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.

Korzhakov was a child of the Soviet Union to his fingertips: indeed, he tells us with pride that his fingers are calloused by hard work and scoffs, Bolshevik-style, at the pampered hands of the class enemy, the banker Gusinsky. Jews like Gusinsky, homosexuals, intellectuals of any kind and women who go out to work are all subjected to the contempt of a Soviet patriot – a contempt which has its roots in Korzhakov’s strong institutional loyalty to his alma mater, the KGB. After 1992, he laments, ‘this élite special service was dying from the lack of a strong leader capable of securing money ... for its officers, of adding to their salaries or of restoring the elementary privileges of which they were unjustly stripped.’ Both he and his boss were from poor families; both were ‘muzhiki’, in its current usage – strong men who enjoyed being thrashed in the baths with birch twigs, playing volleyball and drinking vodka. But their relationship was utterly unequal – Korzhakov was in effect Yeltsin’s serf. When he was cast out by the man whom he had served day and night for more than ten years, Korzhakov ‘suddenly realised’, he now writes, that he

had never loved Yeltsin as a man. At first I simply worked with him. He stood out from the other nomenklatura officials and this difference delighted me. Then during his period of political exile I pitied him. Boris Nikolaevich somehow instantly became weak and pilloried, sometimes did not even want to live ... I was able to pull him out of his depressions, I filled him with energy, and the more often that happened, the stronger I felt.

He was, you realise, always near but never actually close to the boss. Even at the zenith of his power he never stopped opening doors for his man.

Korzhakov’s book is crammed with the stuff of every Soviet bureaucrat’s dreams: apartments in central Moscow, dachas to the west of the city, Italian furniture and long black cars. Success could be measured by the square footage of your apartment or the length of your limousine – and by your understanding of how much respect to pay the status, and the perks, of others. In 1987 Yeltsin moved into a dacha just vacated by Gorbachev:

The boss did not even wait for it to be done up before moving in. Such a thing had never happened in the history of the Party. It was customary to do some cosmetic repair work. The Gorbachevs left. They took the pictures off the walls; pale patches were left on the wallpaper. Nails poked out of the walls and there were empty holes. Yeltsin’s haste had a simple explanation – he wanted to show that he was not squeamish about Gorbachev’s mess. Boris Nikolaevich would never have attained such a high post if he had not had this unwavering respect for party rank.

Later on, when he became a political rival of Gorbachev’s, Yeltsin matched him acquisition for acquisition. When the Soviet leader bought an armoured ZIL limousine, he acquired one too. Finally, when Gorbachev was defeated, Yeltsin started stripping away the former president’s privileges – the office space, the privileged access, the state ZIL. All of this is doubly piquant because Yeltsin, who turned into a latter-day tsar, began his political renaissance by battling against the Party’s culture of perks – the dachas and special nosh and Crimean villas.

It becomes evident in the course of the book that it was because Yeltsin knew his Communist opponents from the inside that he was able to destroy them so effectively; he could denounce luxury because he knew it himself; and he knew all the rules that governed the dirty wars within the nomenklatura. He was also the first to understand that power was ebbing out to the people – something his opponents have never grasped. Once the Soviet Union had ended, the new Communist opposition tried to win the people’s support by playing the part of heir to the great lost superpower. But Yeltsin had already assumed that role, both physically by becoming Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and ideologically by promoting a new nationalism based on the idea of Russia as a great power.

It is perhaps ‘no accident’, as the Russians say, that the tussle for power in 1993 between the President and his Soviet-era legislature, the Supreme Soviet, should have ended with Yeltsin resorting to violence. He dissolved the Supreme Soviet by decree, but it was a messy crackdown. A hard core of parliamentary deputies resisted from inside the White House and on 3 October hundreds of their supporters ran amok through Moscow. Korzhakov and Kostikov both devote many pages to these events, which the world knows from CNN’s footage. These were indeed days of high drama; but I do not agree that the country was – as both writers suggest – close to civil war. The opposition on the streets was poorly armed and had no public support. When a small crowd tried to break into the television centre they were slaughtered by a handful of frightened soldiers inside. Yeltsin exploited the crisis with great skill and, at a fraught late night meeting in the Defence Ministry, ordered the reluctant generals to send in the Army to storm the White House.

Korzhakov boasts (and this is partially confirmed by Yeltsin in his memoirs) that he was the one who came up with the plan to use tanks against the White House. Of the assembled generals he says: ‘No one had even thought about such decisive radical actions. I had the impression that they were all thinking only about one thing – how to justify their own inactivity.’ The White House was bombarded. The opposition capitulated. Western governments looked the other way, flushed with relief that their man had won. For a while it looked as though the veneer of Russian democracy had been stripped away entirely.

Korzhakov’s reward was to be head of a new security service with vastly expanded powers. Almost overnight he became a politician with his own gang, whose tentacles stretched far into the economy. Mikhail Barsukov, his friend of 17 years, was later made head of the FSB. Oleg Soskovets, a vicious manager with lucrative connections in the aluminium industry, is implausibly spoken of as a ‘kind, pleasant, witty’ man and a serious candidate for President. Shamil Tarpishchev, the presidential tennis coach, is the man who could cheer Yeltsin up when he was tired of the gabbling of his liberal advisers. But Tarpishchev also headed the National Sports Fund, which made billions from the right to import alcohol and tobacco into Russia duty-free.

Other clan luminaries are passed over in silence. I could mention Vladimir Polevanov, a Korzhakov protégé, who had a short and inglorious term as Privatisation Minister before going off to found a small neofascist political party; Alexei Ilyushenko, who was Public Prosecutor but later arrested on corruption charges; or Nikolai Yegorov, the thuggish Nationalities Minister, who played a central role in starting the war in Chechnya. That war, the group’s most costly project, is not mentioned in the book, except to allow Korzhakov to absolve himself from all responsibility for the decision to send in troops. In fact the decision was explicitly made by Yeltsin with collective support, but a mass of circumstantial evidence suggests that it was Korzhakov’s clan who lobbied hardest for intervention.

The mistake Korzhakov and his friends eventually made was to assume that Yeltsin had become a member of the clan, that they owned him. However dominant they were, there were still a few other aides in the Kremlin with reformist credentials. These included Kostikov, who was presidential press secretary until the end of 1994. His memoirs are a lot duller and more pompous than Korzhakov’s, but he bears Yeltsin no grudge, which means that they are more discerning. Kostikov was a Moscow journalist who came from the aggressively anti-Communist wing of the ‘democratic’ movement. He understood perfectly the ambiguity of Yeltsin the ex-Communist doing battle with Communism – and by implication his own ambiguous position. His group’s unspoken agenda was, he says, to resist Yeltsin’s ‘old party habits, which were much stronger than the newly acquired ones. To fight for Yeltsin the democrat meant attracting people of firm democratic convictions to work with him, and restricting the influence of the old Soviet mentality in his entourage. It meant attracting the intelligentsia to him.’

The other face of Yeltsin makes an appearance in this memoir: the man of courage who genuinely disliked the old Soviet system and who enlisted some very unlikely and admirable people in his efforts to smash it. By 1994 this Yeltsin was fading away, but he only gradually got rid of the ‘democratic’ aides who had once backed him. Had Russia been a monarchy that is probably where the story would have ended, with the slow disappearance of the Westernised liberals and Yeltsin sliding back into old nomenklatura habits under the grinning influence of his faithful bodyguard. But Yeltsin had also introduced a new element into Russian life: the habit of contested elections. The 1996 Presidential elections were not fair and the media were heavily manipulated, but the elections were free, carefully observed – and ultimately unstoppable. The rapt intensity of Moscow’s Parliamentary Centre, when hundreds of journalists, politicians and electoral observers waited for the results of the first round of voting to scroll down a vast electronic screen, was unforgettable. For one night at least Russia was a democracy.

Power was flowing outwards at last – and Yeltsin grasped this. He turned his campaign into a success in large measure by wooing the voters – veterans, miners, teenagers – with energetic and cynical promises in the manner of Western electoral politics. Power also flowed sideways and into the hands of a new business élite, who decided to finance the Yeltsin campaign. They allied themselves with the reformers who, though marginalised by the Kremlin intrigues of the previous two years, understood how to run a campaign. As election day moved closer, Yeltsin’s team split into two halves, which occupied two different floors of the campaign headquarters in the President Hotel. Poor tubby Korzhakov gradually lost ground to the more professional faction of bankers, image-makers and political scientists on the floor above. The secret war between the two groups put the real electoral fight between Yeltsin and Zyuganov in the shade.

Ideally, as far as Korzhakov was concerned, there would have been no elections at all. Failing that, he had another strategy about which he is uncharacteristically coy. By ideological persuasion, he, Soskovets and their friends were ‘gosudarstvenniki’ – believers in a strong protectionist state. That brought them close to the nationalist wing of the Communist Party. Korzhakov confirms that he had meetings with one of the Communist leaders, Viktor Zorkaltsev, to whom he proposed bringing the Communists into a ‘coalition government’. The skeleton of an idea was beginning to emerge: maybe a deal could be struck which would allow Yeltsin to carry on as President, without an election but with much reduced powers; the ‘democrats’ would be shut out, the Communists would be let into government and the likes of Korzhakov and Soskovets would be the kingmakers.

We don’t know how far he got with this mad scheme, but it was treasonable to Yeltsin and his people. Korzhakov had not really paid enough attention to the election campaign proper, which Yeltsin was now beginning to win. The election went ahead, and on 20 June, between the two rounds of voting, after a night of intense feuding between the two camps, Korzhakov, Barsukov and Soskovets were all sacked. A few days after his dismissal Korzhakov wrote a letter to Yeltsin which is printed here: it says nothing about their ten years of friendship, but is stuffed with half-baked conspiracy theories about Western multinational companies scheming to take over Russia.

Yeltsin still has a little more than two years of his second term to serve out. The fact that he emerges in these books as a ruthless egoist fond of power for its own sake is not news, but now we know about it in greater detail. He appears, too, to have an extraordinary killer instinct – which destroyed a long line of opponents from Gorbachev to Alexander Lebed. He also harbours some very basic political ambitions: to make Russia a more ‘normal’ country and more like the West; to destroy the Communist Party; to keep Russia as a ‘great power’; and to be remembered as its first elected head of state. Under the 1993 constitution the Russian President can serve only two terms but inasmuch as Yeltsin was elected for the first time as President, not of a sovereign state but of one republic of the Soviet Union, the Constitutional Court may be persuaded to allow him to run again – should he decide he wants a third term. But if he does and he wins, Russia will find itself, once more, with an ailing head of state. The alternative is for Yeltsin to start grooming a successor, but that, too, is fraught with danger. His divide-and-rule style of government, thoroughly chronicled here, has created a second tier of politicians who will stop at nothing to be the presidential heir. To that extent, the Yeltsin years have failed to civilise the political culture in any significant way: ‘normalisation’ is something that the President is unlikely to see while he remains in office – or at all, for that matter.