Despite having achieved national fame as the suppressor of the Transdniester rebellion and international renown as the bringer of peace to Chechnya, and despite having scored a convincing victory last year in the race for the Governorship of the Krasnoyarsk region, General Alexander Lebed remains a somewhat ambiguous figure in Russian public life--a political underachiever whose detractors are often more passionate than his followers.
Though his presence among them makes little sense on its face, Lebed has come to belong to that unfortunate group of Russian politicians--a group that includes Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov, and even Yegor Gaidar--who are greeted with far more enthusiasm by Western journalists than by their own constituents.
But while Chubais and the rest of the "Young Reformers" are clearly disliked mainly for being too solicitous of the West, the source of Lebed's unpopularity is a little harder to trace... The general has a famously malevolent sense of humor and a rare talent for the one-liner, but most Russians appreciate Vladimir Zhirinovsky's sense of humor a lot more. He has a reputation for being tough, but the average Russian sees more potential for a "strong hand" sort of leader in Yuri Luzhkov. No real corruption allegations leveled at him have ever stuck, and he appears to be genuinely disinterested in money as compared to his more obvious desires for power and glory, but Grigory Yavlinsky remains the politician most admired for his honesty. His political rhetoric is protectionist, ultra-patriotic, and laden throughout with sentimental allusions to the prouder moments of Russia's Soviet past, but it's the communists who control the nostalgia vote.
Ultimately, it's probably the very charisma and force of personality which Western reporters find most attractive in Lebed that turns many Russian voters off to him. He is unapologetically individualistic and driven, and gives off an air of arrogant self-reliance and self-motivation--all qualities prized in the individualist West, but instinctively frowned upon in the Soviet collectivist mindset. He is rumored to have problems maintaining his own political organizations, particularly as regards his ability to manipulate and rally his subordinates to his cause. A common complaint among people the eXile staff talked to in Krasnoyarsk is that Lebed's background as an autocratic military leader has made it impossible for him to grasp the subtleties of managing, as opposed to commanding, a political staff.
Nonetheless, Lebed remains, along with Zhirinovsky and Yavlinsky, one of the most candid and entertaining public figures in Russia today. Whether or not he has any future in the national political arena, he at the very least continues to be a valuable resource for anyone attempting to make sense of modern Russian politics. He is also the owner of one of the largest heads in the world this side of Darryl Dawkins, making any visit to see him in person well worth the price of admission. So when a CNN crew with which the eXile editors had travelled to Krasnoyarsk offered to help arrange an interview, we jumped at the chance.
Reportedly contemplating a run for the presidency in the year 2000, Lebed has a more immediate concern now in his struggle for political survival in Krasnoyarsk. Since assuming the governorship last year, he's been fighting an uphill battle as an out-of-towner attempting to wrest control of the region away from entrenched commercial interests, led by local aluminum magnate Anatoly Bykov. He has also lately been an outspoken critic of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and as the politician chiefly responsible for ending a similar military quagmire in Chechnya, his commentary on the war has been actively sought out by Western and Russian reporters alike. The thoughts occupying his mind when the eXile visited him for dinner at his dacha last week therefore ranged from national presidential politics to Yugoslavia to a flood on the Yenisei river (which had only just occurred when we arrived) to the history of reform in post-communist Russia to the political future of Yevgeny Primakov, who was two days away from being fired. The only questions he didn't have a ready answer for were of the more juvenile eXile-style sort, a few of which we
Lebed may or may not be be as difficult a boss as the rumors contend, but his reputation for being a good interview is clearly well-deserved. For instance, when describing Boris Yeltsin's spooky, "almost supernatural" ability to remain alive and in power while occupying an alcohol-ravaged, "rotting" body, the general shuddered visibly at his recollections of the President, and actually appeared to enjoy sharing the experience of having been a witness to the Yeltsin phenomenon with the crowd of sneaker-clad American slackers at the dinner table. He held up the interview on several occasions out of concern for the health of a grinning young dirthead CNN soundman in the party who had arrived underdressed ("He'll catch cold in that t-shirt!") and became conspicuously lost during dinner when the soundman excused himself to go to the bathroom ("I'm worried he'll never find the toilet"). Lebed's dinner table was a spread of sproty, tongue sandwiches, and Monstirska Izba Moldovan wine. All in all, we sat with the governor for about two hours. What follows is an excerpt of our conversation:
eXile: What is Boris Yeltsin really like, in person? To us, he's always been an enigma... It always seems like he's dying, that he's a corpse, a zombie. What do you think of him as a person?
It's simple. He has a pathological lust for power. Power to him is absolutely everything.
I'll give you an example. After his first operation, he woke up from the anesthesia, and the first thing he asked was, "Where's my nuclear briefcase?" That's all you need to know. The briefcase the symbol of power. He holds the briefcase and thinks, "I am the state. I am the incarnation of power."
He's been on the verge of death so many times... His doctors themselves are in shock that he's still alive. Half the blood vessels in his brain are about to burst after his strokes, his intestines are spotted all over with holes, he has giant ulcers in his stomach, his heart is in absolutely disgusting condition, he is literally rotting... He could die from any one of dozens of physical problems that he has, but contrary to all laws of nature--he lives.
eXile: Like something out of a horror movie.
Yes, he's almost a supernatural phenomenon. A person can't possibly live, having so many problems at the age of 68, and so many half-destroyed, malfunctioning organs. He's got cirrhosis of the liver, which alone puts tens of millions of people who were healthier than he is in the grave every year. It's a result of colossal amounts of drinking. And yet he still lives.
eXile: Is he coherent? Can you understand him when he speaks? We get the sense, just from watching him on television, that it's virtually impossible to understand him in conversation.
There's a famous doctor, Mironov, who created an absolutely unique life-support system. The President's normal condition is a sort of continual, dreamlike, half-stuporous, inactive state. After two hours of medical reanimation, he becomes buoyant and energetic, walks around, says something or other...
eXile: Screams at someone...
Screams at one person, fires someone else, and then fades back into sleep. And then our media goes and writes--and this system is already well-established--we get a headline, like the one I saw (I think) in Komsomolskaya Pravda not long ago, over a huge article, "Yeltsin--THE PICTURE OF HEALTH, Compared to the American Presidents." Then they go on to describe the health problems of people like Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson... In short, the American presidents were not known for their vigor and stamina.
eXile: Except Kennedy.
Right, except Kennedy, of course. There was vigor there...
eXile: Does he understand what's happening around him? Does he have any idea what's happening in this country?
Oh, what's happening in the country simply doesn't interest him at all. For instance, I went down to Chechnya on an emergency night mission, on the night of August 10-11 , and when I came back, I came to see him intending to report on the state of affairs. He listened to me for three minutes, then grimaced and excused himself, saying he wasn't feeling well, and walked out.
After that, I didn't see him until I was fired. In other words, not only do these things not interest him, they actually actively disinterest him. All these annoyances, some soldiers somewhere, who can't defeat some enemy or other, some kind of sticky situation...
eXile: Does he just listen to a few advisors, or does he read the newspapers, or watch TV?
The problem is, he listens to just three or four people, one of whom is his daughter. They only tell him what he wants to hear. They always tell him that everything is good, everything's dandy, democracy is being built, we're just about to win in Chechnya, victory, in fact, is just minutes away, everybody loves you... And that's the way it goes, all the time. He's just a hostage to his own illusions.
eXile: There are plenty of experienced, sober, intelligent people out there who see what's going on and must perceive his weakness--so why hasn't there been a putsch?
Look, in our entire history, we've only had two leaders who actually accomplished anything--Peter the Great and Stalin. But in order to accomplish
It's the same with Yeltsin. Yeltsin remains because he is convenient for everyone. Those around him know that as long as they observe a few simple rules, respect a few boundaries, then anything goes. Just don't campaign for public attention, stay subdued, don't tread upon Yeltsin's public symbols of power, and you can do anything you like, as long as he's in office. Anything you like.
eXile: Steal as much as you want.
Steal everything you can. And, in the meantime, lard on all the "democratic" rhetoric you can manage.
eXile: How badly has the reputation of democracy suffered here because of the war in Yugoslavia? You've spoken out against the bombing. Is this war as potentially destructive to the American reputation as Chechnya was to Russia?
This war will have disastrous consequences for America. People forget that if one country fights another, that, as a result of having all those people killed, having all those wounded, as a result of sinking into a philosophy of an eye for an eye, blood for blood... As a result of this, a great, wide, unbreachable chasm is created between those countries, a deep hidden, indivisible chasm, which only disappears after a long period of time has elapsed.
For instance, it has been 54 years since the Germans started their war, and in that time they've renounced fascism, have paid war reparations and have kept on paying, have seen their war criminals tried and sentenced--in short, they've done everything they could to restore their reputation, and yet they're not even close to being completely out of the woods everywhere yet. I remember, not long ago, I visited Belgium. I was riding on a boat along a canal, and I saw that the pilot of the boat begin mumbling something to himself just as we were about to pass under a very low bridge. I asked my translator what he said. He pointed to the bridge we were passing under, which was very, very low, and he said, "This is the spot where we order the Germans to stand up."
The striking thing was that the pilot was a young man, no more than 25. Obviously he hadn't been in the war, but was just the grandson of someone who'd fought, and yet still he had those feelings.
It's always the same. One group of people starts the fight, and only later someone else pays the price. In China now there are dozens of journalists who've been beaten up just because they look like Americans. They had typical Western looks, so they were slapped around just in case, and only afterward they were asked who they were. And it turned out that they weren't. This kind of thing is going to happen more and more.
eXile: Do you think that, in Russia anyway, this loss of the American reputation which has advanced in earnest since the Yugoslav war might actually have started as far back as 1991, when U.S. advisors first arrived in Moscow and began helping reshape the Russian economy? Many Russians had previously looked to the United States with great expectations, but haven't our policies toward Russia been steadily alienating the population throughout, since the very beginning of the post-communist era?
Of course. The American policies were very naive. Only a die-hard communist could put a country to bed on the night of August 21, 1991, a country still ruled by a totalitarian regime, then wake it up the next morning and say, "Hey, pal, now you're a democracy." Where was this "democracy" supposed to come from? Russia is a 1,000 year-old empire, the last 73 years of which were a particularly brutal empire that was only amassed through fighting dozens of countries... Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Korea, Mongolia, Afghanistan... Throughout that time we were raising hundreds of millions of people to despise world imperialsm. Every soldier had it beaten into his head that every American is the enemy, that he should be shot on sight whenever met. And suddenly he's told, no, an American is your best friend.
You need a transition period. The first step in the creation of any democracy is the transformation of the public consciousness.
eXile: The Americans who came here in 1991 didn't seem to understand that.
Exactly... It's as if you came in, handed us a piece of paper, and said, "Here's the recipe. Follow it and everything will turn out great." But in your country, you've been building democracy for what, 220 years? Here, on the other hand, you've got a completely totalitarian country with a militarized population--where are you going to get democracy? Every soldier had to go to political education twice a week, during which time the image of the enemy was drilled into his head. In this system young men serve their time in the army, have their heads filled with all this stuff, then go out into the world, so it ends up that the entire male population was raised in this way.
Therefore only a die-hard communist would even think to take a population like this and simply declare a democracy, to just say, "Today we have democracy."
eXile: It's often said that Western press throughout that period was, and still is, given to making exactly those kinds of oversimplifications--that it had a tendency to portray every conflict as a battle between good and evil, with "reformers" on one side and communists on the other. Have you observed this tendency in Western reporting, and if so, what do you think of it?
In the late 1980s, I was exposed to Western reporting on a regular basis for the first time, specifically Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and the BBC. And I remember, at the time, that hearing the "free" press was a revelation, like a fresh, clean breeze sweeping through the still air and putrescent stench left by our own Soviet media. But later, when I saw how the Western media covered this country during the Yeltsin era, I became incredibly disillusioned and disappointed. I was shocked by the way Western reporters pushed ahead and continued presenting to their audiences at home a certain version of Russian reality long after it was obvious to everyone here that this vision did not correspond with reality. The endless framing of political stories around "reform" was the worst, because there were never any reforms in this country in the "democratic" era. There were no good guys and bad guys, no people standing on either side of black and white issues. There were just thieves. The Western press didn't report this at all, which was a tremendous surprise to me. I didn't understand it at all.
eXile: Why do you think they didn't report these things?
I don't know what motivates these journalists. The only thing I can imagine is that there are financial interests who wanted the news reported the way it was.
eXile: Has your attitude toward democracy in general changed since 1991?
I'm not exactly qualified to pontificate about democracy. Sometimes people ask me, are you a democrat or not? Think about it--me, an Army paratroop general who fought all over, starting in Afghanistan and continuing on, and who's twisted off a pile of heads in his life... I have no pretensions to the title of democrat.
And if I don't, neither should some others... In the same way, your General Clark simply cannot claim to be a "democrat." Only a fool could say, describing the pilot who pressed a button that killed 70 Albanian civilians--only an absolute fool could say that that pilot acted just as any "good Democratic pilot" should act. I mean, it's absolutely impossible to confuse from the air a tractor and a tank, isn't it? Through those high-tech viewfinders, any pilot with eyes can see it's a tractor, so what's he firing at? If Clark were a true democrat, he'd say, What are you firing at, kid? What does killing 70 civilians give you? Fame? Glory? Honor? What have you achieved? You've killed these 70 people, women, kids, old people... all you've done is inspire hatred. You've won no glory, no respect--and they don't give out medals for this sort of thing.
How difficult it is for man to travel the long road to civilization, and how hard to reach great heights... But in an instant he can come crashing back down again. And all those achievements that have taken decades, centuries to attain, they're all smashed with one swing of the club.
eXile: As in, Americans who fought so hard all throughout this century, made such sacrifices in money and human lives, in order to have this influence and reputation around the world, and now, in the space of just a month and a half or so...
Yes, and to let it all slip through your fingers like that, in front of the whole world... such a shame.
eXile: What might the result be of American policy failures in post-communist Russia?
I've almost lost count of how many times we've been fooled in the last eight years. We've been fooled with privatization, we were taken in by Gaidar, by Chubais, by Mavrodi. Now there's no trust at all, and because of that now people have all the reasons they need to take to the streets and create another 1917. But so far, for some reason, they're not going out. And therein lies the danger: when these people who've demonstrated what seems like inexhaustible patience finally lose their self-control, they'll tear down everything. Then nothing will be able to stop them. There's nothing more fearsome than a people who have nothing to lose.
eXile: Was it an honest mistake on the West's part to expect that democracy would be quickly created in Russia, or should the West have known better?
It should have been obvious. Here you have the first secretary of the Sverdlovsk region, an ex-first secretary of the Moscow Communist Party Committee, a member of the Central Committee, a Candidate Member of the Politburo--Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin--who suddenly, at the ripe old age of 60, decided he was a democrat. And the whole world believed him! It should have been obvious that this person simply doesn't know how to rule any other way, other than to dictate and break people. By then he'd been in the upper echelons of the party apparatus for 25 years, he'd climbed the highest steps of the Soviet power structure. It was deeply embedded in his nature. After all, who destroyed the Ipatyev house, where the Tsar and his family were executed?
eXile: And then went on to stage a national celebration in honor of that same Tsar's burial.
Incredible hypocrisy, you must agree. And who built the tallest regional communist party committee building in the history of the Soviet Union--23 stories tall? Yeltsin. Who, with an iron fist and the utmost ruthlessness, harassed and intimidated and expelled from the party hundreds, or thousands of people? Yeltsin.
Yeltsin, who at the time was already 60--an age when both the dogmas in your head and the salts in your body ossify--what you are at that age is what you will be when you're buried. You can't change at that age. You can only strike a new pose. You can play at being a democrat, you can play at being whatever you want, but your inner core remains the same. Your backbone is hardened, it can't bend into a new shape.
But still the whole world believed. And started to give money. And to whom? Bandits. Crime lords.
I met with Madeline Albright three months ago, and she was aware that $10 billion that had been invested in "reform" in Russia had disappeared to God knows where. Ten billion dollars! She threw up her hands and said, what kind of country are you, to let this happen? To which I said--what kind of country are you, to let that happen? You can use all the resources of the CIA, the FBI, all of them, to figure out who exactly you're giving money to, right? Can't they figure that out? Of course they can.
That is, they can if they want to. If they'd wanted to, they'd have reviewed the candidates for aid, and if those people had earned their confidence, then they could have felt safe giving them the money. If not, then you've got to work with somebody else. And so, what has all that money you've spent bought you? What what has that money helped achieve here? If they'd at least built something, just for laughs, something big and beautiful, you could show people and say, "Hey, we built that." But no, as it stands, there's nothing.
eXile: Do you think it's possible that the United States intentionally gave money to these criminals--that is, specifically because they were criminals?
I arrived at that conclusion long ago. There's no other explanation. It could only have been intentional. I don't think Americans are such idiots as to give so much money away without knowing where it's going, and why.
eXile: Did you see the Holyfield-Lewis fight?
Yeah, I saw it. Lewis won. It was no contest. The judges should be ashamed of themselves.
eXile: Right... incidentally, do you see anything in common between Don King and Anatoly Chubais? We wrote an article about that before, about all the similarities... King fixes fights, Chubais fixes auctions...
Who's Don King?
eXile: The promoter of the fight. You know, that big black guy with the big hair that shoots straight up, like this...
Oh, right, him.
eXile: He's probably America's most famous swindler.
I don't know about him, but as concerns Chubais, he's a person without any moral inhibitions whatsoever. Today he'll be your friend if he has a use for you, tomorrow he'll step over your corpse if it suits him. With no emotion whatsoever.
eXile: An intriguer.
Yes, he was raised that way. It's hard even to take offense with a person like that. You can't take it personally. It's just in his nature.
eXile: Do you find it surprising that the U.S. government has focused so intently on Chubais, that it has trusted and supported him as much as it has?
I noticed that long ago, and came to the conclusion that Chubais is an original kamikaze, that he's the very embodiment of the will-to-live, that he's the ultimate executor. Once he was in government they just wound him up, gave him a push, and he went forth and razed everything to the ground. He implemented the privatization campaign with total abandon, taking a massive, wealthy empire and almost overnight reducing it to a state where 85% of the population is utterly destitute. And the worst thing is, the way he did it, those people never had a chance. It's as if they said, you're poor today, you'll always be poor, your children will be poor, and there's nothing you can do about it. No chance. The Germans after the war at least gave each person 40 marks, gave them something, some kind of start-up money... Some succeeded, some failed, but here there was no chance. The voucher, on the other hand, was good for a couple of bottles of vodka.
The thing is, it was just a stupid plan, even from a practical point of view. Any sensible government strives to create a society where 60% of the population is in the middle class. These people should have some kind of property, even if it's not that much, but something that's their own, so that he has something to lose. That way, he won't want another 1917. He has a job, something to do, some kind of business to run, a family, kids to feed... That's why any government that wants to protect itself, and insure its survival, should strive to create a middle class. You can't make everyone into millionaires. But to give a person something of his own--let's say a cobbler, someone who has his own small shop--well, that allows him to feed his kids. Good enough. Then you design a tax and customs system that makes sense, one that allows him to run his business, good and decent laws that give him an incentive--it's a good word, "incentive"--and let him do his business. But no, instead the Gaidar-Chubais plan did everything possible to squeeze him, to humiliate him, to crush him. It doesn't make any sense.
eXile: What's your opinion of Yevgeny Primakov, and why has he fallen out of favor with Yeltsin?
Difficult question. Primakov is a powerful politician, of a caliber Yeltsin had not previously faced. He occupied a greater part of the political landscape than anyone else in Yeltsin's inner circle ever had... He had a solid relationship with the Duma and with the Federation Council. He also brought
As for his likely replacement, Stepashin... he's just an ideological fire marshall, the chief of the public panic, the guy in charge of screaming "Fire!" No doubt Stepashin has grown in stature in the last few years, but no way is he a Prime Minister. Stepashin-for-Primakov is a completely inadequate, uneven trade.
eXile: Alexander Ivanovich, do blondes have more fun?
What? What kind of question is that?
eXile: A dumb one.
Oh, well, in that case [tells complex dirty joke].
eXile: Thank you.