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Mr. Yeltzin

drunk or sober, I like him, drunk or sober

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 27, 1994.

Newsweek magazine has, this issue, an interview with Boris Yeltzin, along with excerpts from his book. Read it. I cannot say whether it is a feature of translation between Russian and English, but all Soviet and Russian leaders seem to talk in declarative sentences of clarity, eloquence, and, as Joseph Conrad once insisted, that glimpse of truth for which you had forgotten to ask. Compare it to the heavings of American politicians, not excluding the one sliding into the dirt as we speak, and the distinctions are often painful.

This is not to leap into utter naivete and insist Yeasting always tells the truth; clearly, he does not and probably could not but you definitely have the feeling he wants to tell everything, that he wants our approval, not as Americans necessarily, but merely as listeners to the tale. This attitude, both endearing and charming, is at stark contrast to the verbose garbage that, say, a Senator accused to molesting all members of the female gender emits to the press.

Yeltzin says he can't sleep well and gets up early in the morning and writes. He says that at that time, things subject to silent rumination often emerge clear and truthful and removed from the superficial emotions of the day brought on by contact with others. Anyone who has written or gone through any sort of major business crisis knows the truth of those remarks, and the text proves it. His assessments of, say, Gorbechev ring true and sound without unnecessary social blather. He wonders at the ability of American leaders to assist each other after elections, like Bush and Clinton. He speaks very kindly of people he obviously despises, but this is not the same as lying, just being politic. The truth is not hidden and no words are said to be regretted.

Yeltzin avoids discussing his alcoholism, or at least alcoholic excesses. Yet he describes an argument at table with family that is almost the prototype alcoholic blowup that will vibrate with anyone who has glanced nervously over a dinner plate at a parent with half closed eyes and a rising voice. He cannot be unaware of it. He also mentions the incident that many, or at least I, had forgotten which might explain if not excuse his over the counter pain killer. Four years ago, Yeltzin was in a plane crash in Spain and had a ruptured spine. He lucked out with a successful operation, but anyone out there with a bad back knows how the pain often is not felt as pain but as exhaustion, and that a few stiff drinks before some hideous social event to be enjoyed as a high colonic may ring a sympathetic bell or three.

Yeltzin is a male chauvinist of high achievement; he makes no secret of it. He likes hunting and manly man type stuff and probably, as the old joke goes, uses cologne that comes in hairy bottles. Nevertheless, he is insightful about his surroundings and nation and that great unknown, one's own heart. His description of the moment he realized he was not a communist anymore is not high drama, but it rings true both for himself and, with modest projection, for a whole generation or two of highly educated and energetic Soviet bureaucrats. Perhaps that is why I find Yeltzin so charming, he wants to see himself as emblematic of the Russian people and seems to have the credentials and experiences to prove it.

Of course, it may all have emerged from the pen of a talented editor who knows the English speaking audience and what they might want and buy. But even Gorbechev's memoirs of some years back had this whiff of refreshing candor. I shudder to think I might just be a sucker for a good story, and the Russians know how to make a good story, but I think not. I think Yeltzin is Bubbasky risen high, complete with shots of vodka, hysterical hunting stories, and sentimental patriotism for his beautiful country and colorful fellow citizens. I can't help it, drunk or sober, I like him, drunk or sober.