The Russia Hand
by Strobe Talbott
Random House 2002
Imagine that a particularly annoying comedy duo was performing in downtown Manhattan while the WTC towers burned and fell. Now imagine that the only cameras available kept focusing on the two clowns' tedious antics, only occasionally showing out-of-focus shots of fleeing people, falling bodies and plumes of smoke.
That's roughly what Strobe Talbott has done by choosing to focus, in The Russia Hand, on the one-to-one relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin through the nineties. The collapse of basic services and standard of living, which led to the deaths of millions of people, is the unfocused background in this story of what happened When Bill Met Boris. This sort of "Great Man" story might make sense if the leaders involved really were directing their nations. But the essential fact about Yeltsin is that he was a front man, a prop, a decoy. Yeltsin's job was was to distract people while his oligarch colleagues stole everything in Russia and killed anyone who got in the way. By spending virtually all of this book's 421 pages on meetings between Clinton and Yeltsin, by describing in numbing detail what Clinton said to Yeltsin and what Yeltsin said back, Talbott keeps the spotlight firmly focused on those two hams, Boozy Boris and Hillbilly Bill, ensuring that none of his American readers ask any awkward questions about the horrors which befell Russia in the terrible years of Yeltsin's regime.
Talbott's basic premise (which is never stated, let alone questioned) is that Yeltsin represents Russia (and that Clinton represented America, for that matter); and that the meetings between Clinton and Yeltsin determined the course Russia would take after the fall of the Soviet Union. Talbott's book, is thus essentially a 400-page account of the antics of a decoy. There isn't even much variation in these antics: every chapter leads up to a meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin at which Yeltsin is either drunk or sober, sick or healthy, cooperative or truculent. There is always a climactic encounter between Bill and Boris, but no matter how well or badly it goes, there must always be another meeting a few weeks or months later.
This is the style of writing Talbott learned at Time Magazine. A weekly news magazine must invent new crises for each issue, but would prefer that these crises involve minimal departure from reliable formula. The Bill'n'Boris Show is perfect for this sort of hackwork: the same two guys talking about the same few things but in different fun cities all over the world. International Relations with a great per diem.
Best of all, it's so much easier to describe the two guys than their countries. Thus Yeltsin is more interesting and real for Talbott than the nation he ostensibly represents. Talbott pays far more attention to the variation in Yeltsin's complexion than he does to the suffering of ordinary Russians throughout the 90s. There's something repellent about Talbott's many groupie-like descriptions of Yeltsin:
"I was watching Yeltsin's face for some sign of his mood. In the past, he had tended to fidget and interrupt when Clinton did an overture [sic] like this one. This time he listened with passive gratitude, letting Clinton's warm words wash over him."
There's something way too porn-like about that passage, and the hundreds of others like it in this book. I don't want to think too much about Clinton "doing overtures" to Yeltsin, let alone anything "washing warmly" over Yeltsin's corpse-like body. The descriptions of Yeltsin aren't just porn, though -- they're portentous porn:
"...[Yeltsin] looked like a battered statue that might topple over at any moment. There was something artificial and willful about his immobility. His expression was frozen in what I had come to think of as his power mask -- lips pursed in a half scowl, eyebrows knit in a look of Olympian severity -- and his skin was the color of plaster."