Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 12

By Yelena Dikun

In the “late Brezhnev” era, the Kremlin leadership semi-officially established for itself a four-hour working day. The aged General Secretary and the other elderly leaders were physically incapable of sitting in their offices for eight hours straight. And those whose health permitted it saw no sense in sticking around if the bosses were gone.

After his operation, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has also adopted a more forgiving work schedule. He usually arrives at his Kremlin residence at about 9:30 AM and stays there only until lunchtime, spending the rest of his time in seclusion outside the city. The circle of his working contacts, the number of documents he looks at, the number of meetings and public events–all that has been reduced to “a medically-justified minimum.”

It is no wonder that this has led to speculation that it is not Yeltsin who rules in the Kremlin, that power long ago has slipped from his hands to certain shadowy figures and structures which some call “the family,” “an oligarchy,” “a ‘collective Yeltsin’,” etc.

But from time to time, events (like the firing of the Chernomyrdin government) take place on Russia’s Olympus which do not fit in with the image of Yeltsin as a symbolic and weak-willed figure. One cannot say that Boris Yeltsin “reigns, but does not rule.” At least, not yet.

After private consultations with a number of informed sources in the presidential administration, I get the sense that the real configuration of supreme power in Russia today is much more complicated than the one-dimensional construction of a president in name only and an oligarchy behind the scenes.


Of all the institutions of power, Boris Yeltsin prefers the oldest: that of the favorite. This had been noticed about him before as well, but as he has grown older, his preference for ruling through “favorites” has become almost a disease. Today, Yeltsin is surrounded by figures who owe their status to Yeltsin’s favor alone. Now, it is impossible to imagine him having confidantes such as Gaidar, Burbulis, Soskovets, Shakhrai, or Korzhakov–in short, anyone who has either a party or a professional corporation behind him, anyone who has independent political weight or capital, anyone who has any ambitions for himself. Such people are unreliable as favorites, and therefore are no longer brought close. Anatoly Chubais, who had led the presidential administration in such a way that he was given the nickname of “The Regent,” was Yeltsin’s last personnel mistake. No matter how hard he tries, Berezovsky is no longer allowed into the “inner circle”–it is better to keep the banker, who has ambitions of becoming the “puppeteer,” at a distance.

On the other hand, the “rootless” young Prime Minister, Sergei Kirienko, who has nothing and no one behind him, is an ideal candidate for the role. His candidacy is ideal in another respect as well. Recently, the aging president has begun to show a weakness for young officials. Since 1996, his administration has become noticeably younger. The average age of his presidential assistants today is just over forty. Yeltsin understands quite well what an oppressive impression was made by the mumbling Brezhnev and his entourage of people as old as he was, and is trying to create a more attractive image–that of a patriarch, surrounded by talented and admiring young advisers.


Yeltsin’s current “troika” of favorites is made up of the leader of his administration, Valentin Yumashev, his press secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky, and his image-maker and younger daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. All three meet the standard demands made of such people: they love their boss, do not try to upstage him, and are not independent political figures. And, as their role suggests, they have influence far beyond their modest positions on the formal “Table of Ranks.”

Anatoly Chubais, who had done quite a bit in his time to advance Valentin Yumashev’s career, could hardly have supposed that the unkempt ghostwriter of the president’s memoirs, who appeared in the Kremlin in faded jeans and sweaters, would become a clever apparatchik. Veterans of the bureaucracy simply laughed at Yumashev’s appointment. But no one laughs anymore. Valentin Borisovich not only quickly adjusted to wearing a tie, he also took over many functions the Constitution assigns to the head of state.

Yumashev has taken over all of the Kremlin’s paper flow, passing on to his patron only those documents which he knows will, in principle, be of interest to him. For example, the chief of the presidential administration is ever more frequently taking the president’s place in official meetings with high-ranking government officials. Insofar as the president, for health reasons, is not able to keep his schedule of meeting with the leaders of the most important ministries and departments, the line of officials in his office has moved to Yumashev’s office–there, one can meet deputy premiers, “force” ministers, and heads of security services. Frequently, Yumashev also represents the president in meetings with the leaders of the Duma and the Federation Council, and with representatives of the federal courts.

Another presidential favorite–Sergei Yastrzhembsky–is also considered to be a Chubais protege. But nobody speaks of this as an unfortunate miscalculation. The role of interpreter of the words and thoughts of the Russian president is one that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Yastrzhembsky has performed like a virtuoso: he has extricated himself from the most absurd situations while maintaining his dignity. The press, which Sergei Vladimirovich oversees, has not written anything nice about his boss for a long time, but the press secretary has managed to maintain even, diplomatic relations with them, which they reciprocate.

Ever since Vyacheslav Kostikov’s time, it has become customary to see the presidential press secretary as a fussy, low-level official, whom rollicking higher-level staff single out for throwing off the presidential boat into the river, (1) or for similar amusements. Yastrzhembsky’s position is not at all like Kostikov’s. Even the press secretary’s formal status–Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration for Foreign Policy–is unprecedentedly high. In reality, Yastrzhembsky is one of those who is allowed in on the most important presidential decisions.

The press secretary secured his place among the president’s favorites in the summer of 1997. If, on his vacation at Shuiskaya Chupa, he was assisted by the deputy chief of his administration, Yuri Yarov, Boris Nikolaevich took Yastrzhembsky to “Volzhsky Utyos,” and clearly, the president enjoyed his company. It must be noted that his closeness to the president has created some difficulties for Yastrzhembsky. He would not be against returning to diplomatic service, or more specifically, becoming Foreign Minister. And later, “after Yeltsin,” this dream may not be realized. It’s not that the president doesn’t want to give up the Foreign Ministry position; he simply is reluctant to let Yastrzhembsky go. Love, as they say, has its reasons.

Unlike favorites of previous years, who fought among themselves, Yumashev and Yastrzhembsky are on quite friendly terms. Both at work and on the tennis court (where they make a good doubles team) they call each other “Valya” and “Seryozha.” And their relations with the third member of this “coalition,” “Tanya,”–i.e., Tatyana Borisovna Dyachenko–are on the same footing.

Tatyana Borisovna has ascended to the rank of presidential favorite by virtue of her birth. It wasn’t easy for her to get settled in the midst of these political whiz-kids, but later, she mastered it so well that there were rumors that she had plans to start an independent political career of her own–by running, for example, for the State Duma from her native Yekaterinburg. But the latest information does not confirm these rumors. Political service only interests Tatyana Borisovna as a way to help her father. Kremlin sources maintain that Dyachenko’s influence on the making of important decisions is usually exaggerated: Boris Nikolaevich is not inclined to rely on his daughter’s authority. Her main value to her father as an “adviser on his image” is that with her, he has his own person in the presidential administration, a guarantee that no one in the Kremlin or Staraya Ploshchad is trying to double-cross him.

In addition to the “first troika”–Yumashev, Yastrzhembsky and Dyachenko–Kremlin insiders say there is another “outer troika.” It is made up of Yumashev’s deputy Yuri Yarov, who is called “The Nurse” behind his back (because he usually stands watch when the president is in the hospital or on vacation), another of Yumashev’s deputies, Mikhail Komissar, and Security Council Secretary Andrei Kokoshin. Unlike the “first troika,” the members of the second circle do not make up a team and keep to themselves.


The influence of Yeltsin’s current favorites on matters of state is far greater than that of his former confidantes. But one would have to know very little indeed about Yeltsin to think that the “old man” is completely out of touch. He is, of course, no longer capable of working at full capacity, but “working” and “ruling” are not the same thing. The president has entrusted the “work,” i.e., the routine of running the government, to his favorites, but he continues to keep tight control over everything which affects his own power, and above all, this means control over the top bureaucracy. Yumashev and Yastrzhembsky can make up a list of recommendations, and can “prepare the ground,” and Dyachenko can “put a word in his ear,” but the president has not yet let anyone come to him with a personnel decision already made–that would be taking an intolerable liberty.

Boris Nikolaevich’s current favorites–to give them their due–have a better sense of the bounds of what is permissible than their predecessors. Unlike Chubais or Korzhakov, they try to stay in the shadows, do not form outside relationships with people who are not part of the president’s circle, and have no outside interests. Yumashev may be close to Berezovsky, but those are legal, sanctioned relations, maintained in the boss’ interests. In his interest, Yumashev and Yastrzhembsky, at every convenient opportunity, try to stress the insignificance of their own roles at court, which, naturally, is to their benefit.

Although he has, by necessity, limited his own power to control over the state apparatus, Yeltsin defends this “last inch” more jealously than he did in his best years. From all indications, he made the decision to dismiss the Chernomyrdin cabinet back on February 26, after an expanded session of the government, at which he had expected to hear apologetic speeches, not a report on the government’s achievements. Boris Nikolaevich left that meeting very upset; he was even upset that they didn’t give him a glass of water when he was coughing.

But three weeks passed before Yeltsin let Yumashev and Yastrzhembsky in on his plans. And even then, he feared that they would not be able to hold their tongues and that the people who would be fired would be warned days before the signing of the decree. Such excessive suspicion is a sign that Yeltsin is not inclined to trust even his most trusted advisers.

“His love of power clearly has not gone away over time,” noted a high-ranking Kremlin official. “Boris Nikolaevich will hold on tightly to the throne to his last breath. So successors need not be in any hurry.”


1. Translator’s note: According to Aleksandr Korzhakov, once, when Yeltsin and Krasnoyarsk Governor Zubov were taking a boat trip along the Yenisei, Yeltsin ordered that Kostikov be thrown overboard for annoying them. [Aleksandr Korzhakov: Boris El’tsin: ot rassveta do zakata. (Moscow, 1997) p. 253.]

Yelena Dikun is a political columnist for Obshchaya gazeta.

Translated by Mark Eckert