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Books / eXile Classic / July 12, 2016

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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.”

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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.

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9 Comments

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  • 1. Peter de Waal  |  July 19th, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    Very good review. If readers unfamiliar with these events want a frank description of how Boris Berezovsky and his cohorts stripped the USSR bare at the expense of the Russian people try “Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs – A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder”; Mezrich, Ben; ISBN 9781410480514

  • 2. Andrea Ostrov Letania  |  July 26th, 2016 at 11:31 am

    The genius of globalism is that the GLOB has spread a faux ‘ideology of resistance/progress’ that fools people(esp the young) into thinking they are opposing the master class of the world when they are only enabling and supporting it.

    Homomania is the genius stroke in all this.
    It is the agenda of Wall Street, Hollywood, Las Vegas, the neo-imperialist Zio-Ivy-League, US government, and etc, but it makes its adherents feel they are on the side of the powerless against the powerful.

    Now, it is true that homos are powerless and even oppressed in some third world nations. But it is no less true that homos are the oppressors and ultra-privileged in the Zio-controlled West. They are the main allies and servants of the Zio-GLOB. Homos rob us of our moral freedom and conscience to speak the truth to homo power and privilege. They force us to honor, celebrate,and worship the homo as holy. It is the Cult of Deviancy not unlike the cult of personality of Stalin.

    So, serving homomania is to serve the (((greatest power))) in the world that prefers minority-elite-supremcist rule.

    But so many progs are so clueless.
    Same with the issue of Diversity. Sure, on the surface, being pro-diversity seems like siding with the poor around the world looking for a better life in the richer West.
    But Cult of Diversity doesn’t help the Third World. It just encourages people there to run from their own problems and come to the West to offer their services to Western elites. At its worst, it causes brain drain from nations that need smart people most.

    Furthermore, who really controls the West? The Zio-GLOB. And why does the Zio-GLOB want Diversity?
    To secure their own supremacist power by using divide-and-rule among diverse gentiles who, as they become race-mixed, lose their identity and unity(much like the mestizos of Latin America who accept permanent servility to the Hispanic elites) and grow weaker as a people.
    So, Diversity is ultimately an advantage to the top ruling class of the world. ( Also, a diverse working population is less likely to form labor unions — opposition to corporate elites — as there is less trust and common identity among a diversified working population filled with scab-like participants.)
    Also, open borders will not only destroy the Western white masses but all native folks around the world. The fall of Gaddafi led to open borders in Libya, and that nation is now flooded with blacks who wanna go to Europe. Look what porous borders did to Syria. Tons of Jihadis entered and tore that country apart.

    Nationalism is true justice. It favors the people over the greedy vain elites, and it protects indigenous peoples and cultures from invasion. Globalism is the new imperialism that subverts and undermines ALL nations for the supremacist advantage of the Zio-Homo-GLOB.

  • 3. Risto Ryti  |  August 12th, 2016 at 12:05 am

    Great to have your reviews here again.

  • 4. Lin1  |  September 28th, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    “bloodless, amoral nihilists-posing as free-market democrats-”

    Every “freemarket democrat” is an amoral nihilist. I have only arrived at that seemingly extreme observation in the past few years, but after a lifetime of observation. Economic liberalism has served its evolutionary useful purpose. It was a progressive force in its time, but the planet will no longer sustain it. The only function left to it is the one of ever more brutal exploitation of the all by the few. As for the Yeltsin book, what’s new? He was THE American stooge back then and that’s the kind of scum they WOULD celebrate over here, not to mention he’s one of the most hated persons in Russia. That automatically qualifies him for beautification in the western media-cultural-political matrix. I trust NOTHING about Russia or Russians, written in English after about 1945.

  • 5. Jeff Jenkins  |  December 1st, 2016 at 8:17 pm

    when are we getting more exile/exiled ames and co?

    I miss it.

  • 6. vladimir brovkin  |  December 9th, 2016 at 5:26 am

    I know Leon well and had many conversations with him about his research as he had been working on his project on Yeltsin for many years. The point is Yeltsin was a hero for Aron and for so many others who saw him primarily as the person who outsmarted Gorbachev in 1991 and destroyed something they all hated the USSR.
    If Aron had stopped his narrative then he might have succeeded in his attempt to create a good Yeltsin. Bu he went on. That led him to have to explain all the crooked things that Yeltsin and his cronies did.
    He had to continue whitewashing them because otherwise the credibility of the good Yeltsin would be undermined. Moreover Aron served at the Atlantic Council and that crown loved Yeltsin for his departure from Eastern Europe. They could not care less about his theft, corruption, disbandment of Parliament, as these were Commies anyway. So to please his bosses, keep his job and continue to get TV interviews Aron had to distort, lie, whitewash his hero. Yeltsin will go down in history as a traitor who sold his country to foreign patrons, as a thief of gigantic proportions, as a mafia boss who presided over the biggest theft of national resources in history, as a person who bombarded an elected parliament and stole by fraud presidential elections of 1996. The list can go on. The worst is that I believe Aron knows all this and yet continues to serve his masters at Atlantic Council as an obedient dog.

  • 7. Ray Joseph Cormier  |  December 10th, 2016 at 6:00 am

    I was not aware of Leon Aron’s book ‘Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life’ but I remember enough about that period of human history to accept your version of what really happened in contrast to parts of Aron’s script.

    A writer saw the People having the propensity for displaying the following characteristics. Are the People much different these thousands of years later? I don’t think, so as this expose of false propaganda confirms.

    How can the Street level human discern what’s True and Real with all the propaganda projected on the People from competing sources?

    And Judgment is turned away backward, and Justice stands afar off: for Truth is fallen in the street, and Equity cannot enter.

    Woe to those who draw the iniquity with ropes of nothingness, and like cart ropes is the sin.
    Those who say, “Let Him hurry; let Him hasten His deed, so that we may see; and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel approach and come.”
    Woe to those who say of the evil that it is good and of the good that it is evil; who present darkness as light and light as darkness, who present bitter as sweet and sweet as bitter.
    Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and in their own estimation, of profound understanding.
    Woe to the heroes to drink wine and valiant men to mix strong wine.
    Those who exonerate the guilty one for reward of a bribe, and the innocence of the innocent they take away from him.

    @ Andrea
    There are parts in your comment I agree with, but this is an outright lie, false propaganda and delusion that you slipped into your comment masking your fascist/racist ideology as you write it,
    “Now, it is true that homos are powerless and even oppressed in some third world nations. (True due to Christian Evangelists))
    But it is no less true that homos are the oppressors and ultra-privileged in the Zio-controlled West.(False)

    On one hand, you condemn what you see as a ZIO-GLOB-HOMO conspiracy, and yet you have a thing about Homos having it’s roots in the ZIO-Jewish Torah?

  • 8. Peskov  |  January 14th, 2017 at 8:37 pm

    @ Andrea

    You are full of shit.

    And a boor to boot.

  • 9. nampa1  |  February 5th, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    I think what the dude above me is trying to convey is that social identity politics is a false flag that has distorted the Left, via Frankfurt School–and yes I have a weird hangup about jews


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