Vanity Fair profiles The eXile: "Gutsy...visceral...serious journalism...abusive, defamatory...poignant...paranoid...and right!"
MSNBC: Mark Ames and Yasha Levine
Broke the Koch Brothers' Takeover of America


This review was originally published in The eXile on March 30, 2000

After reviewing so many well-meaning, badly-written books, it’s a pleasure to dissect the work of a skilled liar. The liar in question is Leon Aron, the book is Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. Aron’s book attempts a task which is, to borrow his favorite Classical allusion, “Augean”: cleaning up the filth-dripping career of Boris Yeltsin.

But though the task is, as he puts it, Herculean, Aron has one tremendous advantage: he is writing for readers who know very little about contemporary Russia. Only an audience deeply ignorant of Russia would stand for a biography of Yeltsin which in 750 pages makes only four brief references to Boris Berezovsky. Writing a Yeltsin biography which ignores Berezovsky is like writing a history of the Nicaraguan Contras without mentioning Oliver North. Yet Aron expects to get away with excluding Berezovsky from his story – and based on the reviews of this book by what passes for the American intelligentsia, he will succeed. Martin Malia has informed the readers of the Wall Street Journal that “whoever wishes to understand post-Communist Russia…must henceforth start with Mr. Aron’s path-breaking book.” The New York Times, gullible as ever, has termed Aron’s book “a fine, full-blooded portrait of Yeltsin.”


Sadly, very few of the readers who buy Aron’s book on the strength of these endorsements will know enough about Russia to see the scope of the Big Lie Aron feeds them. They will end up believing that Yeltsin and his friends were doing God’s work, or at least Adam Smith’s — rather than divvying up the plunder of a fallen empire while its stunned, exhausted people were too busy trying to survive to put up any resistance, and whose hope and faith in a better, more just future had been coapted and perverted by some of the most bloodless, amoral nihilists-posing as free-market democrats-that the world has ever seen. Just taking the loans-for-shares scheme alone — a theft that even the IMF and World Bank have disavowed — it is estimated that at least tens of billions of dollars worth of state assets were literally given away to the oligarchs (and often times even paid for by stealing the unpaid wages of Russia’s state workers and pensioners) for almost free. That alone would qualify Yeltsin as the greatest thief that mankind has ever known.

Aron has so little respect for his American readers that he actually attempts to tell them that the oligarchs aren’t really such a big deal, that they’re largely myth:

“…The secrecy in which the Russian robber barons cloaked their dealings resulted in a vast exaggeration of their wealth and power both by the Moscow rumor mill and by the resident correspondents of Western newspapers and television networks…The truth was further obscured by a deep suspicion of personal wealth…and by self-aggrandizing claims and accusations with which the perennially warring moguls puffed up their worth and which they hurled at one another through their media outlets.”

Aron’s prose slips a bit here, particularly in that last sentence. If the oligarchs are really so marginal, how is it that they apparently own all the “media outlets”? Or is ownership of the electronic media such a minor advantage? Aron simply dismisses other charges against Yeltsin without argument:

“…equally bizarre [is] the ‘theory’ that explained Yeltsin’s dependence on the oligarchs by the gifts which they showered on his family — as if the President of Russia, should he decide to do so, needed intermediaries in raiding the country’s treasury.”

One would like to ask Mr. Aron exactly what is “bizarre” about this “‘theory’.” “Intermediaries in raiding the country’s treasury” is a fairly exact description of the talents of Berezovsky and above all Chubais (whom Aron treats very delicately). It seems less than “bizarre” that Yeltsin, whose job was not to cook the books but to present a “democratic” face to the West while the cooking was in progress, would work with the leading embezzlers rather than carrying sacks of dollars out of the banks. He’s not in that sort of condition.

The one figure of the 1990’s who stirs Aron’s bile is Yavlinsky, the least corrupt of all the “reformers.” Quiz for non-Russian readers: explain why does Aron hate Yavlinsky, of all people, so intensely. In 25 words or less. [HINT: Yavlinsky, as the only authentically democratic, untainted Western-style politician in Russia, and the part-Jewish leader of the fiercest opposition Duma faction, does WHAT to Aron’s central argument that all those opposed to Yeltsin were crypto-fascist/anti-Semitic-Stalinist monsters?]

In whitewashing Yeltsin’s astoundingly sleazy career, Aron leans heavily on his readers’ worship of the free market and the power of the individual to transcend, even remake, the world around him. (In other words: successful Americans.) Playing on the paradigmatic narratives Americans absorb with their morning cartoons, Aron transforms young Yeltsin into a Siberian Abraham Lincoln, growing up in “…the Ural-Siberian tradition of diversity, acceptance and meritocracy.” Yeltsin may not have lived in a log cabin, but as Aron points out, his grandparents did. As a boy, Yeltsin rambles in the woods, explores Siberian rivers and generally gets up to all sorts of Huck-Finn deviltry (blowing half his hand off while playing with a grenade, for example), but grows up to be the hardest-working, straightest-speaking construction boss in the history of Sverdlovsk, a totally (!), incorruptible workaholic who sternly rejects every attempt at a bribe or dubious gift. To give Yeltsin due credit, one must admit that he certainly transcended that provincial prejudice in later life.

Aron is at his best when his knack for hagiography has the fewest obstacles (ie facts) to overcome. This means that his early chapters about Yeltsin’s life in Sverdlovsk are his best. When Boris is summoned to Moscow — his drive and goodness recognized at last — Aron’s task becomes much harder.

Aron has two strategies for wrestling his readers into respecting Yeltsin. First, he uses his early chapters to paint the Soviet system so black that a naive reader will accept any change as an improvement. In the process he makes Yeltsin’s task literally Herculean – and I mean literally: Aron consistently compares Yeltsin’s tasks to the labors of Hercules, above all to the cleaning of the Augean stables. (Though, in a momentary lapse, he fudges a bit by describing Yeltsin as “both Augeas and Hercules” — that is, the man responsible for the mountain of dung, as well as its remover.)

Aron’s not shy about enlisting a plurality of Classical heroes, either. When Hercules tires, enter Sisyphus. Here is Aron’s depiction of Yeltsin after he has been rebuked by the CPSU:

“Yeltsin sat on the dais, motionless, his head in his hands. The monstrous boulder that he, day and night, had pushed up, up, up the steep slope, through briars, his hands cut and bleeding, his knees in muck, his sides bruised and his heart strained – had finally crushed Sisyphus.”

If I may resort to the argot of my native malls: what crap. The torture to which Yeltsin has been subjected is no more than a public scolding by his fellow apparatchiks, to which Yeltsin reacts not by standing up for his rights in Lincolnesque fashion but by groveling, as Aron admits, “like a star defendant of Stalin’s show trials in the 1930’s.” And Yeltsin, when challenged, shows that he can grovel with the best of ’em:

“I am very guilty before the Moscow party organization, very guilty before the GorKom, before the buro, before all of you and, of course, I am very guilty before Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, whose authority is so high in our country and in the whole world….”

But Yeltsin groveled, not before Stalin but…Gorbachev! It’s no shame to grovel before Stalin — God would grovel before Stalin — but to react to a tonguelashing by his doddering epigones of 1987 vintage, as Yeltsin did, is hardly Sisyphus-level heroic endurance.

Aron’s other strategy for rehabilitating Yeltsin is simple old Russophobia. He says outright that Yeltsin’s opponents are anti-Semitic fascists, and offers several grotesque cartoons out of Zavtra as evidence. In other words, Russians who objected to seeing their jobs, their savings, their country whisked away; who were bothered by the starvation and entropy of the countryside; who found it suspicious that every item of value in the former USSR had passed, somehow, into the hands of a dozen master embezzlers; that all these people were no more than Jew-baiting racists. Now that is what Dr. G. used to call the biiiiiiiiiiig lie. 900 pages of it. Now that’s big.

The only remaining issue for the reader is guessing how big was Aron’s compensation package for producing this shameless encyclopedia of court flattery. We’d bet that it was real big. And judging by the early reviews, it was money well spent.

John Dolan is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast. Subscribe here.

Posted on: July 12th, 2016 | Comments (4)

Stepmother War: A Review of Svetlana Alexievich's "Zinky Boys"

Zinky Boys focuses, much more than any Nam memoir I know, on the dead. Even the title refers to the closed zinc coffins in which Soviet dead were sent home.

Posted on: October 8th, 2015 | Comments (1)

Anne Applebaum, Professional Mourner

The crimes of history are optional. We mix, match and discard according to taste and convenience. It’s useful for Applebaum’s Tory backers to remember Stalin’s crimes because they can still use them to bash anyone who might want to beef up the National Health system with higher taxes. “Today an extra 1% VAT on my Jag convertible, tomorrow Kolyma!” is a very familiar war cry from these crusaders for human rights.

Posted on: December 19th, 2013 | Comments (12)

Books That Was in Nam

Vietnam, a war characterized by thousands of small skirmishes, was richer in incident and gore than an inner-city basketball tournament. When next you hear that rough voice asking, “War — what is it good for?”, you tell it: “First-person memoirs, that’s what!”

Posted on: November 30th, 2013 | Comments (1)

Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell Asks Us To Pity the Rich

Ever since Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” came out in early October, he’s been on a non-stop promotional tour. He’s appeared on the BBC and the Daily Show, he’s done Twitter group chats and Ted Talk Q&As, and has had…

Posted on: October 26th, 2013 | Comments (1)

Defending P.G. Wodehouse from His Goddamn Defenders

I’ve been tipped off recently that the hounds of Hell are after P.G. Wodehouse again. And we can’t have that sort of thing going on. The occasion for fresh attacks on the great writer is the publication of P.G. Wodehouse:…

Posted on: November 12th, 2011 | Comments (28)

Woe Is Wodehouse And His Biography

This article was first published in The eXile on October 4, 2007 Robert McCrum’s biography of P.G. Wodehouse was published in 2004. At the time, I ignored it. I know the formula for these bios. You won’t catch me sanctioning…

Posted on: November 12th, 2011 | Comments (7)

Conscience of a Radical: Corey Robin’s "The Reactionary Mind"

The first rule of debate: Never accept your opponent’s characterization of his own position. But for decades, liberals–in their perpetual Nerf-war against conservatives–have done just the opposite. While conservatives bloviate about traditionalism (Buckley), skepticism (Burke), sobriety (Taft), and order (Mill),…

Posted on: November 1st, 2011 | Comments (95)

Rin Tin Tin's Rich Bitch Biographer

There’s a book out about Rin Tin Tin, the old dog-star of Hollywood, by that stuck-up New Yorker hack Susan Orlean. She’s best-known for writing the bestseller The Orchid Thief, which got adapted by lofty screenwriter Charlie Kaufman into a…

Posted on: October 28th, 2011 | Comments (54)

Black Metal Nation: How Norway Spawned The World's Most Violent Rightwing Metalheads

My idea of a Norwegian was always some cheerless Social Democrat in a knit sweater whose greatest joy in life was comparing the price of beer in Prague (cheap) to the price of beer in Krakow (even cheaper). Then I…

Posted on: July 23rd, 2011 | Comments (90)

Why The American Right Never Liked V.S. Naipaul

I’ve often wondered why the American Right has been so quiet about V.S. Naipaul. He’s easily the most talented reactionary writer in the English language–maybe the only living talent left in the right-wing zombiesphere. The American Right devotes an insane…

Posted on: July 1st, 2011 | Comments (95)

Pretentious Junkies Down Under: An Introduction to Contemporary Australian Drug Lit

I’ve decided to write a sequel to my piece about DFW and American drug lit, and talk about how five Aussie writers have handled the same topic. But don’t worry, most of these people have been published in the US…

Posted on: June 8th, 2011 | Comments (28)

"Inside WikiLeaks": Revenge Of The Second Banana

From The eXiled’s Special Australasia Correspondent PERTH, AUSTRALIA–First, the Right accused WikiLeaks of endangering US soldiers and Afghan informers. Then after “Cablegate” the neocons conceded to the lack of evidence and switched to the opposite tactic: insisting there was nothing…

Posted on: March 2nd, 2011 | Comments (73)

Enough Appeasement: Why We Need Media Criticism Delivered In A Cruise Missile

This article was first published in the New York Press on February 8, 2005. Thank God for the Iraqi insurgency. If it weren’t for the resistance tying us down, we would have already moved against far more serious foes like…

Posted on: December 14th, 2010 | Comments (23)

Blood-Sucking Death Porn Dykes Do Western Australia: A Survey Of True Crime From Down Under

PERTH — Western Australia is one of Oceania’s best sources of grotesquerie. In the same way the Southern States serve America, Western Australia provides an endless supply of serial killing tales, small-town hatred and supernatural horror. Melbourne might be the…

Posted on: October 7th, 2010 | Comments (28)

eXiled eXclusive! Advance Copy Of Martin Amis Eulogy For (The Nearly-Departed) Christopher Hitchens

If you’re like us, you’re sick and tired of having to wait around for some loathsome celebrity to die just to read their obituary. Who says we can’t read the obituary before they die, on our own time? This is…

Posted on: September 17th, 2010 | Comments (42)

Christopher Hitchens Update: A Life Spent Blowing Smoke, A Death By Poetic Justice

“C’mon cancer, I dare you to knock this sneer off my face.” Since writing my last piece on Hitchens (“How Christopher Hitchens Robbed Hunter S. Thompson’s Grave”), I’ve finally found a widow smart enough to give Blitcons a massive up-yours….

Posted on: September 16th, 2010 | Comments (32)

How Christopher Hitchens Robbed Hunter S. Thompson's Grave

Ancient Gonzo Wisdom should be a perfect book: a collection of all the interviews Hunter S. Thompson ever gave. It begins with a talk Thompson gave on ABC News in 1967, shortly after Hell’s Angels was released. It ends with…

Posted on: September 11th, 2010 | Comments (96)

UFOs Made Boring

There’s this woman making the rounds of the talk shows with her new book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record. She’s an earnest, homely progressive named Leslie Kean with a tan semi-afro, wire-rimmed glasses, and the…

Posted on: September 7th, 2010 | Comments (21)

Hell Is Other People On Amazon.Com

When Amazon started printing readers’ book reviews on the net, a window opened briefly on the mental worlds of ordinary people — or, as Harry Dean Stanton so memorably called them, “ordinary fuckin’ people.” Everyone should have a look at…

Posted on: September 6th, 2010 | Comments (33)