usually inclined to idealize Yeltsin and demonize Putin, while Russia takes the opposite approach: it demonizes Yeltsin while idealizing Putin. How can we account for it?

T.C.: Actually, I think you have to include Gorbachev into this picture, too, because he was also idealized for some time. I would say that Gorbachev’s image in the United States, while probably still high, is exactly the opposite to what it is in Russia.

Well, I think it is very easy to explain Russian opinion about Putin [with] the arrival of prosperity finally after the chaos of the 1990s and high oil prices. He has been responsible and has governed the country generally in a fairly responsible manner.

In the United States, Gorbachev was idealized because he was the one who paved the way for the end of communism and the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, Yeltsin’s foreign policy was a minor aspect of what he was doing, but Gorbachev was the person who started the end of the Cold War.

Yeltsin’s reputation was initially very high because he was somebody who knew how to construct a market economy and political democracy in Russia. And he was certainly very friendly towards the United States, especially at the very beginning. He and [then-U.S. President Bill] Clinton – although there is a large age difference between them of 15 years – the two presidents met something like 17 or 18 times. [With NATO enlargement and the Yugoslavia crisis], Yeltsin felt quite betrayed by this. His patience for the United States was rather thin. And after this point, his image in the Unites States does begin to become rather more negative although there was still a lot of interest in him, a lot of human feeling for him.

As for Putin in the United States, American elite opinion was pretty positive about Putin at the very beginning: He was young, well mannered, he wanted to fix things he initially seemed to be a reformer. He developed a personal relationship with [then-President] George Bush and his family and the relationship actually improved when Putin came to office: the Yugoslavia crisis was over, Russia was entering the Western community more fully.

Vladimir Putin speaking from a TV screen during a Valdai club discussion. Source: Kommersant

[Yet after the Iraq campaign and the Orange revolution] Putin begins to distance himself from the United States. As for his image, the main thing that happened on the America side, Putin came to be seen as a repressive leader, somebody who was reversing the democratic reforms of the 1990s. Putin was more conservative than Yeltsin.

Putin systematically used administrative means to restrict political competition and his popularity began to erode. Yet, it is not at all obvious right away in the short-term who could replace him because there was no political competition for a decade. Normally, leaders try to select the successor and it is what many people thought Putin was doing with [then-Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev, but, of course, this didn’t work out.

Yeltsin was proud of the fact that he left on time. His health was poor, he was not very popular – there were many reasons for him to want to leave when the constitutionsaid he had to leave. In Putin’s case, he doesn’t know where to stop: he wants to have strong institutions, he wants to have an effective state. Well, fine! Russia is not a monarchy – there is no principle of succession and if he stays for 20 years, it will be stagnation followed by instability. He would do Russia a great service by developing a plan for letting somebody else take responsibility.    

RD: What about Russia’s opposition leader and mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny? Do you think that Navalny is the type of person who can replace Putin in the future?

T.C.: He is now a national figure, a name that many people recognize because of the campaign against him. If you compare him with Yeltsin 25 years ago, there are some certain limited features that they have in common including the populism, the kind of flair for the dramatic, and the ability to rally people.

Likewise, Yeltsin was meeting people on the streets and interacting with people on the human level, which the Soviet leaders didn’t do. In Navalny’s case, it is the Internet, of course. In addition to mastering these technologies, there is the populist side: the criticism of corruption, the inertia of the existing system and the presidential leader.

The main difference is that Yeltsin had experience with the state itself, in government, and Navalny does not. And this is a consequence of what Putin did, enclosing the political arena after 2000. It brought the stagnation with the official structures and so you don’t have a set of alternative leaders who have experience in government. It will take some time before this vacuum starts to be filled with new forces. It’s a complication for the people of Russia who want to be reassured that a future leader will know how to govern and criticize.  

Alexei Navalny. Photo: Reuters

RD: The current image of Russia is primarily associated with the personality of Vladimir Putin. How does the publicity campaign for Russian leaders affect or bolster the image of Russia?

T.C.: If you look at public opinion polls, there is an organization in Chicago that does a poll every couple of years which asks which countries do you most admire, which countries are you most afraid of. And what this poll shows is a lot of fluctuation for Russia while many of the other countries are more stable.

Russia fluctuates a lot depending on what’s happening over here, what the relations are like in the short-term. I think it’s much more important than Putin’s image. I would say that many Americans who pay attention to events in Russia are somewhat tired of Putin and this is may be rather a superficial thing to say, but when we look at politicians, we like variety, we like change, we like the political game.

It’s normal for human beings to like that. And in Russia, there is no normal political game, and there won’t be for some time. The Putin story became a little bit played out, the same thing over and over again. There are certainly many Americans, including people who knew him, who see his positive qualities. In this respect, I don’t think you can say he is demonized or anything like that.

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