Only Russia could have produced a man like Korzhakov and ended up giving him so much power

Thomas de Waal

  • Boris Yeltsin: From Dawn to Dusk by Aleksandr Korzhakov
    Interbook, 477 pp, £9.95, December 1997, ISBN 5 88589 039 0
  • Romance with the President by Vyacheslav Kostikov
    Vagrius, 352 pp, £10.50, October 1997, ISBN 5 7027 0459 2

Alexander Korzhakov, Boris Yeltsin’s former chief bodyguard, operated out of a poky cubby-hole in the Kremlin with room for barely anyone but himself. Vyacheslav Kostikov, Yeltsin’s press secretary, was given a grand office once occupied by the first Soviet President, Mikhail Kalinin. Both men were alter egos of the Russian President, but it was Korzhakov, his darker other half who hatched dirty plots to keep him in power and was spectacularly sacked when the plotting got out of hand, who in his time wielded the power. Kostikov belonged to that part of the Russian intelligentsia which supported Yeltsin as a ‘democrat’ from 1989 onwards – by ‘democrat’ they meant a politician of sufficient strength to defeat the Communist Party. Both men have now written their memoirs: they are highly partisan and Korzhakov’s in particular is a study in sour grapes. But they are essential reading if one wants to understand the nature of post-Communist power in Russia and the character of ‘the boss’.

The books plug gaps which have until now been filled only by hearsay. Both men figured, for example, in a legendary incident on a Siberian river that has been told in so many versions that Korzhakov’s account, sarcastic though it is, comes as a great relief. Nothing sums up better the combination of farce and brutality in Yeltsin’s Kremlin. The boss and his team were sailing down the Yenisei on a three-decker riverboat. Kostikov was bothering the President with his banter until Yeltsin could stand it no longer and told three of his biggest aides to toss the troublesome spokesman overboard. Kostikov passes over the incident in silence. This is Korzhakov’s version:

The domestically minded Barsukov graciously suggested: ‘Vyacheslav, take off your shoes. They’re expensive Italian ones, you’ll wreck them.’

   ‘It’s fine, don’t try and frighten me,’ parried our comedian.

   ‘Throw him,’ the President ordered and they calmly tossed him overboard.

   Thankfully, they gave him a good swing – the top deck was much narrower than the middle or lower one. Had they simply dropped Vyacheslav over the side, he could have broken his head open.

   At that moment I was standing on the second deck admiring the Siberian scenery. Suddenly Kostikov flew past me, his arms and legs jerking desperately. At first I took him for an enormous bird, but an instant later I recognised the familiar bald head and dashed up to the third deck.

The press secretary was fished out of the water, found to have a bump on his head and revived with a flask of vodka. It’s a good story, but the fact is that in Yeltsin’s Russia authority still worships physical force. His is an elected presidency that sought to shore itself up with tank fire in Moscow in 1993 and a military intervention in Chechnya a year later.

The Russian political narrative of the early Nineties is rather like Romeo and Juliet without the love interest: a story of constant clan struggle, in which teams of large thugs were hired to threaten the opposition. The largest team, 30,000 of them according to some estimates, belonged to the presidential Security Service presided over by Alexander Korzhakov. In December 1994, Korzhakov called his men out to harass the private bodyguards of the banker Vladimir Gusinsky outside his Moscow headquarters. The presidential guards forced Gusinsky’s men to lie face down in the snow – an act of intimidation which had the desired effect of persuading Gusinsky to flee the country.

‘Power is repulsive, like a barber’s hands,’ Mandelstam wrote in 1933, and in Russia it has often been crude. Its rewards have created a freakshow of crazed executioners and made pathological villains out of the most banal material: only Russia could have produced a man like Korzhakov and ended up giving him so much power. Basically, his job was to be the man who sat in the front of the black limousine and leapt out to open the door for the ‘boss’. He was from a simple Moscow background and had been a guard in the KGB’s Ninth Directorate, responsible for protecting state officials. In early 1986 he became the most junior guard in the service of the new head of the Moscow City Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin.

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