Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 14

Yeltsin’s health problems may be rooted in depression

by Martin Ebon

Boris Yeltsin’s recent heart attack, his heavy drinking on occasionand his periodic disappearances from public view may all havetheir roots in a common and potentially more serious illness. As Yeltsin acknowledges in both volumes of his memoirs, he suffersfrom frequent and often debilitating bouts of severe depression. Despite his willingness to confront his illness, at least inhis writings, both his aides and most Western observers have tendedto neglect this aspect of the life of the Russian president.

A Boy Named Boris

Yeltsin’s recurrent depression, his "second thoughts"after major policy decisions, his "tears of despair"about Russia, his sense of harassment and betrayal by former allies–allarise from the setbacks and frustrations of a man who throughouthis life has seldom been patient or willing to accept conditionsas they are. Born on February 1, 1931, in Sverdlovsk oblast, Yeltsinalmost immediately had an experience that foreshadowed his latercareer. During his baptism, a priest, well fortified with vodka,got into an argument with his parishioners and forgot the babyin the baptismal font. Yeltsin’s frightened mother fished theboy out, and the priest reportedly muttered, "Well, if hecan survive that ordeal, it means he’s a good tough lad–and Iname him Boris."

Family legend or not, the pattern for his life was set. As achild, Yeltsin lost two fingers when he tried to pull a grenadeapart, but he nonetheless went on to become a successful volleyballplayer. He was interested in shipbuilding, but followed his fatherinto the construction business. Then he rose through the ranksof the construction business and the Communist Party in Sverdlovsk,ultimately becoming first secretary of the regional party organizationin November 1976. In that position, he was "a god, a czar–themaster of his province." His was the final word on "virtuallyany issue," and Yeltsin clearly looks back to those dayswith nostalgia.

When Gorbachev brought him to Moscow in 1985 to head the CommunistParty Central Committee’s construction department, Yeltsin foundthe change "very scary." Shortly thereafter he becamefirst secretary of the Moscow city party committee, and obviouslysaw that position as one in which he could behave, without lookingover his shoulder all the time, just as he had in Sverdlovsk. But Moscow is not Sverdlovsk, and Yeltsin’s approach of personallyexposing corruption and mingling with the people offended manyof the still-entrenched party elite, including Gorbachev himself. For such people, Yeltsin was simply a pushy, aggressive populistwho was seeking to play to the crowd.

Finally, even Gorbachev lost patience with him. At a Politburomeeting in September 1987, the Soviet leader turned on his protégéand attacked him for leading Moscow toward chaos and anarchy. As Yeltsin recalls in his memoirs, Gorbachev’s words were "highlycritical, almost hysterical." "There can be no doubtthat at that moment, Gorbachev simply hated me," Yeltsinwrites, noting that he left the session "in a depressed mood"which only got worse with the passage of time.

On reflection years after the event, Yeltsin writes that thevery lack of human qualities among the members of the Politburo"depressed me." These men appeared to him as no morethan opportunistic cogs in the party machine. Somewhat naivelybut in words that reveal a great deal, Yeltsin said "I sometimeswonder how I managed to end up among all these people." Recognizing where things were, Yeltsin sent a letter of resignationto Gorbachev, and then delivered a speech at a Central Committeeplenum in October 1987 in which he violated party norms, wentpublic with his resignation, and sharply criticized the entireperformance of the Soviet government.

Having done that, Yeltsin notes that he felt he "would beslaughtered in an organized, methodical manner and that the jobwould be done almost with pleasure and enjoyment." He felthis "heart pounding" so much that it seemed about "toburst through my rib cage." What he expected in fact happened:"Eyes ablaze, people came up to the rostrum who had longworked beside me, who were my friends, with whom I was on excellentterms–I found it extremely hard to bear their betrayal." In the weeks that followed, Yeltsin says that he "took itall very badly" and was extremely depressed whenever he hadto meet any of his soon to be former colleagues.

Two days after appearing with the Politburo on the mausoleumat the November 7 anniversary celebration, Yeltsin was hospitalizedwith what appear to be psychosomatic symptoms, including headachesand chest pains. He was put on tranquilizers to calm him down. Ignoring Yeltsin’s illness, Gorbachev phoned and then came tosee the patient. Yeltsin says that he asked himself whether theSoviet leader "actually wanted to finish me off physically"and noted that he was "barely conscious" when Gorbachevforced him to appear before the Moscow city party committee.

"What do you call it when a person is murdered with words?"Yeltsin asks. "Because what follows was like a real murder. After all, I could have been dismissed in a sentence or two,then and there, at the plenum. But no, they had to enjoy thewhole process of public betrayal, when comrades who had been workingalongside me for two years, without the slightest sign of discordin our relations, suddenly began to say things that to this daymy mind refuses to absorb. If I hadn’t been so heavily doped,of course, I would have fought back. I would have refuted thelies and shown up the treachery–yes, the treachery–of everyonewho spoke." He returned to the hospital right after themeeting.

Gorbachev offered him the position of deputy director of Gosstroi,the State Construction Trust, to let him down a little easier. But this job was a golden cage, and Yeltsin recalls that it wasas if an invisible circle had been drawn around him, one "whichno one could enter for fear of contamination." He was, ashe puts it, a "kind of leper," a man who had to facea silent telephone after years of intense activity. "I wasonly nominally alive. Politically, I didn’t exist. Politically,I was a corpse. Another thing that left me vaguely depressedwas the absence of telephone calls from people who had once constantlyphoned."

In this exile, Yeltsin went through an agonizing reappraisalof himself: "I was engaged in a constant, obsessive processof analysis, day and night, night and day. I would sleep forthree or four hours, and then the thoughts would come creepingback. … None of my previous, often naive faith remained. …All that was left where my heart had been was a burned out cinder. Everything around me was burned out, everything within me wasburned out."

Yeltsin tells us that his headaches became so severe during thisperiod that he often had to call for emergency medical help. He sometimes felt "like crawling up a wall and could hardlyrestrain myself from crying out loud. It was like the torturesof hell. I used to think my patience had simply snapped and myhead was about to split open." This bout lasted almost 18months.

Then at the 19th Party Conference, he insisted on speaking outand forced Gorbachev to give him the microphone. In his remarks,Yeltsin delivered a detailed but rambling attack on the entireGorbachev administration. And once again, he suffered for it. In his memoirs, he writes that "all those around me wereafraid even to turn and look at me." He sat "motionless,staring down at the rostrum from the balcony, feeling that atany moment I might lose consciousness." In fact, his conditionat that moment became so critical that the attendants took himto a physician who "gave me an injection to enable me atleast to hold out and stay in place until the end of the conference."Once again, too, he felt "as if I were on fire inside andeverything was swimming in front of my eyes."

This condition of extreme tension lasted for several days. Accordingto Yeltsin, he did not sleep for two nights, "agonizing andwondering" and fearing that somehow this "was the end." Once again, he felt himself caught between triumph and doom. Because the party conference had been televised, Yeltsin gainedvast publicity as a result of his audacity, winning as much supportoutside the conference hall as he had lost within it. And sothis next low point in his career quickly became the launchingpad for his rise to the leadership of Russia: In March 1989, theMoscow region elected him a delegate to the Soviet Congress ofPeople’s Deputies, marking the beginning of his success in thenew, more open Russian politics.

In the following 18 months, Yeltsin rode this wave. He was electeda deputy to the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies and thenchairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet. And in July 1990, heresigned from the party, again using a party congress as a stage. But by this time, the party was over, and Yeltsin’s move simplywon him more support from the people. And then in 1991, he waselected President of Russia, a position in which his experienceswith depression quickly resumed.

A President Without Reliable Allies

Even before his election, Yeltsin showed that he doesnot always have good judgment in picking his allies. First, hechose Aleksandr Rutskoi to be his running mate, and Rutskoi later,in Yeltsin’s words, "betrayed" him. Then, he chosea series of men to head the security services all of whom, againin Yeltsin’s words, "betrayed" him. And despite hisrising popularity with the people, especially after the August1991 attempted coup, and his growing power after the collapseof the USSR and the formation of the new independent Russian state,Yeltsin continued to feel that he could not count on those aroundhim, and this too became a source of periodic depression.

One of these times came after Yeltsin had used force againstthe Russian Supreme Soviet in October 1994 after it had defiedhim. He recalls in his memoirs that as he completed his riseto power by so doing "I was tortured by the thought–hadI done the right thing? Was there another option? Could it havebeen done another way? Had I exhausted all the alternatives? Russiawas drowning in lawlessness. And here I was, the first popularlyelected president, breaking the law–albeit a cumbersome law thatwas pushing the country to the brink of collapse."

Immediately thereafter, Yeltsin appeared to withdraw from publicactivity, repeating a pattern that had begun earlier and one thathad left him unable to exploit his victory to the fullest. Inlate September 1991, he had disappeared from public view aftercomplaining of chest pains in the aftermath of the failed coup. In late January 1992, he once again disappeared even though hisaides assured everyone that the president’s health was fine. And then in February 1994, he disappeared for three weeks supposedlyas a result of a bout with the flu. But few in the Russian mediaor the Russian public believed this vague explanation; ratherthey saw Yeltsin’s withdrawal as a reflection of his personalpolitical style.

But with one exception, no one in Moscow until recently has beenwilling to publicly raise the question of Yeltsin’s emotionalbalance and well-being. That exception came in May 1992, whena member of the Russian parliament, Vladimir Isakov, demandedthat a medical commission be appointed to consider Yeltsin’s health. As he put it in the May 19, 1992, issue of Sovetskaya Rossiya,"Tolerance toward failings–is there anyone without them?–isan appropriate human trait. But there are failings and failings… [Yeltsin’s] weakness is a threat to the security of the countryand to that of other countries. That is why I approached themicrophone and suggested that the parliament study the president’sability to continue exercising his lofty and responsible powers. There were good reasons for doubt!"

Isakov continued: "The response by the president’s supporterswas perfectly predictable and followed immediately. Slander!Insult! Sue him! Fine, if I have slandered anyone, I am preparedto answer in court. But which court will take to task those whotoday are bashfully turning away their eyes and attempting todisregard the president’s condition when he makes his statements,his lack of consistency, his unpredictability, and the contradictorynature of his decrees–in sum, the obvious signs of an ineffectiveexecutive."

If one looks at Yeltsin’s personality and his bouts of depressionand withdrawal, one sees his frequently reported drinking problemin another light: it is a symptom rather than a cause of his difficulties. But as has been the case with other leaders, Yeltsin’s conditionis unlikely to be treated or even discussed. And in that liesan enormous danger for the future of Russia.

A Common Pathology

In his book, The Pathology of Leadership, the Britishphysician Hugh L’Etang writes that "the list of internationalstatesmen, senior officials and officers who have born supremeresponsibility while in the grip of disabling and debilitatingillness is certainly long and forbidding." And they haveusually done so without acknowledging their problems, surroundedby "an unspoken conspiracy of trying to camouflage deficienciesand discourage proper medical attention." Yeltsin certainlyfalls into this category.

At 64, Yeltsin is on pain killers for his back injury, medicinesthat should not be mixed with alcohol. But Yeltsin himself acknowledgesthat he likes to drink and the public consequences of that havebeen there for all to see. He continues to exhibit the same patternthat he has in the past and indeed the pattern may be intensifying.His involvement with the Chechen war suggests how.

Immediately after Moscow intervened in Chechnya, Yeltsin washospitalized, supposedly for a nose operation; but on his reappearancethere was no indication that he had been subjected to surgery. In February, as the height of the fighting passed, Yeltsin wasclearly faltering when he attended a CIS summit in Kazakhstan. And now he is recovering from a heart attack. In a country wherelife expectancy for males has now fallen to 57 years, no one Yeltsin’sage can be expected to be in perfect health. But most of thediscussions of Yeltsin’s condition focus on the symptoms ratherthan the underlying cause: a personality type given to severedepression and uncertainty after taking decisions or losing allies.

One need not agree with the Italian foreign minister SusannaAgnelli who said recently that she did not believe that Yeltsinwas "totally in control of his mind" to recognize thelinkages between Yeltsin’s political situation and Yeltsin’s physicalstate. He has been depressed before and bounced back, and heis likely to do so again at least in the immediate future. Butthis rollercoaster will not go on forever, and Yeltsin is likelyto lose some of his ability to govern as he dismisses those hefinds disloyal, and isolates himself with an ever tighter circleof cronies. Such a development has happened to him and to othersbefore; its final stage is not likely to be pretty.
Martin Ebon is a longtime specialist on Central Asia and the Caucasus and a frequent contributor to Prism.