We’ve been talking one-on-one for an hour, which was previously specified, plus twenty-seven minutes that were not. He did not demand a complete list of questions, didn’t mind some departures from the topics, didn’t ask his assistants to make a backup record of the interview. In short, behaved as if it was still 91. The topic of our conversation was worded briefly -
"Why Vladimir Putin has become Boris Yeltsin's successor?"
To answer this question, we had to go through Yeltsin’s whole life story.
What was the reason for your risky choice in 1991 in favor of little known, but ambitious politicians?
I had a perfectly clear idea of the task to be solved. The political system had to be overturned, not just changed. In place of the Soviet political system, a democratic one had to emerge. The administrative command economy had to be replaced by a market one, and freedom of speech had to replace censorship. I realized that the transition could not be painless. That meant that unpopular measures were inevitable. What was needed was a kamikaze crew that would step into the line of fire and forge ahead, however strong the general discontent might be.
Did you realize that that job might cost them their political future?
Of course. They had to do the job and then leave.
Weren't you sorry for them?
I was. I am, now. Although I do not believe they have dropped out of the running. Some of them may still rise. Time passes, everything gradually calms down, and many things fall into place.
Judgments on what happened in the early 1990s are changing.
Recently, I have felt a certain warming toward myself. I have just come back from Rostov. Can you believe it - crowds of people came out to welcome me there, mostly young people.
Neither Gaidar nor Chubais are welcomed like that.
Not yet, no, but who knows what may happen in the future. In the early 1990s, though, I had no other option. I had to find men capable of tackling the most knotty problems without a thought for their own political future. I had to pick a team that would go up in flames but remain in history.
Were they prepared to go up in flames?
We did not discuss that subject.
Didn't you mention at all the fact that they might soon have to go?
No, that couldn't be done. They had to work at full throttle. And that was exactly the way they worked. By the way, so did I, twenty hours a day, with four hours for sleep.
Isn't that an exaggeration?
Not at all. We seem to be forgetting already the scope of tasks that then had to be solved. You take price liberalization in January 1992. Within a short period of time, the prices rocketed to thirty times their previous levels. Yet foodstuffs appeared on the counters that had sported nothing but gray wrapping paper. Or take privatization. "Yeltsin would have been a great president," I recently read, "if he hadn't launched privatization." That is not true. If I hadn't launched it, we would still be saddled with a ruined economy. Was it easy? Of course not. But these things never are. This year I visited Japan and met the prime minister there.
"What goes on in Japan, Prime Minister?" I asked. "Why don't you launch the reforms you promised to launch?" And he had made those promises at election time. "Mister President," he says, "I cannot ram them through the officialdom. I announced a five-point program, and I cannot make a breakthrough on any of those points, a new stage in privatization included." Now, me and the crew I then picked, we did break through. And that in a situation somewhat different from the Japanese one today. We made a breakthrough on privatization, and on price liberalization, and trade freedom...
Could it be that you did not wish to hoist all those disagreeable tasks on the backs of politicians that were closer to you and had been tested over years of working together?
They would not be able to solve them. To cope with the job, fresh people were needed. I especially selected those with a minimum of Soviet-time experience. People without mental, ideological blinkers. People who had no ingrained habits of resorting to command methods but habitually used arguments, facts, and figures to achieve their aim. Young, erudite, and talented people. No other men would have coped with the task.
Russian economist, politician Yegor Gaidar speaks at the 7th Congress of Peoples' Deputies of Russia. (October 10, 1992)
Who brought Yegor Gaidar to you?
Various people mentioned him. Then I read some of his articles. Then I invited him for a talk.
We talked a long time, mostly of his vision of the future of Russia.
How did your closest associates receive the news of your choice of Gaidar's team? With relief?
On the contrary. There were attempts to dissuade me on all sides.
Was there anything about those erudite and talented people that exasperated you?
Their maximalism. Sometimes I just could not restrain them.
Even in situations where we argued till we were blue in the face they stood their ground.
Just a year later you yielded to the Supreme Soviet's pressure and consented to Gaidar's resignation. Did your relations sour?
I am on friendly terms with all the ex-premiers. Even with Primakov, after a period of cooling... With Gaidar? Well, maybe just after the resignation there was a sort of shadow. I saw that he was hurt.
Did you warn him of your decision, or was it a complete surprise for him?
I took him apart in an empty hall, and I said, "Let's decide this together. I have this feeling about the people's mood - Chernomyrdin will pass the vote, and you won't." He agreed with that decision.
Do you know that Gaidar was against your running for president in 1996?
Not him alone. So was my family. I had my own doubts, too. But then I realized that Zyuganov was next in line, and no one but me could bring him down. Can you imagine Zyuganov as Russia's president? I said to Gaidar: "Which of you can beat Zyuganov? Go on, propose a candidate." There were no candidates. After that Gaidar supported me, too.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, First Vice-Premier of the Russian Government Anatoly Chubais and First Vice-Premier of the Russian Government Boris Nemtsov during the meeting in the Kremlin. (September 11, 1997)
Which of the new generation politicians did you find hardest to work with?
Nemtsov was the most elusive, I guess. A guerrilla, sort of.
In what sense?
He would often force his way regardless, spouting ideas that he didn't bother to discuss with me. The differences weren't strategic, just minor things... Like his idea of making all officials use domestically made cars only. A kink, it was.
Still, you publicly named him your successor.
I did. But then I took a good look at him and realized he was not ready to be the country's president. But I still believe in Boris [Nemtsov] and have hopes for him.
Anatoly Chubais, Chief of Rosimushchestvo (State Committee for State Property Management), presents a report "Privatization: shares and cheques" (August 21, 1992)
When did you first meet Anatoly Chubais?
Around the time I met Gaidar. That team was selected all at one time.
Is it true that Chubais talked you into taking part in the 1996 election?
He was for me all the while. But I myself talked myself into running.
Still, Chubais did try to persuade you, although he knew you were not exactly a robust man?
That's putting it mildly. I had five heart attacks during the presidency, and I was never laid up at the hospital. There were times when I came home and had no strength to go upstairs. Then my wife moved an armchair right into the hall. I would come from work and drop in it.
Back then, in 1996, you had to choose between Alexander Korzhakov and Anatoly Chubais, both of whom up until that moment had been members of your inner circle. How prepared were you to make that choice?
It was not easy. After all, Korzhakov had long stood by me, and I valued him as a loyal person. But at a certain point he made me wonder. He started foisting documents on me: appoint so and so, remove so and so. Apparently he had started knocking together some sort of a group. But I caught on to what was going on.
What politicians of this generation did you find the easiest to deal with?
This may seem strange to some, but it was Chubais. He was closer to me in spirit than the others. Still is. Recently his wife and he visited us at our home, and then last Saturday we returned the visit.
You don't find him difficult?
I don't. I find him interesting. Moreover, me mainly see eye to eye - even on reform of the power sector. Lately we have been discussing it in detail.
Before Vladimir Putin became prime minister, you nominated Sergei Stepashin, and everyone immediately concluded that he was going to be your successor.
I feel a little bit embarrassed recalling what happened then.
But soon after Stepashin was appointed prime minister, I realized that I had made a mistake. Incidentally, I told him in so many words: "Let us admit that we both were wrong. I was wrong to offer you this position while you were wrong to accept it without making sure that you were really fit for it."
Did he admit to it?
No, he disagreed with me, took it to heart. For a while our relationship cooled. Now it's all right.
What were your complaints against him?
I'd rather not list them now. It is not that he had some shortcomings: He is a talented and well educated person. It was just that he did not have all it takes to be prime minister and then become president.
In the early 1990s, there was a person in the Gaidar Cabinet who stepped down long before the Cabinet was dismissed en bloc.
Justice Minister Nikolai Fedorov disagreed with a draft decree granting your even broader powers. How do you see this now?
I greatly respect Nikolai Fedorov. He is not only a good legal expert but also a very decent, tactful person. I was sorry to see him go. But at the time my opposition to parliament was a matter of principle.
Did you accept his resignation without problem?
I did. But then I backed his candidacy for Chuvashia president, and I think that I was right. There are so many problem regions today, but Chuvashia has made good. We often talk on the phone.
Grigory Yavlinsky during The August Coup in the Russian White House — the building of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR. (August 20, 1991)
At one time you believed in the 500 Days program. Is that right?
That's right. I was vacationing in Jurmala; Yavlinsky came a bit later, and we discussed the program for days. He convinced me.
After that I met with Gorbachev and said: "Here is a program that I propose to you." Gorbachev also embraced it - true, he did not see it through to the end. Of course today, in hindsight, you realize that much in that program sounded naive, and that a civilized market cannot be put in place either in 500 or even in 1,000 days.
But we were all charged with the spirit of the time: We wanted to get things done quickly. I greatly valued Yavlinsky at the time, and so appointed him Silaev's deputy in the Russian government. He did a good job.
Why, in selecting a PM in 1991, did you place your bet on Gaidar, not on Yavlinsky, whom you had actually worked with?
I thought that Gaidar was more logical, coherent, and clear in his mind insofar as economic matters were concerned. He probably has better acumen.
Who do you meet most often today?
Gaidar, Chubais, Voloshin, Chernomyrdin, Kasyanov, and many others we have not mentioned today. I keep in touch with the governors and presidents of our republics - also with CIS presidents of course.
What about President Putin?
We meet of course.
Do you deliberately shun publicity?
I think that after I stepped down, I have no right to remain a public politician. I vowed not to comment on the incumbent's performance. What I like or don't like I tell him personally, one on one.
But you do tell him?
Yes, I do. Plurality of opinion is vital to society. This is also what I told Putin.
How did you decide on your successor?
I had studied him for a very long time - not only from his dossier. I had a pretty good idea about his performance in St.Petersburg, under Sobchak. And when he moved to Moscow, I started watching him especially closely. I could see that he was not just an intelligent and well educated person, but also decent and self-controlled.
But why did you choose him, not any one of those you had brought into politics in the early 1990s?
No one from that team would have been supported in an election - we've already discussed why.
Did Vladimir Putin have some qualities that other politicians of his generation did not have?
He is not a maximalist, and this is what set him apart from others.
When did you decide on Putin then?
Before I offered him the position as prime minister.
You think you did right?
Are you basically a good judge of character?
When I took my first job at an industrial enterprise straight out of college, I refused to be a foreman. I thought I first had to learn to size up people. Eventually I did. Say, I don't remember a single personnel mistake that I made at the enterprise.
What about the Kremlin?
In the Kremlin I did make mistakes.
You overestimated people?
That's not the point. Simply I did not know them well enough.
Life was so turbulent that there was no time to study a person thoroughly. But as I said, it was different with Vladimir Putin.
Did you consult anyone in your entourage?
No, it was my personal decision. I did not talk to anyone.
Absolutely no one.
Incidentally, when I visited China later on, Jiang Zemin told me: "I like what you have done. I've also decided to step down before serving out my term." Then added, in a whisper: "You are the first person I've told this. No one else knows." And he did.
Why did you step down six months before elections?
I had to give Putin enough time.
To score points?
To give people a chance to see, understand, and appreciate him. He was a bit of a dark horse until then. And you have to hand it to him, he had used that time well, showing himself to advantage.
Was your choice accepted by all Kremlin denizens at once?
No way. Staff officials would break into my office shouting:
"Boris Nikolaevich, you've gone mad!" But I would say: "Save your breath. I'm already turning things over."
Did Putin readily accept your offer?
I talked to him twice. At first he refused. "Think about it - we'll revisit the matter," I said. About two weeks later I called him in again. And he agreed.
Do you remember what you told him at the time?
"I've picked a hard lot for you."
Does he remember it?
He does, and often reminds me of that.
Did you set any terms for your successor?
None for myself. I did not ask for anything at all.
What about for somebody else?
We talked a good deal about the policy that the country would need in the future. Of course we could not have anticipated everything at the time. The situation is changing, and it is a president's right to adjust his policy line. But there have never been disagreements of principle.
first deputy editor
in chief of Moskovskiye Novosti