From 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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To his admirers and detractors, Yeltsin remains an enigma: the heroic figure who majestically faced down tanks, seemingly single-handedly, to prevent the coup against Gorbachev’s reforming movement but also the national embarrassment who appeared publicly in an alcoholic haze and presided over a brutal and corrupt transition from totalitarianism to a supposedly democratic society. Colton, a scholar of Russian studies at Harvard, has written the first comprehensive biography of Yeltsin. Aided by access to Yeltsin himself as well as to prominent Russian officials and close associates, Colton seeks insight by examining Yeltsin’s family background, childhood, and young manhood. His family, moderately prosperous before the revolution, was severely victimized by Stalin, yet Yeltsin, who stood out as a youth as a highly energetic leader, willingly became part of the system he grew to detest, as an apparently loyal apparatchik. But as Colton illustrates, he always harbored serious doubts about dogmatic Marxism; these doubts, combined with a naturally rebellious spirit, led him to play his part in the dismantling of the Soviet Union. An important work. --Jay Freeman