Yeltsin Reflects on Drinking, Lewinsky Scandal

Boris Yeltsin says in his new memoir that he was drunk when he grabbed the baton and began conducting a military orchestra in Berlin in 1994, but that he now limits himself to a glass of wine a day on doctor’s orders.

In Midnight Diaries, called The Presidential Marathon in its Russian edition, Yeltsin writes that he nearly postponed Russia’s 1996 presidential elections and that he picked Vladimir Putin as his heir apparent because he was looking for a strong, determined general like the ones he read about in books when he was young.

Confronting reports of his drinking, Yeltsin writes: “Fairly early on, I concluded that alcohol was the only means to quickly get rid of stress.”

In 1994, when he conducted the military orchestra, Yeltsin said, “I snapped.”

Conducting Himself Poorly

“I remember that the weight would lift after a few shot glasses,” he writes. “And in that sense of lightness, I felt as if I could conduct an orchestra.

“After that incident, a group of my aides wrote me a letter saying that my behavior and impromptu remarks were harming me and all our mutual work. ... None of them was able to help me.

“I walked along the beach in Sochi and realized that I had to go on living. I had to regain my strength. Gradually I came to myself.”

In Moscow on Saturday, Yeltsin attended a book release ceremony swarming with Russia’s political elite. Putin, who was celebrating his 48th birthday elsewhere, did not attend.

In an interview broadcast on state-controlled ORT television and timed to coincide with the release, Yeltsin took full responsibility for the bloodshed in breakaway Chechnya but defended the rest of his tumultuous tenure, including his abrupt decision to resign.

‘I Had to Resign’

“It was only for Russia’s sake that I made that step. A new president was needed. I had to resign,” he said.

Yeltsin, whose ailing health marred his last years in office, often appeared puzzled during the interview and his breathing was slightly labored. Seated at home in a sweater, he punctuated his speech with a few of his trademark, raised-eyebrow grins.

“I cannot shift the blame for Chechnya, for the sorrow of numerous mothers and fathers,” he said. “I made the decision, therefore I am responsible.”

Yeltsin was heaped with scorn for sending troops to crush Chechnya’s separatist bid in 1994, starting a war that killed tens of thousands of people and ended with a humiliating Russian withdrawal in 1996. Moscow launched a new offensive last year, largely managed by Putin. That campaign has enjoyed public support because of the lawlessness that engulfed Chechnya after the last war.

In his memoir, Yeltsin writes that after his first heart attack in 1995 and after the Communists won more than 40 percent of the parliament seats, he came close to postponing the 1996 presidential election and wanted to dissolve parliament and ban the Communist Party.

“I had to take a radical step,” he writes. “I told my staff to prepare the documents.”

His daughter and adviser Tatyana Dyachenko begged him to listen to another opinion and brought in adviser Anatoly Chubais.

“‘It’s a crazy idea to get rid of the Communists in this way,’” Chubais said, according to Yeltsin. “‘The elections can’t be postponed.’”

Yeltsin says he objected, shouted, “and finally I reversed a decision I had almost already made.”

Picking a Successor

In discussing his successor, Yeltsin writes that Putin caught his eye because unlike other Kremlin aides, this former KGB agent delivered crisp reports and did not linger for chitchat.

“Unlike other deputies who were always trying to lay out their visions of Russia and the world, Putin did not try to strike up conversations with me,” Yeltsin writes. “…And precisely because of that I wanted to talk to him more.”

Putin came to the Kremlin in March 1997 as an aide dealing with Russia’s regions and quickly impressed Yeltsin.

While “sometimes even my most innocuous comments threw people off,” Putin would reply calmly and naturally, Yeltsin writes. “It made me feel that this young man was ready for absolutely anything in life.”

In July 1998, Yeltsin appointed the German-speaking ex-KGB agent to be director of Russia’s federal security service, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin refused to accept the military rank of general, saying ‘”I am a civilian. … If you allow it, I will remain a colonel in the reserves.’”

‘In Awe’ of Clinton

From his first meeting with President Clinton in 1993, Yeltsin was in awe of the American leader.

“I was completely amazed by this young, eternally smiling man, who was powerful, energetic and handsome. For me, Clinton was the personification of the new generation in politics. He lent hope to the idea of the future without wars, without the grim ideological struggles of the past.”

In the TV interview, Yeltsin said that he received intelligence about the Monica Lewinsky scandal before it became public in the United States. He said he didn’t bother to warn Clinton because “I thought Clinton could handle it himself.”