Thousands of Cans and Cartons

Christopher Hitchens

  • Against the Grain: An Autobiography by Boris Yeltsin, translated by Michael Glenny
    Cape, 215 pp, £12.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 224 02749 2

Several years ago, Tariq Ali published an exquisite interview with a disillusioned veteran of the Indian Communist Party. This old comrade had been invited to Moscow by Khrushchev, and wanted a chance to express his misgivings about the treatment of Boris Pasternak. During a Bolshoi performance in which Khrushchev was showing no interest, he seized his moment. In vain. No, said the burly peasant, I want to hear no more about this author. We shall not be publishing him. Had it occurred to the party of Lenin, asked the Indian communist very silkily, that if literature was forbidden it might start to circulate in unauthorised forms? Maybe and maybe not, replied Khrushchev, but in any event the party of Lenin would not be giving it currency.

Perhaps feeling he had been a touch short with his guest, Khrushchev went on to say that all was not paradise in the Soviet Union. There was absenteeism, demoralisation, crime, corruption, delinquency – the greater part of it attributable to alcohol, in his view. Wagering all on the turn of a card, the Indian dialectician, who had done many a year in British prisons, asked whether or not the Party had considered the option of prohibition. Of course we have considered it, replied Khrushchev, but if you ban a thing like that then people will simply make and distribute it illicitly ...

There’s a good deal about booze in Boris Yeltsin’s memoir. He enters an indignant denial to the Pravda charge that he is himself a slave to the bottle, and he attacks Gorbachev’s heavy-handed anti-alcohol campaign (which both robbed the state of revenue and created contempt for the process of perestroika). In general, though, he has grasped the point that the Indian comrade was striving to convey. It is difficult if not absolutely impossible to imbibe heresy in small doses. Either the system is in need of rapid, total change, or it is not. If the leadership concedes the main point, why does it remain addicted to the half-measure?

We are not privileged to learn exactly what Yeltsin himself proposes by way of detoxification except that such a programme must be sweeping and swift and decisive. This is because the entire book is a sample of something that is surely about to become common – the Soviet political manifesto written in the style of the American ‘campaign biography’. In the United States, these effusions come with names like ‘A Time to Heal’ or ‘The Moment of Truth’ or ‘A Call to Vision’. Here, in the excellent vernacular translation supplied by Michael Glenny, we have its lumbering Soviet emulation. (‘Against the grain’, with its variant ‘against the current’, is usually employed by New York intellectuals when they come to write up a long odyssey of what they consider to be the independent mind. As Yeltsin is in the process of discovering, the populist politician needs to cut with the grain.)

The early pages of the preface give credit to a ghost-writer. An announcement is made that all royalties will go to Aids research. On page one is a reference to the science of opinion polling. The terms ‘in place’ – used of ‘landmarks charting our progress’ – and ‘specifics’ – used to refer to the indefinite – make their appearance just as they would in the draft of a speech composed by a junior Senate staffer. And there is a great deal, a very great deal, of what American journalists call boilerplate rhetoric: ‘We should above all be concerned with people and their welfare, since if you treat people well they will respond with improved performance in whatever their occupation may be. This has remained my credo to this day ...’ ‘The chief consideration was the contacts I had built up with people – strong, enduring, worthwhile, the kind that take a long time to create. And since I was above all accustomed to working closely with people ...’ ‘No doubt it will sound banal, but what surprised me most were precisely those ordinary people in America, who radiated optimism, faith in themselves and in their country.’ Well, yes, as a matter of fact it does sound banal. This could also be said of Yeltsin’s roguish admission that while at school he was a hard worker but a bit of a rebel; his incessant resort to stories and metaphors drawn from sport, particularly his beloved volleyball, and his claim at one point to have ‘reacted calmly enough to what sociologists would call a drop in my rating’. Actually it’s psephologists, but the kid is learning fast. On page 85 is a long reflection on the cleverest way to ensure maximum ‘exposure’ on Soviet TV without boring the customers.

Though there are recollections and anecdotes of a folksy kind scattered through the narrative, this is in no sense an autobiography. It is a quickie book, written to satisfy immediate political exigencies and to ‘flesh out’, as American image-builders say, the candidate. Yeltsin adopts the superficially persuasive tactic of re-printing questions that were asked at Moscow election meetings, and then answering them in his own way and at his own pace. This is then bound all complete within covers, with the pictorial section showing, as you may have guessed, the candidate with his children and the candidate on the campaign trail.

Very occasionally we are compelled to remember that this was written in Russian and by a Russian. There are anxious and hopeless discussions about agriculture, for example. A neologism – limitchiki – is coined to describe those who live on the periphery of Moscow and try to get within range of full residence rights. There is regional and social detail, but only of the kind that an American candidate would utter in hymning the special qualities of his home town and home State. At one stage, though, Yeltsin alludes to an inner-party tactic whereby one candidate may step down in favour of another at the last minute, and he calls it ‘castling’. No American politician would risk an unexplained reference to a chess move.

One has to be impressed at the way in which the methods and vocabulary and mentality of ward-heeling and opinion-forming have become general in the past few years. I waited without much suspense to see what Yeltsin would say about his visit to America. He did not miss his cue: ‘There were, of course, shattering experiences – the supermarkets for example. When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort.’ Exactly, comrade. Exactly. Here in not very refined form is the essence of the ex-Communist as cargo cultist, the eager votary who thinks that if he, too, can build the right jetty and the right jungle airstrip, the ships and planes will land and discharge their bounty. More than a nifty literary agent will be required, however, for Soviet populists to make the leap into a society that has no further need for prohibition.