RFE/RL: How did Radio Liberty cover Yeltsin?
S. Enders Wimbush: The Radios' role in keeping Yeltsin afloat was pivotal in his rising back to power. In November of 1987 he was effectively expelled from the party. But then, after the 1991 events [the August 1991 coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev], I was invited to Moscow by his [Yeltsin's] administration.
At that point, we were accredited by presidential decree and the city was instructed to give us an office -- something that had probably never happened in the history of international broadcasting before. The Radios were utterly instrumental in keeping him afloat politically. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if the Radios hadn't been working with him, we might have had a very different outcome.
I think he was very bright on top of everything else. I think he was extraordinarily bright. He knew clearly that he was in the middle of a historical moment. I look at him today and I think to myself, you know, there were any number of times when he just could have backed away.
RFE/RL: In what way was RFE/RL, as you put it, "working with" Yeltsin?
Wimbush: I think it was November of '87, he challenged Gorbachev. He'd been challenging Gorbachev all along for about a year before that -- to accelerate the pace of reforms, and in '87 at a major party conference, they almost came to blows, and Gorbachev tossed him off the Politburo, I think that's what happened. And then Gorbachev denied him access to all media. You couldn't hear him on radio, TV. You couldn't read him in print or anything else.
I assigned one of our stringers to him full time in Moscow. We had five great stringers and one of them was always on him. And for the next year and a half, two years we broadcast virtually everything he said to the Russian people. And when the Soviet Union broke up, he said, "I owe this victory to CNN, who broadcast me to the world, and to Radio Liberty, who broadcast me to the Russian people."
RFE/RL: If Radio Liberty was the only medium covering Yeltsin, couldn't Gorbachev simply have thrown you out of the country?
Wimbush: Yeah, he could have, and it was a touch-and-go deal. We established a small group of stringers in Moscow. They were enormously courageous. Every now and then one of them would get beaten up. They were constantly getting called into the Foreign Ministry or the KGB and warned to stop this activity. But they persisted, and when Yeltsin was on the tank in 1991 [during the attempted coup] and the whole place was coming apart, we had two of them inside the White House with him, and one was right next to the tank.
Yeltsin (right) forces Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to read out the names of those involved in the August 1991 coup attempt (TASS)
And everything that took place went out over the air. They never threw us out, they tried to curtail us any number of different times, but these stringers were so brave -- and they were darned good -- that they persisted. It was an example of how surrogate radio is supposed to work, and it's probably the most dramatic example of how it worked to exactly the kind of conclusion we wanted it to.
RFE/RL: Why did Gorbachev let Radio Liberty stay in Russia?
Wimbush: Gorbachev was trying to make nice with [U.S. President] Ronald Reagan, and Reagan was a great supporter of the Radios. And so there was always the looming threat that if Gorbachev stepped on the Radios, it would sour relations with the White House. And so he didn't do it. And Gorbachev -- you know, he's a very complex character, but in his own mind, I think, he believed that he could actually reform the system from within without endangering it. And one way to do that was to gradually allow more information into it. Of course, for a hermetically sealed system, that's the death knell, and it proved to be.
RFE/RL: What emotions did you feel when, finally, you had an opportunity to open your own bureau in Moscow, a place that had been -- to put it mildly -- off limits until then?
Wimbush: The bureau seemed almost like a logical consequence of everything that was going on. Sure, we were still sitting on pins and needles, but the reality is that Radio Liberty was the most exciting place to be in the world from about 1987 until the whole thing came apart.
I had an "aha" moment, and I'll never forget it, in -- I think it must been '89 or early 1990. Gorbachev made a trip to the Baltic states, and he's doing a walkabout in Lithuania. We had Russian TV beamed into the Radios, and Gorbachev's walking down a street with a whole retinue behind him, and coming up the other way is a worker. And the worker starts shouting at Gorbachev and shaking his fist. I couldn't tell what he was saying, but he was effectively saying, "You bloody Russians, get out of my country. You have no business being here. You're ruining my culture, etc., etc., etc."
And watching Gorbachev's face, I could tell it was all over. His eyes got big and his mouth dropped open and all of a sudden the light bulb went on and he got it. He realized that this empire couldn't be held together any longer.
RFE/RL: I know you never met him, but you must have studied him in depth. What should the world remember about Boris Yeltsin?
Wimbush: There were a number of Yeltsins, and some of them were better than others. I think I saw in the newspaper this morning something about how it frequently is the case that revolutionary leaders seldom make good chief executives once the fun is over. And I think that Yeltsin had a bit of that in him. What I can tell you about him is that he was a fabulous leader, at least during the revolutionary stage. He was enormously courageous, I mean enormously courageous.
This was a guy who bucked all the trends and all the institutions and stood up and said, "We're just not going there any longer." And he took the country with him. He was a handsome man; he had a wonderful voice; he was enormously appealing. And the impression that most Russians had of him was of a clever "muzhik," a clever peasant who was just cleverer than a fox, who had a lot of good, earthy qualities but probably wasn't very bright.
Yeltsin on vacation in sourthern Russia in May 2004 (TASS)
Well, I think he was very bright on top of everything else. I think he was extraordinarily bright. He knew clearly that he was in the middle of a historical moment. I look at him today and I think to myself, you know, there were any number of times when he just could have backed away from this and he could have guaranteed his security -- his personal, physical security, among other things -- but he didn't. And he stepped right into the middle of it. And he said, "Russia, I'm going to give you the leadership you've been looking for." And he did.
RFE/RL: Yet so many, especially in the West, remember his dancing with a pop band in an effort to show he remained vigorous. And they remember his drinking. What of that?
Wimbush: Buffoonish? Yeah, that's part of the act. Drinking? Well, he was certainly capable of putting a lot away, but I don't think he was an alcoholic, I think he probably just liked to binge drink from time to time.
But I would cut Yeltsin an awful lot of slack. When you've got a 70-plus-year totalitarian empire that all of a sudden comes apart in an afternoon or in a weekend, and you have to then figure out: How do you go forward with this? What kinds of constellations are there out there that I have to work with? Which ones do I have to oppose? How are the sides lining up? Where are the converging interests? Where are the colliding interests?
All of that, and you have to know it in a split second. You can make a lot of mistakes, and he did. He made a lot of mistakes, but I cut him a lot of slack. I don't think there was any way that that empire was going to come apart without enormous hardship -- and there was enormous hardship, especially economic hardship. I don't think there was any easy transition for it. I give him very high marks, and I really feel extremely lucky that I lived right through that moment, because I think he is certainly one of the great men of Russian history. And certainly one of the most important figures of the last century.
BORIS YELTSIN: student, engineer, husband, father, professional volleyball player, Communist Party official. A timeline of the multifaceted life of Russia's first president.